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Be Septic Safe: Septic Failures

All septic systems have a life span. Knowing signs of failure can save you money and prevent harmful pollutants that negatively impact the environment. When a septic system fails, it allows untreated sewage to travel where it should not go. It can back up into your home in addition to contaminating well water and other nearby waterbodies with harmful bacteria. Untreated sewage can also negatively affect aquatic life, which is home to recreational swimming and fishing.

Signs of System Failure

You are legally responsible for ensuring your septic system is operational. If complaints are submitted, the owner will receive a violation notice of Regulation 61-56 through SC DHEC. Individuals found in violation of these regulations will be charged with fees up to two hundred dollars or up to thirty days in jail. This is to encourage the practice of regular maintenance and inspection. Below are signs of failure to be aware of when owning a septic system; knowledge of these signs can ultimately save you time and money in costly repairs as issues worsen. However, you are not limited to these signs. Some problems may not be noticeable to the untrained eye.

Bright Green discoloration and dead patches of grass around the septic system.

Bright Green discoloration and dead patches of grass around the septic system.
Beatriss Calhoun, ©2022, Clemson Extension

Evidence of broken seal at the base of a rental property toilet.

Evidence of broken seal at the base of a rental property toilet.
Beatriss Calhoun, ©2022, Clemson Extension

Signs of Septic Issues:

Consistently slow or clogged sinks and toilets.

  • Clogged pipes or drains must be looked at by a service provider. Repairs can range from simply snaking a clogged drain to repairing crushed or broken underground pipes. Underground pipe damage can be caused by roots or the weight of heavy machinery. For more information on preventing clogs, refer to HGIC 1895, Be Septic Safe: New Users, Locating, & Basic Maintenance.

Bad odors in or around your home.

  • If you notice an odor, have a septic professional inspect your system to determine the issue. Masking a plumbing odor with perfumes or spray only treats the symptom of your septic problem.

A distinction in the grass in and around the drainfield.

  • The grass around your drainfield and tank can tell you a lot. Soil Samples and percolation, or perc, tests can aid in identifying your turf issues.
  • Noticeable greener grass around the drainfield, compared to the rest of the lawn, is a sign of excess nutrients (or wastewater) seeping into your yard.
  • Grass that outlines the tank or drainfield and includes patches of dead grass indicates that contaminates are killing plant life.
  • Areas around the drainfield that feel wet and soggy may indicate the system is not functioning as intended.

Fixtures and fittings are visibly broken in your home.

  • Broken or disconnected seals around sinks and toilets are all signs of concern. A plumber can repair these issues. However, if your septic has not been inspected in the process, you can run the risk of further damage to your septic system. Broken or disconnected seals are great indicators of pressure issues in your septic system.

Other Signs Include:

  • The underground septic system is exposed above ground.
  • Sewage is backed up into the home or appears outside of the house.

Please contact your licensed provider for assistance if you observe a pattern with any of the signs above. To find a licensed contractor near you, please visit SC DHEC’s Find a Contractor for assistance near you.

What do I do if my System Fails?

A service professional can assist with failing septic systems. Septic systems have many causes of failure ranging from poor maintenance to septic design issues. A licensed contractor has the equipment, training, permits, and protective gear required to inspect and repair your septic system. SC DHEC requires a licensed contractor to inspect, repair, and pump out septic systems. Septic systems contain noxious fumes, small spaces, and hazardous conditions. Contacting a licensed professional will help identify the source of your septic damage and save you more money than gaining the requirements to fix it yourself. It is prohibited for unlicensed individuals to store, remove, bury, or discharge septage (the mixture of solids and liquids removed during cleaning of a septic system) from septic repairs. To find a licensed contractor near you, please visit SC DHEC’s Find a Contractor.

For your safety, avoid leaning over into your septic system to inspect your tank. The noxious fumes can cause an individual to feel faint or run the risk of an explosion if an inspector is carrying a flame. If you are dealing with an abandoned or poorly maintained system, be mindful of collapsing septic structures. For that reason, do not work alone around your septic system. Be sure to mark off work areas and areas of damage with bright flagging to be seen at night and in the daytime. This will prevent the risk of injury to neighbors, animals, and more. Please report failing septic systems to your local Environmental Affairs Regional Office to maximize the protection of yourself and others.

How to Prevent Failures?

The key to preventing septic failures is routine maintenance. By establishing a routine inspection, pumping, and avoiding the non-septic safe items found in HGIC 1895, Be Septic Safe: Considerations for New Users, Locating, System, & Basic Maintenance, you can preserve the life span of your septic system.

If you would like more information on other topics related to septic systems, check out HGIC 1896, Be Septic Safe: Best Practices for Septic System Maintenance, and HGIC 1898, Be Septic Safe: Unique Situations; or Clemson’s Be Septic Safe website at https://www.clemson.edu/extension/water/be-septic-safe.html.

Resources:

  1. https://scdhec.gov/environment/your-home/septic-tanks/backups-leaks-odors
  2. https://scdhec.gov/environment/your-home/septic-tanks/septic-tank-safety-warnings
  3. https://www.scstatehouse.gov/code/t44c001.php
  4. https://scdhec.gov/sites/default/files/Library/Regulations/R.61-56.pdf

Originally published 05/22

If this document didn’t answer your questions, please contact HGIC at hgic@clemson.edu or 1-888-656-9988.

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