Failed Septic System Odor

What Causes a Failed Septic System?

Septic systems have long been an environmentally-friendly way to recycle household wastewater, but like all systems they can run into problems. A failed septic system can lead to groundwater contamination, sewage ponding in the yard and sewage backups into the home. 

As a homeowner, it’s important to understand what causes a failed septic system and then you’ll understand how to prevent failure from happening.

Most people think the lack of system maintenance is the biggest reason that septic systems fail 

This does not happen as often as it used to because most homeowners are aware of septic system maintenance. At Grant Septic Techs, we have found less than 10% of failed systems are due to lack of septic pumping. Which means most homeowners are either pumping on the correct maintenance schedule — or they are pumping more often than is necessary.

But it’s actually heavy water usage that can clog a septic system and cause failure.

Because of how a septic system works, the amount of water your household uses each day plays a large role in the septic filtration system’s lifespan.  The separation of waste happens with the flow of wastewater from the inlet to outlet in the septic tank. The natural separation process of solids and liquids of different densities and gravity results in the scum rising to the top, the sludge sinking to the bottom, and the watery effluent in the middle. 

Once separated from the other materials, the watery portion of the wastewater (effluent) flows out of the septic tank through the underground distribution system of perforated pipes, stone, and sand out into the ground several feet below the surface. 

However, your septic system can only handle so much wastewater at one time, depending on the size of the septic tank and the drain field (also called the leach field). How many gallons of water can your septic system handle per day?  In general, to calculate the water usage of your home, take the number of bedrooms and multiply that by 110 gallons.  For example, a 4-bedroom home typically uses 440 gallons per day. Unfortunately, if your household overwhelms the drain field with more wastewater than it can process, it can “suffocate” the drain field. Suffocating the drain field means the microbes are not allowed to “breathe” and break down wastewater properly.  This can lead to a faster build up of biomat, and ultimately clog the drain field. 

A septic system can also fail due to unseen physical damage to the drain field.

While not very common, a septic system can also fail due to broken, or crushed, or clogged pipes in the drain field.  This could happen when large vehicles drive over the ground above the drain field, or by large nearby tree roots.  

It’s wise to locate your drain field and be sure to avoid traffic and large plantings within 205 feet. This will preserve the structure of the septic system by eliminating clogging from tree roots, compacted or crushed perforated pipes.

Of course, improper installation could be the culprit as well.

Many of the septic systems installed before 1995 do not handle drainage as well as more current septic systems. Prior to the 1995 Title V changes, some septic systems were installed in poor soil conditions, such as clay and silt, which can actually prevent waste water from draining efficiently.  

Other systems may have been installed near groundwater. Or, because of shifting landscapes, may now suddenly be located near groundwater that wasn’t there during the original installation. Unfortunately, if the current septic system is so poor at draining water, a new installation may be required.

In a simple distribution box inspection, we’ve seen drain field pipes pitched incorrectly or distribution boxes put on a bad base so it settles making the drain field look failed when it’s actually not. For this reason we provide a drain field test where we dig into the stone to show you if it is clean or not, and show you where your septic system is in it’s life. From here, maintenance should be planned appropriately to ensure optimal drainage and filtration. 

Household substances and everyday objects can cause big problems.

Really, the only thing that a typical septic system is prepared to handle naturally is human waste and toilet paper (which is designed to be broken down by the bacteria in the tank). However, unsuspecting homeowners and guests can flush seemingly harmless objects or dump substances down the drain that will disrupt the bacteria or clog the system.  

For example, flushing paper towels, cigarette butts, cotton products, diapers, feminine products, and even “flushable wipes” can all cause a septic system to have problems with physical blockage because bacteria can not break these down.  

But more importantly, too many cleaners or antibacterial agents can disrupt and even kill off the important bacterial environment that digests waste in your system which can lead to the worst case scenario: a completely clogged drain field.  Never dispose of gasoline, paint, paint thinners, bleach, grease, harmful oils or large quantities of antibacterial household cleaners.  Contact your local authorities for hazardous waste instructions instead.

The #1 cause of septic system failure is due to biomaterials.

Biomaterials (or “biomat”) are the cause of 97% of failures to septic systems that are otherwise maintained and taken care of properly. Biomat is made of the different types of bacteria in the septic drain field. The biotmat is what breaks down organic waste and prevents viruses, pathogens and diseases from polluting your environment. 

A healthy level of biomat is critical to a well-functioning septic system. Every time you flush your toilet, you introduce new organic bacteria. But once the septic tank is pumped, it takes 1-3 weeks for the system to regain the proper levels of bacteria.

Watch for these signs of septic system failure.

If you start to notice any of these telltale signs, it could be that your system is failing:

  • Unexplained slow drains (sinks, bathtubs, and showers)
  • Sewage backup into your home (sinks, bathtubs, showers, sometimes laundry)
  • Wet or spongy spots in the yard (that are not due to rain or other water source)
  • Grass that is unusually green over the septic system 
  • Foul odor near the septic system

To prevent drain field clogging, space out the water usage in your home (for instance, reduce loads of laundry done in one day, reduce use of dishwashers, showers, sinks and toilets) and get your septic tank pumped at the proper intervals (once every 1-8 years). Find out how often your particular tank needs to be pumped.

The state of Massachusetts requires all septic systems to pass a special inspection process during the sale of a property to ensure a functioning system for the new owner. Failed systems can contaminate groundwater and local drinking water sources with harmful bacteria, and even backup dangerous sewage into your home. If you observe any of the signs of a failed septic system, it’s best to get it evaluated immediately to prevent illness and pollution. In the past, when the drain field pipes did become clogged, often the only option available to homeowners was to dig up and replace their failed septic system. Thankfully, new technology is available to salvage your existing drain field and septic system with the Everlasting Septic System, saving thousands of dollars.

Proper maintenance and professional septic system pumping, which includes removing the sludge and scum as well as cleaning out the effluent filter will keep your system running smoothly. If you suspect that your septic system has failed, call Grant Septic Techs at 508-529-6255 or book your septic system diagnostic easily online to determine the cause of the failure and restore your system to working order. Here’s our service area.