Septic Tank Problems

Septic systems range from the very simple to the extremely complex. Even on the simplest septic systems there are still many things that can go wrong. If you believe that septic systems are something you bury and forget about, then I guarantee that you will come across many of these problems. There are simple things anyone can do to keep their septic system running properly for decades.

First a general description of a septic system. The system starts where the common drain leaves the house. This drain can go to a municipal sewer or to an individual septic system. The water flows by gravity into the septic system. The inlet to the septic tank is protected by a T shaped baffle. It is open on the top and bottom. It is designed to contain floating debris in a small area and to direct solids to settle down towards the bottom. The water is contained here where solids settle out to form a sludge layer and floating objects form a scum layer. In between there is a clear zone where the water has very few solids. The water in the tank is treated by anaerobic bacteria. The bacteria break down organic compounds in the water until there is almost nothing left.
The water leaves the tank through another T shaped baffle on the other side of the tank. This one goes down to the clear zone and allows clear zone water to exit the tank without coming into contact with the scum layer. Some tanks have a septic pump, the pump is installed on the opposite side of the inlet and at the expected height of the clear zone. Larger tanks might have a dividing wall to keep sludge and scum on one side and clear water on the other side.

Septic Tank, Septage, scum, sludge, clear, zone

Basic Septic Tank Design (source: biozoneseptoc.com)

The sludge layer if not removed every three to five years can cause a major failure of the entire system. Not everything can be broken down completely.  There are always things that either never breakdown or breakdown too slowly and they accumulate.  The sludge layer will eventually reduce the capacity of the tank and the solids will block the inlet or the outlet of the tank.  The sludge layer will be a rapid problem if the people using the system treat the toilet as a garbage can.

The scum layer is all the floating solids the get flushed into the system. Grease and oils cause a large part of the scum problem. But they are far from the only culprits. Cooking oils and grease coat the walls of the pipes and tanks and slowly reduce the size of the of the inlet and outlet eventually blocking them, and you can see how that is a problem.

The drain field is where the treated effluent gets released back to the environment. It may be called something else like a tile bed or weeping tile. They are usually subterranean but can sometimes be on the surface. Regardless there are still buried pipes and they are easy to collapse if you drive a vehicle over them. Lawn tractors are OK but even compact cars are too heavy for the shallow plastic piping. If the piping becomes cracked or even a section collapses then pipe will become blocked with dirt and your waste water will have nowhere to go except back into the house.

Hydraulic overloading is the technical name for putting too much sewage into your septic tank.  This can happen if you have a party and there are more people using the system or if the sludge layer reduces the capacity of the tank.  The end result of overloading is that poorly or untreated sewage leaves the system negatively impacting the surrounding area.

Leaks are bound to occur with age.  You can also create leaks by driving over the tank and excavating too close to the tank.  Leaks are a huge problem once they occur.  The groundwater and soil contamination is extremely expensive to clean up.  You may also be liable for damage to the neighbor’s water supply depending on the riparian laws where you live.  A leaking tank needs to be replaced immediately.

Proper maintenance will prevent most problems.  The worst thing anyone can do is to bury the septic system and forget about it.

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Can I use a storm-water pond as a back-up source of water?

Storm-water ponds are the closest alternative source of water for many people living in urban areas. In an emergency this source of water may be all that is available to you.  Eventually any water you have stored will be consumed and the water in a storm-water pond may be the difference between life and death.  With the proper treatment your local storm-water pond can be a great backup source of drinking water.

Industrial storm-water pond (source: info.evergreen.ca)

Storm-water presents a unique set of challenges during treatment. Because storm-water ponds collect surface water, the water is exposed to all the contaminants on the ground in the catchment area. This includes but is not limited to pesticides and fertilizers applied to lawns, motor oil and gasoline leaking from vehicles and litter like cigarette buts. It all ends up is the storm-water pond. Those chemicals are already in storm-water ponds on a normal day. During an emergency there may be additional contamination from sewage runoff from an overloaded or broken sewage system. The water in the pond will also contain all the microorganisms like ecoli, giardia and cryptosporidium normally in surface water. Any one of these will make you very sick if you get infected with them.
Finally, there will be high levels of nitrates in storm-water ponds. Too much nitrates consumed by young children can cause blue baby syndrome.

The first step in treating water from a storm-water pond is straining. Straining the water through a cloth or loose sand filter will remove large particles (ones you could pick up with your fingers). Remove as much of the suspended particles from the water as you can. Straining the water first will extend the life of your proper water filter.

If you have a clarifying agent like aluminum sulfate, this is the best time to add it to the water.  It will make contaminants too small to be filtered become attracted to each other and become significantly larger.  Larger particles are easier to remove from the water. Let the water sit still for at least 30 minutes without disturbing it.  All the newly formed large particles (called floc) will sink to the bottom.  When you take the water from this container, make sure you leave the majority of the settled material at the bottom of the container.

Urban Storm-water pond (source: greenbmp.blogspot.com)

The next step is to filter the water. Filter the water even if it looks clear, the human eye is five times too weak to detect dangerous levels of particles. Filter the water at least once through an activated carbon filter. Activated carbon is known to remove many different chemicals from water including pesticides, chlorine and fluoride. Activated carbon is not the same as charcoal. Charcoal is similar, it can remove toxins from water but it is nowhere near the efficiency of activated carbon.

The third step is oxidation. Oxidation will help with disinfection as most disinfectant chemicals are also oxidizers. Chemicals like sodium hypochlorite and potassium permanganate are both oxidizers and disinfectants. Oxidation will break down many of the remaining contaminants and inactivate many of the remaining bacteria. Keep adding the oxidizer/disinfectant till you can detect a residual after 20 minutes. The 20 minutes is the minimum you should wait for a gallon of water. Wait longer for larger volumes. This is because oxidation is a chemical reaction that isn’t instant. It needs time to complete the reaction.

The fourth step is to filter the water again. Filtering again is necessary because the disinfection/oxidation step will create some potentially carcinogenic byproducts. We filter before oxidation to minimize the amount of chlorine (or other chemical) and to limit the possibility of forming dangerous byproducts. We filter the second time to remove any byproducts that have been formed.

The final step is to boil the water.  This will help with disinfection, but the main goal of boiling at this point is to remove any volatile chemicals.  Any chemical with a boiling point lower than water will be removed after boiling.

A note about disinfection.  If all of these steps are followed there is no need for a step dedicated for disinfection.  Between the oxidation and the boiling of the water any microorganisms will be inactivated.  If you are storing the water for a long time then add some sodium hypochlorite for a residual disinfectant.  The residual disinfectant will prevent the water from becoming recontaminated before you drink it.

One additional possible step is to aerate the water.  Ponds are frequently stagnant.  Stagnant water is green with algae, it smells bad and tastes worse. After the water is made potable, transfer the water back and forth between two glasses. This adds oxygen to the water and will make the water taste better.

This may seem like a lot of work for something as small as a storm-water pond.  What I have described are the basic steps to turn the potentially toxic water in the pond into clean and safe drinking water.

Water Preparedness: Common Beginner Mistakes

Are you thinking about starting to store water? How about emergency water treatment? Getting started can be a very daunting task. Where should efforts be focused? What pitfalls should be avoided?  This article will explore a few of the mistakes I see people make when they start to take their personal water security seriously

Don’t be left without potable water. Avoid beginner mistakes. (source: always foodie.com)

The very first thing to learn is that there is no magic bullet. There is never a single product or technique which will always make water safe to drink. Combining, knowledge, multiple storage/treatment techniques and multiple products for storage/treatment is the best way to guarantee a safe source of drinking water for yourself and your family.  This logic or philosophy of combining as many protections as possible is used by municipal water systems all across North America.  It is referred to as a multi-barrier approach and it boils down to having many different protective measures to prevent contamination, in the event that one barrier fails, there are still many others in place.  To put it in layman’s terms, when it comes to water security, it isn’t a good idea to put all your eggs in one basket.

Marketing campaigns will make all sorts of claims about water products. Some will be irrelevant, like claims of BPA free plastic when the product is made from a type of plastic that never had BPA. Other claims will be over stated. The claim that is most often overstated is the number of times a water treatment product can be used. The quality of the water being treated is too variable for any company to give you an absolute number of times. This might not be done to deceive you. It could just be that the water they tested the product with was easier to treat then your water. Remember that no product will make the water perfect.  They will make the water safer when used correctly, if used incorrectly many water treatment products can make the water significantly more dangerous to drink.

Water needs to be stored in an appropriate container. This container needs to be able to physically hold the weight of the water and not leach any chemicals into the water. Assuming any garbage can sized container is appropriate will at best lead to soggy disappointment and at worst a severe case of gastrointestinal disease. For more information on water storage, read The Why? How? and How Much? of Water Storage?

Once your water is stored it needs to be kept safe. Water can become contaminated at any time. Anytime the container is open there is potential for contamination to occur. Read this article to find out what to do when your backup source of water becomes contaminated. The assumption that water only needs to be treated once is false. What was once safe to drink may be very dangerous when you need it if your aren’t protective of your supply. Water can turn stagnant when stored for long periods of time. Stagnation while not a health hazard is a taste hazard. Stagnant water tastes bad. Adding air to the water is how you relieve stagnation. Adding air is as simple as passing the water from one glass to another repeatedly or stirring the reservoir. The goal is to increase surface contact between the atmosphere and the water. It is important that aeration of the water will also remove the remaining chlorine (if any was present) in the water. If you are aerating the reservoir make sure you add some more disinfectant. Do this so you can keep your disinfectant residual high enough to keep the water contamination free.

Another mistake people make, is they store water but make no changes for reducing the water they use. Forgetting to change behavior during a crisis is probably the biggest mistake beginners make. Different situations require different behavior, this applies to your personal water use. You will be amazed at how much water is used if you aren’t careful. What could last a week might be used in a day and then you will understand the true value of water conservation. This mistake can also happen in more than just your water use.  For more information on water conservation read why water conservation is a prepper’s must do.

The single biggest mistake beginners is they assume that they can learn how to treat water later. Later becomes too late and then it can become fatal. It is very difficult to learn something complicated like water treatment when your life depends on it. Learning as much as you can before an emergency strikes is the single best thing you can do to stay safe.

This article covers just a few of the common mistakes I see people make when they start taking their water security more seriously.  There are many more mistakes that can be made and no one person has the perfect solution to them all. Water security is something that needs to be tailored to each person or family’s needs.  Have you found any common mistakes while preparing for water shortages? If so, leave a comment below, I would love to hear them.

Lead (Pb) In Your Water?

I get asked a lot of questions about lead in water supplies. Questions like how dangerous is it? Or how much is present in their water? Or where does the lead come from? And what can individuals do to remove lead from their drinking water? Since lead can cause brain damage when ingested, these are all very important questions that need answers. Be careful of the dates in this article. They will vary largely depending on where you live as different jurisdictions banned lead at different times. Another thing to note is that on average drinking water only counts for 20% of American’s lead exposure (according to the EPA) and total exposure is what causes health problems.

Soruce: science.howstuffworks.com

Lead can be very dangerous in water supplies. If consumed in large enough quantities it can cause severe brain damage, kidney damage, anemia and there is some evidence that lead can cause high blood pressure.  Compounded on this brain damage is what happens to the larger community if everyone is drinking lead contaminated water and significant percentage of people are suffering from lead poisoning. Costs for healthcare (monetary or increasing disease) increase significantly with lead exposure and with that a decrease in quality of life.  They younger you are the more lead exposure affects you (including before you are born).  This is because growing children absorb more lead from the food and water they drink. Also because they are smaller, they can hit toxic levels sooner.  Finally, lead has a cumulative effect on the body. Your lifetime exposure determines if there will be any negative health effects.  Some lead will remain in your bloodstream for the rest of your life, and most will end up in your bones.

If you are on a large municipal system there is a good chance the monitor for lead. In Ontario, Canada, the Provincial government forces every municipal system to test for lead twice a year throughout the system. Any sample that exceeds 0.010mg/L will be reported immediately to the local health unit the ministry of environment. The resident will be informed shortly thereafter. If you are curious about lead levels you can find the results in the Annual report for the municipal water system. If you are more proactive you may even be able to volunteer your home as a sampling point for a lead testing. Failing that you can always send a sample to an environmental laboratory.  Calling your municipality will get you the information of what they are doing to control lead.  They have more options available to them than any individual does.

Lead gets into water supplies in three main areas. Into the source water from natural deposits or from lead based pollution. Finally, and by far the most significant source of lead is from plumbing with lead based metal fittings. Many alloys contain lead. Even lead free metal fittings can still contain lead and even buying top quality fittings still poses a lead risk. Any solder made before 1986 likely contains lead, sometime upwards of 50%. If you live in an older home (pre 1930’s) there is a chance that you have a lead service connection and possibly lead plumbing.

Homes less than five years old also can have lead problems because the water has not coated the internal plumbing with scale. Scale is a build up of minerals on the wall of pipes and reservoirs that physically separates the water from any potential lead.

Lead Pipe and Copper Pipe (source: winnipeg.ca)

Lead was used so frequently because it is very easy to form into useful shapes. Shapes like pipes, valves and curves. Lead is very soft, that’s my it can make so many useful shapes easily. Lead on it’s own is often too soft for retaining the shape you want, especially if there is any stress on the metal. However mixing lead with other metals like brass, make the brass easier to work with and give the lead more rigidity. Copper was mixed with lead a lot less often then other soft metals. This is one of the reasons pipes were switched to copper. However fittings are still often made of brass because it is easier to make complex shapes like valves in brass. Remember that even “lead free” brass still has some lead in it.

Because lead is in older solders, flux and metal pipes, most of the lead enters the water while sitting in the household plumbing. Typically overnight when the water sits still in the pipes for at least a few hours. Lead needs time to be absorbed into the water (or leached from the metal). The longer water touches anything with lead in it the more lead enters the water. Lead absorption is also influenced by pH. The lower the pH (more acidic and therefor more corrosive) the greater ability the water has to remove lead from other sources. Raising the pH will help reduce the amount of lead that leaches into your water, it will also encourage scale formation. You can mimic corrosive water by grounding electrical systems to metal plumbing.  Grounding electrical systems to your plumbing is bad for your plumbing and helps lead enter your water.  BUT PLEASE GROUND YOUR ELECTRICAL SYSTEMS SAFELY AND ACCORDING TO CODE.  Temperature also affects lead absorption. The hotter the water the more likely there will be lead in the water and the water’s ability to carry water increases.

Scale Formation In Copper Pipe (estimated 20 years of scale growth) (source: ryan-technology.com

So what can you do about lead in your water? First, get your water tested. Knowing there is a problem is essential because you can’t see, taste or smell lead dissolved in water.
Second, always flush until the water is as cold and stops getting colder. If your home is older than 1930 and you don’t know for sure that your service connection isn’t lead then flush for an additional 15-30 seconds to make sure you are getting water from the street. This flushed water doesn’t have to go to waste. It can be used for non-consumption purposes like washing and gardening.  Flushing may not be a viable option for you if you live in a high rise building as the pipes may be too large for you to flush economically.
Third, never use the hot water tap for consumption purposes. It is better to boil cold water if you need hot water.  Lead affects children and pregnant women significantly more than it does grown ups.  Small amounts of lead that are harmless to a adult, can be highly toxic when introduced to smaller bodies.  You can buy a water filter that is capable of removing lead from water.  If it is not specifically designed to remove lead then there is a good chance that it doesn’t remove much lead at all.  Because lead has been such a big issue in the past, there are a lot of fake and ineffectual “lead” filters out there.  Double check the manufacturers claims with independent information or get the water tested.  Don’t forget to change the filter often otherwise you will expose your water to VERY high levels of lead.

Down the Drain: Persistent Chemical Contamination

What do you do with your unused and expired medications? How do you get rid of used motor oil and solvents? Your painting is done but you have some paint left over, what do you do with it?
Many people will say “I pour it down the sink or flush it down the toilet”. Even more people will lie when they say they don’t put it down the drain. Your drains are not garbage disposals for all our waste. Doctors usually recommend that expired medications get flushed down the toilet. This line of reasoning is to prevent children and pets from consuming the drugs. Maybe a doctor can expand on their reasoning more, the purpose of this article is to make a case for why using the toilet to dispose of medication is a bad idea.

Why is dumping things down the drain such a bad idea? The answer is both simple and complicated at the same time. The simple answer is that everything that goes down the drain in whole or in part survives long enough to make it back into drinking water supplies. The long answer is that contaminates survive the sewer and waste water treatment and are released back into the environment with the treated water. Then the lakes and rivers are used for drinking water. The contaminants survive the drinking water treatment and enter our drinking water. Most of these contaminants survive because the largest part of waste water treatment is biological. Therefore, anything non organic will either pass through the treatment or disrupt the treatment process or become part of the biological organisms that are there to break down waste.

In either scenario, and really all scenarios happen all the time, contamination enters the environment. In 2011, a shipment of municipal biosolids from Ottawa, Ontario, Canada was refused at the American border. The biosolids are supposed to cross the border for disposal. This shipment was refused due to radioactivity. The radioactivity came from cancer patients as the chemicals from chemotherapy pass through the body and the wastewater plant all while remaining radioactive. Radioactivity is easy to detect and in this example the chemicals came from people’s bodily waste which is supposed to go down the drain. I only mention this example because it so clearly outlines how persistent many chemicals can be.

Some chemicals mimic our hormones and disrupt our natural body systems. They have been found to cause feminization of fish and are believed to cause early onset of puberty in humans. These chemicals can come from people’s medication and from all our waste. BPA is the most famous hormone mimic. It come from the breakdown of plastics and mimics estrogen in humans. Other pharmaceuticals tend to do what they are designed to do, just now they are affecting the wrong people. Most other chemicals just cause cancer.

This contamination isn’t limited to water. Earlier I mentioned that the chemicals can enter organisms. This is especially true of plants. Plants will absorb these chemicals and then they enter the food chain. I won’t describe the food chain here, all you need to know is that the concentration increased the higher up the chain. This is called biomagnification. The apex predators get poisoned first. The main problem with biomagnification is, we are the species that eat the most other animals.

There was a study in Scanadnavia that found flame retardants in cancer patients. They traced the chemical back to the bread they had all eaten. Then back to the wheat in the field where biosolids were spread. The flame retardants were found in the municipal wastewater facility and the municipal sewers. It was traced back to one manufacturer who was putting flame retardants down the drain as part of their process. I can tell you this happens everywhere. Even if you live on a remote septic system, there is always someone upstream. Hardly seems worth it for dumping chemicals down the drain.

You might be wondering why this matters to you. Simply, it matters because we all have a part in what we put down the drain. This is true whether you live in a large metropolitan area or a remote cabin on a well and septic system. What we release into the environment comes back at us in many different directions. Detecting these chemicals is difficult because there are so many different chemicals out there that nobody can check for them all or even most of them. A lot of these chemicals pass through store bought filters. Many of these molecules are smaller than the water molecule. That means every filter is ineffective against them. To put is simply, this problem affects everyone.

Sewage Emergency: Thunder Bay Flooding

Recently the city of Thunder Bay Ontario experienced devastating flooding. There was enough water to flood out the waste water treatment plant. This effectively shut down the sewage collection and treatment system for the entire city. This turned the entire city to a zone without sanitation.  Over 1000 houses needed to be evacuated, and some people needed to evacuate immediately.

Contaminated Water Flooding Thunder Bay (from news.nationalpost.com)

The flood hit the city at night, and people living in basement apartments woke up to furniture floating in sewage.  One lucky family woke up to their baby’s crib (and baby) floating in sewage.  The rest discovered that their house smelled horrible when they woke up.

What overloaded the system was a prolonged rainstorm above the 100 year storm levels and the normal waste water levels. Combined sewers meant that all this water was supposed to be treated at the waste water treatment plant.  When the flooding reached the facility, the pumps shorted out, as in most large facilities most of the control electronics (there are a lot) are stored in the basement.  Electronics underwater rarely fair well, this shut down the entire facility.  Large volumes of contaminated water had nowhere else to go and it started covering most of the city. People had anywhere from 4 inches to 6 feet of sewage in their homes.

Sewage Flooded Basement (from cbc.ca)

The city instructed residents not to use water, because all the flushed toilet water was ending up in basements and free flowing in the street. People didn’t stop washing and flushing. Now, when there is sewage everywhere there is a huge need to wash and keep clean. But when all you have is water for hygiene, all that waste will end up in the street or in your basement.  So there are strong reasons to use water, and strong reasons not to flush anything down the drain.  This is a good reason to have water-less cleaners available for when the waste has nowhere to go. Alternatively it is also a good reason to have short term storage for household waste.  There is no point in flushing the toilet if it just ends up in your basement.  I would personally deal with twenty feces filled buckets then one flooded basement.

When there is sewage in your house the environment becomes so toxic that even sleeping overnight can cause respiratory illnesses. Continue reading

How Big Of A Septic Tank Do I Need?

Septic systems are the most common type of sewage treatment for people living off of municipal or communal sewage systems.  The treatment of sewage is necessary even for people going “off grid”.  Most, and probably all jurisdictions in North America have some requirements for sewage treatment.  Treating sewage is also significantly better for the environment as exposure to untreated waste water is a common way to spread disease in humans and other animals.  Septic systems break down the organic components in sewage and provide water that is safe to be released into a form of biological treatment.  This is usually soil, in the form of a drain field.  I frequently get asked how large a septic tank is needed for someone installing or upgrading their waste management system. How large a tank needs to be ultimately depends on how much water will be put through it.

Predicting how much water will enter your septic tank will can be simple, or it can be very difficult but it always starts with your water use. To estimate your water usage there are some things you will need to know.
How many people are in your household? How many people are usually in your house and on your system?  This includes visitors which only visit once a year. How much water are you currently using? If you have a water bill now you can see it easily.  The water you use day to day becomes the waste water you have to deal with later.  The age of people in your household will play a factor.  Even if you are good at conserving water, children will waste a lot more water and they require more water in the form of bathing and laundry.  Both of those traits will increase the demand on your septic system when many kids are around.  Larger septic tanks are required for people not used to conserving water, when choosing your tank size, try to remember, most people are horrible at conserving water.

Ok, here are some guidelines for determining the size of the tank required.  The smallest tank size allowed in some jurisdictions is one thousand gallons.  A one thousand gallon tank can handle around 600 gallons of sewage per day.  In terms of percentages, a septic tank should he 40% larger than the flow of sewage into it, or the sewage flow should not be greater than 60% of the tank capacity.

What if you do not know how much water people are using or how much waste water you are creating?   Continue reading