Experience with Alternative septic drainfields?

Mike01007

New Member
Jun 6, 2017
2
Massachusetts
My favorite topic. Yes, I'm an engineer and this poop is my bread and butter.

The frequency of pumping has everything to do with solids accumulation and nothing to do with how much water enters the tank. So taking shorter showers, letting yellow mellow, or using high efficiency clothes washers, toilets, shower heads, or dishwashers has NOTHING to do with pump frequency. The only reason you pump the tank is to remove the solids from the tank before they rise (sludge) or fall (scum) to the tank outlet level and contaminate your drainfield. Sludge is the solid stuff that sinks to the bottom and accumulates into a firm mud. Scum is the white/brown floatable solids like grease and fat that float to the top and create that nice floating layer on top. The clear zone in the middle is the good stuff that will eventually leave the tank to the drainfield after all of the solids either float up or sink down.

The only good thing a premature pump out does for a tank that wasn't needing it is that it gives your drainfield a rest. The rest period is good for a marginal system because if the drainfield is overworked it is saturated with water too often and only anaerobic bacteria can live like that. A drainfield is supposed to be full of aerobic bacteria which need oxygen to quickly eat any remaining nutrients that leave your septic tank. It should take a week or so to refill an empty tank before the first effluent leaves the tank to the rested drainfield.

The above rest is why drainfields are designed with a daily flow rate. The drainfield must remain unsaturated, the ground must accept the effluent faster than your house is dumping it so that the bugs stay aerobic and oxygen levels high. Less flow is always better since it gives you the best chance of staying unsaturated.

So in summary. Only pump your tank when it needs it. 1500 gallons, family of 4, an easy 5 years. Your pumper can tell you how "full" the tank was and whether you could have gone twice as long or maybe three times as long. Better to be conservative and pump early until you establish this history. Still, don't cut it close. Lots of money at risk. The business also has a tool called a "sludge judge" that is a pipe that you insert into the tank to the bottom, put your thumb over the end and lift it out. The layers of sludge, clear, and scum stay separate and you can judge the need for pumping.

Chamber systems are fine if installed properly. The sand backfill is weird. Should be just native soil. The chambers are set onto the ground and since water is supposed to soak into the dry ground below, there is no use for gravel above the chambers. The reason you can reduce the required drainfield area with the chamber systems is that the trench bottom, the soaking area, is not partially blocked by gravel as it would be with a traditional gravel trench system. You've got to grade the trench bottom perfectly level as the chamber systems work by dumping the effluent into the chamber area and using the entire trench bottom for soaking.

Gravel backfill won't hurt though and will prevent an installation error from ruining the system. I suspect the method of failure is that the chambers aren't firmly bedded or sealed into the native soil so the sand easily washes into the chamber area as rainfall/surface water from above falls through the ground and wants to enter the chamber, taking sand with it. Not unlike how a leaky sewer main causes a sinkhole on the surface. Sand is the problem. Either gravel or real soil should be used.

Divert surface water away from the drainfield area.
I'm new to the forums here but because this is your "bread and butter", I figured I could serve you a helping, hoping that you can serve me some advice. :)

After living in our new home for 14 years, our system has begun to fail. We have the wet leeching field and when it it pumped, the honey wagon tells is the field leaks back into the tank. The tank has never seen feminine products or food disposals but obviously with three kids, laundry and showers are frequent. We have a family of five and I would need to head back to the town to see exactly what size tank was installed but I know it was sized for 4 bedrooms and 3 bathrooms.

I've seen a few Youtube videos and some discussions surrounding the aerobic pump systems and how they can "save" your septic system. I'm a licensed electrician by trade, very handy with construction and repairs but not very familiar with plumbing and obviously septic systems. Can these conversions work and save us $15k? Are there local or state red tape that I need to be aware of? Can I simply do this on my own?

Thanks everyone~
 

peakbagger

Minister of Fire
Jul 11, 2008
5,633
Northern NH
Until Highbeam answers, here is some Massachusetts specific reading http://www.mass.gov/eea/agencies/massdep/water/wastewater/septic-systems-title-5.html

Keep in mind every state has different regulations and each design usually needs state approval. I seriously doubt you can DIY it. When I looked into aerobic treatment technology several years ago that adds a method of introducing air bubbles upstream of a biological trickling filter, the owner had to have a long term maintenance agreement with remote monitoring for the life of the unit. I was way too tempting for the homeowner to turn the power off to the blower to save the power and let it overflow. I have also heard that they are less tolerant of household chemicals.

Given the various housing booms in Mass over the years I hope you just don't have a site that had marginal soils and developer threw in an inappropriate design.

I got an idea that you may be getting familiar with one of these systems http://presbyeco.com/pe_approval/massachusetts/
 

Highbeam

Minister of Fire
Dec 28, 2006
17,996
Mt. Rainier Foothills, WA
I'm new to the forums here but because this is your "bread and butter", I figured I could serve you a helping, hoping that you can serve me some advice. :)

After living in our new home for 14 years, our system has begun to fail. We have the wet leeching field and when it it pumped, the honey wagon tells is the field leaks back into the tank. The tank has never seen feminine products or food disposals but obviously with three kids, laundry and showers are frequent. We have a family of five and I would need to head back to the town to see exactly what size tank was installed but I know it was sized for 4 bedrooms and 3 bathrooms.

I've seen a few Youtube videos and some discussions surrounding the aerobic pump systems and how they can "save" your septic system. I'm a licensed electrician by trade, very handy with construction and repairs but not very familiar with plumbing and obviously septic systems. Can these conversions work and save us $15k? Are there local or state red tape that I need to be aware of? Can I simply do this on my own?

Thanks everyone~
A traditional system has a septic tank where primary treatment occurs. These are almost always 1000 gallons and full of anaerobic bacteria that eat slowly to decompose the separated sludge and scum. The tank only provides primary (the first stage) treatment of separation. It works by providing time for the separation to occur. The 1000 gallon size is 4 or 5 days residence time between deposit into the tank and being pushed out into the drainfield. I doubt that your septic tank is the problem here unless you have never had it pumped in 14 years or you have some rare habits like 5 bathtubs every night.

Once the somewhat clean liquids leave the tank they go to the drainfield which has two functions. One is to dispose of the liquid by soaking into the ground. The ground MUST have a fast enough infiltration rate to accept the effluent from the tank and keep the drainfield dry on the surface and way at the bottom below the pipes and gravel. You actually need unsaturated soil beneath the pipes. Because of this unsaturated environment there is oxygen available for the aerobic bacteria to provide the second function of the drainfield which is to quickly eat whatever funk made it out of the septic tank. Healthy aerobic bacteria here eat up the funk and keep the funk from plugging up the soil surface under your drainfield. Also the funk needs to be eaten before contaminating the ground water beneath.

One special consideration is lint. Synthetic lint doesn't separate well in the tank and isn't eaten by the bacteria so it is important and usually required to have an effluent filter on the outlet of your septic tank to keep the lint from floating out into the drainfield. It is slow, but the accumulation of the synthetic lint can cripple the drainfield. The effluent filters also are a backup system to keep sludge and scum from leaving the septic tank if you fail to pump it frequently enough. They have been required on all new installs in WA for many years.

Assuming your system was built properly in the first place, assuming normal water use in the home, and assuming you've had this tank pumped a couple of times in the time you've owned it, the problem most likely originated in your drainfield. Either high groundwater levels, physical damage like a break/plug, or soil that was too tight to accept the sewage like clays. Somehow you ended up with a saturated drainfield that can no longer accept your sewage fast enough. This is the worst possible news a septic system owner can get. You are almost forced to abandon the drainfield and build a new one in the "reserve" area since the saturated drainfield will have killed the aerobic bacteria and now the funk from your septic has developed a matt of funk at the soil surface below your drainfield pipes that will prevent it from ever working right again. I have seen some folks resort to a technique that is a bit like fracking to break up the matt and allow the sewage to once again soak through. They call it drainfield rejuvenation and some success has occurred at about 20% the cost of a new drainfield assuming groundwater levels are not a problem.

You can't DIY anything. Legally. But I might be inclined to try a rejuvenation service without getting any permits. At least talk to the guy.

The most common underground aerobic system has a regular septic tank, with regular anaerobic bacteria for separation, but then the effluent flows to a second tank with air injection where aerobic bacteria eat the funk to provide secondary treatment just like your drainfield would. There is often a UV light in the second tank before the outlet to do a little polishing before it goes out to the drainfield. In this case, the drainfield is really just a disposal field and the sewage is pretty dang clean. Some locations even allow surface sprinklers for this. The aerobic systems are needed when the soils are too tight, the groundwater too high, or space is too limited to provide the aerobic bacteria function of a regular drainfield.

A second type of aerobic system uses a mound of sand above ground level (so it's dry) where the effluent from the septic tank receives secondary treatment before running off onto the ground surface.

Aerobic systems are much more expensive than a replacement drainfield if you have some ground somewhere that is good enough for a traditional replacement drainfield.

Your system has failed. You are polluting the groundwater and you risk having a backup into the home. Your dog and kids will play in the surfacing sewage. It won't get better if you ignore it but you can probably get through the summer by reducing water usage a lot while you plan for a replacement. You won't be able to sell your house as-is.
 

Highbeam

Minister of Fire
Dec 28, 2006
17,996
Mt. Rainier Foothills, WA
Given the various housing booms in Mass over the years I hope you just don't have a site that had marginal soils and developer threw in an inappropriate design.
Most likely scenario. Or the designer was unaware of high groundwater since he did the design in the summer. The systems don't wear out if they are designed, installed, and operated properly. My home's gravity system is 54 years old, always had a family of four using it.
 
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Mike01007

New Member
Jun 6, 2017
2
Massachusetts
The most common underground aerobic system has a regular septic tank, with regular anaerobic bacteria for separation, but then the effluent flows to a second tank with air injection where aerobic bacteria eat the funk to provide secondary treatment just like your drainfield would. There is often a UV light in the second tank before the outlet to do a little polishing before it goes out to the drainfield. In this case, the drainfield is really just a disposal field and the sewage is pretty dang clean. Some locations even allow surface sprinklers for this. The aerobic systems are needed when the soils are too tight, the groundwater too high, or space is too limited to provide the aerobic bacteria function of a regular drainfield.
The home was brand new when I built it and bought it. I know they trucked in a significant amount of material to create the elevated drain-field. We have had the system pumped nearly every three years (maybe missed one session so four-six years between pumping). The air-injection systems (many offered online) is exactly what I had hoped for but it sounds as if the field is so saturated that it will no longer take the fluids. I suspect the drain-field is not only filled with fluids but bio-mat? From what I understood, the air injection would also help created the correct bacteria to eat away at the bio-mat and help the system rejuvenate the drain-field. This system is much more cost effective and more DIY; I would never try and attempt do replace my drain-field on my own.

Would an inspection/cleaning of the drain-field piping be required? Maybe access the ends of the drain-field pipes and insert a self feeding powerwasher type hose? $15k is simply not in the budget for a very long time...

Thanks again for all advice....I truly appreciate it!
 

Highbeam

Minister of Fire
Dec 28, 2006
17,996
Mt. Rainier Foothills, WA
Would an inspection/cleaning of the drain-field piping be required? Maybe access the ends of the drain-field pipes and insert a self feeding powerwasher type hose? $15k is simply not in the budget for a very long time...
The drainfield rejuvenators that inject air and/or foam pellets to fracture the ground and the biomat to allow effluent to pass through all start out by locating each end of each drainfield lateral and jetting the line clean. They do this to remove cloggage but also to accurately locate the pipes so that their injector machine doesn't break one.

Normally, drainfield lines do not need to be jetted clean.

Call around asking for an actual service provider that might offer advice specific to your unconventional system. Be careful though of saying that your system has failed. You don't want the health department out there condemning your house.
 

semipro

Minister of Fire
Jan 12, 2009
3,884
SW Virginia
Mike,
You may be able to increase your drainfield's capacity by taking advantage of plant transpiration and sunlight. Is the septic field area shaded? If so, taking down some trees to let in some sunlight will help. Also, certain types of plantings in the septic field area will help transfer the moisture from the ground to the air via transpiration. Of course you have to select plants that won't damage or clog you lines.

If you have turf there now it may help let the grass grow (to increase surface area) and give it more sun.

A publication here on septic field plantings: https://www.pubs.ext.vt.edu/content/dam/pubs_ext_vt_edu/426/426-617/426-617_pdf.pdf
 

peakbagger

Minister of Fire
Jul 11, 2008
5,633
Northern NH
I am definitely not advocating this approach but long ago I heard of shady characters that would dump some sort of concentrated caustic product down the drain into what I would guess were cesspools to break up the grease and solids. I don't think it was ever legal but homeowners can get desperate and fall for fly by night fixes. I have also heard but not seen the same approach used on drain fields where they locate the distribution box and add the caustic directly to the drainage pipes. I expect in either case it may possibly clean any grease out of the perforated holes where they discharge into ground but probably screws up the biology.

As far as I ever heard of, the choice is replace the field preferably on an alternative site or do a replace in the same spot which I believe requires significant excavation down below the prior base of the leach field.
 

susanl

New Member
Oct 27, 2020
3
Fryeburg, ME
Hello
I'm writing to let everyone know that our Enviro system has failed in 2020 and do not recommend using this system. Buyer beware. The plan was drawn up in 2009. We moved into our newly built home in 2011. We pumped the tank every 2 years - that's 4 times starting in 2013. The designer/surveyor that was used has done a new design gratis. Here is where it gets interesting. The new plan is 50% larger than the original plan following the same specs of a 5 bedroom plan for our 4 bedroom home. We over built our system for our own security for it to last. I believe Presby had overestimated the quality of their product back in 2009. The information used from Presby is sent to the state for designers to follow the specifications. At the time of our build vents were not required. The installer and designer followed those specifications and didn't have them as part of the design. The original installer is now putting in a new field gratis, because like the designer he feels the product is inferior. In contacting Presby, they have not offered anything up other than the tech to check out our system and point fingers at others. He confirmed all the tubes where full of fluid. Which means the had not been crushed by any outside source. He confirmed the proper sand was used but not enough of it surrounding the tubes. The designer and installer say that the sand could have moved because of the flow. Town inspector and a third party inspector who called our leach field failed feel, that the homeowners are not at fault. The pumping company are surprised we are failed.
 

peakbagger

Minister of Fire
Jul 11, 2008
5,633
Northern NH
Presby Systems were developed locally and they have been installing them for 20 plus years. They have a very good reputation in Northern NH and NH in general. The leach field is much smaller than a traditional system. The soil liquid interface is more effective then the conventional Sch 10 PCV pipe with holes in the bottom but they do have the reputation that the drainage layer that the "tubes" go in had to be a very specific screened gravel with minimal fines. Too many fines and the field does not drain, the approved screened gravel only comes from a few pits and the temptation is to just use a screened bank run. I have not heard of any early failures related to the design. They usually are used to replace conventional design failed systems as they take up a lot less room.

On the other hand there is an ongoing issue with synthetic lint plugging leach fields of all types. New systems include a lint filter on the outlet of the tank. The other aspect is that folks used to city sewer usually have a rough time getting used to a septic tank. Unlike a city system, septic systems are more sensitive to usage. The so call soft toilet paper that is getting popular has hard to digest fibers. Like the lint fibers they do not sink to the bottom of the tank. They tend to attach to gas bubbles and float to the top where they go out into the field and plug the leach field. Therefore the owner can pump the tank routinely and still have some non biological solids going out into the field. Others use garbage disposals which is not recommended for septic systems.

I do not profess to be an expert but I have heard folks that have had failed systems and inevitably there is finger pointing with the homeowner caught in the middle. Systems do not necessarily need an external vent if they are a gravity system. On the other hand if its a pump up system then there does need to be a vent. The problem is the cost to bring in experts to figure out who is to blame will exceed the cost to replace the leach field so rarely is it sorted out.
 

DickRussell

Feeling the Heat
Mar 1, 2011
254
central NH
For what it's worth, my Enviroseptic leach field, put into use in 2011, has been in operation without any problem at all. In 2019, I had the tank pumped for the first time. Sure, eight years is a long time to run without pumping, but the system is sized for five bedrooms, and most of the time it's just the two of us using it. The pumper said it was ready for pumping, but otherwise was just fine.
 

MTY

Feeling the Heat
Jan 9, 2019
413
Idaho
I installed an infiltrator system a couple of years ago. 3 seventy foot trenches, native soils, bottom of trench level with top sloping about a foot over the seventy feet. I hope it lasts a long time. The prior system was a home cast tank with a four inch pipe surface laid to the creek.

Permit cost was quoted at 1200 for a new system. I asked public health to inspect my grandfathered in system. The poor inspector was gasping, I got the new permit for 350.
 

zrock

Minister of Fire
Dec 2, 2017
960
bc
The biggest thing to make sure with your systems is to have the filter/strainer on the outlet to the field and that the piping in the tank is proper. The piping in the tank goes down to a certain level aprox 2 feet below the surface so it only picks up fluid and no solids. You can start with yearly pumping and see where the solids are on this pipe if they are still quite high on the pipe give it 2 years before pumping and check again. Once you figure out your usage you may be able to get away with pumping your tank every 3-8 years. As stated above about toilet paper, you also need to keep paper towel and grease out of the system. We had a tenant that always flushed paper towel and would always plug the inlet of the tank. this stopped once i gave them the bill for the honey wagon. I used to do installs and run a large modular and rv park. Depending on the age of our system i could get away with pumping tanks between 1 and 4 years. Anything above that would be a guaranteed plug.
Back to the original post in our area i have never seen a system that was to code not use drain rock...
 

susanl

New Member
Oct 27, 2020
3
Fryeburg, ME
That's one way to avoid liability.
I have filed a complaints to the Better Business Bureau, the United States Environmental Bureau, and the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. There are laws in the state of Maine that are on the side of the consumer, where there is liability coverage 4 years after a product fails based on the predicted life of the product. We will be busy with pursuing legal action:(
 

peakbagger

Minister of Fire
Jul 11, 2008
5,633
Northern NH
Good luck on your pursuit, let us know in several years how it works out if you go the legal route. You may want to start with the right department in Maine https://www.maine.gov/dhhs/mecdc/environmental-health/plumb/,

The US EPA has delegated its authority to the State of Maine so they could care less. The BBB may make you feel good but as discussed the finger pointing will be between the designer, the company who supplied the materials, the company that did the installation and yourself. Possibly you could try to get WGME TV consumer reporter to do some public guilt tripping?. Do note that the state still includes the Presby type systems in their training so maybe they will take an interest.
 

susanl

New Member
Oct 27, 2020
3
Fryeburg, ME
Good luck on your pursuit, let us know in several years how it works out if you go the legal route. You may want to start with the right department in Maine https://www.maine.gov/dhhs/mecdc/environmental-health/plumb/,

The US EPA has delegated its authority to the State of Maine so they could care less. The BBB may make you feel good but as discussed the finger pointing will be between the designer, the company who supplied the materials, the company that did the installation and yourself. Possibly you could try to get WGME TV consumer reporter to do some public guilt tripping?. Do note that the state still includes the Presby type systems in their training so maybe they will take an interest.
Thanks for all the advice and realize it may take a while;) The bigger the paper trail for the complaint the better the lawyer said. She also suggested the tv route once the complaints are established. The issue I need to be sure to bring to light is the size difference of the same spec'd plan with the new guidelines. And that all the others involved are doing their work gratis.
 

Sodbuster

Minister of Fire
Sep 22, 2012
1,462
Michigan
I've often thought about routing my gray water (washing machine) to my sump pump. It's only soapy water, and would save wear and tear on my drain field.
 

peakbagger

Minister of Fire
Jul 11, 2008
5,633
Northern NH
I've often thought about routing my gray water (washing machine) to my sump pump. It's only soapy water, and would save wear and tear on my drain field.
Some areas allow gray water to be used for irrigation. A cleanable sediment filter is installed on the line. This does not work very well where the ground is frozen as the gray water being applied to the surface would freeze. There is a ski area in Maine, Sugarloaf that sprays partially treated effluent thru a snow gun system in an area away from the slope. They build a big pile of snow over the witner and then let it melt in the spring.

One lesser known fact is that urine is sterile and some alternative systems seperate out the urine and bypass it for direct land application.
 

blades

Minister of Fire
Nov 23, 2008
3,538
WI, Leroy
ya know I never did understand or agree with the local codes that say everything has to go to the septic tank including ground water collection from basement footing piping. To Me routing the washer at minimum to a different system and the footing ground water would make a lot of sense. For years the basement pump was just that - surface discharge then something changed- I can see it being a problem in the cities and a lot of the packed tight suburbs (previous home issue with surface ground water after new subdivison went up) but not out here in Farm country. And I remember a episode on This old House or similar that was doing just that and that was up in the northern original 13 colonies and not out in the boonies just a few years ago. As my place is a 90/91 build and the drain plumbing is all plastic- it would be very easy for me to reroute the washer and various sinks and with 3 acres lots of room to send it somewhere all on a gravity basis- only the basement crock would need the lift( as they all do)
 
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tlc1976

Minister of Fire
Oct 7, 2012
547
Northwest Lower Michigan
A coworker had his washer run to an underground drain barrel to keep it out of the septic. When he went to sell his house he said don’t say anything, let the inspector do his job and he will probably not see it even though it is technically not to code. Doesn’t make sense, it all goes into the ground regardless.

My grandpa had something similar, it went to his basement drain to an underground barrel. When the city rebuilt the water mains they found it and he had to abandon it and fight with a sump pump for the rest of his life. Meanwhile relocate the washer upstairs. The house was built on an artesian well, keeping the basement dry was impossible.
 

paulnlee

Feeling the Heat
Dec 2, 2018
358
Flemington, NJ
In my county where the average lot is 3+ acres every home up for sale fails for septic system. A few are under 5 years old. Average cost here for a new field---30K. Tell me it's not a racket
 

MTY

Feeling the Heat
Jan 9, 2019
413
Idaho
Two points, to use an alternate routing system for urine one only has to step outside. Secondly, for 30k one could buy a mini ex, build it your self, and pocket a good chunk of change.

I dug my tank and lines from the house and to the distribution box, and paid someone 300 to dig the 210 feet of trench for the leach field. I think all told I have about 3K in the system. It was inspected, mapped, and approved prior to backfill. The tank is concrete with two chambers.

My mini is not pretty, but I only paid 8K for it. It dug the basement, the crawl space, drain lines for the gutters, water and electric lines, retaining wall trenches, and probably more I cannot remember. A monkey could run one. This monkey will soon be digging the shop foundation. I should have bought one years ago.
 
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zrock

Minister of Fire
Dec 2, 2017
960
bc
30k for a spetic system... my last job before i left we installed a 3 tank system plus pump chamber and about 800ft of drain line and field line 300-400 feet of power cable and our cost was about 10g plus labour came no ware need a 30 g price tag and this was enough to meet code for 6 new modular homes...