Septic System Bad Ideas Ripped From the Headlines

Fabric softener in the toilet tank? Dangerous DIY septic repairs? Septic-to-sewer conversion facts? It’s all in a day’s work in the wastewater industry.

Jim Kneiszel
Jim Kneiszel

On any given day, my editor’s email box is chock full of random advice about septic tank pumping and alerts about dubious news stories involving the wastewater industry. This month I’ll share a few notices and ask you to send your comments or questions to me at

What about fabric softener as a toilet deodorizer?

When it comes to bathroom plumbing and septic systems, it seems like there is always some sort of wives’ tale or sketchy advice floating around for pumpers to knock down. How many of you have heard customers ask if they should put a raw chicken into their septic tank to promote bacterial action?

Now there’s another “housecleaning hack” circulating on the internet, and 100,000 people have shared the advice on Facebook … which means it will eventually reach millions of septic system users. And my guess is you’ll be getting asked about this for years to come. The tip spreading like wildfire is to add a cup of liquid laundry detergent or fabric softener to the toilet tank to promote a fresh fragrance in the bathroom every time you flush.

The website reports on the tip and says there are multiple reasons to question its effectiveness. Among them are whether the liquid cleaners will add a pleasant aroma for more than a flush or two and wondering what impacts the chemicals will have on household plumbing.

The report cites experts who say fabric softeners and detergents may leave a buildup of slimy residue on plumbing pipes. It also says the chemical properties in fabric softeners make it effective at softening adhesives during wallpaper removal, which may create issues for seals and rings in plumbing components.

So what should you tell your customers who wonder about this helpful “hack?” I asked Jim Anderson, our Septic System Answer Man, for his take. He says putting a cleaning product through every toilet flush is a bad idea for the health and effectiveness of a septic system. I guess it pays to remember the oldest hack in the pumping industry: Unless it’s toilet paper or it comes out of your body, there’s no need to flush it down the toilet.

One caveat to that advice is that many pumpers promote and believe in the use of bacterial septic additives as part of a maintenance protocol. … But when it comes to detergents or fabric softeners, that’s an easy “no” for septic system users. Stick with a bathroom exhaust fan and air fresheners to take care of malodors.

He thought he was being funny, but I found it horrifying.

What do you do when someone makes light of the dangerous practice of climbing into a septic tank and gives absolutely no thought to safety? I think you have to speak up and hope the warning is received and taken seriously. So this is what happened:

The Rev. Bobby Walsh of the Markstay Pentecostal Church in Sudbury, Ontario, wrote a “humorous” column in the Sudbury Star about his experience going into a church septic tank to remove a blockage from the inlet port.

Walsh wrote that as the new pastor, he felt he should be the one to go into the tank to investigate the problem. When he stepped into the tank, “someone chuckled and started to pull the ladder up. I smiled and protested,” Walsh wrote. “There were jokes. ‘D’ya like the accommodations?’ ‘Are some of your sermons down there?’ ‘He’s never smelt better.’”

Walsh found an obstruction in the pipe and worked it free, with sewage flowing freely all over him, “I climbed up the ladder to applause. We finished up. I offered to shake hands. … With a sense of adventure, we all went home. I had a long shower,” he continued. Then he used the story to illustrate how unseen issues can cause problems and we all need to flush them out of our lives.

I realize Walsh, like many others in the general public, didn’t know the dangers of entering the septic tank without proper safety equipment and training. But I felt I had to let him know his story could give others the impression they could follow his lead and put themselves in grave danger. So I wrote him a note and asked him to take action:

“I don’t know if you are aware, but people die every week by entering septic and holding tanks, succumbing to hydrogen sulfide gas created in the toxic environment inside a tank. You were blessed and very lucky that you were not sickened or died if you spent any time inside a septic tank.”  

I went on to explain the Occupational Safety and Health Administration confined-space safety rules, then suggested he contact a member of the Ontario Onsite Wastewater Association and go back to the newspaper to convey an appropriate safety message from a wastewater professional to be printed in a second story.

I haven’t heard back from Walsh and fear other septic system users will take his foolhardy DIY approach and go inside the tank to make a repair. I have heard far too many stories about people who died after entering a tank with no knowledge of the dangers.

As members of the pumping community, I feel it’s our responsibility to educate when we see or hear about dangerous practices that threaten the well-being of the general public. You never know when your expertise as a pumper will help avert a tragedy.

Here’s more support for septic.

Savvy homeowners facing potential septic-to-sewer conversions are doing the math. … And when they look at the costs of such a move, they plead with local government to keep their septic systems. The most recent example comes from West Acton, Massachusetts, west of Boston, where homeowners are finding hooking up to the municipal sewer isn’t as good a deal as promised.

Yan Wang looked at the conversion costs for his home and said, “thanks, but no thanks” to abandoning his functioning septic system. In an op-ed piece in Wicked Local Boxborough online, Wang says the sewer hookup fee for a single-family home ranges from $34,000 to $39,934, and if paid for over 30 years, the cost rises to almost $60,000. By contrast, Yang notes that he just had his septic tank pumped after 2.5 years and the cost was $325.

“Most homeowners will not need to replace their septic systems for the next 30 years and spend just $170 per year to maintain their systems,” Wang argues. “There is no indication of septic contamination in the environment. Average fecal coliform is below Acton’s average. Nitrate levels are low.”

Wang didn’t even factor in the monthly sewer fees invariably tacked on by the municipality. Those fees alone typically dwarf the maintenance costs for a septic system. The next time a customer voices concern over your pumping bill, which covers an average of three to five years of septic system usage, share this story of the tremendous value of decentralized wastewater treatment. 


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