Septic System Failures

Posted: February 10, 2012

Owning your own home is challenging enough, what do you do when it comes with its own sewage treatment plant? This article provides some clues for owners of septic systems who want to make them last a very long time.

According to the US EPA, failure rates for on-lot sewage systems across the country are reported at 10 percent annually. In Pennsylvania approximately 1.2 million homes (one in three) use on-lot sewage systems for the treatment and disposal of waste water. Responsibility for maintaining the system rests with the homeowner. Proper maintenance is a good idea since replacing it can cost thousands of dollars. Proper maintenance also protects groundwater that might be a source of drinking water.

The most obvious on-lot sewage system failures are easy to spot. Sewage backing up into your home will typically command your immediate attention. Raw sewage surfacing in your yard, in nearby ditches or on the neighbor’s lawn is another clear indicator of failure. Muddy soil around the drain field or pooled water there or in your basement are other signs of serious malfunction. Notice whether your toilet or sink backs up when you flush or do laundry. Strips of bright green grass over the drainfield may be another indicator of problems. A toilet running sluggish or sewer odors in the house and/or drinking water are signs of an on-lot system in trouble.

On-lot sewage systems also fail when partially treated wastewater comes into contact with groundwater. This type of failure is not easy to detect, but it can result in the pollution of wells, nearby streams, or other bodies of water. Illness, often to household visitors, may be another indicator of system failure that has affected your well and household drinking water.

For those considering building a new home or replacing an existing septic system, one of the most critical factors in on-lot sewage system performance is the nature of the soils used for the septic system soil absorption field. You can minimize failures by carefully and deliberately considering all aspects of on-lot sewage system construction: site selection, design, installation, maintenance, and use. Hire reputable individuals to design and install your system. Also make sure the system is designed to meet your present and future needs. You should contact your Township Sewage Enforcement Officer concerning permits needed to install a new on-lot sewage system or repair a failing system.

Once properly installed, the key to preventing your on-lot system from failing is proper maintenance. Regularly pumping the tank, being careful in what you put down the drains, and avoiding such things as planting trees over the field or covering the system with permanent patios and home additions are important to keep the system running well. Water conservation in the home is also an excellent method of preventing future problems from occurring. Divert downspouts and surface water away from the septic tank and especially the drain field. Do not physically damage the system by driving over the components with heavy vehicles or by digging up the system for other utility lines, etc. Keep a record of the location and dimensions of your system along with maintenance and repair information.

Homeowners interested in finding out about the overall health of their on-lot sewage system may want to consider having their septic systems inspected by a trained professional. The Pennsylvania Septage Management Association (PSMA) in cooperation with the National Onsite Wastewater Education and Research Foundation (NOF) has adopted uniform On-lot Wastewater Treatment Inspection procedures.

PSMA is a professional association of septage pumpers, system installers, maintenance technicians, real estate inspectors and industry affiliates. PSMA Certified Inspectors, which includes many septic tank pumpers, are trained to understand how on-lot systems work, why they fail, and recognize impending malfunctions. See the PSMA website for more details about PSMA/NOF inspections or call them at 717-763-7762.

Many fact sheets about on-lot sewage systems are available from Penn State Extension. Topics include septic tank pumping, percolation tests, elevated sand mounds, inspections and alternative systems, and pharmaceutical disposal.

Contact Information

George Hurd
  • Environmental/Resource Development Educator,
Phone: 717-263-9226 x225