DIY Chatroom Home Improvement Forum

DIY Chatroom Home Improvement Forum (
-   Plumbing (
-   -   septic emergency? help! (

denemante 12-19-2010 10:27 PM

septic emergency? help!
Hey all,

I have a septic problem and a load of family coming in for the holidays - please help!

We have a septic tank and drain field. The previous owner had an entire second drain field installed with a diverter valve a few years ago. I asked him why, and he told me because it lets one rest. That seemed strange to me - why not then just leave both on?

We've lived in the house 8 months. While in the finished basement after a day of heavy rain, I heard loud "burbs" coming out of the basement toilet, with a slightly foul oder. I panicked of course, and got a septic specialist out. He said I'd need to put something in there to eat it up which might buy some time - or replace the fields (I ended up doing nothing and all has continued to work fine until now).

I called my city. I got copies of the actual septic work that was done in 2008. Along with them came back the original septic field and system layout.

I called the guy who did the new work. He said a "dual system" with a diverter valve was the best way to go - and everyone should do it - if you have the money. He said to switch it about every year. So I'm working one drain field for a year - and another for a year, etc.

OK - so I went outside with a long water main post/tool, found that valve and "switched fields". This was about a 1.5 months ago. I have no way of knowing which field I switched it to.

Now I've read a lot about septic - and did hear that if a field gets inundated - you're screwed. But this guy swears that a year of leaving it alone, even if it's not working right - will most likely allow it to rot away and you can use it again in a year. I saw the receipts - the previous owner paid this guy a lot of money, and he continues to be reputable around town. He also told me that septic isn't perfect. If you have heavy rain for example, you may have some issues likely in the basement, etc. But things should go back to normal if you care for the system.

Now today - we've a problem. I tried to flush the basement toilet and it almost overflowed (clear water). My wife did do a ton of laundry today, and by concidence, we and the kids all had showers/baths. But even during that heavy rain when the basement toilet kept "burping" - it just wouldn't flush - it didn't act like it was clogged and start to overflow.

Worse - I went to our first floor bathroom. I flushed - and it too nearly overflowed. We haven't really had much rain at all recently, if any in the last few days. But I did notice the ground in general everywhere seems moist. So perhaps the (Atlanta) weather is keeping moisture in the ground.

Worth mentioning is that the water in the toilets did go down after a short period of time.

SOOOOO......I'm thinking this is one of four possibilities:

1. I'm screwed. The whole system is jacked and I need all new fields.
2. I'm OK - this is just coincidence that we used a ton of water today and flooded the system, and tomorrow everything will be OK.
3. The "diverter" - when I switched it 1.5 months ago, I switched to the old field which perhaps was jacked and never purged itself. So I should switch back.
4. The septic tank is full.

Any thoughts here? I know there are a lot of possibilities. But I have very little time and I've got to make an informed decision ASAP!


plumberinlaw 12-19-2010 10:46 PM

1st turn the valve back 2nd check the vents. The first floor toilet should flush normal with the possible exeption of flooding the basement

the_man 12-19-2010 10:46 PM

its all hearsay until you look in the septic tank. If its full to the very top, its a drainfield problem. If its at normal level (which is at the same level as the outlet pipe) its either an inlet baffle or a drain problem. Get that shovel out, dig it up, and tell us what you see :yes:

nap 12-19-2010 10:51 PM

the septic tank is full but full of what? It will always be full (at least full up to the drainage port) with fluids. It's when it becomes loaded with solids or scum that you need to do something and that would be pumping it out or as the_man said, if it is filled beyond the outlet port.

Was is pumped when you bought the home? I know in my state it is a requirement but others apparently do not require this. If it was pumped at purchase, you shouldn't have been able to fill the tank with solids in 8 months. It generally takes years.

You shouldn't be able to run too much water (unless you just turned on the water and let it run day and night) to cause the field to back up if it is working half way decently.

what is the make up of the ground in your area? If there is much clay in the ground or rock?

Jackofall1 12-19-2010 10:55 PM

I'm with plumberinlaw on this one, sounds like a vent issue.

denemante 12-19-2010 11:22 PM

WOW - thanks for the quick response.

UPDATE: When I first noticed this problem in the basement toilet - I tried plunging it. I could hear noise out of the sink next to me. Then I went into another room where we have a little wet bar - and a little water had blasted out onto the counter/floor.

ALSO: I looked in the top floor toilets - and the water level was down in them. That's weird to me - I thought water couldn't leave them unless you flushed it away. I mean - if a 3PM everthing was fine and the toilets refilled the bowls to the normal level, why would they be "low" at 12AM? Or - perhaps they didn't refill fully after being flushed and I didn't notice - but that would be a water line-into-the-house problem.

We live in Geogia. The forms I got from the county about the permits when the work was done note the soild as "Hiawasee".

When I first noticed this problem tonight, in the basement toilet - when I flushed it - it "burped" and spashed water out. A friend who is an inspector once told me that's a vent problem.

In the basement at least, we have those in-house vents. They are PVC pipes capped with this little vent cap. I know some go out the roof in some houses. But mine appear individual on the basement plumbing, but I can't speak for the rest of the house.

Can you elaborate on how could a vent problem be the cause, and what I might do to fix it?

nap 12-19-2010 11:33 PM

the low water level in the bowl could/would be indicative of a vent problem. While normally air is allowed to flow behind the stuff in the pipe from outside, if this is blocked, there will be a vacuum created in the drain pipe. This can draw water from your toilets and traps.

How tall is your house and are you adverse to climbing on the roof?

denemante 12-19-2010 11:47 PM

I'm willing and capable of troubleshooting anything here even on the roof - thanks for the suggestions!

I understand the premise of venting. You can't easily take an empty bottle of water and try to quickly dump a full bottle of water into it. The air escaping needs to go somewhere. Our home was built in 1998, and the basement finished in 2008 (some is still unfishished, so I can see behind the scenes a little). We have at least two of those vent-cap PVC pipes in our basement. For the upper floors, I don't know if in 1998 they would have vented out the roof.

But maybe I'm talking about the wrong thing. Maybe every drain/toilet is vented, but there's also some master vent and perhaps that's where the problem is?

Worth mentioning again is that I confirmed my wife did about 6 loads of laundry and everyone took baths and showers today, and we ran the dishwasher a few times - and the ground is a little wet.

So if you flood it - there just isn't anywhere for anything to go. So if I wait, things will purge and I'll be OK. People who have lived in the neighborhood had said similar things in the past.

But perhaps I've identified a vent problem I didn't know existed - water and waste is high in the system and perhaps air is trapped too, but if the air can't escape the vent to allow the waste to move in, then I've got a bottleneck?

nap 12-20-2010 12:09 AM

wow, 12 years old and needed a new field already? That in itself suggest you might have some problems for drainage regardless of a venting problem.

I do not think there is such thing as a cheater vent being acceptable for a toilet. (yes, I know they have a real name, just can't remember what it is called).

The first thing I would do is look for roof vents. Then, have a plumbers snake?

and hopefully the actual plumbers can comment on this but it sounds like your cheater vents are hidden behind a wall or something. I was under the belief they had to be accessible.

They're called AAV's- air admittance valves

Jackofall1 12-20-2010 12:09 AM

My guess on the disappearing water is when you were plunging the lower level toilet, it created enough vacuum to draw water out of the upper level toilet.

Assumption is that your basement toilet is above the level of the septic tank, if not you must have a pump in the system.

Assuming you don't have a pump ---

I would bet that both upper and lower vent to the outside thru the roof, without further info we don't know if its through the same stack.

But assuming it is you have one of three scenarios:

1 - Your vent piping has been plugged by who knows what, careful reaching in on the cranky critters.

2- Your drain piping is plugged with who knows what (call roto rooter)

3- Your system can't take anymore and has gone on strike.


Vents to ensure they are clear
Call roto-rooter to ensure drain is clear
Check stink tank to ensure its not packed with dodo.

denemante 12-20-2010 12:47 AM

The basement toilet is above the tank - so no pump.

In response to NAP - yeah, 12 years old (10 at the time) and the previous owners had a second field put in. The original remains, and in use when I turn the "diverter valve" to it about once a year.

My memory is vague - but I though there was mention that they had "septic system increased in capacity" because they finished the basement and added a bathroom. However - they didn't add any new occupants to the home - so the home usage of the system should have been the same, right? They did entertain in the newly finished basement, so perhaps that was the thought process - that there would be increased volume from friends.

So I don't know if the old system was bad, but still good enough to leave intact yet add this secondary field to it, or if that's commonplace.

Maybe it's cheaper to just leave the old field and install a new one if you have room - and while you're at it - just toss in a diverter valve (maybe that's even code) so the old (totally bad) system can remain and all can save on shovel-labor.

I mean, according to the guy who installed the secondary field before I was the owner, he said it's a great way to go.

Even if it's not and the old field is shot - forget about it. I have the new field from 2008.

But NAPs post begs the question: if field #1 did go bad in 10 years and field #2 was then installed by the previous owner - perhaps the ground/drainage is bad. But I can't move my house. So then what?

nap 12-20-2010 01:18 AM

the size of a field is generally determined by the number of bedrooms and bathrooms regardless of how many people actually live in the home. It is designed to utilize the bath/bedroom count to determine a max occupancy.


But NAPs post begs the question: if field #1 did go bad in 10 years and field #2 was then installed by the previous owner - perhaps the ground/drainage is bad. But I can't move my house. So then what?
let's hope that the only reason he did enlarge the field is due to the added finished living area and not due to the failure of the field. What the septic guy said does suggest it might have been due to a failure though:


He also told me that septic isn't perfect. If you have heavy rain for example, you may have some issues likely in the basement, etc. But things should go back to normal if you care for the system.
and what do you do if you have both fields fail?

How much property do you have? If not enough to install another field, well, let's just say; hopefully you are not having field failure problems.

I would do what has been suggested so far:

clean the vent stacks
flip the diverter
check the level of sludge and scum in the tank
check to see if the fluid level is at or above the tank outlet

Thurman 12-20-2010 08:19 AM

I've never seen a diverter valve for a septic system, so I have no idea of what it looks like. I'm very familiar with many types of other valves though. My thought is: How would one know when turning the diverter valve if it is open to which septic drain field, or if it may even be partially open? I'm wondering if this valve may not be fully open to either drain field and is not allowing full flow of waste water from the septic tank and creating a back-up of waste water to the home? I am somewhat familiar with the Atlanta area also, my sister is a realtor up in the NE area. What would it cost to have a company come out immediately and pump the septic tank dry? This could tell you two things-how much liquid they remove vs. the tanks' working capacity, and this would give you the tank's working capacity for the holiday period.

denemante 12-20-2010 09:13 AM

Well, my past post was last night after midnight in the full thows of the problem. But at 9:30AM, I went down to the basement and flushed. Back to normal - it flushed fine. Obviously, I'm watching everything carefully.

This would lead me to believe that it was flooded from all the heavy water use yesterday, and has now settled out.

Still, that's not ideal, but perhaps that just the quirkiness of my system. I've read other posts where people had similar issues they just work around.

Even so, I have no idea when the previous owners emptied the tank. So perhaps now is the time to do it so I get a fresh start, perhaps some feedback or info from them, and at least 1000 gallons of time throught he holidays...

LateralConcepts 12-20-2010 09:26 AM


Worth mentioning again is that I confirmed my wife did about 6 loads of laundry and everyone took baths and showers today, and we ran the dishwasher a few times - and the ground is a little wet.

It sounds as though the system is overly saturated. I don't believe it's a ventilation problem.

How often do you have the tank pumped or have you ever?

Does the schematic you received from the county or health department show or tell whether the drainfield consists of perforated PVC, or is it comprised of infiltrator chambers (graveless system)? How many legs are in the leachfield? What size is the tank? Is it single or dual chamber?

If it's an infiltrator type system, it will have a distribution box like this: Note the drainfield in the video is overly saturated in which case a Terralift was used to rejuvenate the drainfield.

A Terralift is a machine that; with hydrolics, drives giant rods into the ground, builds up pressure, then blasts polystyrene beads and air into the soil. Thus, breaking it up and rejuvenating it to allow the effluent to once again "leach" as it should. I have seen amazing results from terralifting drainfields. It's far less expensive and less intrusive than the installation of a new drainfield. Their website includes a map to find authorized service providers. I would suggest you check into it.

Here are the providers in GA

All times are GMT -5. The time now is 05:46 AM.

vBulletin Security provided by vBSecurity v2.2.2 (Pro) - vBulletin Mods & Addons Copyright © 2017 DragonByte Technologies Ltd.
User Alert System provided by Advanced User Tagging (Pro) - vBulletin Mods & Addons Copyright © 2017 DragonByte Technologies Ltd.

Search Engine Friendly URLs by vBSEO 3.6.1