8 Telltale Signs of Septic System Problems

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A septic system problem can get extremely unpleasant and expensive for homeowners in a hurry. Sometimes, these problems happen suddenly, like when a period of unusually heavy rain bogs down your drain field. Other problems creep up more slowly, however, and you may be able to fix them before things get ugly if you know what to look for. There are many telltale signs that you're having a septic issue, some subtle and others more blatant.

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1. The Grass Really Is Greener

The old joke claims that the grass is always greener over the septic tank. If green grass seems suspicious, though, you have a problem. In reality, the soil above your buried septic tank is thinner than it is elsewhere in the yard, and grass over the tank is more likely to die or struggle. If it really is the lushest part of your yard, your septic system is likely fertilizing it.

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The problem could be that your liquid wastewater is leaking and fertilizing your yard before it gets to the drain field. In this case, you need to have a septic professional come out and check your system for leaks and cracks. The best way to avoid this issue is to have your system inspected once a year so that failing or rusting pipes are discovered and fixed before they start fertilizing your lawn.

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2. Your Pipes Smell

If your pipes are starting to smell like sewer gases, it might just be because they're really full of sewer gases. One simple reason for this is that you may have an empty P-trap. The P-trap on your drains holds a bit of water to block sewer gases and rotten egg smells from drifting back into your home — which can ultimately be a health hazard. If you have a floor drain or another drain you rarely use, it can dry out and allow odors to enter the home.

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Your first step to fixing it is to run some water down rarely used drains. This may eliminate the smell. Sometimes, the raw sewage smell is also caused by a dried-out wax ring under your toilet, so check that as well. If that isn't the issue either, a plumber may need to come out and check your sewer and wastewater lines for leaks.

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3. Your Drains Are Slow

Slow drains indicate a clog or narrowing somewhere in your system. You can try to clear it yourself but whatever you do, don't reach for the chemical drain cleaners. These chemicals can deteriorate your pipes, and in a septic system, they often kill the beneficial bacteria on which you rely to help break down waste. Instead, use a drain opener that contains natural bacteria and enzymes. If that doesn't work, try snaking the drain to remove any clogs.

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If you can't get things running smoothly again, call a plumber. They can clear any clogs and if necessary, make sure no tree roots or other issues are messing with your pipes. Call for help sooner rather than later so that your pipes don't break or crack under pressure, causing a sewage backup in your house or yard.

4. Your Septic System Is Backing Up

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You'll know if you have this problem for sure. If stinky sludge is backing up in your pipes or you have smelly standing water out in your lawn, you have an issue. The problem could just be a saturated drain field, especially if you've recently had a lot of rain or used a lot of water. Try cutting back on your water usage for a few days and see if it helps. You should also use your garbage disposal sparingly and be very careful about what you flush and run down your drains.

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If that doesn't help, there is probably a clog somewhere in your septic system. Call a septic professional to check for clogs and check to make sure your septic tank isn't due to be emptied. Clogged and full septic tank systems can both cause this problem.

5. You Notice Well Water Changes

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If you rely on well water, you already know it's a good idea to test it often, even if you have a good filtration system. If you notice an increased level of nitrates and coliform bacteria in your water tests, it could point to a septic system issue. If your septic system is leaking or otherwise failing, it could be releasing these contaminants into the ground and ultimately into your well water.

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If you start getting odd well water tests, have your septic system checked. If it's faulty, you can fix the problem. You could also be doing your neighbors a solid. If your tank is leaking, your well may not be the only one it contaminates. If your septic system checks out fine, you'll know you need to look for other sources of water contamination so you can get your water healthy again.

6. Your Pipes Start Gurgling

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A gurgling sound in your pipes is a sure sign that there is a blockage somewhere in your septic system. It could be in a drain, in a vent, or in one of the baffles that connect the septic tank to the rest of your system. A more serious problem, like a drain field failure, can also cause a gurgle. If you hear a gurgle, call for help sooner rather than later. Gurgling is an early warning sign that can give you a chance to fix a small problem before it becomes a bigger one.

7. There Are Nearby Algae Blooms

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If you have a pond or lake on your property or close by, watch it for algae blooms. This situation is similar to when the grass over your septic tank is green. A leaking septic system can contaminate the water and ultimately fertilize algae and other plant life. Although a bit of algae in the water is not unusual, large algae blooms aren't natural and usually have a distinct cause.

Have your septic tank checked if you fear it could be leaking and causing an algae bloom. You may rule out your septic tank as the source of the problem, but you may also find a small leak in your septic system and have the opportunity to fix it before it becomes a larger and more costly problem.

8. Your Toilet Won't Flush

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When you flush your toilet, you want the contents to go away. If they don't, you can grab the plunger and see if you just have a clog. Sometimes, though, a toilet that is slow to empty or that refuses to do so altogether is a sign that your septic tank is full, or you have a bad clog somewhere. You definitely want to call a professional to look at this problem and quickly — especially if you only have one toilet in your house.

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