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How to abandon a septic tank, cesspool, drywell:
This document outlines basic procedures for finding and safely abandoning unused septic systems and cesspools, and provides some safety suggestions for septic system inspectors, septic system inspections, septic pumping contractors, and home owners.
When a septic tank, drywell, or cesspool is no longer to be used, either because a building is connected to a municipal sewer or because the old tank is being left in place and a new septic installed elsewhere, there are very important safety steps that should be taken.
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These questions on how to abandon a septic tank, cesspool, or drywell were posted originally at SEPTIC TANK ABANDONMENT GUIDE
Watch out:Septic tanks, cesspools, and drywells present serious hazards including septic cave-in's or collapses, methane gas explosion hazards, and asphyxiation hazards. Simple precautions which we describe here can help avoid a dangerous septic, cesspool, or drywell hazard.
In addition to having been consulted in fatalities involving humans, we have learned that falling into septic tanks and cesspools is a risk for animals as well. Readers should also see specific warnings about cesspools
at CESSPOOL SAFETY.
We were consulted in a Long Island death of an adult who fell into and was buried in a collapsing cesspool. And in 2012 we were contacted for comment involving the death of two boys who fell into and perished in an "abandoned" septic tank or cesspool that lacked a safe cover. See SEPTIC & CESSPOOL SAFETY.
If there is a septic under the slab what is keeping it from just drying out and if I jack hammer the slab , how do i remove it all and fill in ? - B.B. 11/15/2012
BB, Your question is a reminder of the suggestion that it would have been best to properly abandon a septic tank before ever building over it.
I had to deal with this problem at a building whose prior owner built a screened porch atop an old steel septic tank. Luckily the porch had just a wooden floor built on piers, so it was easy to cut an opening in the floor, find the septic tank opening(s), and inspect, pump, clean, and fill the tank. In my case the tank was a steel one that had a rusted-through bottom, had been out of service for decades, and was not particularly smelly.
We filled in the tank with stone, rubble, and clean soil just to make sure that it did not collect water (and produce odors) in the future.
In your case, I'd proceed to locate, inspect, and abandon the under-slab septic tank as follows:
That should be sufficient to stop the odor problem and eliminate future hassles with an old septic tank that smells, collects groundwater, collapses, or is in general a possible hazard.
On 2017-08-12 by (mod) - how to safely open and fill an un-used home-made drywell
Watch out: With the apology that fear makes me warn you that nobody can assess the safety hazards of your drywell by an e-text, and noting that I agree that filling in an unused drywell is smart to avoid a cave-in fall-in hazard, I would, working with someone with experience, and never working alone,
1. look around for evidence of subsidence or collapse and if you find it stay away and rope off the area until you get help from an excavator
2. take great care in removing a cover in that IF the drywell is a home-made system it might be fragile and could collapse simply by walking over it or pulling the cover. For example a drywell like yours, probably made simply of stacked-up concrete blocks can easily cave-in, especially when empty or nearly-so.
3. Take care standing close to the edge or leaning over the drywell as you could fall-in. That's another reason to never work alone on such projects.
You can fill the hole with rock, gravel, sand, broken up concrete slove if that's nearby. Leave enough space to mound a foot or two of topsoil since often there will be a bit more subsidence and you'd like to end with level ground not a depression.
Let me know how this goes for you and if you like, use the page top or bottom CONTACT link to send us photos of the existing drywell, its cover, and what you see when the cover is removed, and how it's filled, as those would certainly help other readers.
On 2017-08-12 by Donna
We have a drywell that only had the sink, washing machine and dishwasher going to it - it hasn't been used for 4 months now and we haven't done any wash for 3 years now - is there any hazard to lifting cover to try and fill the void?
Also it is a block drywell not cast aluminum. Also what material do u use to fill sand or soil? Thank u
On 2017-08-04 by (mod) - pump and fill an abandoned septic tank under a deck
After 35 years, if there's liquid in the abandoned septic tank it's likely to be that the tank is getting surface runoff or roof spillage -and that its' bottom is not leaky enough to drain away.
Your septic pumper can get in there to pump if necessary, taking care not to fall in (that can be fatal). I'd pump out any excessive amount of liquid, then fill with rock and rubble and sand. The cost is a bit more for the deck being in the way.
Depending on ease of access and what work's needed, I'd consider pulling off enough deck boards to give better access. Figure that you will want to inspect and fix any bad deck posts or piers that you might find by that access anyway.
On 2017-08-04 by George
My situation sounds like Norman's.except it's under a deck.
I noticed settling with my deck which was put on about 3 years ago. We discovered what looked like a sink hole under the deck which turned out to be an abandoned septic tank.
It's concrete & hasn't been used in 35 years. The top is cracked & can't be sealed & put back on. Can we pump & fill with sand? There's less than two feet of clearance below deck & top of tank once filled. Suggestions?
On 2017-07-24 by (mod) - restore the top on an abandoned septic tank?
I'd restore the top for a couple of reasons:
1. less subsidence of the covering backfill later
2. I want to minimize the water that will still want to run into the septic tank - risking causing a smelly or stagnant or bacteria-laden pond even with the gravel in place. (so seal the top too as best you can)
Some contractors claim they break a hole in the tank bottom before backfill. That'd be nice but not worth killing somebody: it can be fatal to descend into even an old septic tank unless the worker is trained, has proper safety gear, and is working with a support team.
On 2017-07-24 by Norman
After filling should I put the concrete top back on it or bust it up and put in tank with the SB2 gravel
On 2017-07-24 by (mod) - groundwater entering an un-used septic tank
It's common for ground water to find its way into a septic tank, especially an old one whose pipe seals or access cover seals were probably leaky. Proper abandonment would include just what you say, pump out and fill with stone or rubble.
On 2017-07-24 20:05:59.380484 by Norman
by the way this is a concrete tank
I have an old unused septic tank in my yard that has not been used in at least 20 years or longer,
I have had water standing under my house for awhile now, had a plumber out to look, no leaks in water line or drains, the tank is about 5 feet from my house, he took the top off the tank and it was full to the top with water, I am going to have it pumped out and filled, question will SB2 gravel be a good fill or do I need to use something different.
On 2017-07-09 by (mod) - smelly hole in area of "abandoned" cesspool
If the subsidence is in the exact location of the old abandoned Cesspool, septic tank or whatever it was that was to be abandoned and filled in, then it sounds as if additional fill is needed.
On 2017-07-08 by D.T. Gordon
I just had a new pool installed, he was to destroyed the old one, its nine years later and I have a sink hole about two feet in circufence, returned twice and addd dirt,it's still stinking. And hasn't returned
On 2017-07-06 by (mod) - ok to pour a slab over a decommissioned septic tank under a house?
I can't be sure of an OK without knowing what decommissioning was done. A slab on a rusted out steel tank filled with soft soil could settle or crack.
Further investigation of what's there and assurance that there is no hole is needed.
On 2017-07-06 by John Shelby
I'm buying a house in unincorporated town in Northern California. The original septic tank under the house in an un-finished basement, was properly decommissioned with permit, and a new, larger one was installed outside the home's footprint. With the proper decommissioning
, can I now pour slab over the original location during a permitted re-model of the basement?'
On 2017-05-29 by (mod) - put a swimming pool where the septic tank was located
I think what you want to do is reasonable as long as you're not thinking of converting the septic tank itself into an in-ground swimming pool. (No joke, you'll find an article here describing a German couple's conversion of their septic tank into an underground storage facility).
It seems a near-certainty that the excavation for the pool will be larger than the original footprint of a typical residential septic tank. As you're connected to sewer, driving a backhoe over the abandoned drainfield, even if it damages it, isn't a catastrophe, but you will want to know what other buried lines may be present at the site and that need to be avoided or protected such as electrical and water mains.
DO keep heavy equipment well away from the foundations of the home itself - or the foundation could be damaged.
On 2017-05-29 by Surfvet
After converting to the city's sewer system that is very closey located, We'd like to physically remove a property's septic tank and place a pool where the tank is currently located.
So far I've only read about filling in the tank. Is is possible to remove the tank and place a pool in the same spot? Or would that not be advised because if compromise to the area or other structural difficulties?
On 2017-04-24 2 by (mod) - can an abandoned septic tank cause leaks into a building?
A septic tank is not usually disposed-of in the sense of physical removal, when it is to be abandoned; rather it is left in place and filled in with rock and soil.
Now some "IF's"
If the septic tank was not filled-in
if the septic tank is close to the building,
Yes I have encountered cases in which an abandoned tank close to a building foundation wall was a source of water entry into the basement or crawl area. The excavation itself can direct roof spillage or surface runoff into the foundation wall or under the slab.
More likely, though, when a buried septic tank (or oil storage tank) is placed within 10 feet of the foundation wall, the root cause of water entry is not the tank itself but rather the hole into which it was placed.
Roof spillage close to a building from overflowing or absent gutters or for a mis-directed downspout discharge too close to the building that might otherwise run downslope and away from the structure can sometimes find a previously-excavated hole whose backfill is less dense than surrounding soil.
Water then runs into that hole (or pipe trench) and flows towards the foundation.
Start with a close look at roof and surface runoff around the building. Most builders are not so dumb that they put the basement slab below a local high water table. That's why I suspect an above-ground water source.
On 2017-04-24 by Debbie
If a septic tank is not properly disposed of,while hooking up to city sewer lines can it cause under slab leakage?
On 2017-03-20 by (mod) - Rocks + sand would be fine and do not hurt the garter snakes
Rocks + sand would be fine. By the way, garter snakes are harmless and in fact may help you out by eating bugs.
More accurate information about garter snakes is in
Huey, Raymond B., Charles R. Peterson, Stevan J. Arnold, and Warren P. Porter. "Hot rocks and not‐so‐hot rocks: retreat‐site selection by garter snakes and its thermal consequences." Ecology 70, no. 4 (1989): 931-944.
Matthews, Kathleen R., Roland A. Knapp, and Karen L. Pope. "Garter snake distributions in high-elevation aquatic ecosystems: is there a link with declining amphibian populations and nonnative trout introductions?." Journal of Herpetology 36, no. 1 (2002): 16-22.
On 2017-03-20 by Carmen
We have an old unused septic tank near our house. We want to fill it and cover it but we also have garter snakes in the area. We know rock or loose substances will attract them . What can we fill it with to avoid this?
On 2016-10-24 23:09:36.648419 by (mod) -
Sorry I don't have a "how to" for abandoning a septic tank full of sewage. The tank should be emptied, first, then filled with soil and /or rock or equivalent. Trying to fill in and thus safely abandon a septic tank that's full of sewage is going to spill sewage all over the place around the septic tank, on the ground surface - a nasty situation and not one I'd recommend.
On 2016-10-24 14:50:52.337838 by narender
How to close septic tank is fill with soil without cleaning the old septic tank
On 2016-10-09 by (mod) - safety is the first concern when filling sinkholes or septic tanks
The first priority should be taking steps to prevent an avoidable injury or death that you know about. If it were my rental home I'd rope off the suspect area, prevent access to it, then notify the landlord in writing of a dangerous, potentially fatal condition if in fact there's a risk of someone falling into an improperly abandoned septic tank or any other hole or opening including a sinkhole.
There are other, easier to fix sinkholes that develop at properties, not true sinkholes but subsidences caused by poor drainage, improperly abandoned tanks, even rotting buried tree root or debris.
If it were truly a sinkhole, and there are some reported in your state, there may be risks to neighbors as well. In a severe case or with evidence of settling activity it might be appropriate to notify emergency services.
On 2016-10-05 19:10:18.834813 by Shelley
I probably should have stated that I am in twin falls county, Idaho. Since I do not own the property, there is not much I can do to remedy the situation. I feel it is unsafe and not just a hole in the ground that caves in every so often. Am I right in feeling this way because my next step is to demand it be fixed and this could cause me to lose my house that I have rented for 3 years.there are not a lot of tenant protection laws here in Idaho.
On 2016-10-05 by Shelley
I live at a residence that has a sinkhole right outside the back door. Everyone(meaning my boyfriend's family) has told me this is an abandoned septic and go on like it's no big deal.
Ok, obviously it was not filled in, I've been told it was just a hole in the ground with some sort of cover, which has failed. I am alarmed, especially now that his sister and brother in-law want us to purchase the home or sign a lease that states everything is in safe working order.
I guess my question is, is there cause for alarm, and I already know the answer is probably yes. Which brings me to the next question, what the heck should I do about it?
On 2016-09-29 by (mod) - moisture in house walls near abandoned septic tank
Thanks for the interesting question, Scott. If the old septic tank was just filled-in and no holes punched in its sides or bottom, perhaps it's collecting some water from surface runoff or roof spillage, then leaking that water back out at its entry or exit port. Hopefully the tank got filled well enough that it won't serve as an underground pool.
Compacting soil could damage buried downspout lines, footing drains (less likely unless they're near the surface) or might otherwise cause water to be redirected.
A more expert look at the leak locations and patterns, site shape, roof drainage etc. can probably diagnose this trouble. Search InspectApedia.com for BASEMENT WATER ENTRY to see details.
On 2016-09-29 by Scott
A new septic tank was installed before we moved into our house. The old cement tank was filled in.
We are experiencing significant moisture problems in the basement on the wall that borders the old tank. The old tank is located under the patio in the backyard so it is not that far from the house. Is it a possibility that the filling in and compacting of the soil round the old tank has caused an underground waterflow issue in the yard?
On 2016-09-14 by (mod) - do you drill holes in the bottom of an abandoned septic tank?
I prefer to see a drain hole in the bottom of an abandoned concrete septic tank but often a contractor simply fills the tank with soil and rubble.
On 2016-09-14 by Brenda
The wells are dry and made of cement
On 2016-09-14 by Btends
Found abandoned septic tank -2of them in backyard. These are cement and intact. Do you have to drill holes in the bottom and then fill with sand and stone? Is that ok?
On 2016-08-06 by (mod) - hole opens in lot where a septic tank was left
Watch out: Besides filling in the abandoned septic tank, depending on the age and location of the property I'd be alert for other older or newer septic tank, drywells, dug wells, abandoned buried oil tanks &c.
Having a plot plan that showed the original house and knowing house age, type of heat, etc. can help sort out those risks.
On 2016-08-05 by diane
Several months ago, we purchase a vacant lot that once had a house on it. The other day a huge hole (that we think is an old septic tank) opened up after someone drove up onto the property (and over the tank).
There is no liquid in the tank, and it is made of concrete. We had no idea it was there because the neighborhood is connected to the city sewer, and there doesn't appear to be any evidence of other parts of the system. Is there anything else we need to look for and fill in other than the tank itself?
On 2016-07-26 y (mod) - basic due diligence and appropriate warnings are important
The main point I think we should emphasize is that some basic due diligence and appropriate warnings are important in these cases as though the chances may seem small, if somebody steps into or falls into a septic tank, even an old one that has been disused for some time, the result could be a quick and ugly fatality.
On 2016-07-26 20:31:39.834689 by Kathy
I would love to know the ans that Carole got we are in the same boat. Been in house 35 yr and no clue now what do we do
On 2016-07-10 by (mod) - watch out for fatal falls into septic tank
Watch out: Considering that a fall into a septic tank through a collapsing tank cover can be fatal and that the materials or even exact location of your septic tank is unknown, we can't eliminate that risk until someone finds the septic tank and either assures that it has already been properly abandoned or does so, taking steps to be sure that there is no safety hazard.
The fact that there is non visible depression is no guarantee whatsoever that the tank cover is safe nor that there can't be a collapse or fatality in the future.
I would either resolve the question immediately or give an allowance rather than risk a fatality, injury, or related liability. Meanwhile, as we don't know the safety of the site it makes sense to take steps to keep anyone from walking over the area where the septic tank is located.
On 2016-07-09 by carole
Buyer did a sweep of our property and found an old septic system (30 years or so) Apparently the entire neighborhood had septic before they brought in public water. There is no sinking and you cannot see where it even was. They say we have to dig it up and inspect it before selling the house. No one in the entire neighborhood has ever had to do this to sell their home. Is the buyer right or just looking for me to give them money at the closing toward it and reducing the price of the sale
On 2016-04-27 by Anonymous
We are planning an extension and the old septic tank is underneath the old septic tank system, which has been partially filled in but sinks a bit during wet weather. The engineer has specified removing the old tank but has said nothing about how to fill in the hole so that we can build over it - any ideas?
On 2016-04-26 by Jerry
I need to retire a non-used aerobic system for about 3 or 4 years. Can this be done and how?
On 2016-04-26 by Cathy
We recently have developed a sink hole and appears it is caused by a very old abandoned septic tank. We live in a relatively new subdivision (9-10 years). We have lived here 8+ years. Should the builder have removed septic tank, before building? We are all on sewer system. Thank You
On 2016-04-04 by (mod) - ok to remove old vent pipe for abandoned septic tank or fields?
Anon: that might make sense to me if I were sure that there would be no reason to return the fields to service later-on.
On 2016-04-04 by Anonymous
after a leach bed has been abandoned for several years, is it alright to remove the vent pipe and fill in the hole?
On 2016-03-13 by (mod) - what to ask the septic inspector
Thanks so much, Jill. We work hard to provide accurate, useful information so I'm thrilled when a reader finds it so. We also will welcome content suggestions, critique, or questions that may arise.
On 2016-03-11 by Jill
Considering purchasing an old house with an equally old septic system and your article has been very informative/helpful. I now know what to do and what questions to ask an inspector. Thanks so much.
Can you fill a concrete septic tank in with sand? We are preparing to hook up to city sewer and need to know what the best cost-effective way to handle our septic tank will be. - 8/13/2012
Cassandra, the tank gets pumped, cleaned, and filled - sand should be acceptable to your local building department.
If the tank is steel, and recommended even if the tank is concrete, fiberglass, or plastic, the contractor may punch a few bottom holes so that even sand-filled the abandoned septic tank doesn't become a water reservoir.
I've got an old septic tank in the garden of the house I'm buying. Is it possible to turn it into a pond? I was wondering if I could line it with butyl liner on a cushion of sand (to be more hygienic) - Victoria 9/25/2012
Is it possible to turn an old septic tank into a pond? I was wondering whether I could line it with butyl liner on a cushion of sand. - Victoria
While the conversion you describe is technically feasible, it seems a bit deep, unsanitary, and cost-unbalanced an idea to me. To reduce the sanitation hazard you'd need to
(Nov 18, 2012) ray tom said:
The house we have bought about 5 years used to have a septic tank but was converted to public water and sewer before we moved in. But there is a foul sewage smell that comes from the basement. We are almost certain it is because of the old septic tank. How do we properly solve this problem?
First Ray we need to know where the old septic tank was located: in a basement would be quite unusual.
See SEPTIC TANK, HOW TO FIND
Next we need to find the source of basement odors: possibly from a plumbing leak, improper venting, or from a prior sewage backup in that area. See SEPTIC SYSTEM ODORS
(Mar 26, 2014) Anonymous said:
do i leave the leach fields as is or fill outlet with concrete
Leave the septic drainfield or soakbed as-is.
Anon, no one should fill a drainfield with concrete. We're talking about 6" perforated pipes buried in gravel trenches or the equivalent; left alone. Only if there were structures in danger of collapse would a fill-in be appropriate. Then one would use rock and soil, not concrete when abandoning such a system.
(May 7, 2014) Anonymous said:
Can you build on top of a septic tank that was filled with slurry?
(Aug 1, 2014) Michele said:
Hi i just wanted to ask can you fill the old transpiration pit and build on top of it . We are connected to sewerage and the septic tank has been crushed and filled in but we want to build a guest accommodation/home office where the old transpiration pit was
Anon, if the septic tank was emptied, cleaned, drilled with rubble, it's properly abandoned in my opinion. Building over it should be ok. I'd not bear a structure directly on an abandoned septic tank as a structural support.
At our old Poughkeepsie office the prior owner had constructed a wood-framed porch over an old steel septic tank. He left a trap door in the porch floor to permit tank pumping but no actual tank inspection nor repair. We had the tank emptied, cleaned, and filled with stone and concrete rubble. There were no subsequent odor problems. But none of the porch structure was borne on the tank itself nor on nearby piping trenches.
One of the most common complaints readers report about abandoned septic systems is subsequent subsidence or collapse - not only safety worries but serious problems for anything built atop the septic tank.
(May 25, 2014) Michelle said:
Does anyone know if when a contractor is hired to change a septic system over to a town sewer line is filling the abandon septic tank part of the cost and is it required in ,ma
Take a look at Massachusetts Title 5 Septic Regulations for requirements in general. But the contractual obligation of the contractor is another matter. You'll need to review with your attorney the contract that you signed for work to be performed to understand the scope of work that was required.
Generally to be sanitary and safe an abandoned septic tank should be emptied of sewage and then filled-in.
(Aug 1, 2014) Anonymous said:
Typically an abandoned septic tank or similar component is emptied, then filled-in to avoid collapse risk before constructing over the site. Check also with your local building department to determine whether or not there are local requirements.
(Aug 1, 2014) Michelle said:
Thanks for your reply The septic tank has been emptied crushed and filed in I was wondering about the transpiration pit or drainage area where the effluent would drain into from the septic. I live in Australia so maybe our designs are a little different but will call my local council and see if there are and regulations around this. Thanks again Cheers Michele
Reply: transpiration pits
I'm not sure what you really mean by transpiration pit. IF you actually had a seepage pit rather than a drainfield, it too needs to be emptied and filled-in. If you refer to an excavated hole into which was put a pre-cast drywell or cesspool or soakpit structure to dispose of effluent then such devices also need to be filled-in to avoid a future collapse hazard. - Mod.
(Aug 1, 2014) Michele said:
Thanks Dan it would be what you call the drainage area or absorption area
OK Michele, but a "pit" as opposed to a network of perforated pipes draining effluent into the soil is what we call a drywell, seepage pit, or cesspool. Those methods of disposing of sewage effluent are effective for a limited time as "disposal" methods but ineffective as a treatment method.
Details are at CESSPOOLS
If we were abandoning a conventional soakbed or soakaway bed or drainfield, not a drywall, not a seepage pit, nor other underground cavity, there is nothing to fill-in.
(Nov 1, 2014) Jo said:
I was interested in purchasing a home and just discovered that the old septic tank was left untouched. My concern is that there is an above ground pool over the old tank. What, if any, concerns should I have.
Pool collapse, injury, unsanitary conditions come to mind, Jo. Along with some extra costs to access and properly abandon and fill-in the septic tank
(June 7, 2014) Sue said:
I discovered an area in my backyard slowly (over 2 year time frame) sinking. Then in 3 weeks, the ground started to cave in and a hole is starting to get larger. Most happened after a couple of rains. I have city water but was told that my house had a septic tank system when the house was built. I am assuming the city properly closed the septic system. Is my yard sinking due to the old septic tank? It appears to be in the obvious location for the tank.
Sue we hope you roped off the area for safety pending further investigation or fill-in as needed.
Also see SINKHOLE DETECTION, WARNING SIGNS
(Dec 8, 2014) ROGER said:
WHAT DO YOU USE TO FILL THE TANK?
Roger an abandoned septic tank can be filled with stone rubble or sand. You might use dirt (soil) but I'd watch for future setttlement or compaction problems. Don't toss old tree branches, appliances, or junk into a septic tank to be abandoned as the decay of those items is likeliy to lead to a subsequent collapse.
1/1/2015 Cindi said:
My parents paid a company to fill in the septic tank at their house and hook them up to the sewer. Now, years later, the patio is sinking (right where the tank is) and the sinking is causing structural damage to the house. The steps leading to the back door are pulling away from the house. The planter in the backyard has also sunk and the bricks cracked. It is a terrible result especially after my parents paid over 12,000 for the work to be done. Do you think this was mainly a compacting issue?
First let's be sure the trouble is due to settlement at the old tank location.
If that's the case then I suspect either poor co paction or poor choice of fill contents. Anotherr possibility is a steel tank rusting out and collapsingg into a void beneath the old tank.
Most likely a large part of the cost you cite was the sewer hookup, so not all of that $ was wasted.
Surely no one built a structure bearing on the old septic tank did they?
In any event if a patio, presumably poured concrete, is settling or tipping towards a building foundation wall I'd expect problems with directing roof spillage or rain or melting snow water against the foundation as well as possible foundation damage from the patio weight against the foundation. The fix may require removing the patio and proper grading and fill compaction before re-building.
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