Tanked: Septic system can tell tales

Absolute Plumbing Services

 Q. I just moved to the County, and I'm pretty certain I have septic tank. What should I do?–D.K.

A. Almost every county resident has one just beyond the back door, but the subject just never seems to make it into dinner conversation, does it?

While most people are content to call the "tank guy" every five years or so, there are things one can do in the meanwhile to keep the system flush, so to speak.

Septic tanks can last for at least 25 years with proper care and check-ups. A sure sign of trouble is flooding around the drain field, the pipes that filter waste water into the soil. This over-saturation could require a new drain field or, at the very least, professional assistance.

If you start to hear a gurgle in the drain, or your washing machine isn't draining properly, it could be the septic tank. And even if you can't hear, see, or smell it, septic problems could be happening right under your nose.

Actually draining the tank is beyond the ability (or interest) of most homeowners, but sensible preventive measures go a long way.

Start with a good tank– the brains of the waste disposal system. Concrete tanks are the best bet because they'll last the longest and can easily withstand heavy pressure above ground– most can withstand the weight of cars. You can accidentally puncture a plastic tank, and steel tanks can break down over time. The same goes for the distribution box, which direct the liquids into the soil.

The septic system functions like the human digestive system; its job is to break down large particles. Once the tank is installed, bacteria start to work on household solids. So flushing harsh chemicals (e.g. varnish, paint thinner, gasoline) down the drain or toilet is a very bad idea. It will kill these friendly bacteria and lead to solid build-up in the tank. Try to find other ways to dispose of such chemicals, or call a local recycling company.

The same goes for grease. Putting grease or strong de-greasers in the septic tank can cause clogs and make it impossible for soil to absorb liquids.

You might even consider installing water-reducing showerheads and faucets to prevent flooding. The septic tank needs water to function properly, but too much can overload it.

Surprisingly, large items that you can't believe someone flushed down the toilet sometimes wind up in the septic tank. Toys, condoms, lingerie, and tin cans have shown up in septic tanks in the area. It's no picnic to break up the solid top layer when pumping the tank. But history is hidden in the "sludge" layer.

So, while it might be a job that few people want to do, septic tank maintenance is serious business especially when it puts a marriage on the rocks. Watching while his tank was being pumped, a seemingly happily married local man learned his wife was having an affair– condoms from the toilet told the tale. The man stormed into the house, followed by his wife's speedy exit, before the tank was completely drained.

Keith Cline was not available for a photograph, so he sent a replacement.