CADILLAC — Spending all day at home instead of at the office means more toilet flushes, loads of laundry and showers.
It also means more work for your septic tank.
Terry Gibb, senior educator of natural resources and government public policy for Michigan State University Extension, said they’ve been hearing reports from around the state of people having issues with their septic tanks as a result of increased usage.
With many people now at home 24/7 instead of being at work for a large portion of their days, Gibb said a lot more water is being flushed into septic tanks, which may lead to problems.
Although Gibb said the majority of people know they have a septic tank (as opposed to being hooked up to a sewer system run by a municipality), there is a small percentage of people that don’t even realize where their wastewater goes.
Here’s how a septic tank works: first, water from the toilet, shower, laundry machine, sink and other sources goes into the tank, where the solid materials sink to the bottom and the oils and scum float to the surface. This process occurs as a result of bacteria consuming the organic materials in the water. After the separation occurs, the clear water is then piped out of the tank and percolated into a nearby drain field. The water is filtered by the rocks and minerals in the ground before reentering the water table.
One of the reasons why people may be experiencing problems with their septic tanks is because they aren’t giving the water enough time to settle out before introducing more. Gibb said if the tank is full and more water is introduced, un-separated water can get displaced into the pipes leading to the drain field. This, in turn, can cause the perforated drain field pipes to become clogged with organic matter and scum, which can lead to a host of problems.
Gibb said if the pipes are clogged, sewage can back up into the home or rise up to the surface of the drain field — a dilemma that can be exacerbated this time of year, when soils may already be saturated from spring rain.
Besides the obvious problems, there are other more subtle signs that one can look for as indications they may need to call someone to pump out their septic tank. Water draining slower than usual, gurgling a lot in the pipes, bad odors coming from drains, and overly healthy-looking vegetation near the drain field all could be signs that a septic pump is due.
Generally speaking, Gibb said septic tanks should be pumped out every three to five years. If you’re a small family, pumping can probably be done every five years while larger families (five or more people) should get it done closer to every three years.
Gibb said households where there are people taking a lot of medications also should pump more regularly, as chemicals from the drugs they are taking come out in the wastewater and can cause problems if they accumulate in the soil.
It is highly recommended that a homeowner be present when their septic tank is pumped out by a professional, to find out what might be causing problems and to ensure that the job is done properly, Gibb said. Some septic pumpers may claim they need to pump some of the waste back into the tank in order to start the bacterial chain necessary to separate the solids from the water. Gibb said this is not true (the first flush of a toilet will introduce all the bacteria the tank needs) and more likely an excuse for them to cut corners and avoid having to transport all your waste.
MSU Extension recently held a webinar session where attendees could ask questions about septic tank maintenance. About 140 people attended the session, a recording of which will be posted online at https://www.canr.msu.edu/septic_system_education/ once it has been captioned for hard-of-hearing viewers.