Signs Of Trouble In A Septic System

Do you ever think about your septic system and whether it is working as it should? Most people simply flush and forget it. But—like your heating and air conditioning system—if you don’t maintain it, it will fail, leading to expensive repairs. Your septic system is perhaps the most important and expensive appliance in your home. And problems with a septic system can be a shock not only to your checkbook, but to your senses as well!

Some of the more offensive clues that your septic system is failing include sewage backing up into your house; foul sewage odors; and, wet, spongy areas near your tank or drainfield (sometimes accompanied by excessive vegetation growth). The worst possible sign of trouble is if a family member or household guest experiences an intestinal disorder. Less unpleasant warning signs include slow draining sinks, and, possibly, alarm warnings if you have an advanced treatment system (like a BAT unit). All of these signs indicate that your tank is overfilling and your drainfield is clogging, which causes drains to backup and soggy spots in your yard.

More importantly, all of these situations are a hazard to your health, and requires immediate attention. If you are experiencing any of these signs of trouble, you should contact your local county environmental health office and a septic professional to identify what’s causing the failure and discuss a solution.

As with most things, the best approach is to avoid problems in the first place. Our most important recommendation for septic maintenance is to pump your tank every three to five years, sometimes more depending on your tank size and the number of people living in your house. We also recommend you follow these easy maintenance practices:

  • Use water efficiently—space out showers, laundry, and dishwashing; and fix leaking toilets and sinks.
  • Use green cleaners—conventional household chemicals (cleaners, paints, etc.) can kill the beneficial bacteria in your system.
  • Direct rain water drainage and hot tub water away from the tank and drainfield.
  • Don’t use a garbage disposal.
  • Don’t flush any products other than toilet paper.


If you have a well, and your septic system has failed, the sewage could be contaminating your drinking water, which could then cause gastrointestinal issues amongst family members and guests. If you’re concerned about your drinking water quality, you should work with a state-certified lab to test your well water for bacteria and nitrates—which we recommend you do annually anyways.

Maintaining your septic system will not only protect your family’s health, but a little attention to your system will also go a long way in keeping it operational and lasting for many years.


What To Do When Buying A House With A Septic System

It’s SepticSmart Week, so we’ll be discussing septic systems all… wait for it… week! Today’s post on septic systems is the second in a series about buying a house with a well and/or septic. Last week, when I mentioned that wells and septic systems are two of the most expensive appliances you’ll own, it’s particularly true for septic systems. These systems are designed to last 15-40 years, if maintained correctly. But for lots of owners, out of sight means out of mind, and these systems are often overlooked.

If you’re looking to buy a house, you will freak out at some point (if not several) about how much money you’re spending. But if that house comes with a septic system, you should definitely spend the extra money to get a licensed septic professional to inspect your system.

Why? Because if you don’t know that the septic tank is failing until after you’ve bought the house, you can expect to pay between $3000-5000 to replace a tank that you’ve only recently come to own. And if the system’s drainfield is failing, you can add in another $10,000 (or $25,000 if the system has a sand mound). So getting that septic professional’s review may save you thousands.

SepticSmart protect_it_and_inspect_it_2018
You won’t know if the owner of the house that you want to buy is SepticSmart. But you can be by hiring a licensed septic professional to make sure the system is in good condition, and then taking care of the system once it becomes yours. (Image by the EPA.)

When hiring a licensed septic professional to inspect a system, don’t settle for a dye test, where they flush a dye pack down the toilet and see if dye bubbles up in the yard. Dye tests do not provide a thorough review of the system. Instead, you want a state-approved inspection, which includes a homeowner interview, record search, site and system inspection, hydraulic load test, and final report.

You can also personally look (and smell!) for signs of trouble when first visiting a house. Look for puddles, spongy areas, bright green grass, or overgrown vegetation in the area near the tank or drainfield. Another obvious indicator of a malfunctioning septic system is a strong smell of sewage in the yard or house.

It’s easy for homeowners to assume their system is operating just fine when there aren’t obvious signs of problems. It’s not like you get a maintenance guide when you first buy a house! But the cost of replacing a failing septic system is not one that you want to take on as a new homeowner. Avoid the stress and expense by getting a licensed septic professional to thoroughly examine the system. And once that system is yours, make sure you take care of it.

What To Do When Buying A House With A Private Well

Editor’s Note: Buying a house is stressful and expensive. When I was buying my first house, I remember thinking, “Where is all this money coming from?!” Not only is the house, itself, the most expensive thing you’ll ever buy, but then you have closing costs and fees for every possible inspection. So, it’s easy to understand why buyers may overlook the importance of private well and septic systems: if you feel like you’re hemorrhaging money, the last thing you want to do is spend hundreds more dollars on systems that you barely understand. But not only are these systems two of the most expensive appliances that you’ll own, improper maintenance can lead to health problems. So in the next two blog posts, I’ll provide information to help give you peace of mind when buying your next home with a well and/or septic—starting with wells.

Having a private well means not having to pay a utility bill—but safe drinking water isn’t free. Lots of drinking water contaminants are invisible, tasteless, and odorless. You may never know they’re in your water until you or your family members experience health issues, like gastrointestinal distress, respiratory difficulty, neurological and developmental effects, and possibly cancer. Pregnant women, infants, children, seniors, or family members with compromised immune systems are at particular risk.

We recommend that home buyers take the following steps to better understand the condition of a well and possible drinking water concerns. In some cases, we do recommend that you spend a little more money ahead of time to minimize the chance of surprise expenses at the end of the transaction, or worse, after you’ve moved in.

Lead Stains Tub_Kelsey Pieper
Stains on sinks and tubs, or corroded fixtures, can indicate different types of contaminants. Blue-green staining like this indicates lead in the water. (Photo by Kelsey Pieper.)

Look for signs of water quality issues when inspecting the house.
Are there any stains in the sinks, tubs, and/or toilets? Are there any signs of corrosion on the plumbing fixtures and faucets?

Inquire about water treatment devices.
Knowing the type of device, manufacturer, and device model will provide a sense of water quality concerns, required maintenance practices, and operational costs. We recommend using devices that have been certified by the National Sanitation Foundation or the Water Quality Association.

Use a state-certified water testing lab to conduct a COMPREHENSIVE water analysis.
Many lenders will require tests for specific contaminants, but these usually do not include health-related contaminants. We recommend getting a comprehensive testing package that includes health-impairing contaminants. Most state-certified labs offer packages that you can add onto as needed. If you have pregnant women, infants or young children, make sure to include all of the most important contaminants of concern.

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This is an example of a wellhead in good condition. Not all well caps look like the one on this well. The important thing is to make sure that it is a sanitary well cap. (Photo by Harford County Health Department.)

Learn how to spot good wellheads, then check the house’s wellhead.
Everything on a wellhead should be secure and in good condition—no cracks, holes, or corrosion. The area surrounding the wellhead should slope away in all directions and be clear of debris and overgrown plants.

Hire a licensed well professional to inspect the system.
Typical home inspectors don’t have the expertise or specialized equipment to properly diagnose issues with a well system. We recommend hiring a licensed well professional who can run a yield test, which will run the system for an extended period of time, allowing the professional to gauge the system’s condition. Yield tests typically costs $300-400, but many companies also offer modified yield tests for $150-200, which is not as thorough, but still gives a general sense of the system’s condition.

Shout Out to Water!

Today is Groundwater Protection Day, so, I’m taking you on a deep (and dorky) dive into one of my favorite topics: H 2 the izz-O! (Did I mention dorky?)

But I can’t just celebrate groundwater, because…. ahem, the WATER CYCLE! (I could insert the diagram, but I know that’s not why you’re here.) Let’s just say that thanks to Mother Nature’s built-in recycling process, all the water on the planet has always been and always will be the same water. The stream water that a triceratops drank (and peed) is the same water that you drink (and pee). So it’s all connected.

Global Freshwater Volume_USGS
All the water that has been on Earth may be the same throughout time, but only a small fraction of that water is freshwater that we can drink. The largest ball on this map represents all the water on Earth. The medium-sized ball contains all the liquid freshwater, so everything not frozen in glaciers and icebergs. Groundwater makes up 99% of that ball. The other 1% is water found in rivers and lakes, which is represented by the smallest ball. (Image by the USGS.)

And because of where water flows along its journey through the recycling process, and how happy it is to bring the harmful chemicals it meets along the way, water can expose you to a lot of different health risks. Just look at the headlines. Flint, MI residents will be dealing with the physical and emotional legacy of the lead found in their water for years to come. And Florida residents are seeking medical attention from the toxic blue-green algae that is feeding on the fertilizers people put on their grass and crops, which the rain carried into creeks, canals, and lakes.

While Maryland isn’t immune to drinking water risks and beach closures, we have been relatively lucky, which makes it easy for us to take clean water for granted. But just think about all the most essential things you do in your morning routine alone—almost every step relies on water:

  • Bladder relief (Check!)
  • Coffee (Check!)
  • Shower (Check!)
  • Brush teeth (Check!)
  • Clean clothes (Check!)
  • Breakfast (Check! No matter what you eat, water is a major contributor to getting that food and drink on your table.)
  • Put dishes in the dishwasher (Eventually, check!)

And I haven’t even included how much water goes into making the products and electricity you used do all those things.

I mean, come on! How miserable would you feel if you couldn’t do all those things so easily? So take this moment to dork out with me about water. And then take some steps to keep our water clean and use it wisely.

Children with a water glass
Cheers to you, H2O!

You can start here:

Take Septic Additives Off the Shopping List

If you have a septic system, you have probably used, or considered using, a septic additive. The advertisements make them sound like a cheap and natural way to maintain your tank and system. For just a few dollars, you can remove more sludge from your tank by flushing their additives down your toilet. But do they really work as advertised? Are they worth the money? Can they help with your failing septic system?

The simple answer is no. Your septic tank already has all the bacteria it needs to work properly, as long as you routinely pump it every 3-5 years.

MOWPA_Filled DBox
If you haven’t been routinely pumping your septic tank every 3-5 years, the sludge could be pushed into parts of the system that are only meant for wastewater, like this distribution box. If a septic professional has told you that your system is failing, we recommend getting a second opinion and estimate, not septic additives. No amount of additives can help address this issue. (Photo courtesy of the Maryland Onsite Wastewater Professionals Association.)

But couldn’t the additives still help?

Well, no. Most septic tank additives contain beneficial bacteria or enzymes, or a combination of both, that the companies claim will help digest or breakdown the sludge (or waste solids) in your tank. But one of the main purposes of your tank is to collect human waste, which is loaded with the necessary bacteria species to digest the waste solids. Studies have shown that a typical, 1,000-gallon septic tank contains an average population of 3.64 billion to 3.64 trillion bacteria cells per gallon. Additives claim to add up to several billion bacteria cells per treatment. Though that sounds like a lot, it would only account for 0.1 – 1% of what is already present in your tank.

Couldn’t a little still go a long way?

The answer is still no. Numerous research studies have tested the effect that additives have on septic sludge volume and water quality. Some studies used lab-based, batch reactors (essentially, small septic tank simulations) and others tested numerous home septic tanks.  All of the studies concluded that additives did not show any significant sludge reduction or increase in bacterial populations. One additive actually introduced a negative effect by increasing total suspended solids (the small particles in liquid waste) that could impede the normal flow of the drain field. Studies also suggested that additives should not be used as a substitute for, or as a means to reduce, septic tank pumping frequency.

Don’t Forget The Bottom Line!

Septic additives cost approximately $4-10/month, or $50-120/year. One of the most important maintenance tasks to ensure a properly functioning septic systems is to routinely pump your septic tank.  The University of Maryland Extension recommends that you pump your tank every three to five years. The national average for pumping a septic tank is $380. That means that the expense of additives would cover the cost of routinely pumping your tank.

So the bottom line on septic tank additives is that they aren’t worth the money. Just call your local pumper and schedule a pump-out.

This post was co-written by Daphne.

Get your well water tested. Your babies will thank you.

Today’s post is for all the folks living in a house with a private well. You may not realize it, but if you own the house, you are responsible for taking care of the well and making sure the water is safe to drink. Since most of the contaminants that can impair your health are odorless, colorless, and tasteless, the only way to know what’s hiding in there is to test your water. If you rent the house, you should inquire with your landlord about getting the water tested.

The University of Maryland Extension recommends routine testing for all residents who drink well water, but it’s especially important to test your water if you have pregnant women, infants, and young children in the house. Infants and children are more susceptible to injury and damage, as their brains and organs are still developing. Infants—particularly ones that drink formulaare at even greater risk since they consume more water for their size than adults and older children.

Mom and Girl at Sink_Pexels 1089077-Jennifer Murray

Pregnant women, babies, and children are particularly vulnerable to unsafe drinking water. The only way to make sure your water is safe for your family is to get it tested by a state-certified water testing lab. Photo by Jennifer Murray.

If you haven’t had your water tested in the past 3 years or more, we recommend getting a comprehensive test that includes the following contaminants. Contact your county office to inquire whether you should also test for local contaminants of concern, such as arsenic or manganese. They can also refer you to the state-certified water testing labs that serve your area. The lab will provide you with a report to indicate the level of each contaminant and whether it exceeds the EPA drinking water standard for public drinking water systems.

Coliform bacteria: This group of bacteria does not present a specific risk, but the presence of them could indicate the presence of more harmful bacteria, like E. coli, which may cause gastrointestinal distress.

Nitrate: This chemical is found in fertilizer, manure, and human waste, and when introduced into a baby’s body, can lead to “Blue Baby Syndrome”. Essentially, the infant will not be able to breathe properly and could suffocate. So if you have a septic tank that hasn’t been pumped in several years, I would also recommend scheduling a pump-out.

pH: pH indicates the water’s acidity or alkalinity. Acidic water can damage plumbing and leach dangerous metals from the pipes and fittings, like lead and copper.

Lead: Lead + drinking water = Flint water crisis, right? What’s the likelihood that lead is in your well water? Our colleagues at Virginia’s Household Water Quality Program report that research from Virginia, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina resulted in 1 in 7 houses having high lead in water. This metal can cause irreversible damage to a child’s brain, nervous system, and other organs, resulting in developmental delays, lower IQs, and behavioral disorders.

Copper: Like lead, copper does not naturally occur in the water, but is leached out of the plumbing from acidic water. Copper can cause gastrointestinal distress, and liver or kidney damage.

If you would like to learn more about protecting your drinking water, contact me to schedule a seminar for your neighborhood.

Switch to Green Cleaning with 9 Easy-to-Find Ingredients

June is Healthy Homes month, and one of the easiest steps to making your home healthier is to use green cleaners. Common household cleaners can contain chemicals that are harmful for both people and the environment. Ingredients—like ammonia, nitrogen, and phosphorus—can cause all sorts of health issues for the user, and then make their way into the air and water, where they cause environmental problems.

Green cleaners, on the other hand, can make your home healthier, won’t harm the earth, and will save you money. You can create surprisingly simple, cleaners with a few ingredients that you can find at your local supermarket! The following list of ingredients, based on Jill Potvin Schoff’s Green Up Your Clean Up, is all you need to create your own supply of green cleaners!

Liquid Soap: In this case, we are talking about an old-fashioned soap rather than most current soaps, which use surfactants. You want to look for either a castile soap or a plant-based nontoxic soap. These are very concentrated and will last quite a while!

Borax: Borax is similar to baking soda but is slightly stronger. It is capable of killing mold and mildew. You can often find borax in the grocery store with the laundry detergents.

Baking Soda: If you bake, you are likely familiar with baking soda. It is commonly used in baked goods, but can also be used to remove odors, unclog drains, or clean tough stains. You can usually find this in the baking aisle of the grocery store.

Washing Soda: Washing soda is a very powerful cleaner that can be used for tough cleaning jobs or laundry. Be careful, as it can irritate skin! Also, it should not be used on fiberglass, aluminum, or delicate fabrics.

White Vinegar: Another very common kitchen item. This works well for cleaning glass, removing soap scum, and much more. You can find it in the grocery store (usually with the condiments). You will want to make sure you are buying white vinegar (as opposed to apple cider or red wine vinegar).

Lemon Juice: Lemon juice is a great stain remover and also leaves a natural and pleasant smell. Fresh would be ideal, but bottled works as well.

Sponges_Pixabay 3254675_1920
A little elbow grease and some green cleaners will keep you and your family breathing easier.

Oxygen Bleach: This is different from chlorine bleach and is friendlier for the environment. It is great for removing stains in laundry, grout, or other areas.

Club Soda: The sodium citrate in club soda helps clean dirt from glass, fabric and more. Avoid low sodium options for cleaning. The sodium is part of what makes this an effective cleaner!

Essential Oils: These can help to give your homemade cleaners a pleasant smell! There are some oils that are thought to disinfect, but it is up to your preference on the smell to decide which you would like to include.

Using these simple ingredients, you can make the following cleaners that the University of Georgia Extension has put together:

All Purpose Cleaner

  • 3 tablespoons white vinegar
  • ½ teaspoon washing soda
  • ½ teaspoon castile soap
  • 2 cups hot water
  • A few drops of your favorite essential oil

Mix ingredients in a spray bottle or bucket. Apply and then wipe clean. Make sure to test the strength of the smell by spraying on a counter or some other surface. A little goes a long way with essential oil!

Toilet Bowl Cleaner

  • 1 cup borax
  • ½ cup white vinegar

Flush to wet the sides of the bowl. Sprinkle the borax around the toilet bowl, then spray with vinegar. Leave for several hours or overnight before scrubbing with a toilet brush.

Oven Cleaner

  • 2 tablespoons of castile soap
  • 2 tablespoons borax

Mix the soap and borax in a spray bottle. Fill the bottle with hot water and shake well. Spray on oven and leave for 20 minutes. Scrub off.

Non-Abrasive Soft Scrubber

  • ¼ cup borax
  • Castile soap
  • ½ teaspoon lemon essential oil

In a bowl, mix the borax with enough soap to form a creamy paste. Add lemon oil and blend well. Scoop a small amount of the mixture onto a sponge, wash the surface, then rise well.

Excited to try these? You can also print them, and other recipes, in booklet and recipe card formats for easier referencing in the future!