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Cold-weather-related sewer or septic system odors:
This article describes how to diagnose and correct sewer gas or septic odors (and other building smells and odors with focus on diagnosing odor sources and causes in cold weather.
This article on diagnosing sewer gas or septic odors is a special cold-weather edition of our more general advice on finding and curing sewage odor problems.
Here we focus on sewage or septic odor problems that occur during cold weather or wet weather. We also discuss causes and cures for sewer gas odors related to wet or cold weather. We include questions & Answers on tracking down cool weather and night time sewer gas / septic tank smells.
Where on the property are odors strongest? you may be able to point to a waste line, building exit piping, leaks at a septic tank, drainfield failure, or even a neighbor's septic system problem.
Downdrafts causing odors? Cold weather can cause downdrafts from a building plumbing vent stack - if this is the case the odors would probably vary by wind conditions and would probably subside as the day warms up; look for nearby plumbing stacks above the area of odor.
Frozen septic systems causing odors?: If a septic system is backing up due to a failed (or frozen solid) drainfield, sewer gases may be pushed back into the home even before there is an actual sewage backup (this is unusual but possible. usually a sewage backup is not far off.)
If the system is clogged, such as a clogged waste line, blocked septic tank inlet or outlet line or baffle (in the tank), or failed drainfield, and if the system is in common daily use by one or more people, you'd expect that the system would soon backup, forcing drains to back up with sewage, starting at the lowest drain in the building - look there.
Long persistent odors? If odors have persisted for some time, and no drains are backing up, it's unlikely that the septic system drain field is blocked.
Still if the septic system is in failure, such as a failed drainfield, one common failure mode is that septic effluent is coming to the surface - which will mean outside smells.
Look for a wet area, possibly covered by snow in northern climates - kick the snow aside in a grid pattern over the septic system components (don't' fall into a collapsing septic system - it can be fatal).
Look for areas where snow has melted to a thinner cover. This can occur in a normal system (bacterial action in the soil over the septic system and warm septic effluent carry heat out of the septic tank). But it can also be a clue of sewage effluent coming to the surface. Check such areas for effluent.
If a waste line is blocked or partly blocked and the odors are near the house, such as at the house wall at the waste line exit point, effluent could be running along the buried pipe but outside it, having leaked from a damaged pipe at the wall, between the wall and the septic tank, or at the tank itself there could be an effluent leak where the line enters the tank, or at the tank cleanout top cover (which would indicate a blocked tank outlet or blocked drainfield).
Effluent will follow a buried pipe because it runs in a trench dug in the soil - the pipe and backfill in the trench are less solidly packed than in the surrounding soil - the trench acts as a conduit to bring sewage effluent to the house if the trench is filling with liquid.
Broken pipe leaks may be mistaken for ground water leaks:
At left we show a broken sewer pipe found by lifting a section of sidewalk in a soft smelly area of the yard.
At a different property where basement paneling was removed following "a history of basement water entry from 'rising ground water' (according to the basement de-watering company)" a company had installed an expensive interior trench and drain system and sump pump to pump the "ground water" away.
We saw an inverted "vee" of leak stains on the basemen wall extending from below the main waste line where it exited the building.
It was obvious that the water entry had been not from rising ground water but from a broken leaking waste line outside the wall. Sure enough, our septic dye appeared in the new basement trench and drain system in just a few minutes.
The basement de-watering system had not been needed at this home, and the owner still needed to have the broken waste line excavated and repaired.
Look for leaks at a waste line, perhaps first by having a plumber snake the line from inside the building to see if s/he feels evidence of a broken or collapsing or damaged pipe between the house and the septic tank.
See SEWER LINE REPLACEMENT (includes How to Find Distance to Drain Blockage)
If the drain field is saturated or blocked, expect to find abnormally high sewage level in the septic tank, possibly even backing up and flowing out when the tank is opened, and possibly also evident at the distribution box.
See SEPTIC TANK INSPECTION PROCEDURE
Sewer gases occurring in wet weather:
Any of the following articles will offer helpful suggestions for finding the source of odors that seem to appear only in wet or cold weather:
Use the "Click to Show or Hide FAQs" link just above to see recently-posted questions, comments, replies, try the search box just below, or if you prefer, post a question or comment in the Comments box below and we will respond promptly.
Herb Reed County Extension Director, Agricultural and Natural Resources Educator, Calvert County Maryland - private email to DF 9/5/2006 adding comments about odors and partial blockages.
Onsite Wastewater Disposal, R. J. Perkins;
Quoting from Amazon: This practical book, co-published with the National Environmental Health Association,
describes the step-by-step procedures needed to avoid common pitfalls in septic system technology.
Valuable in matching the septic system to the site-specific conditions, this useful book will help you install a reliable system in
both suitable and difficult environments. Septic tank installers, planners, state and local regulators, civil and sanitary engineers,
consulting engineers, architects, homeowners, academics, and land developers will find this publication valuable.
Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems, Bennette D. Burks, Mary Margaret Minnis, Hogarth House 1994 - one of the best septic system books around, suffering a bit from small fonts and a weak index. While it contains some material more technical than needed by homeowners, Burks/Minnis book on onsite wastewater treatment systems a very useful reference for both property owners and septic system designers.
Septic Tank/Soil-Absorption Systems: How to Operate & Maintain [ copy on file as /septic/Septic_Operation_USDA.pdf ] - , Equipment Tips, U.S. Department of Agriculture, 8271 1302, 7100 Engineering, 2300 Recreation, September 1982, web search 08/28/2010, original source: http://www.fs.fed.us/t-d/pubs/pdfimage/82711302.pdf
Builder's Guide to Wells and Septic Systems, Woodson, R. Dodge: $ 24.95; MCGRAW HILL B; TP;
Quoting from Amazon's description: For the homebuilder, one mistake in estimating or installing wells and septic systems can cost thousands of dollars. This comprehensive guide filled with case studies can prevent that. Master plumber R. Dodge Woodson packs this reader-friendly guide with guidance and information, including details on new techniques and materials that can economize and expedite jobs and advice on how to avoid mistakes in both estimating and construction. Chapters cover virtually every aspect of wells and septic systems, including on-site evaluations; site limitations; bidding; soil studies, septic designs, and code-related issues; drilled and dug wells, gravel and pipe, chamber-type, and gravity septic systems; pump stations; common problems with well installation; and remedies for poor septic situations. Woodson also discusses ways to increase profits by avoiding cost overruns.
Books & Articles on Building & Environmental Inspection, Testing, Diagnosis, & Repair
Advanced Onsite Wastewater Systems Technologies, Anish R. Jantrania, Mark A. Gross. Anish Jantrania, Ph.D., P.E., M.B.A., is a Consulting Engineer, in Mechanicsville VA, 804-550-0389 (2006). Outstanding technical reference especially on alternative septic system design alternatives. Written for designers and engineers, this book is not at all easy going for homeowners but is a text I recommend for professionals--DF.
Country Plumbing: Living with a Septic System, Hartigan, Gerry: $ 9.95; ALAN C HOOD & TP;
Quoting an Amazon reviewer's comment, with which we agree--DF:This book is informative as far as it goes and might be most useful for someone with an older system. But it was written in the early 1980s. A lot has changed since then. In particular, the book doesn't cover any of the newer systems that are used more and more nowadays in some parts of the country -- sand mounds, aeration systems, lagoons, etc.
Septic System Owner's Manual, Lloyd Kahn, Blair Allen, Julie Jones, Shelter Publications, 2000 $14.95 U.S. - easy to understand, well illustrated, one of the best practical references around on septic design basics including some advanced systems; a little short on safety and maintenance. Both new and used (low priced copies are available, and we think the authors are working on an updated edition--DF.
Quoting from one of several Amazon reviews: The basics of septic systems, from underground systems and failures to what the owner can do to promote and maintain a healthy system, is revealed in an excellent guide essential for any who reside on a septic system. Rural residents receive a primer on not only the basics; but how to conduct period inspections and what to do when things go wrong. History also figures into the fine coverage.
US EPA Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems Manual Top Reference: US EPA's Design Manual for Onsite Wastewater Treatment and Disposal, 1980, available from the US EPA, the US GPO Superintendent of Documents (Pueblo CO), and from the National Small Flows Clearinghouse. Original source http://www.epa.gov/ORD/NRMRL/Pubs/625R00008/625R00008.htm
Water Wells and Septic Systems Handbook, R. Dodge Woodson. This book is in the upper price range, but is worth the cost for serious septic installers and designers.
Quoting Amazon: Each year, thousands upon thousands of Americans install water wells and septic systems on their properties. But with a maze of codes governing their use along with a host of design requirements that ensure their functionality where can someone turn for comprehensive, one-stop guidance? Enter the Water Wells and Septic Systems Handbook from McGraw-Hill.
Written in language any property owner can understand yet detailed enough for professionals and technical students this easy-to-use volume delivers the latest techniques and code requirements for designing, building, rehabilitating, and maintaining private water wells and septic systems. Bolstered by a wealth of informative charts, tables, and illustrations, this book delivers:
* Current construction, maintenance, and repair methods
* New International Private Sewage Disposal Code
* Up-to-date standards from the American Water Works Association
Wells and Septic Systems, Alth, Max and Charlet, Rev. by S. Blackwell Duncan, $ 18.95; Tab Books 1992. We have found this text very useful for conventional well and septic systems design and maintenance --DF.
Quoting an Amazon description:Here's all the information you need to build a well or septic system yourself - and save a lot of time, money, and frustration. S. Blackwell Duncan has thoroughly revised and updated this second edition of Wells and Septic Systems to conform to current codes and requirements. He also has expanded this national bestseller to include new material on well and septic installation, water storage and distribution, water treatment, ecological considerations, and septic systems for problem building sites.
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The Home Reference Book - the Encyclopedia of Homes, Carson Dunlop & Associates, Toronto, Ontario, 25th Ed., 2012, is a bound volume of more than 450 illustrated pages that assist home inspectors and home owners in the inspection and detection of problems on buildings. The text is intended as a reference guide to help building owners operate and maintain their home effectively. Field inspection worksheets are included at the back of the volume.
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