Ice-Covered Septic Tanks Freeze Pumpers in Their Tracks

Ice-Covered Septic Tanks Freeze Pumpers in Their Tracks
Jody Forest, owner of Forest Septic Tank Service, stands atop the contents of a frozen septic tank.

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The recent polar vortex has left its mark on most of the country. And septic systems are no exception. We’ve heard about countless septic system issues hitting Midwest companies as frost reached record depths and snowfall tapered off. Undoubtedly, some of you who call the Northern clime home have been affected by these problems. 

You may be accustomed to the cold climes, but septic systems that see low or no usage are not as lucky. Without regular use, the number of septic tank freeze-ups has swelled across many states. For many winter enthusiasts, cold weather means it’s time to hit the slopes, but for onsite professionals, subzero temps and little snow cover means emergency calls and working in unpleasant conditions. 

Jody Forest, owner of Forest Septic Tank Service in Indianola, Ind., can relate and has his own. The company specializes in residential and commercial septic tank pumping and inspections, grease trap pumping, and operates its own septage dewatering plant

Unforeseen circumstances

Forest has been in business for more than two decades, and he’s never seen a winter like this one. “I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and I’ve never seen ice in septic tanks,” Forest says. “We’ve seen several with ice this year. It’s unbelievable.” 

A lack of snow cover is the main concern for Forest as his service area currently has 4 feet of frost, but no measureable snow to insulate septic tanks and soil treatment areas. With below-average temperatures and record-breaking snowfall facing much of the region, asking for more snow seems preposterous, but according to University of Minnesota Water Resources Center, snow helps preserve the heat of the sewage and the geothermal heat from deep soil layers. As frost works deeper into the ground, the potential for system freeze-ups increases. 

Most of the problems Forest saw were situations where homeowners vacationed during winter months, leaving septic tanks unused and unattended. He says improper tank installations were not the cause of these freeze-ups. 

“We’ve had the coldest winter,” he says. “We never really got any snow and what we did get would melt right away. So we never really got any snow cover.” 

Iowa requires access risers on all septic tanks, which gives installers and pumpers easier access. If those risers aren’t insulated, tank freeze-ups can occur. 

“About every riser we opened up had at least a 1-, 2- or 3-inch layer of ice,” he says. “When someone has 2 feet of ice in his tank, what do you do?” 

Take cover

According to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, a temporary heat source can be applied to the tank using steam or hot water and an insulating layer of straw to thaw the tank contents. However, if a freeze-up has already occurred, ice could damage a system and break distribution boxes, requiring expensive repairs or replacement. 

Forest says his crew tried numerous methods to thaw the ice, including warming blankets and portable heaters. He even tried to get his hands on a stock tank heater, which heats drinking water for livestock, but there were none to be found. And there is a month-long wait for ground heater rentals in the area, Forest says. Unfortunately, the best solution was just to wait until rising temperatures thawed the tanks. 

For added frost protection, and to prevent freeze-ups in the future, Forest will recommend snowbirds and homeowners with low water usage install a permanent insulating blanket. 

“People need to put covers over these riser lids, too,” he says. “I would, and I know some of my customers will. Even if it’s just a concrete blanket.”

Adding riser insulation to protect systems from freeze-ups is one solution Forest says he’s willing to add to his list of services — for an added cost, of course. He also suggests insulated decorative rock enclosures for risers, which would protect tanks from subzero temps while enhancing landscaping if a homeowner wants to conceal tank components.

Snowball effect

Excessive frost isn’t just causing problems at Forest’s regularly scheduled maintenance jobs; there’s been an upsurge as the economy bounces back in his service area. Iowa’s Time of Transfer inspection law requires every residential system to be cleaned and inspected before a sale. However, given this out-of-the-ordinary winter, a buyer is allowed to close on a new home without completing an onsite system inspection. In this case, the waiver is for frozen tanks that cannot be adequately checked. 

“It got to a point — and I’ve never had to do this before — where we could not do the mandatory cleanings or inspections anymore because we didn’t dare expose a septic system when we knew that night it would get to 10 below zero,” he says. 

For this reason, Forest currently has a backlog of 40 inspections to complete as the weather starts to cooperate. And that’s in addition to the upcoming busy season that promises more inspections and pump-outs — crew members will have to work Saturdays and Sundays to complete the extra work.

While you can’t anticipate a record-setting cold winter, you can be prepared for persistent freezing temperatures. Unless you identify and correct the cause of freezing — low usage or poor insulation — there’s no doubt system will freeze up again next winter. 

If you’re facing similar freeze-up issues with septic tanks in your service area, use these tips from the University of Minnesota to educate homeowners and minimize your headaches come next winter: 

  • Add more insulation to the entire system. Place an 8- to 12-inch layer of mulch (straw, leaves, hay) over the tank and soil treatment system. New systems installed late in the year with no established vegetative cover would benefit from this.
  • Tell homeowners to let their grass get a little longer in the late summer/fall over the tank and soil treatment area to create additional insulation and help hold snowfall.
  • Water conservation is always better than wasteful usage, but if freezing is a concern, ask homeowners to increase low use to normal water use. However, do not recommend homeowners leave water running all the time, as this will hydraulically overload the system.
  • Recommend homeowners plan accordingly if they will be gone for an extended period. This could mean having a neighbor or friend use sufficient quantities of water in the home regularly or pump out the tank before leaving.
  • When inspecting systems, make sure all risers have covers on them. Hint: Insulated covers are the best choice. Seal and add insulation if the top of the septic tank is within 2 feet of the surface.


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