Finding The Source: Five Common Causes For Septic System Damage

Out of sight, out of mind – right? Not quite the case when it comes to your septic system. 

Though your pipes, drains, and tanks lay neatly tucked away, they remain vital parts of a larger system that works to ensure your household is running smoothly, and therefore requires the same care and maintenance as your other everyday appliances. 

Without proper care and maintenance, your septic system becomes increasingly susceptible to damage. Septic damage often makes itself known by way of messy leaks and unpleasant overflow, but what causes the damage in the first place? 

Here are five common causes of septic damage to be aware of: 

Improper Disposal of Non-Biodegradable Materials 

“What do non-biodegradable materials have in common with (most!) canceled public figures?

They’re problematic.” 

Non-biodegradable items such as sanitary wipes, paper towels, band-aids, cotton swabs, and kitty litter are all bad news for your septic system. These materials don’t easily break down and are likely to collect, which can cause troublesome clogs as well as messy backflow. 

If the material you’re considering flushing isn’t biodegradable, or if it falls on our list of top five things to stop putting down your garbage disposal, we urge you to consider proper or alternative methods of discard; for example, some food waste materials that are bad for your garbage disposal can be repurposed into compost! 

Exceeding Capacity 

Many a good septic system has fallen victim to overuse, be it from general water inefficiency or a sudden increase in use (more house guests = more water usage).

It’s important to remember that every septic system has a capacity limit, and when you overload your system, solids don’t adequately settle and necessary bacterial activity becomes limited. This clogs the drain field and can lead to other issues, including reduced septic tank efficiency or a complete septic system breakdown. 

For better water efficiency, try being mindful of your tank capacity, your daily water usage from laundry and dish cleaning, and go easy on those extra long showers. 

Chemical Damage 

With time, or in excess, household cleaners and other seemingly benign chemicals (ex: detergent, drain cleaners, nail polish remover, paint thinners, varnishes, etc.) can be harmful to your septic system. 

These chemicals have varying effects including corrosion of drains, clogging of pipes, killing of necessary bacteria, and potentially damaging the ecosystem or water supply. 

To avoid or stay ahead of chemical damage, dispose in minimal amounts and keep up with your recommended septic maintenance schedule. 

Accidental External Damage

Gardening and landscaping are great ways to upgrade your outdoor space, just make sure you (or your hired professionals!) have a good lay of the land. After all, it’s easy to accidentally hit a pipe or septic tank if you’re unfamiliar with where the septic system is laid, and if you need help figuring it out – give us a ring! 

Natural Causes 

Speaking of external damage, nature sure can take its toll! Common culprits include plant and tree roots, and cold weather. 

Plant and tree roots seek out water sources, and if planted too closely to your drain field they may invade your pipes or tank. We recommend not planting your flowers, shrubs, and trees too close to your drain field, or choosing plants that have shallow roots. 

Now, while cold weather is rather unavoidable, you can work proactively to get ahead of it and avoid the possibility of frozen pipes and drains altogether! Our pros are happy to give your system a good look to ensure all parts of your system are well insulated. 

Raw sewage can be extremely hazardous to your health, so if you’re experiencing leaks, overflow, or other septic issues, please don’t hesitate to contact us

Lou & Swirly Say: Follow These Septic System Do’s & Don’ts

What you do or don’t do for your septic system can make all the difference! To prolong your systems lifespan and avoid costly septic damage, review these do’s and don’ts and share them with your household. 

Septic System Do’s 

  • DO have your septic system inspected annually. 
  • DO call a professional if you have issues with your system.
  • DO keep accurate records of septic system fixes and maintenance. 
  • DO use household cleaners and chemicals in moderation. 
  • DO dispose of food waste, non-biodegradable materials, and chemicals properly.
  • DO spread laundry and dishwashing throughout the week. 

Septic System Don’ts 

  • DON’T let water run unnecessarily. 
  • DON’T expand the size of your residence without adjusting your septic system. 
  • DON’T park over your drainfield. 
  • DON’T use septic tank additives without consulting a professional. 
  • DON’T put non-biodegradable materials down the drain. 
  • DON’T wash chemicals like paint thinners, oils, weed/insect killer down the drain.
  • DON’T flush pharmaceuticals down the drain. 

Power Outages and Your Septic System: What Homeowners Should Know

Power Outages and Your Septic System: What Homeowners Should Know

Q: What effect does a power outage have on my septic system, STEP system, or sewer system?

A: If you have a completely standard gravity system, it will function normally. However, if your system has a pump and/or alarm system, your sewer system could be heavily affected, depending on how long the power is off. Read more below.

More About Pump + Alarm Systems

In some cases, septic tank outlet water, otherwise known as “effluent”, has to be pushed uphill to the designated absorption area. This “absorption” area, can also be referred to as “lateral lines” or the “lateral field”.  If there exists a pump as a part of the wastewater system and the power goes out, the warning system that exists to alert that there is a problem also functions on electricity and will not work. 

Reasons for having a pump and alarm as a part of the system include: 

  • The absorption area is uphill from the tank location
  • A spider valve or hydro-splitter is used for distribution of the effluent
  • The city sewer hook-up is actually a city STEP system
  • The city sewer hook-up requires a pump (as with the Bella Vista Village Wastewater System)
  • The home has plumbing in a basement below the septic tank inlet and a pump is required to push everything from the lower area up to the tank

In all of these situations, there will be some storage for wastewater available; the storage capacity is generally from 200-250 gallons. Account for 50-75 gallons of water usage per person each day– it doesn’t take long to fill up that storage area! Once that capacity has been reached, the wastewater will begin to back up into the pipes and eventually will end up in the home if water is continually used– a situation neither the homeowner nor septic companies want to deal with. 

The Bottom Line

If you find yourself in the situation, use water sparingly and pay attention to warning signs. Additionally, take these steps to extend the capacity: 

  • Loosen or remove the cap on the main line cleanout, which is usually a 3″-4” white cap located just outside the foundation of the house
  • Loosen the lid to the pump chamber and/or septic tank. 
    • They are usually fastened with a series of screws that will require a regular Phillips or Allen head screwdriver, or possibly a hex bolt head, sized 7/16”, 1/2” or even 9/16”
  • NOTE: When loosening the cleanout cap or the lids, the idea is to allow the extra wastewater to relieve itself outside (as opposed to inside the house). This may be a bit messy, but a mess outside is far better than one inside!

At BBB Septic, we hope to provide you with the best information to keep your home’s septic system functioning properly– especially in times of emergency. If you live in the Northwest Arkansas area and have any further questions regarding power outages and your septic system, please reach out via phone or email. 

Can you landscape over a septic drain field?

Question from Buddy:


Need some expert advice, please. Is it OK to add soil on top of an existing drain field? Our backyard is a slope (of course). We would like to terrace a small part of the yard. It is over a portion of the upper one or two drain trenches. This would add a few inches of soil on 3–4 terraces. Any advice appreciated.

Answer from Jon:

Hey Buddy,

The simple answer is yes. 

To expand just a little, 

  • Be sure to use equipment that will not compact the soil as you are spreading the dirt. We recommend “track” vehicles like a skid steer. Tractors with wheels put more pressure on a smaller space. It’s similar to how a waterbed can be really heavy but, because the weight is displaced over a larger area, it doesn’t put too much pressure on one part of the floor. 
  • Use good soil and plant grass if possible. All of your household wastewater is going out to your septic system, and most of the water will go down through the soil and be purified. However, the roots from plants help to wick some of the water to the top for evaporation.
  • You can plant trees around your system, just be careful about which kind of trees.

A Conversation about STEP Systems

Hey guys,
It’s Amanda Gainey with The Brandon Group. Can you tell me generally how a STEP system works? I have a client I would like to connect with you, but for right now, we are trying to understand the general idea of a STEP system. You guys are always so helpful. Thank you in advance!

Good morning, Amanda.

The term STEP (Septic Tank Effluent Pumping) system refers to the sewer setup you will find in cities like Cave Springs, Bethel Heights, Elm Springs, and subdivisions where there is no city sewer hookup to a standard wastewater treatment plant. In our area, the infrastructure has not kept up with recent growth, so homebuilders are left with a dilemma.

In order for a lot to support its own septic system, it must be very large to accommodate the absorption lateral lines. One method of getting more houses into a smaller area is to incorporate a STEP system. The idea is that every home has its own septic tank, but instead of putting a lateral line system on each lot, the effluent water from all the tanks is sent to a central location where it can be collected, treated, and sent out to the community lateral lines.


In Cave Springs, for example, each house has its own septic tank and pump chamber, and each homeowner is totally responsible for its upkeep and maintenance. The effluent water is pumped from each house to a common pipe that runs to the collection plant behind The Creeks Golf Course. Once they treat the effluent water, it’s distributed throughout the golf course just below the grass and serves as an irrigation system.


Bethel Heights has several fields around town where their effluent water is distributed in the same way, just below grass level. Each house connected to the system has its own septic tank and pump chamber, however, the city takes care of all the upkeep and maintenance out of the sewer fees they collect. The homeowners use the system as if they were hooked up to city sewer.

Hi Jon,

When you say “each house connected to that system has its own septic tank and pump chamber, and each homeowner is totally responsible for its upkeep and maintenance,” what all does that involve? Is there monthly or annual upkeep and maintenance that I will need to factor in? Is there some sort of owner manual that will explain to me the proper way to maintain the tank? And is there an expected lifespan for how long a properly maintained system should last?


Hi Amanda,
Great questions.

  • The city will charge you a monthly sewer bill. There are no reoccurring fees besides that.
  • The septic tank needs to be pumped out every 3–5 years depending on occupancy and use.
  • The only other expenses will be repair costs if you have any malfunctions with the pump or alarm systems. This is not common but can happen. That being said, you don’t ever have to worry about a failure in your absorption lateral field because you won’t have one—the city has to maintain the lines for everyone. 

A septic system can last forever as long as those points are taken care of. There are no manuals about a STEP system’s operations. You can find out everything you need to know about septic systems and best practices for their care and operations on our website, bbbsesptic.com.

Blessings,

Jon J

What’s So Important About Soil?

We just had a gentleman call us to ask if we could replace his lateral lines because they haven’t been working properly for the last two years.

The basic answer is yes.

However, we don’t take the old lines out and put new ones in the same place. Our caller explained that that’s precisely what he wanted because he doesn’t have anywhere else on his property for new lateral lines to go.

Let me take a minute to share with you what happens in these situations:

  • We have to order the original design from the Health Department so that we know what was installed.
  • Once we have the permit, we look it over to see what components make up the system. We also send one of our technicians to evaluate in-person and hopefully find a solution to bring the system back to a good working order.
  • If the system is too far gone, the client has to hire a licensed designer to come up with a design and submit it to the Health Department for permission.
  • Once permitted, we give the client a price quote and get the job done.

In all my years, I’ve only seen new lines go exactly where old lines were twice, and both times it was crazy expensive because of all the work that had to be done to make that happen.

You typically get one shot at using your soil for a septic system. If it fails, the new system has to go in a new, undisturbed area.

In its natural state, soil has passageways through it made by roots that have grown and then died. This leaves channels for the water to flow through as it makes its way down to the water table. Some of your water is wicked up through live roots and evaporates as the sun pulls it upward.

When you drive heavy vehicles over an absorption area, you compact the soil and close off these channels. The water finds it hard or impossible to make its way through and thus surfaces in ugly black pools in your yard. When you add soil or just move it around, there are no channels until many years of plant life have allowed new ones to form. When you clear or remove soil, you remove these channels and often leave the lower clay layers, which don’t work well for absorption.

The condition of your soil is the deciding factor when it comes to the size and type of septic system you will need. When the soil is good and untouched, things usually work well. When the soil has been moved, leveled, cleared, or fill dirt has been brought in, it makes it difficult or impossible to use. Often, that area has to have very specific equipment added to the system so it can be used, which almost always has a big price tag.

Finally, if you’re looking at land you want to buy, have a licensed professional check the soil to make sure it’s suitable for a septic system. If you already have a system in the ground, make sure you are keeping up with its care and maintenance so it doesn’t become full of solids, which will clog the soil.

Should I use my garbage disposal?

We get asked this question every day, so we thought we would write a quick explanation. The short answer is yes, however, beware that you do not abuse it.

Here is the longer explanation. When we eat food, we chew it, swallow it, and our stomach and digestive tract use acids and bacteria to break it down. All of this happens before we release it to be flushed into the septic tank. When you put food through the garbage disposal, you are bypassing the first digestive process, so the bacteria in the septic tank have a bigger job to do. (See our blog post on probiotics.)

You also have to remember that if you are on a septic system, your septic tank is capturing solids and debris and only allowing water to leave. It will only hold so much solid material before the debris overflows into your absorption area, clogging the soil and preventing the system from working. Overuse of the garbage disposal could fill your septic tank with solids, meaning it needs to be pumped out more often than usual to ensure proper care of the absorption area. (See our blog for more information on related topics.)

We have found the best practice is to scrape pots, pans, and plates off into the trash or compost bucket, then whatever is left is fine to run through the garbage disposal.

Water Saving Tips

The average person in the US uses 80–100 gallons of water each day. Here’s how to reduce that number and save big on your water bill as you protect your septic system:

  1. Turn off the faucet while you brush your teeth. This can save 1.6 gallons of water per minute.
  2. Make sure you have a low-volume toilet. A cheap alternative is to put a brick in your toilet reservoir tank to reduce the amount of water used with each flush.
  3. Take a shorter shower. Showers can use between 1.6 and 11.8 gallons per minute. Consider getting an aerated shower head, which combines water and air, or inserting a regulator in your shower, which puts an upper limit on flow rates.
  4. Only wash full loads in your washing machine and dishwasher. This cuts out unnecessary in-between washes.
  5. Fix a dripping faucet. A dripping faucet can waste 4 gallons of water a day—1,430 gallons of water a year.
  6. Fix running toilets. If your toilet is refilling from time to time when no one has used it, the internal flap is leaking. It may not seem like much, but this small leak can saturate a lateral field over time.
  7. Water your garden with a watering can rather than a hose. A hose can use as much as 260 gallons of water in an hour. You can also save water by mulching your plants (with bark, wood shavings, heavy compost, or straw) and watering in the early morning and late afternoon, which reduces evaporation.
  8. Fill a jug with tap water and place this in your fridge. This will mean you don’t have to leave the tap running for the water to run cold before you fill your glass.
  9. Invest in water-efficient goods when you need to replace household products. You can get water-efficient showerheads, taps, toilets, washing machines, dishwashers, and many other water-saving products.

How to Avoid Septic Backup During the Holidays

During the holidays, you may have a large number of guests at your home—and that means a large amount of wastewater. If you want to avoid having your septic tank back up in the middle of Christmas dinner, here is a list of best practices when it comes to having unusually high wastewater volume around the holidays.

The general idea is to space out your water use so that the system has some breathing room and doesn’t get slammed all at once. 

  • Be sure you have low-flush toilets. If you don’t have low-volume toilets or don’t have time to change them out before the holidays, an old trick is to put a few bricks inside the reservoir tanks to reduce the amount of water storage and flushing capacity. Also, check to make sure that none of your toilets are leaking.
  • Do laundry at off-times. Maybe you can do your laundry in the late evening; then the water can be absorbed in the lateral or drain field while your guests arent using any water. Also, make sure you are washing full loads—don’t fill up the washer for a shirt or two.
  • Run the dishwasher at off-times as well. Go ahead and load it after your meals, but wait to run it until a time when there’s not a lot of water usage (perhaps start it on your way to bed). As with your laundry, only run full loads.
  • Take shorter, scheduled showers. At our house, some people take morning showers, others take evening showers, and the kids don’t mind either way. When your guests arrive, you can suggest a shower schedule that will help even out the water flow. Setting a timer on showers also helps, and if you need to remind them and youre feeling a little bit ornery, you can shut off the hot water at the water heater (while cousin Jeffrey is taking a shower, of course).
  • Conserve in small ways. Put a reminder by each sink asking folks to turn off the faucet while brushing their teeth. If you’re doing dishes by hand, turn off the faucet between rinses.
  • Keep cold water on hand. Fill a jug with tap water and place this in your fridge so that you dont have to leave the tap running for the water to run cold before you fill your glass.

Our BBB team wishes you and your family the happiest Christmas and New Year! 

What You Can do Today to Avoid Septic Problems

We all use water on a daily basis—for cooking, washing, flushing, etc. The byproduct of our water use is wastewater. Whether your house or business is connected to city sewer, a septic system, or an advanced treatment system, its wastewater must be treated before the water can be released back into nature.

Most people flush anything and everything down the drain when they are on city sewer. But if you have a septic system, you may not know about a few things that can’t go down there.

In both sewer and septic systems, all of the trash, debris, and solids must be removed and/or treated. City wastewater plants have people and machines to clean and treat everything you flush. When you are on septic, your tank captures your waste and allows space for bacteria to grow and treat the solids in the water before it is released underground.

Here are the best ways to keep your septic system working properly:

  • Avoid flushing as much trash and debris as possible.
  • Don’t use more water than you need to.
  • Make sure you’re introducing more good bacteria than you’re killing off with chemicals.
  • Hire a professional to service your tank periodically.

All of these practices will help your ground accept the effluent water you are sending through your septic system. Remember that, as a general rule, anything that doesn’t deteriorate naturally when lying on top of the ground (e.g., diaper wipes, feminine products, cigarette butts) won’t degrade inside your septic tank. If items like these build up in your tank, they can cause serious problems.