REVIVE A FAILED SEPTIC SYSTEM: You Probably Don’t Need to Replace What You’ve Got

If you rely on a septic system – or worse, if your septic system is currently showing signs of failure – you’ve come to the right place. You don’t necessarily need a whole new system when things look hopeless. In fact, you probably don’t. Back in 2014 I perfected a simple, DIY method for cleaning clogged septic systems and turned the technique into an approach that has helped hundreds of people around the world avoid the nasty, expensive and disruptive job of replacing their septic system.  This article explains the adventure I had figuring out this approach.

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The photo below shows the top of the tank of my failed septic system at the height of its failure in the summer of 2011. The liquid sewage you see is about 8 inches above the top of the tank, and almost 24″ higher than the level of sewage should be. A licensed septic system installer examined my system the day this photo was taken and he pronounced it completely unsalvageable. “Replacement is your only option”, was the verdict. This is the story of how things turned out differently, and how the methods I’ve discovered can stop a septic system from ever failing.

septic system
This is my septic system in the middle of a total failure in 2011. It was pronounced dead and unsalvageable by a licensed septic professional yet I was able to revive the system myself with no fancy equipment and very little disruption. The work took just one day and my system has been working fine for 9 years now. The leaching bed is now “maintainable”, and this makes all the difference.

Fixing a Failed Septic System

The process I used involved a six part process that you can do as a homeowner, or hire a handy person to do the work:

  1. Have the tank pumped out.
  2. Dig down and find the ends of the leaching pipes.
  3. Cut the ends off the leaching pipes.
  4. Use a special 100-foot hose and nozzle on a pressure washer to clean the insides of the pipe.
  5. Close the ends of the leaching pipes and bury them with markers in place for future use.
  6. Pour soil-loosening liquid into the tank end of the leaching pipes.

I turned all this into a self-paced online course. Click below for details.

“The confidence, inspiration, and knowledge derived from this course allowed a neophyte DIYer to take this on, plus the satisfaction of ultimately restoring this 50 year-old system  ~ Priceless.”

– TF – homeowner

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Millions of people rely on septic systems to handle household waste water, and without modification all these systems are expensive time bombs waiting to explode. It’s not a matter of if your septic system will fail, but when the thing gets clogged and backs up like mine did above. This is true even if you have your system pumped out every 3 to 5 years. No septic system works forever, or at least that’s what I used to think. The real issue is what do you do when you find your septic system backing up.

A Bad Day for My Septic System

The septic system time bomb blew up at my place on June 17th, 2011, just before a bunch of guests arrived. The thing is, the solution I found for getting my system working again turned out to be cheaper, easier and far less disruptive than what I feared. Now its March 2023 and my system is still working perfectly. In fact, it’s as good as new and has been for 8 years.

The longest operational life of a septic system that I’ve ever heard of so far is 52 years. The shortest is 5 years. Mine crapped out (literally) after 22 years of service, but since I completely revived it we’re now in our 33rd year of service.  To understand why typical septic system failure is only a matter of time (and how it can be different for you) you need to understand how these hidden and mysterious sewage systems work, why they’re susceptible to trouble and what you can do to avoid grief or eliminate it when it comes. The details won’t be pretty, but if you’ve got a septic system in your life, this information is very much worth knowing about. Click below to watch and learn.

How Septic Systems Work

Typical septic systems begin with an underground tank that’s divided in two. Raw sewage comes from your house and enters the first half of the tank. Digestion begins here, allowing most of the solids to become liquefied.  Indigestible solids settle out on the bottom of this first half of the tank. Liquid effluent flows to the second half of the tank where more digestion happens before the liquid moves out into perforated pipes buried below soil level downstream of the tank. This area of soil is called the weeping bed or leaching bed, and it’s the most vulnerable part of any septic system. I’m told that 90% of the purification of waste water happens as the roots of grass and other green plants feed on the effluent, and I’m inclined to believe it. I can tell you from observation that the water in the second half of a septic tank is far from pure, while samples of water taken from the far end of a weeping bed are clear and odour free. At least until the weeping bed stops working, that is.

The problem with septic systems is that the small round stones and sandy soil around the perforated, underground pipes in the leaching bed eventually stop allowing liquid to flow through it. Failure to pump out your septic tank every three to five  years is one reason this might happen sooner than it should. I’ve also been told by more than one septic system installer that powdered laundry detergent is much more likely to cause a plugged weeping bed than liquid detergent. Laundry lint can cause problems in some cases too, but so can ordinary, everyday use of your septic system. In fact, even with careful use and diligent pump outs, the stone and soil immediately around the buried, perforated pipes will eventually become colonized with a growth of slimy, impervious microbes, developing what’s called a “biomat” that stops water from seeping away. Regardless of the cause of septic system clogging, the effect is the same. Nasty fluid backs up and overflows from the tank as outflow of sewage can’t keep up with inflow. This is what happened at my place back in 2011, and it’s the point where things usually get very expensive and very messy, though it doesn’t have to.

How Septic Systems Go Bad

I first noticed problems when I lifted the lids off of the pressure-treated wooden boxes I’d built over my septic tank to make access easier for pump outs. There was a faint odour of sewage in the area at the time, and I knew this meant trouble. That’s when I saw 12 inches of sewage sitting on top of the concrete septic tank. That’s about two feet higher than the level should have been if proper drainage was happening, and I braced myself for the $10K  to $2oK job of tearing up my weeping bed with a backhoe, pulling out the old pipes and impervious soil, then replacing everything and waiting two or three years for the grass to get back to normal. Yikes! Ten thousands dollars is easy to spend on a new septic system, not to mention the additional inspection and certification requirements that some places impose on homeowners with new septic systems. While your existing system will be grandfathered and not require regular inspections, the moment you get a new system you might need to pay a couple of hundred dollars a year to have a uniformed expert come out and make sure your system is working to municipal standards. With these kind of stakes involved, it prompted me to take a gamble that I developed.

After hoping in vain that my problem was a clogged tank outlet hole (it does happen sometimes, but not this time for me) I did a Google search for “clogged septic systems”. I knew alternatives to a complete weeping bed rebuild existed, and I hoped to find one that looked promising enough to try. In the end I did. It cost more than $400, but it didn’t deliver lasting benefits.

Normally, I wouldn’t spend $419 on a couple of pounds of bluish green powder, but it was the promise behind the product and the costly and messy alternative that made me try. The product I bought is called SeptiCleanse, and it’s touted as a bacterial culture that’s specially bred to eat the disgusting, slimy biomat that stops weeping beds from working. You flush packets down the toilet (the powder is contained in water soluble, plastic-like bags), it inoculates the sewage in the tank, and the microbes multiply, happily eating gunk and getting things flowing again. That’s the theory. Don’t believe it.

At the time I bought SeptiCleanse I was led to believe that it came with a money-back guarantee. In practice this was not the case. When I asked for a refund after the first heavy duty treatment didn’t work, the SeptiCleanse person told me they’d send another treatment. No money, just more powder. After that second treatment didn’t work, they sent me another “heavy duty” treatment. That didn’t work either and still no refund was extended to me. Eventually, I gave up and considered the whole thing a loss after more than half a year of trying.

“Thank you so much for your time and effort in putting this course together. I found it not only helpful but interesting!”

– MH – homeowner

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As I mentioned before, after hobbling along and trying in vain to fix my bad system with potions and powders, I did get things working properly and it’s been working like a new system ever since, even with 5 to 7 people living in the house at any given time. Naturally, I’m very happy (and quite a bit better off financially). The six-step process I mentioned earlier in the article didn’t involve any magic powder and hocus-pocus in the septic tank either, just good common sense applied to a method for maintaining the all-important leaching bed. I believe this kind of leaching bed maintenance is key and can be applied to most systems. And I guess it’s no mystery that septic system installers don’t build leaching beds to be maintained. But that’s okay. It’s the kind of thing that can be retrofitted by any handy homeowner who wants to avoid the kind of septic system failure that’s normally inevitable.

I hope you found this article useful, and that it might give you some legitimate hope if your septic system isn’t working well. Please consider helping me cover the cost of creating and publishing content like this. Click the “buy me a coffee” button below for a safe, fast and simple way to make a contribution. Thanks for helping me keep this website up and running.

– Steve Maxwell

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