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Septic System Troubleshooting Guide

Septic Sytem Maintenance

If you wait until something has already gone wrong with your Septic System, you are probably too late to have any hope at fixing it yourself. But, if you can develop a plan of action on How to Detect and see Early Signs of "Septic Tank trouble," you may just prolong the life of your system and save yourself a ton of money!

Home Plumbing Made Easy

Home Plumbing Made Easy

Septic System's by State

¼ of all homes (approx. 28+ million) in the Nation are using a septic system. What percentage of homes in these state's use Septic System's:

  • 55% Vermont
  • 48% North Carolina
  • 40% South Carolina
  • 40% Kentucky
  • 10% California

How do I Know if I Have a Septic System?

The easiest way to determine if you actually do have a Septic System is to take a look at your water bill. You should find a line that reads something like "Sewer Amount Charged." If this line reads a $0.00 amount (and you are not operating an agriculture account) you most likely DO have a septic Tank.

How can I find out if I have a septic system:

  • Ask your landlord
  • Call your city or county water officials
  • Ask your home owner insurance Agent
  • Check with the title company that manages your property
  • Ask a Realtor friend to check for you
  • Contact previous owner
  • Ask neighbor's (if they have them you probably do too)
  • If your home water is from a well, you likely have a septic
  • After a frost you see a bare patch (septics generate heat as they decompose material which causes this patch) in the yard

Septic System Leach Field Diagram

Residential Septic system Diagram

Residential Septic system Diagram

How Does a Properly Maintained Septic System Work?

A properly maintained Septic System feeds waste water from your home into pipes that fan out into the drainage field (also known as a leach field because the fluids "leach" out of the pipes and into the soil). The remaining (heavy) waste material will settle to the bottom of the tank. It is this solid waste that can bring significant problems. You have to have it pumped out every year or so, for safe and proper disposal by a professional.

How to Maintain Your Septic System -Troubleshooting at a Glance


Inspect and empty your tank regularly 

A neglected tank will cause your system to fail, resulting in sewage backup and posing a serious risk to your family's health. 


Experts recommend pumping a septic tank every one to two years.

Keep Chemicals out of Your System 

Harsh chemicals and antibacterial agents kill the bacteria your system depends on. 


Keep these chemicals out of your toilets and house drains:


♦Drain cleaner


♦paint and paint thinner


♦chemical cleaners


♦chlorine of ANY kind


♦antibacterial soft-soaps

Be aware of limiting kitchen waste 

Grease and fat from food hinder the septic process by coating drain pipes, interfering with bacterial breakdown in the tank and clogging the loose-fill material in the drain field. 


Food desposers overload your system with solid food particles, sometimes doubling the rate of sludge accumilation in the tank.


Throw cooking grease and food scraps in the garbage or compost heap.

Limit water flow

Excess water speeds up the flow through the septic system. The natural bacteria can't do their job, allowing too many solids to pass into the drain field.


Route roof drains outside of the house drain system.


Don't drain a swimming pool or hot tub into the house drain.


Repair leaky plumbing fixtures as soon as possible.

Refrain from using any additives

Biological additives designed to stimulate bacterial growth often harm more than they help. These additives agitate the anaerobic bacteria in the tank, and the increased activity forces undissolved solids into the drain field.

Use a Power Auger to clear any blockages in your Main Drain Plumbing. Some auger's attach to a power drill, while others are big and really powerful.

Use a Power Auger to clear any blockages in your Main Drain Plumbing. Some auger's attach to a power drill, while others are big and really powerful.

My Plumbing is Draining Slowly

If your drains are working slowly, or not at all, the main house drain may have a clog, or the septic system may be backed up. Check for clogs first, by clearing the main drain with a power auger (some power auger's attach to a drill, while others are self standing machines). You should never use chemical drain cleaners on a septic system as the enzyme's required for proper function will be destroyed. Fewer experts today say you should treat your system with an enzyme replacement agent, even if they do get advertised as a needed tool to keep the tank healthy and functioning in top condition. A very popular septic maintenance product is "RID-X." However, when the research is thoroughly inspected, the best advice remains to avoid the use of any septic additives. These products can actually cause the bacteria to become overly active, which can become more hazardous than helpful to your system. When agitated the overactive bacteria pushes undissolved heavy material into the drainage field before it has been broken down sufficiently, which is asking for a big septic repair bill and a health hazard right in your back yard!

Do additives help or hinder the health of your septic system?

Do additives help or hinder the health of your septic system?

How Do I Know if I Have a Serious Problem with My Septic System

First things first; when dealing with serious problems surrounding a Septic Tank, you must act quickly and very cautiously. Human sewage is very HAZARDOUS WASTE—primarily to humans. There are strict government regulations that apply to its handling and removal. Septic Tanks manufacture explosive methane gas and may contain DEADLY viruses.

If faced with the problems brought on by a damaged or non-functioning septic system at your home, you must contact a licensed sewer cleaning service. Click here for The EPA's (pdf.) guide on Septic Systems Rules.

Septic Tank from A to Z (video)

What if the House Drain isn't Clogged?

If the house drain is not clogged, the problem could be a clogged drain field, absence of bacteria in the system, or your Septic System is full. Two important signs to be on the look-out for concerning these symptoms are as follows:

  1. Dark-colored water is standing on the surface of the drain field
  2. A yucky sewage odor can be smelled in or around your home
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If you are encountering either of these conditions, you most likely have a serious problem with your septic system and must contact a licensed or certified sewage cleaning service.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments for "How to Maintain a Septic System"

Fiona Sharp on August 27, 2012:

Thank you so much for this information! I've wanted to learn more about septic tanks and how they work because I've just recently moved in with my grandparents and they have one. How often should septic tanks be cleaned out? I've heard of people hiring tank cleaning services to take care of the cleaning, is that what I should do as well? Thanks again!

India Arnold (author) from Northern, California on September 02, 2011:

Penny~ Thank you so much for the comments. I think it is important that people know how to maintain Septic Systems for the safty and happiness of their family and neighborhood. Nothing can ruine ones day more than a septic system problem! With a little planning and management, you should never have to worry about it!

I appreciate your stopping by today.



India Arnold (author) from Northern, California on August 29, 2011:

Simone~ Septic systems have made me nervous in the past too. But, they would seem to be a very reliable invention when used and maintained properly. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and comments here, I am always thrilled to see you made it by for a read.

I appreciate the support!



Simone Haruko Smith from San Francisco on August 29, 2011:

This is SUPER helpful. I've stayed at a bunch of places that were on septic systems and I was nervous about just using the toilets, let alone maintaining the entire SYSTEM! Your advice is superb. Thanks for sharing it with us!

India Arnold (author) from Northern, California on August 28, 2011:

Austinstar~ LMAO! You make so many really great points! I kinda thought the same thing, and is in fact the reason I did more research on the topic. Thanks for the extra comments!



Lela from Somewhere near the heart of Texas on August 28, 2011:

But don't you wonder if the experts are saying "don't add Rid-X" to protect their own business? I mean if the stuff works, they would be out of a job, right? Hard to prove a negative though. You would have to have two identical septic tanks side by side with the exact same amount of sewage and water and what not through it with the only difference being an additive to one and not the other. This would have to be studied over time. OSHA would have to get involved as well as the FDA and probably the EPA. I fear a government grant would have to be utilized to study the possibilities :-)

Are we having fun yet?

India Arnold (author) from Northern, California on August 28, 2011:

LiveLonger~ I am so pleased to see you stopped by, you made my day! You know, I use to add the RidX stuff for septic maintenance also, but a friend of my dad's who owns a company that specializes in Septic stuff (out of Butte County) told us the problem with these type of additives. I did a little research before adding it to this hub, and sure enough, the majority of specialist do NOT recommend the additives; who knew? I am so glad you made it by for a read. Hope all is well with you and your main squeeze!

Huge HubHugs my friend~ Shalom!


Jason Menayan from San Francisco on August 28, 2011:

Another fascinating and informative Hub, K9. I had NO idea that biological additives might be counterproductive. We had a septic tank in our house growing up in NJ, and occasionally we would dump some bacterial additive down the toilet because we thought it would help keep things clear. We were fortunate nothing bad happened, but we could have save ourselves some money and worry, I guess, if we had access to the advice in your chart. All of it makes perfect sense! :)

India Arnold (author) from Northern, California on August 28, 2011:

Flora~ I was pretty sure that was what you meant. But thanks for clearing it up just in case!



India Arnold (author) from Northern, California on August 28, 2011:

Austin Star~ I totally get what you mean when you say, " if it ain't broke, don't fix it." I will keep my fingers crossed for your septic system health!



India Arnold (author) from Northern, California on August 28, 2011:

frugalfamily~ Thank you so much **blush, blush** you are too kind. I had fun creating the diagrams and doing the research for septic systems. I don't currently live in a home where there's a septic, but I have owned properties that do. It was important to make sure the systems were in good health for tenants as well as my pocket book!

Thank you for stopping by!



FloraBreenRobison on August 28, 2011:

I see I left out part of a sentence. I meant to say that I found it is no longer published.

Lela from Somewhere near the heart of Texas on August 28, 2011:

True, we don't use a lot of water between the two of us. But I don't pour bleach down the drain either. I'm amazed at the darn thing. But I always say, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Brenda Trott, M.Ed from Houston, TX on August 28, 2011:

Wow! If there was a button for "hall of fame" this hub earned it. Great research and diagrams. Thanks! up useful and awesome:)

India Arnold (author) from Northern, California on August 28, 2011:

Flora~ Something like that. It is all getting worked out, I am confident the issue will get resolved quickly. It should be back in the works as soon as possible. Thanks for the heads-up though!



India Arnold (author) from Northern, California on August 28, 2011:

Austinstar~ Wow! You are one lucky septic owner! I don't recommend others follow in your "20 year" plan of not pumping the solids out. Maybe you have a very large unit that never fills due to a very low measure of use on your part. Whatever the reason, you should feel really lucky about it remaining in good health!

Thanks for stopping by~

FloraBreenRobison on August 28, 2011:

A bit off topic-I got a notice of a comment to your earthquake triangle method hub but went to read it. are you adding new information, or did someone steal your work and you got a duplication warning?

Lela from Somewhere near the heart of Texas on August 28, 2011:

I've heard that having a septic system pumped out every two years is not effective either. We've had our septic as is for 20 years and have never had it pumped out. It works fine. I suppose someday we will have to do that, but I hope not anytime soon.

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