The Septic System Answer Man’s 6 Best Tips of 2017

The Septic System Answer Man’s 6 Best Tips of 2017
Jim Anderson, Ph.D., is an emeritus professor at the University of Minnesota Department of Soil, Water and Climate and recipient of the pumping industry’s Ralph Macchio Lifetime Achievement Award. Email Jim questions about septic system maintenance and operation at

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Jim Anderson, Ph. D., is one of Pumper magazine’s best sources of onsite system expertise, which is why we’re highlighting a handful of the best pieces of advice he’s passed along in 2017. From repurposing abandoned tanks to soil analysis to Orangeburg pipe, Anderson has a wealth of knowledge to share with fellow septic industry professionals.

Anderson is connected with the University of Minnesota onsite wastewater treatment education program and serves as an emeritus professor in the university’s Department of Soil, Water and Climate. He’s also involved with the National Association of Wastewater Technicians.

Without further ado, here are six of the best pieces of advice he offered Pumper readers in 2017 along with links to the full columns:

Controlling Mosquitos Near Failing Septic Systems

Can pesticides be used to control the mosquitoes around failing septic systems? The easy answer to this is yes, but the ultimate solution is to repair or replace the system or parts of the system that are causing the condition.

Products on the market can be used to temporarily reduce mosquito-breeding potential. Oils can be applied to the surface that suffocate the adult mosquitoes, and the pesticide methoprene — at very low concentrations — can be sprayed. Contact your local health department, agriculture department or mosquito control districts for the list of allowable pesticides in your area and to learn about required permits for their use.

The real solution is to fix or prevent the problem. Just like everything else we do as professionals, this involves educating the homeowners and the general public about the potential problem and how to fix it. Contractors and service providers are always in contact with the public, so this should be a part of our conversations to ensure system problems are determined and fixed.

Learn to Be a Soil Saturation Detective

Identifying the characteristics of soil layers can help you better serve your pumping customers. When a soil layer is saturated for an extended period, usually more than two weeks, iron that is present in the soil begins to go into solution due to some biochemical reactions. As the layer dries, it leads to a distinctly mottled-color appearance. Iron is one of the chief coloring agents in soil, and when it goes into solution, it migrates with the water as the soil dries out. Areas where the iron left during the drying process are gray in color, while those areas where the iron moves to and accumulates become reddish in color.

A set of terms was created by soil scientists 20 years ago to define in great detail the depletions and concentrations. The overall name for this set of terms is "redoximorphic features." If you look closely enough at these features, in some instances you can tell which way the water is moving. Recognizing the implications of these color patterns gives wastewater professionals the necessary information to determine where in the profile and what type of soil treatment component is appropriate for that site.

Soil scientists define these color changes using the Munsell color charts. With a little practice, a site evaluator, designer, or installer can identify these most common color patterns.

What Is This Thing Called Orangeburg Pipe?

With new people entering the onsite industry all the time, we frequently need to highlight obsolete product technologies they may run into. Orangeburg pipe is one of those technologies. The name came from the town of Orangeburg, New York, where the conduit was manufactured. The pipe itself is made of layers of wood fiber or pulp and pitch, and it is essentially an enhanced toilet paper tube that is likely more than 50 years old. This means that it will very easily break after so many years of pressure and moisture.

In the long run, it saves money to replace these pipes all at once, and as soon as possible, when you come across them. I have personal experience with replacing this pipe at a lake cottage I owned in the 1990s. I was continually having problems with a clogged sewer line to the septic tank, which meant that on many a holiday weekend in the summer, I spent my time under the cottage with a plumber’s snake unclogging the line. One summer, literally over the Fourth of July weekend, the piping gave out. Fortunately, neighbors allowed us to use their facilities until I could line up a contractor to replace all the pipe. The bottom line is that if you see Orangeburg pipe during an inspection, the best recommendation to the homeowner is to replace it as soon as possible.

Win the pH Balancing Act

Since grease trap waste can be very acidic — pH less than 5 — it may be necessary to raise the pH before it can be accepted at a treatment plant. The most common materials used to raise pH are calcium hydroxide (hydrated lime) and calcium oxide (quicklime).

A question often asked is whether agricultural lime can be used. The purpose of agricultural lime is to raise the pH of the soil to between 5.5 and 6.5 for certain crops. It is not appropriate for raising the pH of septage to 12. Lime materials should be purchased through a chemical supplier — not the local agricultural store or garden center. Some pumpers make this mistake because it is labeled lime and is a cheaper material. 

Another common question is how to add the lime to the septage. The most common method I have seen is to make a slurry out of the dry lime material and draw the slurry into the truck at the time a tank is pumped. The slurry is drawn in at an equivalent rate of 20 to 30 pounds of dry material to 1,000 gallons of pumped septage. The actual amount required varies depending on the amount of solids in the septage. More solids require more dry material equivalent.

Usually, this slurry is carried on the truck in 5-gallon buckets, each one holding the 20 to 30 pounds of dry equivalent. The slurry can be drawn in either before or after the tank is pumped; most pumpers I have talked with prefer to draw the slurry in before pumping the tank.

What Should I Do if a Septic System Floods?

A number of steps should be taken after the floodwaters subside and before the system is used again. All parts of the system should be inspected for damage. The septic tank and other tanks — such as pump tanks — should be pumped out and inspected for any structural damage. Pumps should be inspected, reinstalled and recalibrated for flow. When pumping tanks, make sure groundwater levels have gone down and be aware of tank buoyancy problems, where the tank could float if it is pumped out.

Drainfields under the surface should be all right if excessive water was not delivered to the drainfield during the flood even. And if there are no openings, silt and other debris should not have entered the drainfield. It should not be used, however, until the groundwater has subsided and vertical separation distance is established. Saturated soil is especially susceptible to compaction, which can lead to system failure. Avoid driving or operating equipment over the drainfield.

Finding New Uses for Abandoned Tanks

Communities in the U.S. Southwest have promoted using low-flow or no-water toilets to help conserve water and reduce consumption from groundwater reserves in the drought-stricken region. Another method has recently come into play: repurposing septic tanks slated for abandonment and using them instead as rainwater harvesting systems.

Rainwater collected in the tank can then be used to water landscape plants, reducing the use of potable water (or reused water for that matter) that had been pumped from deep aquifers.

A recent article on the topic suggested that having an abandoned septic tank cleaned and disinfected for reuse would cost $200 to $500 less than properly abandoning the tank.


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