Should You Repair or Replace Your Septic System?
When sewage backs up into the house or terrible odors overcome the backyard, you know something is wrong with your septic system. Depending on what’s causing the problem, you’ll face some big decisions about whether to repair or replace the equipment.
If it’s a broken pipe, patching it might cost just a few hundred dollars. But if the drainfield needs to be replaced, you could be out $4,000 to $10,000. Worst case: You need an alternative treatment system, for $15,000 or more.
Experts in Septic Tank System Replacement and Repairs for the Metro Atlanta Area, Including Sandy Springs, Johns Creek, and Alpharetta
The wastewater your home produces is referred to as effluent and consists of blackwater (toilet waste) and greywater (shower, sink and laundry waste). Effluent flows from your house into a watertight, underground, two compartment concrete or plastic septic tank. Solid waste settles into a sludge layer on the bottom and fats float to the top of the first compartment. Between these two scum layers is a zone of clarified liquid effluent which is internally piped to the second compartment of the septic tank for additional settling.
As incoming sewage from the house fills the first compartment, clarified liquids are forced to leave the second chamber of the septic tank and flow out to the leach field or leach pit. The typical leach field is a series of shallow rock filled trenches where effluent is further treated as it slowly percolates through the soil. A leach pit is a deeper, larger hole filled with rock for disposing of wastewater. If allowed, always divert your household greywater (washing machine, at least, plus sinks and showers) to a separate leach field. Greywater contains soaps, which are designed to kill bacteria (clean and disinfect things). You want to encourage helpful good bacteria (digesting anaerobic cultures) to grow in your septic tank, not kill them with detergent laden graywater.
SEPTIC TANK SYSTEM GRAVEL DRAIN FIELD
First steps in a septic emergency
Here’s how to handle problems when they arise.
If you find sewage in your house: Open the cover or lid of the septic tank and check the sewage level—or call a septic tank pumping company to do this for you. If the water is lower than the outlet, the pipe between the house and tank might be clogged. Call a plumber.
If the level is higher than the outlet, the problem is the tank or something beyond it. Have your tank pumped ($200 to $800), which gives you a little time to figure out what to do next and allows the pumper to see whether there’s an obvious problem, such as a clogged screen at the outlet.
If the drainfield stinks or is soggy: Keep people away from any standing water or soggy soil, which can be a biohazard. If you have young children or pets, you might need a temporary fence. Have your septic tank pumped, and cut back on water use. These steps should reduce the odor while you get a professional to inspect the system.
SEPTIC SYSTEM LEACHFIELD DRAINFIELD
But they aren’t long-term solutions. When a drainfield fails, it’s often because the septic tank has not been properly maintained or pumped often enough. Sludge and scum layers can grow so thick that there’s little space left for wastewater to pool while ingredients separate.
This lets grease and solids get into the drainfield and clog it, resulting in stinky water bubbling up to the surface. By the time you notice, the damage is done—and the drainfield needs replacement.
A drainfield can also fail after a period of time—often 30 years or more, according to Craig Mains of the National Small Flows Clearinghouse, a non-profit that advises the septic system industry—beneficial microbes in the soil around the drainfield become so abundant that they literally clog the soil so it can’t properly absorb the water.
The only alternative if you have a plugged drainfield is to abandon it and build a new one. The good news is that once you have a replacement drainfield, you’ll never have this problem again. Eventually, the bacteria at the old site will die from lack of food, and will decompose.
SEPTIC SYSTEM CHAMBER DRAIN FIELD
When to repair the problem
Some problems can be solved relatively easily. If there’s standing water or a sewage odor between the septic tank and the drainfield, it may be nothing more than a broken pipe, a roughly $600 repair. If you have an advanced treatment system, the maintenance company might need to adjust or replace a part.
When to replace system components
There’s usually no repair for a drainfield that has failed. You probably need to replace some or all of your system.
Even if the drainfield is broken, you may learn that the septic tank itself is okay. Reusing the tank can save you $1,000 or more—and keeps that part of your yard intact. But if moving the tank would solve a landscaping issue or make future pumping easier, now’s the time to do it.
SEPTIC TANK REPLACEMENT
Getting it fixed
Check the websites of your local health department and state environmental agency to learn what procedures you need to follow for repairing or replacing a septic system—we are licensed, insured and experienced at solving these issues.
Call a couple and schedule visits. Or, if you have an advanced treatment system with an annual maintenance contract, call the company that’s overseeing your system already.
Paying for septic repairs
If you need major septic work, contact your local health department or environmental agency, which may be able to help you find affordable financing or provide tax credits for the work. Some municipalities use money received through the federal Clean Water Act to help finance septic system repairs by offering low-interest loans.
Septic tanks are concrete, polyethylene, or fiberglass boxes that are buried underground.