Always Empty the Septic Tank Before Unclogging

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Don't forget to empty the septic tank before unclogging it.

A reader shares his experience of forgetting to empty the septic tank before trying to unclog it.

Well it was finally time. Year after year, when the snow turned to slush and the ground became good and saturated, the plumbing would slow down and then stop. We’d dealt with it before — pumping, plunging, rodding, cleaning, even enzymes — but there could be no other explanation now. The septic field was clogged. I found out the hard way you shouldn forget to empty the septic tank before unclogging it.

I’d noticed the approximate location of the drainage field before, where the grass was greener. So on a pleasant summer’s day, I took a shovel and dug. Finally, I hit pay dirt . . . or rather, drain tile. It was a shallow field — 3 to 4 feet — probably dug about 1946. The tiles were jammed tightly together, with no openings, overlapping coverings or gravel. And sure enough, they were absolutely full of dirt and bone dry. So I moved upstream (toward the house) and tried again. And again. And again.

Finally, I found a moist one, full of a rich, black paste, reminiscent of uncooked brownie batter. Thinking there might be something plugging the route, I got down on my stomach, reached way down with my hand and pushed a twig into the hole. I poked and prodded, twisted and flicked, until it started moving.

The brownie batter began to ooze forth, curling and coiling over on itself like the dark, wicked sister of some evil toothpaste. The thick, shiny goo now undulated of its own accord, sensuously uncoiling from its tight girdle of confinement.

It was good to lie down and just watch Nature take her course, to know I’d found the problem. But from out of nowhere my brain flashed a message: The show you are now watching is 4 feet below ground level on a direct and continuous slant from the septic tank. The tank is nearly full. Uphill. You’ve just opened the line. Watch out you idiot, she’s gonna blow!

Instantly, I snapped back and rolled to cover just in time. With much hissing and sputtering a spout a good 6 feet tall appeared. Awed by the spectacle of my own personal geyser, I could only watch in wonder as the entire contents of the tank spewed into the trench before me, filling it with a noxious, bubbling stew of human waste, most of it my own.

Fortunately for me, it was a dry summer with little wind. “The Pit” drained and dried. I dug more trenches, poured gravel and laid tile the right way. It worked. But unless you’re a big fan of very pungent volcanoes, always, always, always empty your tank first, dig from the top toward the bottom, and never, ever poke a stick where the sun don’t shine.

—Richard L. Hayes
Orland Park, Illinois