Septic systems are inherently gross. They are, after all, very large containers of human waste. Grosser still? Lots can go wrong if they're not properly and regularly maintained.
In case you need any convincing, here are some of the horrific (and sometimes hilarious) things septic pros have seen firsthand—and what you can do to prevent them from happening to you.
1. Hardened human waste
Kim Seipp runs High Plains Sanitation Service, in Strasburg, CO, with her husband. And because she's getting her hands dirty every day (so to speak), she sees lots of mistakes homeowners make with their septic system. The most common: Believing that septic cleaning products alone are sufficient in maintaining the health of their septic systems.
Seipp recalls one system her husband visited where the homeowner proudly declared that, thanks to a special product he'd been using, he hadn’t needed his septic tank pumped—in 30 years.
“My husband, Jeff, said, ‘Come here, buddy, let me show you,’” Seipp recalls. “He could literally stand on the sludge in the tank.”
“Sludge” meaning solids—i.e., raw garbage and human waste—that collects at the bottom of a septic tank.
Lesson learned: Treatment solutions are an essential tool for ongoing maintenance of your system, but they don't negate the need for servicing.
“Read the directions on any [septic tank] product you use,” Seipp says.”It will still say that you have to get your system pumped.” And typically between three to five years, not every 30.
2. Garbage, garbage, and more garbage
An elderly couple who hired Seipp's company did a lot of entertaining. They didn’t like their trash can to smell, so they put all their party leftovers into the garbage disposal instead.
“It was a huge disservice to their septic system,” Seipp says. “They put so much garbage down there that it could never function as intended.”
As a result, their massive 2,000-gallon septic tank needed to be pumped every year. (To put that into perspective, 1,250 gallons is the average tank size for a family of four.)
Lesson learned: Be sparing about what you put down your garbage disposal, as well as your toilets. (Single-ply toilet paper might just be your septic system's BFF.)
“When you live in the city, your waste goes away and you don’t think about it. It goes to a municipal plant and all kinds of great things happen to it,” Seipp says. “With a septic system, all that happens in your backyard.”
In other words: It’s a delicate system. Don’t overload it.
3. A lake of wastewater
Typically, when septic pros open the lid to a septic tank, there’s a 10-inch air gap, explains Seipp. But during one inspection, she found herself looking into a tank filled to the brim with wastewater.
When Seipp walked out to the drain field—where wastewater from a septic tank is slowly released underground— she found a massive green and black puddle.
“The scary thing was, there were boats and toys in the water,” Seipp says, indicating that the family's kids had been playing in that spot.
The homeowner mentioned that the puddle had been there since the last rain—two months before.
“I had to explain that was no puddle," Seipp says. "It was wastewater surfacing—and maybe she didn’t want to let her kids play in it. She was horrified.”
Lesson learned: If you notice standing water in your drain field, your septic system’s not working like it should. Call a pro immediately.
4. Sloppy homeowner installations
Sometimes, homeowners will try to install their own septic systems to save money, Seipp says. Depending on the size of your home, a new septic system will cost anywhere from $8,000 to $25,000.
But proper installation isn't as easy as it looks. Seipp recalls one customer who DIY'd the installation of a gravity septic system—only to realize afterward that the lateral pipes that led from the tank to the drain field went uphill.
“Gravity doesn’t go uphill,” Seipp says.
An excavator had to be brought in and the lines rerun.
Lesson learned: If you have any doubts about your ability to DIY a septic system installation, call in a pro. It'll save you costly repairs in the end.
5. A sinking drain field
The drain field is a vital component of your septic system, made up of "field lines," which allow wastewater to spread from your tank over a large area to be absorbed and purified by the ground.
Yet, Seipp has seen plenty of people drive over their drain field. Or park their horses on top of it. Customers in one affluent neighborhood even put a competitive volleyball court on top of their drain field.
“They dug down so many inches and filled it with sand,” Seipp says. “Guess what? It failed.”
Lesson learned: “Know where your tank is and avoid driving over or planting trees nearby,” says Glenn Gallas, vice president of operations of Mr. Rooter Plumbing.
The same goes for your drain field. “Harming these lines may become an expensive project,” Gallas warns.
6. Collapsing tank lids
Gordon Jones, owner of GI Jones Home Inspection, in San Antonio, TX, still remembers the house he rented in college. The septic tank wasn't buried deep enough and had maybe an inch of soil on top of it.
"If you stepped on it, you could feel [the lid] flexing," Jones recalls.
Although the tank was clearly full, the owner didn’t want to service it.
“After parties, [the contents] overflowed onto the driveway," Jones says.
Worried the tank was weak enough that someone would fall in, Jones and his friends used cinder blocks to build a low wall around it. But during one blowout, “a drunk kid fell over the wall, got up and started jumping around to show he was fine—and the lid collapsed," Jones says.
What happened next is the stuff nightmares are made of.
"One leg busted through the roof of [the tank]," Jones recalls. "It released the smell and covered his leg in raw sewage. To get him out, we couldn't climb over our little cinder block wall because then we might break through as well."
Eventually, Jones and a roommate were able to pull out the partygoer, with the help of a wooden board for leverage.
That, of course, was the end of the party.
Lesson learned: Don't put off a septic tank inspection. Oh, and keep heavy drinkers away from your system—just to play it safe.