Thursday, December 12, 2013

What to Do When Your Septic System Alarms

Many modern and alternative septic systems have alarms to notify the homeowner of a potential problem. Though it can be annoying when the system alarms and you are forced to think about your septic system, this could prevent the system from backing up in your house. Proper maintenance and operation will extend the life of your system and save you money in the long run. So, what does it mean if an alarm sounds and what should you do? There are a series of straightforward steps to take.
  • Silence the alarm so it does not drive you and all your neighbors insane. 
  • Determine what type of alarm it is. Typically it is either a high water alarm or if you have a blower for an ATU tank the blower may be out. 
  • If you have a blower, feel the casing of the blower motor to make sure that the blower is operating. You can also often hear the hum of the blower. If not, call a licensed and certified septic repair company (not a septic pump out company) to replace the blower. You have a day or two before the undertreated sewage starts flowing to your leach field and begins to damages it. Get it fixed before that happens.
  • If it is not the blower, then it is probably a high water level alarm in your septic tank or your secondary tank. 
A high water alarm is caused by either too much water going into the tank or not enough going out. A high water alarm if not properly addressed will cause septic waste to ultimately back up into your house, though that may occur after your drainfield is fully damaged. A typical septic system has four main components: a pipe from the home, a septic tank (or two), a drainfield (alternative systems might have drip fields, sand mounds or peat tanks where a traditional drainfield is not possible or has failed), and the soil. Many systems also have pumps to move the liquids from the home to the septic tank or from the septic tank to the drainfield, and all systems have pipes connecting the tanks and drainfield. There are also Alternative systems that have additional components such as; float switches, pumps, and other electrical or mechanical components including additional treatment tanks and filters which can clog if not cleaned and replaced regularly (depending on what you flush down the toilet or pour down the drain). It is the alternative systems that typically have alarms.

A high water alarm is caused by one of two things either too much water flowing into the septic tank or not enough water flowing out. If too much water is flowing in you either have a plumbing leak or a running toilet. After several years, the flapper in the toilet tank should be replaced because it does not always seal properly. Check every toilet (and tank) as well as all sinks for dripping faucets. Usually, it takes something like an incompletely closed faucet or running toilet to cause a septic tank to over fill. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, one out of every 10 homes has a leak that is wasting at least 90 gallons of water per day, look carefully for leaks.

The high water alarm is not likely to be caused by excess sludge in the tank, but it can happen when the tank has not been pumped for years and you have a couple of days of high volume usage or doing a month’s worth of laundry in a single day. That is what typically causes the septic system to backup during holidays and parties. A broken septic tank lid can also allow rain and runoff to enter the septic tank and over fill the tank. If it has not rained recently, or you were not running the hoses or a sprinkler, then that is unlikely to be the cause of a high water alarm.

If the problem is not the water entering the tank, then there is a problem with water leaving the tank. This could be caused by pump failure, a blockage in the line to the drainfield which may include a clogged filter, or clogging in the drainfield itself. You need a septic service company to determine what is causing the problem, though check your circuit breakers to make sure that any pumps have power and you could pull the filter in the white pipe between your tanks.

The basic design of a septic tank will only work if the sludge is not too thick on the bottom and the grease and scum is not too thick on top, and if the flow to the tank is not excessive. If there is too much waste on the bottom of the tank or too much water flowing to the tank, there will not be enough time for the solids and liquids to settle out before the tank starts releasing water containing large amounts of fecal waste to the drain field. The fecal waste will over time clog the drainfield. Also, if there is too much grease and scum floating on top, the scum will be released to the drainfield. A septic system is not a trash can. Don’t put dental floss, feminine hygiene products, condoms, diapers, cotton swabs, cigarette butts, coffee grounds, cat litter, paper towels, latex paint, pesticides, or other hazardous chemicals into your system they can end up clogging the filter and/or lines if carried from the tank.

In addition, the National Small Flows Clearinghouse has seen septic distribution pipes plugged with a “noxious fibrous mass” that was grease and cellulose from toilet paper that only occurred in homes with water softening systems. A clog in the distribution system will also cause a high water alarm as the septic water cannot be released or pumped to the drainfield. It is believed that the brine in the conventional septic tank interferes with the digestion of the cellulose fibers and can be carried over into the septic systems drain field. A study in Virginia involving two adjacent septic field dispersal systems in a shared mound have shown that the trenches that received the septic effluent with water softener brine discharges formed a thick, gelatinous slime layer that clogged the infiltrating surface, while the trenches receiving no salt water discharge remained open with a normal microbial clogging layer. Commercial septic tank additives may assist in the breakdown of fecal waste, but do not eliminate the need for periodic pumping and can be harmful to the system. Saving money by not pumping your septic tank could result in the need to replace your drainfield.

Septic tank wastewater after preliminary settling and in alternative septic systems undergoing secondary treatment flows to the drainfield, where it percolates into the soil, which provides final treatment by removing harmful bacteria, viruses, and nutrients. The waste cannot contain too much solid material or scum. High quantities of solids in the waste stream will overwhelm the drainfield. Initially, nitrogen and fecal bacteria will be released to the groundwater as the soil becomes saturated with solids and scum. Eventually the perforations in the pipes to the leach field through which waste water flows become clogged and the waste backs through the system. If a high water problem is left unaddressed, the septic system will back up into your home. Before the septic backs up into your home the high water alarm will sound.

20 comments:

  1. Is there a way to install an alarm onto a septic tank? We have an older septic tank without one, and I'm always paranoid because I never know what is going on with it. I would rather know ahead of time if there is a problem with the system, especially if it can tell me when the septic tank needs pumping. Can you get an alarm separately? http://www.southernsanitarysystems.com

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  2. Amelia, A septic tank alarm is simply a level alarm and can be installed on almost any tank. While the cost of the level gauge is not high, the cost of running the electrical wires from the tank to the house and connecting them to a buzzer can be high. My septic tanks alarm both inside and outside the house. (Prince William County regulation. )When I had to replace my wires, I rented a trencher to do the job.

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  3. We got 11 inches of rain in one day. My high water alarm went off at 1 am. I am thinking it is just because of too much standing water in my yard. Everything else looks fine. Any suggestions?

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    1. It does sound like the problem is flooding. Only time will solve the problem. Minimize your use of water and wait.

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  4. Hello,
    My home is a new construction, 3 years old. It has been occupied for past 9 months. It has a Fast wastewater treatment septic. When it rains a lot, the high water alarm goes off. The septic company thinks there is a leak inside the tank and wants to seal the tank from the inside for $2000. The backyard and the drain field area seems to have poor drainage. After it rains there is some standing water.
    I was wondering if there is a recommended process to diagnose the problem before they seal the tanks. Also, the plumbers have not been able to find a leak from any fixtures in the house. Thank you

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    1. Hi Sam, I assume you are talking about the MicroFast system. It operates by blowing air into the system that is intended to force the water up above the partitioned media. So where is the high water alarm installed? When the system alarms have you opened the tank to check the water level? Is the top of the tank allowing water to infiltrate during rain? Are you sure it is a high water alarm and not a blower alarm due to a short in the system? When the system alarms is the blower operating? It may be that the system is not properly calibrated rather than the tank is leaking. If the tank was leaking, on non-rainy days the water would leave the tank. If you shut off the zoner and/or pump from the tank (depending on the installation) after a few dry days you could see if the water level goes down in the tank. Maybe a licensed septic system designer could help you diagnose the problem, by checking the system. Where are you? Please email me directly at info@washingtonadvisors.com so I can get more information from you.

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  5. Hello, we recently had a heavy rain and afterwards I noticed our audible alarm went off but was not very loud. The red alarm light is not lit but the alarm is still audible. The green light is lit as if the system is working properly. If I move the switch to the test position the audible alarm is very loud but when i move the switch to a normal operating mode the audible alarm is only about 25% of the volume as the test alarm. It also did this once last year but the audible alarm went away after a short time. I removed the lid of the septic tank and the level does not appear to be high. Any suggestions on what this may be?

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  6. Though my crystal ball is out of order, it sounds like you may have a short in the system. This could be a loose wire or if you have and ATU blowers it may be failing.

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  7. My septic was leaking months before I figured it out. I had the septic repaired in September 2016. I can still smell it some when it rains on the turned up soil from the repair. Now I have found that my well is infected. I tested positive for bacteria and e-coli. I shockedmy well and retested, it's back again. How long do I have to wait for my area to be clean again? Will it just be a fewmore months for nature to clear the area? Or could this take years?

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  8. Your geology, recharge rate, weather, distance from the septic to the well, depth of the well and concentration of bacteria will determine how long it will take. Install a disinfection and filtration system. email me at eward@washingtonadvisors.com

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  9. Noticed that my alarm was going off (unknown for how long, think a few hours) saw that the breaker was tripped. Turned back on. Now I hear a pump outside near the tank lid. Should I be worried?

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  10. Probably not, but keep an eye on it. The alarm went off because the level in the tank was too high. The tripped breaker had prevented the pump from operating, so when you turned it back on, the pump turned on to move tank contents on to the distribution field- all normal. The question is why did the breaker trip? So keep and eye on it.

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  11. Last spring we learned this house had a septic pump and the pump hadn't been properly hooked up electrically properly so had malfunctioned causing backup into the garden. Turns out the alarm was behind a pretty faux fireplace wall in the basement and there was no way I was going to let him hammer into the $2500 wall to get at it so he rigged the wiring another way and got the pump working. We cannot get to the audio switch since it's still in the wall. The alarm just went off which we believe is because we had heavy snow melt plus I did one load of laundry and dishes. All we can do is shut the power off at the electrical box to stop the alarm. Of course, if we do that, the pump has no opportunity to pump. Do we just wait for the ground water to move and leave it off for a few days while minimizing water use? Do we keep trying it every few hours, or what?

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  12. Most alarms are high water alarms. I do not know how your system is set up and where the pump moves the septic water from and to. From your description it is not clear to me what is going on. Email info@Washingtonadvisors.com

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  13. I am about to have an advanced septic system put in. My understanding from the engineer is that the alarm is outside, can be heard several houses away, and I will have to go outside to turn it off.

    I am envisioning it going off when I am not home and driving the neighbors crazy, or going off in a blizzard and I will have to make my way out there (I am no spring chicken.)

    Is there some sort of alarm that would instead, ideally, call my cell phone or something? Or that could be in the house and I could turn it off before I leave and back on when I return?

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  14. Hello Elizabeth,
    We are house hunting and are interested in a house with a septic system. Septic systems is definitely something we are not experienced with. The information you provided above was extremely informative and helpful.

    We have made an offer on the house (built 1978)barring the results of inspections including the septic system.

    There is an alarm installed with a red light. Are there any concerns that we should have or questions we should ask? I'm thinking that there may have been a previous issue -hence the alarm installation...

    Thank you,

    T & S

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    1. That is probably a high water alarm that notifies you if the septic tank is overfull possibly about to backup into the house. If that is the original septic system, it has probably reached the end of its natural life. Get the maintenance and pump-out records, have the systems inspected and evaluated by DPOR licensed onsite wastewater system operators/installers and DPOR licensed onsite soil evaluators.

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  16. How do ypu turn off the high water alarm

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    1. There should be a switch to silence the alarm, but you need to lower the water level by identifying the cause- a leaky faucet or toilet, a clog in the septic system piping or too much sludge. Call a septic service company.

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