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updated: 4/11/2013 12:00 PM

Spring Time and Septic Systems

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Lake County Health Department

The Lake County Health Department/Community Health Center is reminding the community that spring is the time of year that can put substantial stress on septic systems, especially older systems. This is due to an abundance of water in the environment that must absorb into the soil or travel over the landscape.

Water from melting snow and spring rains can temporarily waterlog a septic system. When this happens, you may notice some inconvenient and unpleasant occurrences in your house and yard. Drains for sinks, toilets and washing machines may empty slower than usual. You might notice a faint smell of sewage coming from your sump pump pit, or unusually soft spots or even liquid seeping out of the ground over your septic tank or septic field. These things can occur separately but very often they occur simultaneously, but all are signs of trouble.

Older septic systems typically have two main components: a septic tank and a septic field (commonly called a drainfield, seepage field, soil absorption area, or seepage trenches). The septic tank is designed to separate solid materials, which sink to the bottom, from fats, oils and greases, which float to the top. In between these two layers is a "water" zone that flows out of the septic tank to the second main component of a septic system, the septic field. The purpose of the septic field is to absorb the septic tank effluent and provide final treatment. The soil, through filtering and biological activity, performs the final treatment. These processes work best when the soil in and around the septic field is not saturated with surface water. While new systems are designed and installed in areas where the soil is not regularly saturated, some older systems were not and are therefore more prone to be affected during wet seasons.

There are, however, some simple things that you can do to help your septic system work better during the wet times of the year and year round. These include:

Check for leaking and high flow plumbing fixtures - Leaking valves in toilet tanks are common and can easily continue to run without knowing it. Older plumbing fixtures use more water. Installing low flow fixtures can significantly reduce the volume of wastewater.

Reduce and spread out the use of water in house - It is best to not do a lot of laundry all in one day. Instead of doing numerous loads in one day, spread these over several days. Don't let water faucets and showers run unnecessarily.

Make sure there is proper grading and land slope over the system - Low spots will collect water and this water in turn will absorb into the soil. The land slope over a septic system should be even and continuous so water moves over and away from the system.

Check the sump pump discharge pipe and gutter downspouts - Make sure the sump pump discharge pipe and any gutter downspouts do not discharge onto the septic system. These must be directed to areas away from the system as these are concentrated flows that can quickly saturate an area.

Snow Piles - Do not pile snow on or near a septic system, and do not let snow piles block the natural surface flow of water and cause it to collect near or on a septic system.

Pump the septic tank - Pumping out the septic tank reduces the volume of water going to the septic field, at least in the short term. Pumping the tank also removes solids and/or fats that might otherwise get into the septic field and potentially clog the soil and is also a good way to determine if water is entering the tank. Once the tank is empty, you should not hear or see water flowing in when no water is being used in the house. If you hear or see water flowing, then the tank is taking in water from the environment -- water which may saturate the septic field.

Remember, when additional water gets into your septic system, whether it is from snow melt, heavy rainfall, excessive or unnecessary water use, or poor water management on the property, the ability of the system to function can be greatly impaired, causing problems that need immediate attention. When the weather eventually gets drier, your system should return to a more "normal" operating condition but if it doesn't, it may unfortunately be time for a new system.