Septic System Rescue: DIY Fix for Hopeless Cases

Reader Contribution by Steve Maxwell
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This is what my septic system looked like during the height of failure. The sewage is about 24” above the outlet of the tank and threatening to spill out onto the lawn. 

June 2011 was a bad time at my place. That’s when I discovered the sewage level in my septic system was sitting 6” above the top of the concrete tank as I opened the ground level access hatches. That’s at least 18” higher than the outlet of the tank and it would get worse – bad news for a septic system that was installed back in 1989, and bad news for my financial situation.

A local septic contractor came quickly when I called, and after one look he started telling me when he’d be able to come out to rebuild my leaching bed. “I’ve never seen anything work to fix systems clogged this badly, other than rebuilding the leaching bed”, he explained. I braced myself for a repair bill that could easily run into five figures (plus all the disruption to my yard), then I realized something.

Have you ever heard the story of how Thomas Edison tried thousands of different materials before he discovered that a carbon filament was just the thing to make the first light bulb? When things get as bad as my septic system, it’s actually good in one way. With nothing to lose, it gave me a chance to try fixing my septic system myself. And in the end, just like Thomas Edison, I discovered many things that don’t work before finally finding what I consider to be the ultimate solution. The septic system that was pronounced hopelessly dead has been working perfectly for more than 3 years, even with 7 people living in the house.

One of four leaching pipes exposed for cleaning. Addition of a clean-out port made future pipe maintenance easier. 

My first step was to go online to see if there was something that would get me out of the $10K rebuild. No surprise that there’s plenty of powders and additives out there to help fix clogged septic systems just like mine and I tried quite a few. Nothing worked, not even a prominent, $400 treatment regime that came with a money-back guarantee. Not even the money-back guarantee worked. Whenever I contacted the company with the bad news that my septic system was still sick, they’d just send me more product.

“We’ll keep sending you more until it works”, the cheerful young lady explained on the phone. After three heavy duty treatments and no improvement in 6 months, I gave up on the cheery young lady.

Next thing I tried was septic bubblers. These add oxygen to the septic tank, changing the makeup of the microbes in the sewage. Oxygen-loving bacteria are supposed to have quite an appetite for the kind of sludge that clogs leaching beds and that sounded good. For six months I pumped a steady stream of compressed air through a diffusion hose made for sewage. Some days the sewage level dropped, and I was happy.

The next day, the sewage level rose again and I was discouraged. It was something like the emotional roller coaster you experience when your favourite ball team is in a close game. In the end, I gave up on septic bubblers as a fix for my clogged system, though I still think they have value.

In the end, I stopped looking for ready-made solutions and went back to first principles. My septic system wasn’t working because something was blocking the perforated pipes in the leaching bed that were supposed to let sewage seep into the ground. I knew the problem wasn’t tree roots, it must be some kind of slimy stuff in the pipes.

So how can I clean the inside of my leaching pipes? Unable to sleep one night because of the worry of having to find $10,000 I didn’t have, a went online looking for something that would let me clean out those choked pipes. I owned a pressure washer, but of course the wand was way too short. My four leaching pipes were about 60 feet long each.

In the end, I found something that let me bring the full force of my gas-powered pressure washer to bear on the sludge inside the pipe, and boy was there a lot of it. I also ended up using a leaching pipe treatment (not a tank treatment) that was supposed to boost the porosity of the soil around the leaching pipes. In the end, for a cost of about $300 and two days labour, I got my septic system working perfectly. I also reconfigured my leaching pipes a bit so future clogs can be solved before lunch time on Saturdays.

There’s more information than I have room for here, but you can get the full storyhere.

Steve Maxwell and his family homestead on Manitoulin Island, Canada, on a little patch of farmland surrounded by a sea of forest. Connect with Steve a Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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