Troubleshooting: Follow the Evidence to a Solution

Troubleshooting: Follow the Evidence to a Solution
Jim Anderson

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This is the first in a series of articles on something every service provider in the industry does whether they realize it or not – troubleshoot a system to determine the source of a problem and then establish a solution.

I will provide insight about various problems encountered and the causes and solutions I have learned over the years. These ideas are based on sites and issues I have seen but also on discussions I have had with numerous service providers. For each situation I will look at the variables from the easiest to identify and fix to the more complex.

The approach for the series will draw from a discussion with members of the Pennsylvania Septage Management Association (PSMA) and how they approached a troubleshooting session at their annual conference. What does the driver or service provider see when they arrive at a site? What do they look for through the process?

First, there are considerations to make from the time the homeowner calls the office. Most of these are common sense, but if not discussed we sometimes forget in the rush to address the problem.

When the call comes in, gather basic information. The person taking the call needs to obtain an accurate address and location for the site. Verify the address online so the dispatcher knows where they are going. Get a contact phone number where the person can be reached. This is important from a customer service standpoint, and also for the dispatcher if they encounter a problem.

Find out if the caller is a previous customer. Dig out their records for additional information on past service calls and problems, and most importantly, on the location of system components – septic tank, drainfield, etc. If the caller is not a previous customer, can they identify the location of the septic tank? If not, you will need to locate it, which usually involves an additional fee. Make sure the customer is aware of the fee.

For sites that have not been previously visited, ask these types of questions:

  • Is this the first time the problem has occurred or is it a chronic problem?
  • When was the septic tank last pumped?
  • What is the size of the house?
  • How many people currently live in the home? This will be very important information to estimate the current daily water use.

In addition, determine if there are any home business operations, such as a day care, that may affect flows. For new customers, call or visit the health department to obtain information on the system installation and any repairs; not only for locating the components, but potentially identifying problem sources.

Wouldn’t it be nice if every job went like this?

  • You arrive at the site on time
  • Homeowner greets you and points to septic tank
  • Manhole access is on surface
  • Liquid level is normal
  • Tank is easy to pump
  • Baffles are in good shape
  • Main drain is clear
  • Homeowner writes check … and gives you a BIG tip!

This almost never happens but the purpose of this series is to try and make the job go a little smoother.

In the next article we’ll discuss what happens when you or your dispatcher arrive at the site.

About the Author
Jim Anderson is connected with the University of Minnesota onsite wastewater treatment education program, is an emeritus professor in the university’s Department of Soil Water and Climate, and education coordinator for the National Association of Wastewater Technicians. Send him questions about septic system maintenance and operation by email to


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