The Summer of Septic

This Summer has been a mess. We have been dealing with septic tank issues and trying to get them resolved for over two months.

On Thursday, May 14th we noticed that a toilet would not flush. The bowl filled to just about the top but held steady at that point. After two toilets were still not flushing after attempts at plunging, it indicated the problem was not with an individual toilet but perhaps a clog further in the system.

I headed down to the crawlspace with a bucket, a snake, and some tools. I went to the cleanout pipe and used some channellocks to untwist the plug. Thankfully, I managed some foresight that the pipe could be full. I placed the bucket over the horizontal pipe and reached around to finish untwisting the plug. When the plug reached the last of the thread, it gave way and water came rushing out. The bucket pushed back with the force of the water but I was able to hold it in place. The water rushed out the pipe, hit the bottom of the bucket, and deflected away from me.

After the water finally ended, I looked down the pipe and saw some gunk down the pipe. I got the snake out and worked it down the pipe to clear any clog that was hopefully the cause of the problem. I put the cap back on the cleanout pipe and headed back upstairs. The toilets flushed properly. Yay! Crisis averted, right?

The next day, we were having a bunch of friends from out of town over for the weekend. After the long car rides and quadrupling the number of people in the house, it wasn’t long before we reached the point where the toilet stopped flushing. I ran back down to the crawlspace and put the bucket around the cleanout pipe again and opened it up. Water, under pressure, came rushing out again. The toilets gurgled down to their normal level.

Clearing the water out of the system bought us some time but there was still a bigger problem further down the pipe. We began calling septic places around town. I had the septic pumped four years prior just to investigate the state of the septic. The company that I had then was quick, efficient, and knowledgeable. Particularly, since I had no idea where the tank was or what it looked like, they did a good job locating it, digging it up, and pumping it. I called the number for that company but it went to voicemail. Without being able to wait, I went on to calling other companies. I was able to reach one area company with an emergency line.

Since we had company over, I was willing to pay an extra charge for a weekend pumping if it came to that. I called the emergency line of company F&W and was told he doesn’t do septics but he gave me the number of their septic division emergency line. I called that line and reached somebody. He seemed pretty uninterested but said he could get somebody out there first thing the next morning.

I was told that I could dig it up myself to save some money or they could dig it for an extra charge. The tank is buried 3.5 feet down. It has a 5 foot diameter concrete lid that is a few inches thick, making it a thousand pounds or so with two rebar loop handles to lift it. With that weight, it requires heavy machinery to lift the lid. I shared this information with the person I talked to on the phone and said they would have to dig it. Regardless, they sent two guys and a shovel. It was supposed to be only one guy but that guy was feeling lazy and asked his co-worker to come along.

First thing in the morning ended up being just before noon. Lunch started in the house and I directed the guys to where the septic was, trying to convey how deep and large this lid was. After probing the ground and digging a few feet down, they started to believe that I was telling the truth. In the course of this digging, they broke their shovel and asked if I had one they could borrow. So, I lent them a shovel.

In order to dig it up and lift the lid, they were going to need some sort of “digger”. They called the manager who said it would have to wait until Monday. They told me that I would have to call the manager if I wanted it done that day. I called the manager, who was out of town, and said that I really needed this to be done today. He agreed and called his guys back. They quickly packed up and said they’d be back shortly with the “digger”.

I went back inside, ate lunch, and tried to be present with friends around. Time kept ticking away. I called the manager as more time went by. I called other companies. I tried asking neighbors for recommendations. Being a weekend, I made no progress.

As our guests were still anticipating showering that day, we called the closest YMCA to find out their hours. They closed at 6pm and we decided at 4pm to head over there and use the facility including showers. After finally discussing all of the logistics of who was going and who was staying, changing, and grabbing what we needed. A handful of us walked to the car to head to the YMCA. Lo and behold, as soon as I touched the door handle, the septic company returned with a backhoe. We decided to not go and pay at the YMCA with the thought that we would be able to use the plumbing again soon.

They cautiously (read: very slowly) dug their way down to the septic tank. They built a nice pile of dirt north of the tank and in front of a gate to the backyard. Upon reaching the lid, they removed the rest of the dirt and attached a chain to the handles of the lid. Straining the hydraulics to their capacity, the chain suddenly went slack as one of the handles on the lid broke. Attaching both chains to a single handle, they were still barely able to budge the lid. Instead of trying to lift with a chain attached to the bucket, they used the bucket to grab the lid and lift it up at an angle. It was barely enough to shove the hose down into the tank and pump out the contents. As soon as they started pumping, people started taking showers inside. They finished pumping and presented the bill. As it cost more to actually dig up the tank than to pump it, they proposed putting a riser on the tank so that it could be pumped and maintained for more simply. I agreed that that would make sense and was told the manager would come out Monday to do so, and the hole was left unfilled.

It seemed like we finally all got caught up with the problem that hijacked the weekend. Dave and I picked up some pizzas and brought them back home where people could eat before we headed out to see Avengers: Age of Ultron. It wasn’t until the next morning that we would notice that we still had a problem.

After the flood of individual’s showers Saturday and some Sunday morning, the hole to the septic tank was quite overflowing, even though the tank had its lid on. This did not bode well but it seemed by allowing it to overflow outside, it prevented the problem of backing up in the house. The rest of the weekend continued on without a problem.

The water in the hole subsided enough by Monday to be below the lid again. However, the septic company manager was concerned by the amount of water he saw when he came out to install the riser. He pumped the tank again and shared with me his assumption that the tank was having problems draining out to the leach field. I was asked if I wanted him to keep the hole unfilled then and that was it – no offer for this septic maintenance company to address the problem. I agreed to keep the hole dug up until the issue could be fixed. The location of the dirt pile in front of the backyard gate became increasingly annoying with its duration.

I researched septic information and possible solutions to a leach field not draining. I knew I was already with an unusual situation with the tank so deep, the leach field would be even deeper. If I knew where the distribution box was, I could dig down to it and see if it was bone dry or holding water. If it was dry, I would know the problem was somewhere between the tank and the box. At a depth of over 5 feet below the surface, it was pretty much out of the question to dig down and find a possible clog or some other problem in the leach field, especially since I didn’t know where the drain went underground or where the problem might be.

I found some concentrated bacteria solutions that are supposed to prevent tank back-ups. I found that the lid was not put on all of the way. It was off its mark by about 4 inches, which left a small gap directly into the tank. I bought some of the bacteria off of Amazon, and more from Home Depot, and added it to the tank. I would also later resort to some root treatment to try to clear any clog from the system. Unfortunately, neither of these made any impact to solve the problem.

While the treatments were working, I wasn’t willing to sit idle. I searched the web and got out the phone book. I called several septic services. Either over the phone or in person, I was told by many companies that they could not service the setup or were too busy. Some never even returned my phone calls while other companies were interested in the work and would come out to take a look as soon as they could. I would put the search on hold between the call and their visit, which resulted in several lost days when they would tell me it wasn’t anything they could repair.

Some of the comments I heard when these experts came out included:

“Well there’s your problem right there. It’s way too deep.”

It’s been that deep for the past 45 years and working. I didn’t get up one day and dig it deeper.

“I’ve never seen one that deep before.”

Well, what can we do about it?

I expanded my search beyond the county and finally got a bigger company that seemed to have a lot of experience under their belt. They explained that the county requires a soil evaluation to be done before they can even provide an estimate. He gave me the number of a soil analyst, which I called and went straight to voicemail. I left a message and waited a little while for nothing. I got a recommendation at work for another septic installer, so I met with that company to show them the system.

Jeanne found a list of other soil analysts on the county website. None were in town and many of the closest ones that I called told me they were retired or it would take them at least a week and a half to get down to my property. After 12 days passed (Memorial Day weekend was in there), I got a call back from the first soil analyst that I called. He had been out of town for his day job and could come down this Saturday to do the soil report. I gladly took him up on the offer as I had exhausted the county’s list of licensed soil analysts. He came down, took some samples, answered some of my questions, and left with the promise to get the report in the mail to me as soon as possible. I came home every day that week for lunch to check the mail so I could get the report numbers to the septic installers as soon as possible. The report finally arrived on Thursday. I got the numbers and sent them to two companies that were interested in the job. The company recommended at work ended up backing out, afraid of the depth of the pipe would make it a more complicated job and require getting a plumber involved.

A third company finally called me back and said they would be ‘very interested’ in the work. They picked up a copy of the soil report and said they would be out again to get some more information to generate a quote. That was the last I ever heard from this company, which was sadly the one everybody seemed to recommend around here whenever I would tell the tale of our plight.

I was down to one company. There went the hope of competitive quotes that could give me options on different solutions and price points. The remaining company proposed an aerobic system replacement as the current system was obviously compromised and not up to current practices.

We talked it over and went with their proposal. Getting all the paperwork returned to them as quickly as possible, I learned that it would be three weeks before they could get to us. During those three weeks, I dug a trench between the house and the septic tank to see the inlet pipe to the tank and ensure that nothing else tied into the system. It took several afternoons worth of work but I finally got it dug down to the tile and found that it was a straight pipe with nothing else tying in – an important relief that meant it might be possible to raise the plumbing as the installer wanted. The main takeaway was that the pipe dropped at a sharp angle. It went down much faster than the standard required quarter-inch per foot, instead dropping 2 foot to 5 foot over a 10 foot run. That meant the pipe could be at a shallower angle and result in a significantly higher tank than the one being replaced.

The proposed system used an aerobic tank versus the traditional anaerobic tank, so it would require electricity to be run. We contacted an electrician to run an electric line and a plumber to be there on the day of the install in case the plumbing needed raise on the inside of the house. We got recommendations and soon had an electrician and plumber ready for the job.

The three week delay for the septic system brought us to the rainiest June in Illinois history, which meant the project kept having to be pushed back further and further. The electricians ran the electricity from the circuit breaker to the tank. We continued to baby the old system, taking showers as short as possible and flushing minimally. It seemed to work as we had no more backups. The giant hole in the backyard would build up with water, becoming a mosquito haven but that was more the rain than our water usage.

The rain seemed to taper off, though storms remained on the forecast, just in time for the septic installer to be out of town for a week. Upon his return, he let me know that he was planning to do the install that week. The forecast didn’t look promising but managed to stay dry enough. I mowed the side yard, which had been wet enough that it had been difficult to find a time to mow it. We were all ready for the installation!

Last week, we had our new septic system installed. The company showed up on time and the plumber along with them. Everything seemed to go pretty smoothly from pumping and crushing the old tank to installing the new lines in our side yard. The whole install process took less than 5 hours. They unloaded their equipment, installed the new system, and were gone before lunch. The yard is a bit of a mess with all of the dirt dug up to lay the new field but a small price to pay for working indoor plumbing.

During the install, they ran into some of the perforated pipe of the old leach field. It kind of answered my question of what/where the problem was. The section of pipe that was dug up, at least, was pretty clogged with sludge and roots. Though I had the tank pumped regularly enough, the pipe was simply surrounded by dirt and became clogged. It seemed like the entire system would have looked similar.

It would have been nice if some of the treatments had worked to resolve the issue but it wasn’t very likely with no flow exiting the tank. Leach fields are expected to last about 30 years. Since this one was on its 45th year, it seems it would have failed sooner or later. Now, we have a more modern system that is more accessible with risers to the tank and a much shallower field. This should save costs of having to dig up the tank in the future and I could even access the field if needed. It’s been a long project, a long Summer, and tried our patience. We saw Memorial Day and 4th of July pass by. Jeanne was very patient for being pregnant throughout the endeavor. We endured quick, cold showers. I’m sure that on some days, a long, hot shower would have felt pretty nice.

Here are some pics of our plumbing adventure.

The old tank


The trench I dug. It also revealed a crack in the tile pipe between the house and the tank.


The first septic service company’s broken shovel and the biggest section of perforated pipe that was dug up.


The new tanks put in place. Aerobic septic tank on the left with a lift station on the right.


The trench with the electric and new PVC pipe installed.


The riser to access the new tank, the motor, and the riser for the lift station.


The leach field, looking back at the house.


“The moles are really bad this year…”


And on that same day, another project was completed as I wanted the old TV antenna taken down, so it didn’t rust or fall with a strong storm. An antenna servicing company came out and took it down with a gin pole.


While they worked on the antenna, I buried the coax cable to the satellite dish again and filled in the trench. It was a long day, even hiring people to do the hardest jobs.

I think that’s enough investment in the house for a little while.

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