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karen71 02-18-2010 08:52 AM

septic issue? musty smell in house, and toilet won't flush
We are desperate for some help! Our one-story house was built on a slab in 1974 and is in Arkansas on a very flat piece of land. There's been a lot of precip for the last 2 years, and the drainage is lousy, so often our yard has spots of standing water or is squishy to walk on. Our septic tank is on the west side of the house, and there are 3 vent pipes between the house and the (buried) tank lid.

We have 2 toilets. One is 1.6 gpf, the other is much larger & older. The bigger one does not always want to flush, particularly after heavy rains. Two weeks ago it quit flushing completely so we had the tank pumped. It worked fine for about a week. Now again it is not always flushing. The 1.6 gpf toilet has continued to work normally most of the time, though a short while ago it gurgled when water was draining elsewhere in the house.

We have also had a very musty odor in the west part of the house for maybe a month. Have read online about 'sewer gas odor' being a sign of septic failure (?) but don't know if this odor is the same as what we are smelling. To us it smells musty, maybe mildewy.

Could we have a broken vent pipe? failed septic? failed pump? Problem with the leach field? Is it a groundwater issue? etc etc... we have many guesses but no clue how to figure out what is wrong or what to do about it.My husband just opened up the vent pipes in the yard adn said he can see water in them. Is that normal?

Have now called 4 plumbers... where we live it's just really really hard to get a good plumber who will come out. I won't get into the customer service issues, but at the moment we're on day 3 of waiting for plumber #4 to call and let us know when he will be here (he said maybe this weekend; today is Thursday). We have a 2-wk-old baby and a stream of family coming in to help, so having our plumbing inoperable right now is a serious crisis.

We will greatly appreciate any and all help!! Cuz we sure aren't getting any from the local professionals. Thanks in advance.


Mike Swearingen 02-18-2010 09:58 AM

Your septic system may have other issues, but it seems that your primary issue right now is temporary total ground saturation. That can occur here in northeastern NC during hurricanes or other periods of highly excessive rain.
The only short-term solution is to keep pumping out the septic tank itself, until the ground saturation goes away.
Call your local Health Department that normally permits septic systems to come out and inspect your system and get their advice. Someone from that department likely deisgned your system to begin with. You might need to add a drainfield line also.
Good Luck!

Snav 02-18-2010 10:02 AM

Sure, sounds like some septic issues - especially if ground-saturation effects toilet-flushing efficiency.
But it might be other things, as well - and coupled together they make the problem worse.

Two years ago I thought we had some sudden, serious septic problems - the toilet wouldn't flush properly - would overflow every time - and augering out the toilet resulted in nothing.
We have a septic leach field, though, not a tank.

Eventually we pulled the toilet out - found my cellphone in it.

(Not saying you have the same problem, though - but you never know)

AllanJ 02-18-2010 01:03 PM

In normal operation, for every gallon of sewage leaving the house for the septic tank, a gallon of liquid must leave the septic tank for the leach field. There the liquid must be absorbed into the ground. If the leach field is saturated from rain, grease, tree roots, or whatever, the system will back up.

Can you dig down and reach and open the covers to the septic tank without having outside water run in? Here you can observe if the tank is overflowing because the outflow is not being absorbed into the ground.

After you pump a septic tank, for every gallon of sewage leaving the house, nothing leaves the tank for the leach field until the tank gets to about 85% full where the outlet pipe is. Unless you need the septic tank to act as a holding tank while you think about a long range solution, pumping out a septic tank multiple times in quick succesion does nothing but spend money.

Grease should not get into the leach field. It may when you let the tank go unpumped for so long that an omnipresent layer of scum (contains grease) gets so thick that some gets scooped up into the outlet pipe as the water level rises and falls between showers, dishwashings, or other water using activities.

karen71 02-18-2010 01:32 PM

Thanks for the ideas! We have dug out the hole to the lid and the tank has a lot of water in it, only minimal scum later on top (makes sense as it was just pumped), it is not overflowing. We don't put any grease down the drains and arent' missing any cell phones :) but have only lived here 2 years and don't know what the former owner might have done. We are going to try to auger the toilet again with a 20' auger, and if that doesn't work then we'll try cleaning the line from the tank side, to see if there is a clog in the line. If not that, then we'll call the Health Dept and may end up adding another line to see if that will help. Thanks again for the ideas.

Daniel Holzman 02-18-2010 03:14 PM

Sounds like you have a failed septic system. Your system includes the following components:

1. Sewer line from the house to the tank
2. A septic tank (size varies, typically from 500 gallons to 2000 gallons)
3. Possibly a pumping chamber, where overflow from the septic tank is pumped to the field
4. A sewer line connecting either the pump or the septic tank to the distribution box at the head of the leach field
5. A distribution box, typically made of concrete, which accepts the sewage from either the tank or the pump chamber, and distributes the effluent to the leach field lines. There are typically 2 to 8 lines coming out of a distribution box.
6. A series of distribution lines coming out of the distribution box, embedded in gravel. These lines are in the septic field.
7. A filled area above the leach lines, which is often called the leach field, although in practice only the distribution lines actually carry effluent.

Septic systems fail for a variety of reasons, typically including improper design, high groundwater, blocked lines, blocked distribution box, leaking septic tank, excessive flow, inappropriate material flushed down the drain, or several other less common issues. In your case, it sounds like you might have a case of excessively high groundwater flooding your system and tank. I had just such a case when I bought my house in 1991, the entire system had to be replaced with a pumped system, where the effluent was pumped to a filled area well above the high groundwater level.

The only way to determine what the problem is would be to call a septic inspector, who may be a plumber, or could be an installer or occasionally an engineer. They would perform a thorough investigation of your system, determine the cause of the problem, and recommend a solution.

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