Today, class, we are going to discuss septic system maintenance. Lest you think that septic systems require no maintenance save the "every 3-5 years" pumping out . . . well, you are just wrong. At least regarding modern, safe, "legal" septic tanks.
Here we are, watching the system here at Swamp River Ridge being installed back in July of '06. That was only 2 months before we moved in, so I guess our theory of it not working because it sat stagnant with very little use for a couple of years is not correct!
We never had any problems with the septic tank at our first little house. Why? Because it had been installed back in the 70s when you could get away with a massive amount of polluting atrocities. Back then, there was no filter at the outlet leading to the drain field. And, there was always a good "draw" in the drain field. Why? Because it emptied right into a small stream that ran under the road and right into Lake Superior! Good for our septic system, BAAAAAAD (and really disgustingly gross) for the crown jewel of northeastern Minnesota!
Now, though, systems are located properly (AWAY from watersheds!), and the bane of the septic system installer is The Filter.
At the point where the liquid leaves the holding tank and empties into the drainfield (leaving the sludge in the tank to be pumped out at intervals), there is now a (mandatory) filter. (See above photo, taken back on Valentine's Day [nice] of '07 when the system froze due to lack of insulation, i.e. snow. Inside that vertical PVC tube is the filter.)
The reason for the filter is to ensure that no solids get into the drainfield - both for sanitary reasons & to prevent potential blockage. It's a good idea, but the technology has yet to catch up to the theory. See, these filters have two nasty drawbacks. #1, they have a tendency to refuse to lock in place, thereby popping up and causing a jam at the outflow point (which, in turns, backs up your system). #2, they clog up with solids really easily (which also backs up your system).
The latter is what we believe happened to us this time. Some people, up here in the Land of Septic Systems (vs. city sewer), don't even put toilet paper down their toilets! They've had too much experience with the paper not breaking down properly and thereby plugging the tank. One of my dear friends has a covered pail sitting next to both toilets in their 4-person house. And, each day, the contents are incinerated. Voila! No septic issues.
Besides the tales of blocked filters, we've also heard of another - perhaps the bigger - injustice done to septic systems these days. Are you ready? Dum, dum, dummmmm . . . (drumroll, please) . . . SOFT, THICK TOILET PAPER!
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that thicker TP degrades and breaks down MUCH more slowly than a thin, preferably recycled TP would.
And, if you stop and take time to think about it, toilet paper has been getting thicker and softer and "more quilted" through the years. The last batch we purchased was more like FABRIC than paper! And, while this may make sensitive-bummed folks happy, it AIN'T good for your septic system. Besides, I learned a while ago that the really thick, luxurious stuff uses a long-strand wood fiber than can be found only in OLD-GROWTH trees! So, you're doin' bad by the environment by using that stuff, too.
So, where does this leave us?
Well, about a month ago, when I started smelling sewer gas coming up the drain each time the washing machine emptied, it should have set off an alarm. When I started smelling sewer gas when I was walking near the tank a week or so ago, it should have set off an alarm. And, it did, but I passed it off with, "Oh, I must be paranoid. We just had the tank pumped last year - it CAN'T be that again!"
If I had mentioned these things to Tom, he would have told me that he smelled it just yesterday when he was outside but thought he was imagining things, too. We would have put two and two together and . . . popped the tops on the tank to see what was going on. But, we didn't.
So, our lesson learned is this: we're going to use only thinner, more biodegradable TP from now on, and we're going to make cleaning out the septic tank filter a regular, extremely unpleasant habit. (Oh, yes - you have to reach your arm DOWN INTO that PVC pipe to extract the filter!!) Hopefully, by adhering to these new Septic System Rules, we can eliminate (ha! pun not intended!) future problems. Keep your legs crossed* for us.
* Pun fully intended. ;)