Off-mains drainage systems such as septic tanks sit out of sight underground, and generally speaking you should expect to get many years of trouble-free service from them. But what happens if you start to notice septic tank problems – perhaps your toilets are taking longer to flush than usual? Or you’ve noticed boggy patches above where your drainage system is?
This page helps you understand how to detect septic tank problems, and what you need to do:
A septic tank inspection is the best first port of call, to find out exactly what’s going on underground. Our team of UK-wide field engineers are equipped with cameras that can investigate both the walls of the septic tank, as well as any soakaway pipework that the waste water runs to. They can get to the bottom of exactly what’s causing any problems and can let you know what needs to be done to put it right.
Unfortunately, there are a number of different ways that your septic tank or soakaway system can become damaged. If you are in need of septic tank repair, you might be surprised to know that often the costs of repairing or replacing damaged septic tanks are covered by your existing buildings insurance. Here at UKDP, we are the only UK experts in insurance claims management for damaged septic tanks and other off mains drainage systems. We can manage everything from start to finish, and the only cost to you is any excess due on your policy.
How do you know if your property has septic tank problems?
Septic tanks, sewage treatment plants and cesspits are out of sight and often out of mind until there’s a problem. Without being able to see the drainage system, it can be hard to understand exactly what’s going on underground, and therefore what might be causing any septic tank problems. Here is the UKDP guide to septic tanks, septic tank problems, and what can be done to get your drainage system working again as soon as possible!
How do septic tanks work?
Firstly, it’s useful to understand how a septic tank works, to give you an idea as to what is underneath the ground at your property.
Here’s a basic diagram of a typical septic tank (although do bear in mind that there are a number of different types of tanks):
The waste water from a septic tank will leave the tank and be disposed of in one of two ways:
It will either exit through a pipe and be discharged to a local ditch or watercourse (please note that this is no longer allowed under current Environment Agency legislation)
Or it will exit into a soakaway system. The phrase `septic tank soakaway’ describes this type of system.
You can view our video below, which explains how a typical septic tank soakaway functions.
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What are the usual symptoms or signs of septic tank problems?
There are a number of different ways that you might notice that there are problems with your septic tank, including:
Strong odours coming from your property’s septic tank
Waste from the tank polluting the surrounding area
You may see visible ground movement around the system, for example `dips’ in the land near your septic tank
Your property’s toilets may take longer to flush than usual, or may even overflow when flushed
You may see damp, smelly spots on your land, which is caused by the waste from the septic tank pooling on the ground above the system
Needing to empty your septic tank more often than usual can be a sign of a problem
You might hear gurgling sounds from within the drainage pipes
You may notice sudden weed or vegetative growth near the drainage system
There are many different reasons that your septic tank might have problems. Sometimes, physical damage has occurred. In other situations, your septic tank may have failed due to other problems such as a lack of maintenance, poor installation or the age of the system itself.
If damage has occurred to your system, it is possible that the cost to repair or replace the system might be covered by your existing Buildings Insurance. UKDP are the only UK specialists in managing insurance claims for damage to off mains drainage systems – septic tanks, soakaways, sewage treatment plants and cesspits. Authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority, we are able to manage everything on your behalf, with the only cost to you being any excess due on your policy. Call our team today on 0800 028 9903 for a free consultation as to whether we might be able to save you thousands of pounds.
So, let’s take a look at the typical types of damage that can cause septic tank problems.
Typical types of damage that can cause septic tank issues
Unfortunately, there are a number of different ways in which your septic tank may become damaged. These can include:
Tree root damage – often, roots from surrounding trees and shrubs can penetrate a septic tank soakaway, or the pipe work leading from the house to the tank.
Ground movement – ground movement in the area surrounding your septic tank can cause structural damage to the walls of the tank including fractures and cracks. This type of damage can affect the structural stability of the tank, but can also allow ground water to enter the tank. This can create two problems – firstly, you may find your septic tank backing up and requiring much more frequent emptying, but also the volume of ground water that can enter the tank affects the tank’s ability to function properly in separating the waste.
Vehicle damage – a septic tank and the pipework leading to and from it can be situated within the boundary of your own property, or sometimes in the boundary of a neighbouring property. As most properties with septic tanks are in more rural locations, they can sometimes be situated within a neighbouring farmland. It is sometimes possible for vehicles to regularly pass over the top of the septic tank or soakaway, causing pressure to be exerted on the system resulting in damage.
Collapsed baffle – the purpose of a baffle within a septic tank is to act as a barrier within it, allowing only liquids to pass through into the second zone of the tank whilst retaining any solids within the first zone.
This in turn means that only separated liquid waste is allowed to exit the tank into the soakaway system or outlet pipe. If the baffle becomes damaged, it is no longer able to ensure that solid waste remains within the septic tank. The solid waste then in turn enters the soakaway system. The purpose of a soakaway is to allow the liquid waste that has left the septic tank to percolate through the soils surrounding the pipework – the soakaway pipework is often perforated or slotted to enable this to happen. The process of the liquid waste percolating through the particles in the soil provides a form of treatment of the waste, and it is then safely dispersed into the surrounding sub soils. When the wrong type of waste enters the soakaway system, the solids contained within it fill the voids in the surrounding soil and prevent any treatment of the waste occurring. We describe this as the soakaway system becoming choked and exhausted. Once this has happened, it cannot be undone, and no further treatment of the waste will be able to take place. All that happens is that the soakaway system continues to fill with the waste from the septic tank and either quickly backs up through the system and into the property, or finds its way to ground level and starts to pool on the surface above the soakaway.
Damage to dip pipes – a dip pipe exists to ensure that only the correct type of waste from the septic tank exits into the soakaway system or outlet pipe. It retains the more solid or `scum’ layer within the tank ready for routine removal, allowing only the separated liquid waste to exit the septic tank. Often, when we undertake a septic tank inspection, we find the outlet dip pipe resting at the base of the tank. Sometimes, this is because the dip pipe has been knocked off during a routine emptying. The missing dip pipe means that the outlet pipe leading to the soakaway is not protected, and the scum layer from within the tank (which should usually be retained within the tank and removed regularly) is able to travel through the pipe and in to the soakaway system. This causes the same damage to the soakaway pipework as explained in the above information about a collapsed baffle.
Please watch our video below which explains how a septic tank soakaway is affected when a dip pipe is damaged.
Hydrostatic pressure – excessive ground water in the area surrounding the septic tank can cause significant problems. In extreme cases, the pressure exerted on the tank by the water in the ground can cause a septic tank or sewage treatment plant to literally `pop’ out of the ground.
This can cause serious problems for the property owner, as the pipe leading to the septic tank will become detached from the tank itself – resulting immediately in the septic tank backing up, often into the property itself. This problem needs to be resolved urgently – for advice please call our team today on 0800 028 9903.
Sometimes, a septic tank failure can be due to other factors, and the septic tank itself may not be damaged. These factors can include:
Age of the septic tank – some septic tanks can be over 100 years old, and will look very different to a modern day equivalent. For example, they would not have had dip pipes and would often have been a single instead of double chamber structure. It is possible that a tank of this age may still be functioning, but it certainly won’t be doing so as efficiently as a modern day tank, and this may present septic tank issues for the property owner. Similarly, there is no set lifespan for soakaway systems – but they certainly don’t last forever, and in time they may start to cause problems.
Lack of maintenance – it’s important that a septic tank is emptied regularly, typically once every 12 to 18 months. As the solids are retained within the tank, whilst the separated liquid waste exits into the soakaway or outlet pipe, it is these that must be emptied by a tanker company.
Incorrect installation or faulty workmanship – correctly installing a septic tank or soakaway is a very involved project and must be undertaken by an experienced professional. There are many factors that must be considered, including:
A percolation test should be undertaken to ensure that the ground conditions are suitable for a soakaway – and also to determine the correct size and depth of the soakaway. Modern soakaway systems are predominantly referred to as drainage fields.
A change in ground conditions – when a drainage system is installed, it is crucial to ensure that it is appropriate for the ground conditions at the property. However, over a number of years, ground conditions can change significantly from the point in time when a drainage system was installed. In time, the ground may become more saturated with ground water, meaning that a soakaway that had previously been installed when the conditions were suitable may no longer be able to function adequately. This would result in the soakaway system backing up into the septic tank, or effluent pooling above the ground where the soakaway is situated.
What can be done to put right any septic tank problems?
If your septic tank is backing up, or your toilets are taking longer to flush than usual, it doesn’t have to be an expensive problem to sort out. Firstly, check whether your septic tank is due to be emptied. It’s important to get this done regularly, and you might have overlooked that it was due. Emptying the septic tank might just get the system flowing again, so try that first.
If that doesn’t solve the problem, then check what’s being flushed into your tank. You can read our article here about what you should and shouldn’t flush into a tank, as putting the wrong things down your toilets and sinks can cause nasty blockages.
If your septic tank still isn’t working as it should be, it’s best to get to the bottom of the problems before they get any worse. A septic tank inspection is the ideal way to take a thorough look at what’s going on inside your drainage system, and to give you advice as to how we can best get things sorted for you.
If you are unsure whether your septic tank or septic tank soakaway system has become damaged, call the UKDP team today on 0800 028 9903 for a free consultation.