Introduction & Reasons to Fix Your Own Septic System

This course teaches you how to get your failed septic system working again without hiring a pro.  The methods here won’t work for every single cause of septic system failure, but they will fix the most common issues that cause high mileage systems to fail. And while this course will require you to roll up your sleeves and get dirty, for many people this turns out to be worthwhile. Given the fact that it can cost thousands of dollars and lots of disruption to have a professional replace a failed septic system – compared with just a few hundred dollars and your time for the rescue methods you’ll learn here – you’ve really got nothing to lose. Even if your efforts fail, you haven’t lost much. Is your septic system working fine right now? That’s great if it is, but who wouldn’t want to learn how to maintain the system beyond just tank pump outs, encouraging trouble-free performance without surprises?

Millions of people rely on private septic systems to handle waste water and I’m one of them. I had my system installed in 1987, while I was building my house in the country, and since then literally millions of gallons of wastewater have flowed through the tank and leaching bed. My wife and I have five kids, a couple of which are still at home now. By my estimation, every day that goes by with showers, clothes washing, dishwashing and two flush toilets put 200 to 300 gallons of water through our septic system. That totals more than 2 million gallons of water so far.

This course is based on research and hands-on experience I gained over a two year period I worked to revive my nearly dead septic system. After many more-or-less fruitless attempts to use additives and bubblers, I developed a method that completely solved the problem of sewage backup due to leaching bed failure. As of this writing, in September 2018, my old septic system continues to work perfectly no matter how much waste water we generate. The leaching bed of my system is now also fully maintainable too, so I can prevent backups from ever happening again. You’ll learn all about this and more as you work through this course.

By the time you’re finished you will:

  • understand how septic systems work and why septic tanks need to be pumped out regularly
  • learn why septic systems fail even with regular tank pump outs and what you can do to delay failure or prevent it from ever happening.
  • recognize the main threats to septic systems and take steps to protect yourself from them
  • discover a little-known but powerful technique that can often completely revive a fully failed septic system
  • see simple, specific, economical items that help you get your septic system working again and keep it working
  • enhance your septic system so it’ll be easier to maintain the leaching bed yourself in the future, even if solids have flowed into leaching pipes and clogged them.

The Reality of Septic System Replacement

Hardly a day went by over the last 30 years that I didn’t wonder how much longer our heavily used and much needed septic system would last. “Dread” is a better word than wonder because a failed septic system means three very unpleasant things.

First, septic experts often say that replacement is the only real way to fix a failed septic system long term. I no longer believe this is true, but the prospect of a septic system replacement job that can easily run into five figures is pretty scary unless you have hope in an alternative.

Second, septic system failure is always inconvenient. No matter when it happens, it means dealing with waste water in some other way while you rush around trying to find some septic guy to hand a blank check to. You don’t have much bargaining power when drains don’t work and foul smelling sewage is backing up into your house.

Third, septic system replacement is massively disruptive. Even if you’re okay paying $10K for a new system, and even if by some miracle your septic system manages to fail just before you’ll be leaving for a two week vacation with no sewage being created at your house, your yard is still going to look like a WWI battlefield for a while. And it could take years for the land to heal completely after that big mess.

I suppose some people blissfully flush toilets and take long showers that empty into a septic system and never consider the fact that they’re playing what I call “septic roulette”. Sooner or later, a strange sound will come from a drain. Dirty water will disappear slowly from sinks, or perhaps foul smelling liquid will begin oozing out of the septic tank access hatches. It’s just a matter of time, and I always hate being at the mercy of some expensive guy with a backhoe to get me back to normal.   Do you know what I mean? If you’re a do-it-yourself kind of person, you don’t like feeling vulnerable. Neither do I.

The day of my septic dread came in June 2011. That’s when I decided to lift the riser covers on my septic tank to try and find out why there were faint whiffs of sewage in my yard. What I saw was ugly and alarming. Raw sewage was at least 18” above the level of the outlet of my septic tank. White scum was floating on the sewage as it sat way above the top of the concrete tank. I couldn’t even see the tank lid any more for all the brown water. My bad day had come. I’d finally lost the game of septic roulette.

To make matters worse, the next day I had a whole van load of magazine editors and photographers coming for a week-long work session at my house in the middle of rural nowhere.  Septic failure is never convenient.

What you’ll learn about here is everything I discovered about successfully reviving septic systems over more than two years of struggle. I refused to give in right away and have a new system installed without at least putting up a fight. I did a lot of research, tried quite a few things that didn’t work, and in the end I’ve enjoyed complete success. This success is transferable to most septic system owners because my problem was typical. My hopelessly clogged system has been working flawlessly since the summer of 2014 after my rescue methods. I followed more than a few dead-end ideas along the way (I’ll steer you away from those later), but in the end I’ve found something that not only got my sewage flowing reliably again, but from everything I see I’ll never have to have my septic system replaced at all. I’m no longer playing septic roulette because I have the power to revive the leaching bed of my septic system whenever I need to. The maintenance plan I’ve made probably means it won’t ever come to a complete clog again.

Why Fixing Your Own Septic System is Worth A Try

It’s easy to despair and throw in the towel right away when faced with a failing septic system. Friends, neighbours, family members and most septic professionals will urge you to “get it fixed right” and go for replacement. But here’s why you shouldn’t give up without a fight:

1. You have nothing to lose. As long as you work safely, following recognized guidelines, the venture of septic revival is all potential gain and very little risk. When my septic system got nearly completely plugged up it sometimes had more than 24” of standing sewage above the level of the tank outlet. It was plugged good! The situation looked hopeless, but why not try a possible fix that cost only about $300?

2. Very little professional septic advice is unbiased. Many septic professionals preach the gospel of full replacement. “Nothing else works!” they warn. You’ll hear scary phrases such as “impervious biomat”, or “hard pan” or “sulphation” as they explain why your septic system has backed up. But the fact is, all these things can often be fixed without necessarily ripping leaching beds out and starting again with fresh soil. And as I said, even if your efforts don’t work in the end, why not try when it costs so little?

3. The value of jetting isn’t widely understood. Jetting is a process that directs high pressure water to loosen and remove blockages and buildups from inside the all-important leaching pipes and the soil surrounding them. And while it’s true that jetting can’t fix every septic problem, very few naysayers have ever tried jetting. They just know it “doesn’t work” because they’ve never seen it in action. It’s not a logical perspective, but common.  Prepare yourself to resist it.

4. Jetting, soil amendment and aeration have a proven track record of success.

Four years and a quarter million gallons of water later, our hopelessly plugged system is still working perfectly. During dry weather the grass grows lushly all along each pipe. It’s easy to see that each pipe is weeping properly along its entire length. It wasn’t like that before. I went from what anyone would call a “failed septic system” to one that’s working as well as the day it was new. I’ve helped other people achieve the same results and you can enjoy them, too.

5. Bubblers safely help a septic system work more cleanly. A bubbler is an electric air pump that sits on top of the septic tank and forces air through a perforated pipe. The bubbles look like the fizz that rises up in a glass of soda. Bubblers are something I experimented with while I was trying to fix my system, and even though they didn’t work to get things flowing again, I do think they help septic systems to operate more cleanly. More on this later. Naysayers will warn you that bubbling can stir up solids that can get into the leaching bed, but that’s not a genuine danger. There’s not enough bubbling action to stir up solids. And besides, there shouldn’t be any solids in the second chamber of the septic tank where the bubbler is anyway. If you’ve got solids there, you’ve got a different problem. If solids ever do get into your leaching bed, just blast them out again with the jetting process you’ll learn about later.

To be honest, not every septic system can be revived without some kind of professional help. Septic tanks occasionally cave in, leaching pipes get physically crushed, and tree roots can hopelessly plug the leaching bed. So yes, some issues are beyond what you can accomplish as a diligent DIY homeowner willing to deal with sewage. But none of this means that you shouldn’t go down without a fight. There’s definitely an opportunity to fix a septic system gone bad and to make sure it never does go bad again. Why not try? You’d rather keep thousands of dollars in your pocket just like I would, I’m sure.

Dollars and Sense

It took me less than three 8-hour days of work to revive my septic system from dead clogged to running freely. As I mentioned, this was in 2014 and it’s been working perfectly ever since. Total cost for the items that actually led to success was about $300 ($150 of which is a tool I can use again and again). Assuming the estimates for rebuilding my septic system were accurate at $10,000, the value of my time worked out to more than $400 an hour. Not bad, right? I can now maintain my leaching bed quite easily and keep it flowing, too.

Septic System Safety

Working on a septic system involves hazards you need to know about and take precautions against. Continuing to take this course constitutes your agreement to assume all risks associated with working on a septic system.  These risks are manageable, but you need to follow the same safety regime used by professionals.

  1. Beware of open tanks. Never leave a septic tank open an unattended. Pets or people could fall in.
  2. Don’t lean over an open septic tank. Gases that cause unconsciousness can be present in a septic tank. Leaning over the tank could cause you to breathe these gases, lose consciousness and fall in. It’s not a huge risk, but you need to know about it and be careful.
  3. Keep fire and sparks away from septic tanks. The same toxic gases in the tank can also be flammable, posing the threat of combustion or explosion.
  4. Don’t ever go into a septic tank. Sounds obvious, but what if your favourite wrench falls in? Even if the tank is pumped dry, it could (and probably does) contain dangerous gases. Never go inside a previously used septic tank no matter how old and dry it looks. You might never come out alive.
  5. Protect yourself against infection. Human sewage can contain microbes that could make you sick. Don’t work on your septic system with open sores. Also, wear gloves, boots, disposable coveralls and safety glasses, then wash thoroughly after work and before entering your house or vehicle.
  6. Identify buried cables and pipes before you dig. If your septic work involves digging, have the area checked to identify buried wires, cables and pipes.
  7. Don’t drive over your septic system. The weight of a truck, car or digging equipment can crush septic tanks and underground pipes. Don’t ever drive on any part of your septic system, either the tank or leaching bed.

The fact of the matter is that many septic systems are replaced unnecessarily. The industry has a vested interest in replacement, not revival.  Very few septic installation professionals condone any kind of reparative campaign. When I discovered the clogged state of my septic system on that fateful day in 2011, I called a septic guy to look at it and tell me what he thought. He didn’t offer any hope and was already talking about when he could come out and start rebuilding. Replacement was the only option offered. And later, as I wrote about my initial success online, a number of septic professionals piped in to say that my fix wouldn’t last. I have the greatest respect for everyone who does a good job installing septic systems, but I wasn’t prepared to believe that revival was impossible. This course is about giving you every reasonable chance to save a failing system at your own place or prevent failure in the future by going beyond the usual maintenance regime of having the tank pumped every few years.

Some of the most important things in life are done by the homeliest and least appealing of systems. Sewage disposal in a septic system is a prime example.  When you think about it, septic systems are amazing. With no moving parts and no outside energy inputs they transform hundreds of gallons of dangerous effluent into harmless water each day. The trick comes down to microorganisms and plants. Septic tanks provide a place for microbes to complete an initial digestion of the organic matter in household waste water. After this the grass growing on the leaching bed takes over to do the final purification job. In fact, 90% of the work of water purification is done by this grass and the microbes living in the soil of the leaching bed.