Septic Snooper

Septic Sleuth

The following is a four part article that was written by Joe Frisella and printed in the Rhode Island Builder's Report which is the award-winning publication of the Rhode Island Builder's Association.


.And what can we do to extend their lives?

The cause of most failures originates from the dwelling; the source of all that ends up into the septic system.


Excessive water use due to:



Leaky toilets can cause anywhere from 50 gallons to 2000 gallons a day to access the ISDS. The septic system for a three-bedroom dwelling is designed to accommodate only 450 gallons. If your dwelling is served by a municipal water supply, I recommend stopping all sources of water use and observe the small dial on your water meter. If it is moving you have a leak. If so, it is most likely a toilet. All toilets will leak eventually.
If your dwelling is served by an individual well, place food coloring in the upper tank of your toilet and if the colored water enters the bowl within a hour you may have a serious leak.



Air conditioner condensation directed to the septic system



Backwash from a water purification system that in many cases have salt added to it that changes the environment in the septic system



Teenagers! Need I say more!



One or more babies



Using the washing machine with small loads



Jacuzzi overuse



Leaky faucets



Excessive water use can cause suspended solids and oil/grease to readily access the leach field



Excessive use of solids



Grease and oils (floatables) gaining access to the septic system can cause the leach field to fail in a short period of time.



Garbage disposals add solids to the septic system that also may carry out into the leach field.



Lint from washing machines can also gain access to the leach field adding to the cause of possible failure.





Toxic waste and additives



Adding caustic products that clean the drain will interfere with the natural biological digestion in the septic tank and leach field.



Additives to the septic system that are recommended to keep your ISDS functioning properly actually interfere. Folks, let nature take its course. God has provided an army of microorganisms to digest the suspended solids in the effluent without any help.
If for some reason your septic system appears to malfunction, contact a professional who will look into the cause of failure. Fix the cause of failure and be done with it! Anything you add to the system will interfere with the natural microorganisms that, when let alone, can do an incredible job.



Proper Maintenance


For a conventional system, proper maintenance would be that the occupant of the dwelling is careful as to what enters the septic system and has the system inspected and pumped on a regular schedule.

Now for those who are listening, let's review what just went down.

The causes of failure are: too much water, too many solids, and toxic additives all caused by little old you. Now the truth is out, hope no one is listening; yes you are an intricate part of your septic system!

Now what is the question? After all of this rhetoric I almost forgot. Oh yes, how long do septic systems last before they fail? Answer-IT ALL DEPENDS ON YOU! The rule of thumb is anywhere from one week to 20 years. The early stages of failure are usually due to design and/or installation. Without the precautions listed below, an ISDS usually fails within 20 years of use.

It is my humble opinion to the best of my knowledge, information, and belief that a septic system should last as long as the provided you adhere to the following recommendations.

Let's start with the dwelling:



Conserve on water use



No garbage grinder disposal



Don't allow oil or grease to access the system



No toxics



Check for leaks, etc.



Proper use of the washing machine
This is one of the biggest offenders to an ISDS along with excessive water use and solids. By looking at your dryer lint trap you can see a handful of lint is collected in the lint trap after each use. Believe it or not, more lint goes out of the washing machine than does the dryer. This lint can accumulate and clog up the pore space in the soil of the leach field and add to the cause of failure. A filter at the outlet end of the septic tank (details to follow) can assist in intercepting some of the lint but not all.

Guess what? The old Septic Sleuth is at it again. Why not intercept the lint at the source-the washing machine? There is available a unit called the Septic Protector Laundry Filter that is installed on the wall beside the laundry machine. (This is essentially a canister with a mesh filter bag in it that intercepts lint from the washing machine's discharge hose before it gains access to the septic system) (See sketch below).

This is a major defense in preventing your septic system from failing. It is the Septic Sleuth's opinion that this unit should be considered in an architect's design of a dwelling. Contractors and developers should consider installing a Septic Protector in all dwellings they build, and designers of Individual Sewage Disposal Systems should consider requiring them as an intricate part of their design. This will help in protecting against septic system failure and protecting the interests of those listed above.

Now let's all stand up for the seventh inning stretch before we go on. Yes there is more and it's "good".

The Septic Tank Filter

The Septic Sleuth has been using this filter in all of his ISDS designs since about 1997.
"Well Sly Old Septic Sleuth just what is this filter and how will it add to the life of an ISDS?" Hold on it's coming.

The septic tank is a unit where solids, oil, and grease are retained and the clarified effluent is then directed to the leach field. However, don't be fooled by this. The so-called clarified effluent is laced with suspended solids that will gain access to the leach field and could cause it to fail!

"Big deal, so what, where are you going with this?" Calm down; the "All Knowing Sleuth" is on a roll. I like that; "All Knowing". -- New title, All Knowing Sly Old Septic Sleuth.

The All Knowing Sly Old Septic Sleuth (A.K.S.O.S.S.) recommends that a filter be placed in the outlet tee of the septic tank as shown in the diagram below. Notice that an access manhole (riser) extends to the ground surface. This is essential so that at a minimum this filter can be accessed, hosed off, and reset at least once a year. This is another line of defense providing against possible failure of your septic system.

No, the A.K.S.O.S.S. does not install the filter and riser. The sleuth highly recommends that all designers of Individual Sewage Disposal Systems include a septic tank filter as part of their design.

"O.K. A.K.S.O.S.S. what about existing septic systems". Good question, if I must say so myself. Any drain layer can access the outlet part of an existing septic tank and install the filter and riser for a modest price.


Your furnace, your car, and many major appliances rely on periodic maintenance to prevent them from failure. Don't we all need periodic checkups? Exercising is a form of maintenance. Maintenance begins at home. Therefore, have your septic system inspected on a regular basis. Be sure the inspector checks on what takes place inside the dwelling.




Empty Septic Protector Laundry Filter as needed (every 6-7 wash loads)



Conserve on water use.



Do not use a garbage disposal.



No toxic substances allowed into the septic system.



Allow only gray water and toilet waste to enter the septic system.


Septic Tank



Clean the outlet filter at a minimum of once a year.



Have the septic tank pumped once in every 3 to 5 years depending on occupancy.



Have the tank checked for leaks and damage.


Leach Field



Provided that the ISDS was properly designed and installed and you adhere to the pearly words of wisdom so graciously given by the (A.K.S.O.S.S.) the leach field should reach its Long Term Acceptance Rate (LTAR) and remain that way without ever failing.
Years ago, without the precautions taken as noted herein, most septic system failed within 20 years. However, by taking advantage of the sleuth's suggestions, the septic system should last as long as the unit it is serving.

Distribution Box (D-Box)

In all my ISDS designs I always include an access riser over the top of the Distribution Box (D-Box) that distributes the effluent evenly to all laterals in the leach field. This will allow easy access to observe if the leach field is functioning properly. Therefore, the A.K.S.O.S.S. recommends that all designers, contractors and developers consider having a riser to access the D-Box.

Official Inspectors

Due to courses provided at the University of Rhode Island there are qualified ISDS maintenance inspectors who can access and evaluate septic systems on an annual basis. These inspectors should perform an annual inspection that includes:

  • Analyze the wastewater use in the dwelling
  • Inspect the septic tank's need for pumping
  • Clean the septic tank's outlet filter
  • Inspect the D-Box to determine the condition of the leach field
  • Innovative/Alternative systems require specialized inspection and maintenance techniques
  • Make recommendations for pumping and improvements or repairs

If you have these yearly inspections and eventually intend to sell your home, you will have an instant history of your septic system condition and maintenance, all of which could expedite a quick sale.

The Towns of Charlestown, Narragansett, South Kingstown, North Kingstown, Johnston, and Jamestown have ordinances requiring periodic inspections of Individual Sewage Disposal Systems performed by qualified inspectors. This trend will most likely spread out to all municipalities throughout Rhode Island in the not too distant future.

Your System Fails!

The big No! No! -- your system has failed. Usually a frugal, concerned homeowner looks to get the easiest and cheapest way out such as:



Have the system pumped; this may do the trick.



Add some sort of cure-all that claims to remove all your concerns and bring the system back to life.



Treat your system with hydrogen peroxide; this is probably the ultimate cure according to the person that treats your system.



Use water-saving devices and extra filters; this is a preventative against failure, not the solution to a failed system. If you have municipal water billing records for the last three years and divide the number of days between readings into the number of gallons used during that period. This will give you the average daily water use. As a check, approximately 30 to 50 gallons per person per day is a normal, average water usage. Have a family meeting and introduce them to the All Knowing Sly Old Septic Sleuth (A.K.S.O.S.S.) by expressing the concerns of wasting precious water. Teenagers usually have a disregard for water use.



The ultimate sacrifice - install a new system. The owner now goes from penny-pinching to installing a brandy new ISDS.

The A.K.S.O.S.S. says Stop! Look & Listen!

If you do the ultimate solution and install a brand new septic system, it could fail just like your existing septic system. Why? Because you haven't consulted with a professional to determine the reason why your existing system failed.

Leach Field:


Here we are finally where "it" all ends up-the Leach Field. The Leach Field, if treated properly, could function without failure with a Long-Term Acceptance Rate (LTAR). This is provided that excess water and solids don't inundate it; and you know where this comes from, the dwelling! By having a riser extend to the surface over the top of the D-Box the leach field can easily be accessed. The D-Box distributes the effluent evenly to all laterals (trenches) of the leach field. By observing the D-Box through the riser it can be determined if each lateral is receiving its designated share and if the effluent is backing up in the leach field.
Now the Sleuth is going to get a little technical. Where the leach field comes in contact with the natural soils around it (sides & bottom), a biomat forms. An inordinate amount of organisms/bacteria survives in this biomat (1/2 - 1" thick) where the effluent entering it is filtered and digested. Too much water or too many solids will upset the biological breakdown causing the mat to thicken; this interferes with the Long Term Acceptance Rate (LTAR) and may ultimately cause failure.

Now we've gone from the dwelling to the leach field checking the cause of failure. It is obvious that there could be many causes of failure and eliminating only one may not solve the problem.

The next thing to check, if a failure should occur, is the soils and depth to ground water. If you determine the depth to ground water and the permeability of the soils (Perc Test) you can compare the findings to determine if the leach field is of adequate size and the bottom of the leach field is at a minimum 3' above the water table (DEM regulation).

What do you think happens to that wonderful working Long Term Acceptance Rate (LTAR) biomat if you stop feeding it solids and water? The Sleuth in his growing infinite wisdom has decreed that the microorganisms in the Oh-so-wonderful biomat will finish off the remaining solids, and then turn on themselves, thus dwindling the size of the biomat until it disappears. "What a wonderful feeling being blessed with all this knowledge; I may even begin to like myself."

"Well A.K.S.O.S.S., why are you boring these good people with all this biomat stuff?" I have to say; I have been very successful in saving failed leach fields. There is an awful lot of money left buried in the ground when someone opts to completely abandon a leach field because it has failed. I have been very successful in permitting a leach field to rest for about five months allowing it to revive itself to almost new.

"O.K. you wise old buzzard, what do I do with the sewage from the dwelling in the meantime?" It goes like this-I usually recommend a leach field about one-half (1/2) to two-thirds (2/3) the size of a conventional field (usually using Eljen In-Drains) that takes up a lot less space than a conventional field to be placed beside the existing leach field to accommodate the effluent from the dwelling while the existing failed system is resting and reviving itself.

"I've got you now, Sleuth" (my title is dwindling). "If a leach field is about 1/2 to 2/3 the required size how can it handle the full amount of effluent?" You've got a good point there. As noted above, the biomat dwindles from resting. In the same light, the new leach field (In-Drains) has no biomat, thus allowing the effluent to pass through the interface of the leach field and soils around it without much delay. As the existing leach field slowly loses it's biomat, the new leach field slowly gains its biomat and in about five months the two leach fields can be connected to serve the dwelling as one unit. And the three bears lived happily ever after.

As a point of information for the frugal homeowner who is concerned about extra costs, listen to this:

  1. You don't need the services of an Engineer/Land Surveyor/Class II or III Designer to design an ISDS to replace a failed ISDS.
  2. You may hire the services of a Class I Drain Layer Designer who may be less costly because he/she is not held to the same standards of the Class II & Class III Designers. Not only that, you will not be required to have a Class II or III Designer observe the construction of the Class I Drain Layer/ Designer. The Class I Designers observe their own installation. You may save as much as $2,000-$4,000 to apply against the cost of the system. "There, I'm glad I got that out in the open".

I have to caution that whomever you choose to design/install your system, check on their experience and background. However, you should do this no matter what class designer you use (I, II, or III).