Servicing Septic System Customers

Here are some tips on how to approach a drain service call if the customer is on a septic tank

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The first question to ask a customer during your initial phone call should always be, “Do you have city sewer or are you on a septic system?”

Bringing an inspection camera to every drain service call is always a good idea, but it is especially crucial to have one for a private sewer system drain call. These service calls will often be outside your immediate city and far enough away where running back to get the camera will put the job in a total money loss for your company.

For the drain tech, the most important piece of the private sewer system is whether the greywater (water from showers, floor drains, bathtubs, lavatory sinks, kitchen sinks, etc.) is piped into the septic tank or instead piped independently to some other source, either to daylight or directly into the ground. Some jurisdictions now require all greywater and soil waste to be directed into the septic tank. But more often you do not want the greywater going into the septic tank for two reasons 1.) Food bacteria from a kitchen sink will disturb the natural bacteria process of turning waste into gas and break down into effluent, and 2.) It disturbs the waste’s 24-hour activity and separation period because the amount of greywater entering the system is so high that it doesn’t allow the natural process to take over.

This information is vital to the drain tech because there could potentially be two different types of exiting drains. One exiting drain for the greywater system and one exiting drain for the soil system.

How to locate the septic tank

The first thing to do is locate the septic tank. Ask the homeowner if they have any clue where the septic tank lid is. Sometimes the lid is completely covered and not very accessible. If this is the case, the tank will often have a large circular concrete lid. Newer systems have a riser pipe with an easily removed access hole for viewing.

Oftentimes the homeowner will have no clue where the septic tank is, and you could spend all day trying to poke and prod to find it. It’s difficult to abandon the hunt for the tank because there is a high probability it is full. It is your judgment call on a case by case basis whether to continue hunting for the tank or abandon the search and just try to open the drain — knowing that the possibility exists it might be a waste of time. But if you must find the tank there are several methods you can try.

One way of finding a septic tank is using the heat from the lid as an indicator. If you live in an area with light frost or light snow, and the planets align for the season where you can look into a dew-filled grassy yard, the dew and the soft snow will melt over the septic tank first like the manholes in the city do. The grass is usually greenest over the septic tank area. You can also take a pointed rod with a handle and poke around to see what you hit based on the customer’s best guess.

If you aren’t feeling lucky with those strategies, the easiest way to find it is to shove your inspection camera into the line (even though the pipe is currently clogged) and locate where it stops. If you dig there and don’t find the lid or tank, then at least you know where the clog is and that it isn’t necessarily a full septic tank. In this case, you would need to pull the camera out of the line (wiping it off as it comes out since it will be covered in waste) and start rodding the drain.

"Peanut butter" backup

Ask the homeowner when was the last time they had the septic tank pumped out. It’s possible that the tank hasn’t been pumped out in a very long time and has been overcome by sludge. If it has an easily accessible lid, take the lid off and make sure it isn’t packed to the very tip with sludge.

If the tank is completely overflowing with sludge, the customer needs two things — a septic company to pump out the tank immediately followed up by a drain tech (you) jetting the line completely clear. When a septic tank becomes fully compacted with sludge, sludge will start backing up into the house. When it does, it can have the consistency of peanut butter. The “peanut butter” can remain in the lateral when the septic company pumps out the septic tank. If a drain tech runs rods down into the line without running a bunch of water simultaneously, the rods will make it through and into the tank. Still, the “peanut butter” will remain in position only to collapse back on itself, leading to unnecessary clogs and callbacks.  

Don't be surprised if, after running your rods from the cleanout point into the septic tank, the backed-up waste doesn't open and flow into the septic tank. To get rid of the “peanut butter” waste, you can either run a grease cutter bit while running a bunch of water or bring in the jetter and jet the line clean. If you choose to use regular rods with a grease cutter tip, you first want to make sure the drain takes at least a small amount of water. This is usually the case. Next, run the rods in until you verify they are entirely through the lateral and just before the septic tank shroud. Once you have measured this and believe you are there, start running tons of water and slowly run the machine pulling it back 6 inches at a time. This will allow the grease to get whipped up and washed down the line.

If you choose to use a jetter, which can be much more effective at clearing grease, just let the machine do the work and slowly feed it into the line using a penetrating tip. It is up for debate among seasoned drain technicians on whether you should use cold or hot water while dealing with grease because hot water will liquefy grease, and cold water will harden grease. Some drain techs will run a large volume of hot water to try and liquefy the grease and send it to its destination. However, if and when the water cools, it can ball up significantly and cause a problem. Running cold water will make the grease into smaller chunks that you can push down the line in a manageable fashion.

What if there are two drains?

If you find that the sewer line enters the septic tank and the greywater line goes in a separate direction, first identify which one is clogged by running water. Do not assume the floor drains go to the septic tank. The floor drain will often go to daylight or follow the greywater lines. This is where being a drain tech can get confusing. It is best if you spend the time walking the property, asking the right questions, and doing a thorough discovery and analysis of the situation.

About the Author

Anthony Pacilla is a registered master plumber for McVehil Plumbing in Washington, Pennsylvania. He has over two decades of experience in the plumbing and HVAC trades, and has a bachelor’s in business and economics from Thiel College.


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