How to Inspect the Soil Absorption System or Septic Drainfield for Evidence of Septic System Failure - Clogging Failures

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How to spot drainfield clogging failures: this septic system inspecting testing and maintenance article describes septic drainfield (soakaway bed, leach field, drainage trench) clogging failures among the types of septic system failure in the drain field, leach field, seepage bed, or similar component.

We list the causes of each type of septic component failure, and list the septic component failure criteria or in other words what conditions are defined as failure?

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Wastewater Disposal Field Clogging Failures / Septic Effluent Disposal and Septic Drainfield Failures

Soaking drainfield by a lake (C) D FriedmanHow can you distinguish between a blocked pipe, a septic tank that needs pumping, and a clogged drainfield that needs replacement?

This is an important question as it distinguishes between relatively low cost maintenance or repair task and a costly septic leach field replacement. We also discuss what can be planted over and near a septic drainfield and what should be avoided.

Readers should see SEPTIC DISPOSAL FIELD CLOGGING INSPECTION, also see SEPTIC DRAINFIELD RESTORERS? where we describe the use of chemicals, treatments, septic tank additives, to try to restore failed or failing sluggish septic drainfields or leaching beds or soakaway beds.

There is an important distinction between septic effluent disposal and septic effluent treatment. Traditionally people figured that if they could flush toilets and use sinks and showers without seeing septic effluent again outside on the ground surface, the septic system was "working fine". Really this describes successful effluent disposal - getting rid of the liquid waste. And when effluent disposal failures occur, people are forced to repair or replace the septic system or drainfield.

Successful septic effluent treatment (as opposed to disposal) means that the effluent being released to the environment (as ground water for example) is sufficiently sanitary as to avoid contaminating nearby wells, rivers, streams, lakes, etc. with pathogens or chemicals from the wastewater. We explain this point further at DISPOSAL vs TREATMENT.

Septic effluent runs out of the system, across rocks, down the hill (C) D FriedmahIn simplest terms, there are two visible septic effluent or onsite wastewater disposal failures:

  • Toilets or other fixtures back up into the house - but first see Diagnosing Clogged Drains then return here using your browser's 'BACK' button.
  • Effluent or sewage appears at the surface of the yard, or the neighbor's yard! Wet spots can be caused by more than a septic failure. You might need to use a SEPTIC DYE TEST PROCEDURE if you can't diagnose this condition by simply running or not running water into building drains.
  • Septic odors may also indicate a system failure or an imminent failure. But such odors may also be produced by defects in the plumbing vent system or other site conditions. Beware, sewer gas contains methane and is explosive if it reaches a dangerous concentration inside a building.

Typical causes or symptoms of apparent septic drainfield failure range from things that are easy and cheap to repair, to a need for complete system replacement:

Septic drainfield cross section sketch
  • Clogged building drain or septic system effluent distribution pipes - see CLOGGED DRAIN DIAGNOSIS & REPAIR
  • Broken drain pipes or septic effluent distribution piping anywhere in the system, starting between the building and the septic tank or even inside the building. SEPTIC TANK, HOW TO FIND and related articles can help trace piping.
  • Damaged septic tank - if the tank baffles are damaged it's easy to replace them, and not costly, but you may have already sent sewage solids out into the drainfield, reducing its future life. See SEPTIC TANK INSPECTION PROCEDURE and SEPTIC TANK BAFFLES and SEPTIC TANK TEES
  • Tipped septic effluent distribution box - find and inspect and fix the D-box and you may be back in business. Often a tipped D-box is sending all of the septic wastewater down just a portion of the drainfield, overloading it and causing an apparent failure. See SEPTIC D-BOX INSTALL REPAIR.
  • Clogged/broken leachfield or drainfield soil absorption piping - find, diagnose, and repair the pipe and you're back in business - see CLOGGED DRAIN DIAGNOSIS & REPAIR
  • Clogged drainfield or soakaway field absorption soils around the drainfield piping or trenches, (often by salts, grease & solids, or by an over-aged too-thick biomat) - people try magic bullets, additives, restorers, but despite testimonials and advertising by companies selling these restorers, we have had few reports of lasting, effective success. You may need a new septic drainfield, or you may be able to switch to an alternating drainfield or set of trenches to rest and recover the sluggish section. See SEPTIC DRAINFIELD LIFE. See SEPTIC DRAINFIELD RESTORERS.

    Also see septic drainfield clogging at SEPTIC DISPOSAL FIELD CLOGGING INSPECTION.

    Drainfield soils can become clogged or drainfield pipes can be broken and crushed by driving equipment over the drainfield - see Driving or Parking over Septic Components.
  • Water-saturated drainfield soil absorption area - you may need to replace the entire drainfield, switch to an alternating bed or set or septic fields, or it may be possible to direct surface and subsurface water from other sources away from the drainfield area.See SEPTIC DRAINFIELD LIFE. See SEPTIC DRAINFIELD RESTORERS. Also see SEPTIC DISPOSAL FIELD CLOGGING INSPECTION.

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