Tips for Problems with Wells, Septic Tanks and Cesspools
Part 5 of 8 in The Old House Web Home Hazards Series
Get to Know Your Well, Cesspool or Septic Tank
The first line of defense is knowledge. Know where your septic tank, cesspool or well is located. You may be able to obtain this information from your town or county records office, or you can discover the location for yourself. Follow the direction of the pipes leaving your home and then look for the septic tank cover or evidence of the drainfield or cesspool by unusual growth of vegetation, a slight depression, or a slight mound. Document this information, and perform visual inspections frequently.
If you have a well, septic tank or cesspool you should be aware of the do's and don'ts of keeping them functioning properly, whether your house is old or new. For example, you must keep paper products except for toilet paper out of your commode, avoid putting grease down your sink, use laundry products compatible with septic systems, and have your system pumped at least once every three years. But owners of old houses need to be especially diligent, simply because systems that have been in place for a long time are subject to natural deterioration whether from build up of solids, root intrusion, or corrosion.
Take action immediately if you notice a bad taste in your water, bad smells, or gurgling or sluggishness in your plumping. If the ground above your drainfield or cesspool is wet from pooling, beware. It may be unstable and polluted. Isolate it at once by roping it off or surrounding it with a temporary fence. Include a sign to warn others of danger--even if the problem is within eyesight of your home.
You can begin treating some problems immediately and at minimal expense. For example, if the problem is a slow draining sink or toilet, first try a plunger. If that doesn't work, rent a snake or call a rooter service. Adding enzymes may accelerate the breakdown of waste, but adding chemicals may worsen the problem.
If your problem is odor, check to see that your house venting pipe is tall enough to carry the vapor into the air and replace missing or damaged pipe caps.
Your waste system can handle only so much water at a time. Cut back your water usage for a few days to give the system a chance to recover. If that solves the problem, think about how to reduce overall water usage.
Mike Pepe of CDM Cesspool Service in Suffolk County New York says, "It's possible to do almost any repair yourself by reading a book, just like replacing the breaks on your car; but that doesn't mean you'd want to." Don't hesitate to talk to or hire an expert if you can't resolve your problem quickly. As with most repairs, the longer you wait, the more costly the repair can become. Maintenance can be a few dollars; a new septic system can be thousands of dollars.
Lorraine Watkins is a business writer and a regular contributor to business and education websites. She is a graduate of California State University, East Bay with an MA in English.