Septic Tank Backup: What To Do When Your Septic System Backs up Into Your Home

Septic tanks are a great solution to an unpleasant problem for those who live away from municipal sewer systems. We’ve been using them, or variations on the theme, for centuries, and generally, they’re pretty efficient. That being said, they’re not fool proof and septic tanks can backup, presenting an unsanitary and, frankly, gross, issue. If you find yourself reading this, the chances are good that you’re facing just such a problem. Fear not because we’re here today to tell you how to fix a septic tank that backs up.

Understanding Your Septic System

Septic tanks are a relatively straight-forward way of dealing with the unsanitary produce of human life. What we flush down the toilet is conducted to a tank where it’s exposed to bacteria who break it down into water, which drains away.

Apart from occasionally requiring professional cleaning, the system is usually pretty self-contained and simple. There are pipes leading from your bathroom to a large tank and a drain field for the treated water- that’s it.

Unfortunately, even the simplest of systems can occasionally face problems. If your septic tank is backing up, allowing sewage back into your home, something has gone wrong somewhere. Common causes of a septic system backing up include:

  • Clogs
  • Saturation of the drain Field
  • Neglected Maintenance
  • Overwhelming with excessive water-usage.

Any one, or a combination, of these can cause a septic tank to back up.

Immediate Actions To Take When A Backup Occurs

When you think about what’s in a septic tank, you realise that dealing with it is a matter of priority. As soon as you notice a septic tank backup happening, it’s vital to follow the following steps:

Stop Using Water

The water in your home drains into your septic tank. If the system has something wrong with it, adding more will just exacerbate the problem. Given that your septic system also contains raw sewage, you don’t want to risk it spreading further than has already been caused by the backup.

Avoid flushing toilets, running appliances like washing machines and dishwashers. If possible fill buckets, bottles and bathtubs, so that you have water for drinking and washing, but avoid pouring anything down a drain.

Contain The Backup

It goes without saying that you want to stop the unpleasant contents of your septic tank from spreading.

Wear safety equipment, such as boots and heavy duty rubber gloves when attempting to contain a septic system backup. A backed up septic tank is going to be spilling decomposing human sewage; it’s vital to ensure that you’re protected.

Using buckets, towels and anything else which will stop the spillage from spreading. It’s easier to replace a nice towel than it is to clean raw sewage out of a carpet!

Turn Off Power To Effected Areas

Ensure that there are no electrical appliances in use in the vicinity to help minimize the risk of electrocution. If practical or necessary, isolate the area entirely by flipping the circuit breaker.

Assessing The Damage And Identifying The Cause

Once the issue has been contained, it’s time to work out what has caused it and how bad it is.

The first step is a visual inspection. This might allow you to notice obvious problems such as blockages, overflows or saturated drain fields.

If no obvious cause of your septic tank backup can be identified during this once-over, it’s time to call in the professionals. A qualified plumber will be able to diagnose and, hopefully, rectify your septic tank backup problem, even if the cause is less obvious.

Using tools like drain cameras, microphone leak-detectors and other diagnostic equipment, they’ll be able to easily pin-point the problem.

Even if your initial visual inspection does present an obvious cause, it’s a good idea to get a pro in to take a look too. The sanitary issues which can be caused by a septic tank backup are serious enough that you really want to ensure the issue is fully resolved.

Cleaning Up The Mess

Now for the really unpleasant bit: the clean-up. There’s no masking that this is going to be gross.

As with the containment and visual inspection elements of the process outlined above, get your boots and gloves on. You may also want to cover your nose and mouth while working. You should also ensure that the ventilation in the affected area is as good as possible. This will minimize the odor (as much as it can) and help reduce the health risks.

Once suited and booted, work through the following steps:

  1. Shovel Solid Waste: Remove the solid waste by shovelling it into buckets and disposing of it in a sanitary fashion.
  2. Dry The Area: Make use of absorbent materials, dehumidifiers and fans to remove the liquid waste.
  3. Disinfect: Use bleach or other appropriate disinfectants to clean the area thoroughly. Err on the side of caution and use as strong a solution as possible.

Repairing and Restoring The System

Now that the problem is contained, it’s time to consider how to fix a septic tank that backs up into your home and avoid it happening again.

Pumping The Septic Tank

The first step to fixing the issue is pumping out the contents. A professional pumping will remove all the solids which have accumulated in your system, making it easier to work on.

Ideally, these should happen fairly regularly but the frequency depends on a few factors:

  • Size of tank
  • Average water usage
  • Efficiency of the system

As a general rule of thumb, the larger the tank and the lower your household water usage, the longer between pumping you can go.

Repairing Damage

This is the most vital stage: repairing the damage which caused your septic tank to backup in the first place.

Fixing or replacing any broken pipes, clearing clogs and dealing with drain field issues will avoid a repeat of your septic system backup problems. Repairing pipe problems is fairly obvious: a blocked, broken or burst pipe will leak, but field drains can be more complex.

If your field drain has become compacted or saturated, this will require some work to sort. Breaking up compacted earth using proper equipment should allow water to drain away, restoring the efficiency of your system once more.

Preventative Maintenance

If you have a septic tank that’s prone to backing up, preventative maintenance can minimize or even eliminate the risks. Even if your septic system hasn’t ever backed up the following is a good way to ensure that it never does:

  • Schedule regular inspections
  • Install water conservation measures
  • Enzyme Treatments

Regular inspections, especially by a qualified plumber, will allow you to head off any developing issues before they become serious.

Installing water conservation measures will reduce stress on your septic system and could well save you money in the long-run too. They’re also a great way to boost your green credentials too.

Enzyme and bacterial treatments are another great way to boost how effective your system can be. They usually come as a small packet or liquid which you can flush down the toilet, containing the bacteria and biological substances which break down solid waste. A treatment every so often can reduce the strain on your septic system dramatically, avoiding future issues all together.

Drain Discipline

Perhaps the most effective way of avoiding having to ever search “how to fix a septic tank that backs up” again is to practice good drain discipline. Even if you live on a municipal sewerage system, the list of things which can be flushed away should be sacrosanct.

Avoid flushing:

  • Wet Wipes
  • Paper towels (except toilet tissue)
  • Feminine care products
  • Bandages
  • Chewing gum
  • Dental Floss
  • Hair
  • Paint
  • Chemicals

In effect, if it’s not toilet tissue or human waste (the ‘3 Ps’), it shouldn’t go down the drain. This is always important, but when you’re responsible for the maintenance of your own septic system, it’s absolutely vital.

Grease And Food Scraps

It’s worth calling out two things which often find their way into septic tanks separately: grease and food scraps.

Grease and oils are particularly problematic when they find their way into pipes and tanks. The bacteria which breakdown our waste can’t handle them and they will build up remarkably quickly, choking your system. When this happens in public sewers, they’re referred to as ‘fatbergs’ and they cause huge problems. In a smaller private system, this is an even bigger issue as there is unlikely to be the excess capacity to mitigate.

Septic tanks are a great solution to our sanitary needs, especially if we live more rurally. As long as they’re working properly they’re clean, convenient and effective. That being said, when the septic tank backs up into your home, it requires careful handling to ensure that you stay healthy.

With a little knowhow, a septic tank backup needed be a disaster, as unpleasant as it may be.