Failed Septic System Drainfields as a Source of Septic Odors or Smells
SEPTIC ODORS INDICATING DRAINFIELD FAILURE - CONTENTS: How to track sewage odors or methane gas smells to a failed drainfield. Causes and cures for sewer gas odors related to drainfield problems or due to wet or cold weather. How to find and cure bad smells in buildings, traced to septic systems, septic tanks, drainfields, or septic piping & failures
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Odors from the septic drainfield or soakaway bed: this article explains how to diagnose & correct sewer gas or septic odors (and other building smells and odors traced to a failed septic drainfield, leachfield or soakaway bed.
Some of the diagnostic steps pertain to all seasons, others to cold weather conditions.
The photograph at page top shows green septic dye appearing in a septic system drainfield during a septic loading and dye test. Even before we performed this test to confirm that the liquid found on the surface of the drainfield area was indeed septic effluent (coming from the septic tank), sewage odors in the drainfield area outdoors told us that the septic field was in trouble. Also see our broad-scope article on diagnosis and cure of sewer gas and septic odors: Sewer Gas Odors diagnosing, finding, and curing septic tank and sewer line smells.
How to Investigate & Repair Failed Drainfields and Septic Odors
Notice sewage odors present outdoors, strongest in and traced to the known or most-likely area for the septic drainfield or leach field, also called the soakaway bed or soil absorption system.
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Look for wet areas in or near the septic drainfield. Consider performing a septic loading and dye test to confirm that the wet areas found are septic effluent from the septic tank.
Even if wet areas around a septic leach field are local ground water or runoff, the added water load that those conditions place on the septic drainfield may themselves constitute a septic failure or may require site work to redirect those water sources away from the drainfield.
If the septic system drainfield is blocked or failed it may be possible to reroute effluent to an un-used or under-used section of the drainfield (if effluent was not being distributed uniformly in the first place) - check the distribution box (if any).
There will be additional evidence of septic field condition in the D-box; if the box is flooded either these lines are blocked (such as by poor, uneven installation, tree roots, or a collapse, something not too likely unless you drove a truck over the fields), or the field has stopped percolating and needs replacement.
If on opening the D-box or excavating a drainfield line you see standing water in the leachfield line, either the field is saturated - lost perc - or the line has collapsed nearby and is not flowing.
You can test this by running a hose into the leach line from the D-box or from your point where you've cut it open.
Sometimes you'll see that only one field line is saturated and failed - you can close it off in the D-box and just use the others to give the saturated one a rest, but at the end of the day, you probably need a new drainfield.
Septic Repair Shortcuts and Septic Treatment Products and "Magic bullet" septic repair products and procedures like chemicals, additives, root killers, or soil restorers are mostly ineffective, waste money, and in some cases are illegal as they contaminate the environment. If the septic system drainfield is blocked or failed, most often the property needs a new drain field.
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calculating septic tank volume from size measurements
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.
Pennsylvania State Fact Sheets relating to domestic wastewater treatment systems include
Pennsylvania State Wastewater Treatment Fact Sheet SW-161, Septic System Failure: Diagnosis and Treatment
Pennsylvania State Wastewater Treatment Fact Sheet SW-162, The Soil Media and the Percolation Test
Pennsylvania State Wastewater Treatment Fact Sheet SW-l64, Mound Systems for Wastewater Treatment
Pennsylvania State Wastewater Treatment Fact Sheet SW-165, Septic Tank-Soil Absorption Systems
Document Sources used for this web page include but are not limited to: Agricultural Fact Sheet #SW-161 "Septic Tank Pumping," by Paul D. Robillard and
Kelli S. Martin. Penn State College of Agriculture - Cooperative Extension, edited and annotated by
Dan Friedman (Thanks: to Bob Mackey for proofreading the original source material.)
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.
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.
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.
Books & Articles on Building & Environmental Inspection, Testing, Diagnosis, & Repair
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. Special Offer: For a 10% discount on any number of copies of the Home Reference Book purchased as a single order. Enter INSPECTAHRB in the order payment page "Promo/Redemption" space. InspectAPedia.com editor Daniel Friedman is a contributing author.
Or choose the The Home Reference eBook for PCs, Macs, Kindle, iPad, iPhone, or Android Smart Phones. Special Offer: For a 5% discount on any number of copies of the Home Reference eBook purchased as a single order. Enter INSPECTAEHRB in the order payment page "Promo/Redemption" space.