If you're like most people, you probably don't think much about your septic system very often, and you might take it for granted that, when you flush a toilet, take a shower, or turn off the sink faucet, the dirty water disappears into a hidden series of drains and pipes. In fact, properly installed septic systems last for years before showing signs of age or damage. When disaster strikes in the form of a broken pipe or sewage buildup in the yard, however, you'll be thinking about your system quite a bit: it's time to consider whether to replace or repair the septic tank.
Quick Definition of Septic Tank
A septic system is an underground sewage treatment network of pipes and other components that are commonly used in rural areas that do not have access to municipal sewer services. The septic tank — a watertight box made from concrete or reinforced fiberglass — is the part of the system that holds and disposes of household waste. When waste enters the tank, organic material floats to the surface of the water inside the tank, where bacteria turn it into a liquid and leave solid material to fall to the bottom of the tank and form a layer of sludge. The leftover water then moves to a separate absorption area in the yard.
The earliest sign of potential septic problems is the smell of sewage permeating from the septic tank or drainfield. Some homeowners discover raw sewage backing up in sinks and bathtubs or notice problems when flushing toilets. In extreme situations, homeowners may find raw sewage or foul-smelling water seeping through the ground in the drainfield. When this happens, it's time to call in the professionals for assistance.
Septic tank repairs range from replacing the bacteria inside a system to replacing broken pipes or digging a new drainfield. Due to the nature of a septic tank and what it does, septic repairs are serious projects best left to licensed, insured professionals who fully understand the construction and composition of the system. Here are three common types of repairs and what they entail.
Septic systems use pipes to carry household waste to the tank and wastewater from the tank to the drainfield. Pipes may break when wayward tree roots grow into them, the soil surrounding the pipe shifts, or the pipe material deteriorates. If not repaired, a broken septic pipe leads to bigger — and costlier — problems. The costs of these repairs vary depending on the location of the pipe and the extent of the damage, but prices average around $1,476.
The septic system's drainfield — the section of land reserved to filter water from the septic tank — does not last forever. If the top and bottom layers inside the tank grow so thick that they leave little space for water, grease and solid waste will slip into the drainfield. This clogs the soil in the leaching area, which lets contaminated water and waste rise to the surface. Sometimes naturally occurring microbes clog the soil to such a degree that the only option is to dig a new drainfield. Depending on the size of the drainfield and the type of soil on the property, this costs between $7,200 and $20,000 on average.
Replacing Bacteria in an Aerobic Unit
Aerobic septic treatment units use an aeration system to break down waste faster than traditional anaerobic units. The bacteria in these units sometimes die when they go unused for a period of time, forcing homeowners to replace the bacteria so the system works properly again.
The costs of septic tank repairs vary from region to region, depending on several factors that increase or decrease the cost of materials or labor. Intensive repairs that require digging up large areas of ground cost more than simple repairs like replacing a filter. Tanks located on a slope may cost more to repair than tanks resting on flat land if the slope forces the workers to take extra precautions. Similarly, in regions where the ground freezes during the winter, workers may need to rent additional equipment and spend more time accessing the system than those working in milder climates where the ground is not as firm. Other cost factors include:
Septic tank construction material
Location of the damage within the system
Type of soil on the property
Local requirements for permits
Type of system
In some municipalities, the local health department or environmental agency may have funds available to assist homeowners with major septic repairs. This is because a damaged septic system is considered a health hazard. These agencies may offer tax credits or low-interest loans for those in need, especially in the event of an emergency. Check with your local municipality to determine if financial assistance is available for certain types of septic work.
Regular septic tank maintenance helps homeowners detect potential repairs at the first signs of damage to prevent unnecessary and costly repairs. One way to do this is to hire a professional to pump the tank each year. This prevents scum and sludge buildup and provides an opportunity to inspect the system for potential issues. Expect to pay close to $400 to pump the system and between $100 and $200 for an inspection.
Another way to prevent problems is to reduce the load on the drainfield. You can start by conserving water through restricting the number of toilet flushes each day or installing composting or high-efficiency toilets. Diverting water from the washing machine so that it does not drain into the septic tank is also helpful, as dirty laundry water contains lint from clothes that clogs the drainfield and additives like detergent and bleach that can kill the necessary bacteria inside the tank.
You also need to avoid disposing of garbage through the septic system. Items like cigarette butts, diapers, dental floss, and other plastic pieces do not break down in the septic tank and get stuck floating inside. Oil and grease also clog the system because they do not dissolve in the water.
Dealing with septic problems is not a pleasant experience for any homeowner. Performing regular maintenance on your septic system and taking care of necessary repairs as needed helps keep the system running efficiently and extends its life expectancy.