Your customers’ idea of a working system is probably different from yours


Kent and Peggy Affolter received a surprise recently when their septic system backed up into their downstairs shower, and it wasn’t sewage.

The Affolters paid to be hooked up to the Eugene, Oregon, sewer system back in 1989, and they’ve been paying utility fees ever since. So they were shocked when the plumber they called to help with their shower situation told them they were still connected to the old septic system.

How can a septic system function with absolutely no maintenance and without being pumped for almost three decades?

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I asked my go-to septic guy, Jim Anderson (you know him as the Answer Man), for his thoughts. “The article mentions the tank being half full, and what that would immediately imply to me is that the tank wasn’t watertight, whether by accident or by design. So there’s water going out of it, and it’s acting more like a cesspool than a septic tank.

“So maybe their water use wasn’t that high,” he says. “And if they didn’t have a garbage disposal or anything like that, they wouldn’t have rapid solids buildup.

“Usually, my observation is, when you get into something like that where people say, ‘Well I’ve had that system for 30 years and it’s worked just fine,’ their definition of ‘working’ means their toilets were flushing. But it doesn’t mean that the septic tank or any other part of the system, a drainfield or whatever, is working, and everything was just going out of the tank.” 

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Leaky tanks prevent the resurfacing of the waste, so there was no outward appearance of a problem. The tank could just be deep enough that it’s in sand or gravel and the water just seeped away.

It makes me wonder how many people hear a story about a septic tank operating — unattended — for nearly 30 years and think, “Well I don’t have to get my tank pumped either! I’ll save some money and just let it sit.”

Anderson has seen this happen himself. “In my own personal experience, quite a while ago, I remember going out to a farm in Minnesota, and that’s basically what the guy said: ‘My wife and I have lived here for 30 years and we’ve never had our tank pumped.’ So we opened up the tank and basically it was totally filled with solids. It didn’t have baffles on either end, and there was a channel running down through it. So the water would come in and carry along the solids that it could and just keep going downstream, down the pipe, and then found an outlet into a ravine. So it worked fine from their perspective — the water went out — but where it ended up was another question.”

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Like Anderson says, the homeowner’s definition of a “working” septic system is often different than your perspective of a working system. The industry definition of working is the tank is sound and watertight, and the effluent is then taken off and treated in the soil. That treatment part is crucial, and is often the part that homeowners fail to understand. Just because the toilet flushes and sewage isn’t backed up into their basement doesn’t mean they aren’t discharging a waste stream out of a system packed to the brim with solids.

Instead of stories like these being an excuse homeowners use to put off pumping their tank, you can use this information as a cautionary tale. A pumpout every couple of years is cheaper then replacing a failed system — or facing fines for illegal sewage discharge. Always take the opportunity to explain how the system works and why maintenance is necessary.


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