Managing Septic Tank Trouble on the Homestead

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On this site, we talk a lot about SHTF situations. I’d like to take a moment to think a little bit about the “S” in our lives, in the most mundane way. How are you going to deal with your septic tank after disaster?

With all the upheaval of the past two years, many people have decided it’s time to move to more rural areas and start on the journey of developing a simpler lifestyle. And that’s great if you can make it work. I started on that journey eight years ago for a number of reasons. The one thing that consumed a huge amount of my time and mental energy that first year was one thing I was utterly unprepared for and had never thought about: an unruly septic system. 

What my septic tank taught me

There are plenty of modern homes on rural estates. But when I was house-shopping, I was not on a modern home budget. I was on an “old-homesteading-cabin-with-some-upgrades-slapped-on” budget. When I bought the place, I thought I would be able to afford to upgrade it more thoroughly but soon found out I couldn’t afford that either.

So, my kids and I were in a house with one bathroom, where the toilet would regularly clog badly enough I couldn’t plunge it. The toilet would just have to sit for several hours while everything softened up. In the meantime, my children, who were really young, would pee outside, and I would just use restrooms when I was out running errands.

I had gotten the septic tank pumped as soon as we bought the place but wasn’t prepared for how bad the pipes were. The people renting the home before I bought it had moved to a trailer park down the street, and I used to visit them once in a while. I asked them how they had dealt with all the clogs.

“You do what?”

They told me that they never flushed toilet paper. They just kept a bucket next to the toilet for paper and then tossed the used TP into a burn pit. I had never heard of that before, though since then, I’ve learned that that’s pretty common in a lot of other countries. At the time, though, I wasn’t ready to make that kind of change.

One day I happened to be exceptionally tired when the toilet backed up all over the floor. I really needed to use the bathroom and went over to my neighbor’s house, in tears, to ask if I could use theirs. They kindly obliged, and then we spent some time talking about pipe maintenance.

Septic tank maintenance you need to perform

They told me the first thing I needed to do was make sure I was buying cheap toilet paper. A lot of the really nice stuff says it’s septic safe, but it clogs easily. Then they also asked if I was treating my pipes with anything. I had no idea what they were talking about.

It turns out that there is a whole line of products out there that you can flush regularly to improve septic performance. Most hardware stores sell types of septic cleaners that consist of enzymes that eat away at all the gunk in the pipes. I use Roebic brand, but there are other great brands out there too. I started religiously treating my pipes once a month, writing down the dates of when I poured what down the pipes in my little home maintenance notebook. Slowly but surely, toilet performance improved.

I have needed to hire a plumber to roto-root the kitchen sink, bathroom sink, and bathtub one time each since living here. I’ve gotten my pipes thoroughly cleaned once, maintained them ever since, and now we really don’t have problems. Most of this has to do with the fact that my kids and I are very conscientious regarding what enters the pipes.

A clogged septic tank is a disaster that can make living through a time of disaster even worse.

This was a learning curve for my kids. One time, when my bathroom sink was clogged, I took apart the pipe underneath the sink and found it was full of peanut butter. No wonder it hadn’t been draining! I asked my children, who were elementary-school-aged at the time, why there was so much peanut butter in the bathroom sink. They told me that one of the jars was mostly empty, so they decided to eat the rest of it, but then their hands got dirty, and they didn’t want to wash their hands in the kitchen sink because they didn’t want me to see how much peanut butter they’d gotten everywhere. They tried to hide their crime by washing up in the bathroom.

I showed them the pipe full of peanut butter and told them that if they got messy eating peanut butter, they needed to wipe their hands off with paper towels or rags first so that the drains wouldn’t clog. I also told them to just ask me for a snack if they were hungry rather than make such a big mess. The pipe full of peanut butter really got to them. Since then, they’ve all been good about wiping off food garbage into the compost bucket rather than cramming it down the drain.

Every time we’ve had a plumber come over, they’ve commented on the general cleanliness of our pipes. The clogs they’ve had to blow out have been really old and far down. The plumbers have all said the same thing: most problems are caused by people trying to shove things down the drain that just shouldn’t enter the pipes. The plus side is that, for those of us paying attention, most issues can be prevented. My house may still be small, but it’s quite a bit more functional than it was eight years ago.

What do septic tanks have to do with prepping?

Well, it was my first incredibly rude awakening to life outside of the suburbs: Because my house was not in an incorporated area, it had gotten into a state of disrepair that just wouldn’t have happened in a nicer suburb. You can’t burn used TP in your backyard without neighbors noticing, and that’s the kind of thing an awful lot of people will report to an HOA. I had wanted to get away from restrictive HOAs, and I did, but the downside was that the house was barely functional.

Like it or not, all signs right now point to increased financial hardship for a great many people. Many of us, confronted by rising prices, will have to re-prioritize our financial plans and spending habits. This can get depressing and overwhelming.

First on the list, obviously, is food, and The Organic Prepper has a lot of great resources to help you plan and stock your pantry. Check out our free QUICKSTART Guide on building your 3-layer food pantry to get started. But not far behind, in terms of keeping yourself mentally and physically healthy, is cleanliness. Not having some sort of plan to keep sanitary in a SHTF situation can make you really miserable really fast, and it can make you sick, too.

If you’ve just moved out to the country for the first time, you need to learn about septic maintenance now. Many of my family members swear up and down that septic is horrible, but it really isn’t. You do have to learn about your system, treat it accordingly, and have the proper tank size for your household, however.

What happens to a septic tank during a power outage?

Those of us in the country also need to be aware of what will happen in case of an extended power outage. Are our wells electric? Will we lose water as soon as we lose power? That’s the case for a lot of us. Many people have generators that tie into the household grid, and that’s probably the best option if you can shell out a few thousand dollars for the generator and the installation. Many other people (like myself) simply keep a large amount of water on hand, as well as a Berkey, to get us through extended outages.

Most people, of course, do not live in rural settings, but everyone needs to think about their water system and how they can stay clean and comfortable. Many municipalities use water towers, which will keep water in the system pressurized and still running for quite a while during a power outage. But it doesn’t last indefinitely, and it’s still something people need to think about and plan for.

Daisy’s posted articles about kitty litter toilets, which are a great way for people living in urban settings to keep their homes functional and pleasant in the case of an extended power outage. Keeping a supply of drinking water and wipes on hand is a good idea for anyone in an urban setting. Your potential solutions will vary greatly, depending on your living situation.

I have friends that live in Florida who have had extended power outages during hurricanes. They stock up on drinking water beforehand but use their pool water to flush the toilet when the power is out. And while they’re normally very fastidious about flushing, if the power is out, they follow the adage, “If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down.” Waste not, want not!

Your septic tank keeps your home clean. Take care of it.

Many people wander through civilized life without thinking about what keeps us clean, warm, and fed. If something breaks or clogs, there’s always someone to call to fix things. And I’ve enjoyed that. I’ve needed to call people. But I’ve also found that the old adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” applies just as much to plumbing issues as it does to everything else.

I see no signs that anything will get easier for most people anytime soon. I hope I’m wrong about that. But, in the meantime, think about your priorities. Every one of us absolutely needs food, shelter, and companionship. We also need to stay clean, healthy, and functional. If we feel like we have some measure of control over these things, we can go through life with less fear and anxiety.

There are plenty of things to stress out about right now. It’s really hard to make any kind of long-term plan when inflation is going through the roof, and so many rules and regulations change so dramatically from one year to the next. In times of uncertainty, one of the best things to do is to simply focus on what you can control. Learning as much as you can about home maintenance to keep your family clean and comfortable is something we can all be proactive about.

Are you on a septic system?

What lessons have you learned? Do you have any tips to share? Let’s talk about it in the comments section.

About Joanna

Joanna has been homeschooling three children since 2012. In 2014, she moved to the High Plains of Colorado. She and her children began a little homestead, gardening and raising chickens for eggs and meat. One animal led to another, and these days they have livestock guardian dogs, chickens, geese, ducks, alpacas, goats, pigs, and one very spoiled cat.

Picture of Joanna Miller

Joanna Miller

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  • I live in rural upstate NY and just had my septic pumped out…it actually did not need it as its just my wife and I…..I will try the septic additive you recommend …thanks

  • Out West many newer septic systems are pressurized. Meaning they have a pump that moves effluent water out to the drain field. If there is no power to this pump your system will back up, another issue during extended power outages.

    • Rarely are they more than 1/2 horsepower. A small camping generator will power most. Consider a siphon on a new build. They are compliant with pressure dosing. Ron at innovativeprocessengineering

    • Yup use rides. Don’t do silly things and you’ll have no issues. Have it cleaned out regularly. I had ours done pre covid in case we had to join forces.

  • We installed a new septic system for our new build rural home in northern WI. First winter we experienced frozen waste pipe from home to tank. Turned out that water runoff from roof and drains soaked the soil around our pipe, which turned that section of yard into a giant ice cube in the -20f weather. This spring I dug out around the pipe and lined it with insulation and plastic sheeting to channel off surrounding groundwater; no backup problems since.

    We poured in the septic additive you mention to get the biological cycle going. I do not know if this solution needs adding after initial charging of the system; I believe it’s a “once and done” operation.

    If you’re working on your plumbing be aware that old fashioned S traps are no longer conforming to dwelling code nationwide. Use P traps and vents and save yourself heartache when the inspector comes through.

  • So much of this story echoes my own- thank you so much for sharing! Trying to give my little ones the best life possible has definitely come with a cost, and I am grateful to know I have not been alone in my struggles.

  • I grew up in a house on septic, but never really had anything to do with its upkeep. The house I’m in now is my first with a septic system. Here’s what I’ve learned:

    Have your tank pumped periodically. My “septic specialist” recommends not letting this go beyond four years. The more people in your house, the less time between pumpings. A backed up tank is NOT the indicator for pumping the tank. It’s the “You should have pumped two years ago” indicator. I treat my system with Roebic tank maintainer every six months.

    Go easy on your water use. I know there are several types of septic systems. Mine uses a leach field. Septic systems work on the “90%” principal. The tank is always 90% full. You dump a gallon of water down the drain, a gallon of water gets ushered downstream to the leach field. The whole idea of the septic system is for it to compost your waste. The water hitting the leach field should be almost clean. If you rush the system, heavily contaminated water ends up in the leach field. This clogs the leach field and empties your bank account! Even if the water going into the field is clean, the field needs to be able to deal with it before more comes in. If you overtax it, the field backs up into the tank, and the tank backs up into your house.

    Poop and a minimum of toilet paper should be the only solids going into the septic system. By minimum I mean the “first pass” toilet paper. The rest goes into a waste basket. All the stuff on our plates, pots, and whatnot get wiped into the trash before being washed. This especially applies to GREASE. We hang onto paper towels and napkins used during cooking and eating to do this. Even if you use new paper towels, doing so is cheaper than dealing with grease clogs and a tapped out leach field down the line. Use a strainer in the sink.

    Septic systems hate chemicals being dumped into them. Chemicals kill the digestive enzymes in the tank. Those are what composts what you dump into the tank. When the sink clogs, people are really quick to use liquid drain openers. Most times this happens in the bathroom sink because of hair. Most times that hair is in the P-trap under the sink. You use the Draino, the hair dissolves, and the Draino goes into the tank to kill its digestion. Get yourself a “hair snare” at the hardware store. When the sink clogs you shove the end of the hair snare down the drain and work it around. You pull it back and the clog is snagged onto it. It’s a little gross, but so much more so is a backed up septic system. For the kitchen I use an enzymatic drain maintainer. This stuff clears out the grease in your pipes. I also pour some of this into the bathroom drains to clean out the soap scum and whatever other goop is in those. It doesn’t hurt the septic because instead of killing the enzymes it ADDS to them. Get yourself a drain snake and learn how to use it. Again, this keeps you from needing to use liquid drain opener, which oft times doesn’t work anyway. I have a small one for the little stuff and a 50-foot motorized one for the main line clogs.

    Bundling excessive water use and chemical use together; if you can get away with it, install a grey water drain for your washing machine. The washer dumps too much water, along with bleach and detergents, into the septic system. In my case I ran a pipe out to my gravel corral access road. The wash water dumps onto that and either evaporates or sinks in. No, it doesn’t stink. All it is is soapy water and a little laundry dirt. Some folks have it dump into the lawn. If you can’t do this, install a washer drain line lint filter. Mine is made by a company called Filtrol. This will keep lint from your wash from ending up in the septic tank. Much of our clothing is synthetic these days. Synthetic lint won’t decompose and is very light so it won’t settle to the bottom of the tank. It’ll end up helping to clog the leach field instead. Even though I use a grey water drain now, I still use the filter so I don’t end up with lint all in the gravel outside.

    Fix your leaky faucets. A constant drip my not seem like much, but believe it or not, if your leach field gets overfilled at some point, that drip can keep it from draining down. On that tack, if you use a reverse osmosis water purifier, for every gallon of filtered water it produces, THREE GALLONS of water go down the drain! This falls WELL under the “leaky faucet” heading. If you can, run the drain line for the system outside to drip into the flower beds or something. If you can’t run it outside, think about shutting it off, as I did, as advised by my “septic specialist.” I switched to bottled water to take the load off the septic system. At $1.75 per bottle, I’d have to go through an OCEAN of bottled water to match the $6500.00 I had to spend to replace my leach field last summer!

    ‘Hope this helps someone out there…

    • Tom MacGyver,
      Great post!
      Thank you for your insight, experience!

      We are on a septic system, and we also have it pumped on a regular schedule.
      However, we have the kitchen sink on a “dry” well, so we can go a little longer between pumps, but we only might go 5 vs 4 years.

      Again, thank you!

      • Good afternoon Tom,
        The “dry well” sounds interesting. Could you please describe how this works – even the mechanics of it?
        Thank you very much for your service. God bless!

    • great advice..also a common problem can be tree roots.. they chase the water and nutrients of the leach field.. I use copper sulfate granules every month or so,1 cup in the toilet keeps the roots away,,

  • I have been dealing with septic systems for 39 years now. Other than septic specific chemicals, avoid dumping chemicals down the drain. They kill the bacteria that makes the septic system work. To help with this if possible set up a gray water line that does not dump into your septic system. Run your kitchen sink, dishwasher, and clothes washer into it. I just sold a home that I had owned and lived in, also occasionally rented out, for 37 years. The septic system was only pumped once and that was shortly after I bought it and before I learned about what causes septic issues. Treat them right and they are pain free. BTW, I haven’t added septic specific chemicals to my systems in decades. Also, thin 1 ply toilet paper works best for avoiding clogs.

  • We had risers installed on our septic tank when it was installed so it’s easy to remove the covers to check the level and there is no need to dig when it’s pumped. Just for fun I placed “BOMB SHELTER” on the riser cover.

  • When we bought our house, we discovered it had 2 septic tanks. One handled the kitchen, laundry, and a half bath, the other, the main bathroom. They were ancient in terms of design, homemade concrete vaults with cement lids. The plumbing was a homemade job, too. We discovered the half bath had a 90 degree bend in the pipe under the house and toilet paper had been building up and slowly blocking the pipe. No more toilet paper goes down that drain, anymore! The drain line from the tank outlet had also been crushed at some point and had to be dug up and patched.

    We remodeled the other bathroom 2 years ago and after a short honeymoon period, the tub started draining really slowly. And if you flushed the toilet, it burped back into the tub. After checking every bit of pipe from the bathroom to the septic, we realized the problem was on the OTHER side of the septic, in the drain field. That involved renting a mini excavator and digging up the entire drain line, to discover that it was so choked with roots, rocks, and dirt that it could barely function. It was, after all, at least 50 years old. So after replacing the entire line, we reburied it and haven’t had a problem since.

  • first thing I did when buying , I had the well tested, pump & clean septic tank and distribution tank. replaced water heater, septic people said PLEASE dont use chemicals in your drains. some are old cast iron, some plastic. I never put food down drains, i wipe off plates ,Etc. 2 months ago now 5 years.called septic co.. he said & showed me what system looked like… he said “NICE”, but its just me and rarely my friend comes by to check on me .

  • Retired plumber.
    In my experience, and with living with my own septic systems for 40 years they will give long and trouble free service, provided:
    No grease, no hair, no bread batter, essentially if you have not eaten it, it does should not go in the toilet. Use biodegradable soap. No paper towels or that really soft cushiony toilet paper Do not use bleach or anti-bacterial soaps……bacteria is what makes your septic system work. If someone in the household has to use antibiotics, then a septic system treatment as you recommend will restore proper bacteria balance. Otherwise a treatment is usually not necessary. Keep tree roots away from the septic drain field. Trees find the effluent water to be great food. Plant only grass or shallow rooted plants on the drain field. don’t drive over your drain field.
    If your septic tank is properly sized for your family, it should pumped out every five years for normal use.
    If you keep your system healthy, and keep it root free, it will last a long time.

    • Hugh,

      Question for you – I must bleach my towels to control a skin condition and prevent recurrent infections in the household. How should I take care of my system in a case like this? We get it looked at and usually pumped every 3 years – household of 4 adults, soon to be just 2 adults + rare visitors.

      • Bleach your towels with hydrogen peroxide instead of chlorine products. Don’t throw peroxide down the drain until the oxidizing power of the peroxide had bubbled away.

      • You also might be able to sterilize your towels simply by boiling in ordinary water for 10-15 minutes, then hanging them to dry or using the clothes dryer. You can also use sunlight as a bleaching agent, followed by boiling water if desired. Also UV lamps, but don’t look at the light as it causes cataracts.

  • Good Article, good comments about chemicals and toilet paper issues. SOME TP is NOT Septic Safe.
    Charmin was my MIL’s TP of choice and for several years I was putting my Honey Wagon Gentleman’s kids through college with yearly pump outs.

    Each time he would show me the Charmin clogging the house to septic tank line and finally I had to stop my MIL from using it again.

    When it looked like my leech field was getting slow my Septic Man said use the Robic products to help the system eat up all that old Charmin.

    Three treatments over a 6 week time period and the damp spot is gone and my septic has not given me any trouble for over two years. Not cheap but far cheaper than installing a new leech field.

    Septic systems are sized for a set number of adults using it with a little extra for guests visiting.

    That said have a plan IF your home is going to have extra people living there when SHTF. I expect several folks will be joining my homestead and I already have drilled a two-hole pit privy and have it hiding under a shed. Important note urine is not something you want in a pit privy. Too easy to have a swampy mess not composting down there. In the Army we set up perforated pipes for Urinals for that very reason. Female soldiers were instructed to use a Lady J or a piss pot to pour it into the Urinal.

    Plan ahead so when SHTF your human waste situation doesn’t make it worse.

  • Anytime you have yogurt (even the single serve cups), rinse them out in cold water. Even that little bit helps.

  • Here in Mississippi the rural older wide ones put a mix of hot water live yeast and and brown sugar down the toilet once a month. Not sure of specific portions, just mix 1:1:1 let set overnight and flush. Seems to work for us. Our house was built in 1948 big old septic tank. With a grey water drain off. Never pumped it. Neighbors dad built our home she told us this trick. We have been here 7 years with this practice. I only use non chemical cleaners at her advice. Vinegar and baking soda essential oils sunshine and a strong scrubber.

  • I use RID-X monthly for the septic. I also only flush poopy TP; wet TP goes in the burn bucket. If you have several females in your house instruct them not to put tampx in the toilets.

    To keep my other pipes clear I use baking soda and vinegar in the kitchen, laundry and bathroom pipes. I put about 1/4 c of baking soda in and around the drain then pour about 2 cups of white vinegar down the drain. Just listen and you will hear the soda bubbling and cleaning the drains. Let them do their work for about 20-30 minutes then run hot water down the drains to flush it all out. How frequent you do this depends on your family.

  • While not directly related to septic systems, my local DPW just published a newspaper article reminding people to not flush those “flushable wipes.” Evidently no matter what the package says, they don’t degrade as advertised and can cause a TON of problems in pipes! The city minions had just removed 1200 feet of those from someone’s lateral, after the clog caused backups in several houses on that block. So one more thing that doesn’t go down your pipes! Oy.

  • We occasionally have water issues that result in the following advice to friends and guests:

    Welcome to Paradise.
    Have fun in the sun.
    But remember not to flush
    After number one.

  • A humorous poem I saw at a camp in Upper Michigan

    Those of us with septic tanks
    Give to you our heartfelt thanks
    For putting nothing in the pot
    That isn’t guaranteed to rot.

    Kleenex are bad
    Matchsticks too.
    Paper towels are taboo.
    No hair clippings – use a basket.
    There’s a very good reason why we ask it!

  • We have rural property with a new septic system. We make lye soap. I’m wondering about the oily residue that needs washed off our soaping supplies after making soap. I haven’t heard anyone mention a bidet on the homestead to decrease toilet paper use. Unless there’s a big NO NO to it, that’s what I’m hoping we can use.
    Thank you so much for all the advice, comments, poems, etc. Great! 😀

    • I know from firsthand experience you must, must, must wipe off and clean out your soaping equipment prior to washing. You do not want any of the raw soap to go down your drain. When it does, it will begin to harden as soon as it hits the cooler pipes and will con’t to layer up until you have a big, time to call the plumber, clog. Happy soaping!

    • I put in a bidet a few years ago and now go thru about a roll of TP a year. And that’s mostly for cleaning the toilet.
      Two things to remember is a bidet squirts water using the water pressure on the line so if water is out and you’re having to bring up water to flush it won’t work. It needs electricity too, so no warm seat.
      The good thing is you already know how to use TP so not a biggie.
      Bottom line (no pun) a bidet is great for a septic system.

  • Oh how I miss my house with the well water and septic system! Even in snow, ice or freezes-all of it keep ticking away without a hitch!! The only utility bill I ever got was from PG&E for electric only. The sanitation pipes in my area of the burbs were installed 1955 to 1970 and need constant maintanence. Water system in Folsom has something in it that literally eats copper pipes, so the city is adding phosphates. If you have such an off-grid system, count your blessings.

  • Yes, we put in a grey water bypass line and that fixed our problems. Our soils are not good for drain fields, and fats and oils from cooking seal off the soil/water face. Our house is on a small hill, and the grey water just goes down the hill face… so easy for us.

    I had a hip replacement recently and during recovery I had great difficuilty getting out of bed to pee.. even to a ensuite. So I started to use a pee bottle ( a wide mouth plastic one) and found it quick and easy. For a man, just have to stand up, and less sleep disturbance.
    It also conserves flushing water which is occasionally an issue both water use and septic tank flooding. Now, instead of flushing the urine, I use it to fertilize my garden, especially the fruit trees. Not for everyone I guess, but I take a lot of mineral suppliments, which I am sure benefit the trees and come back to me in the fruit. Waste not want not….

  • I have 2 toilets in the house out of 3 that will clog easily when guest come over. I tell the to use a ” Courtesy Flush” and that helps a lot. A Courtesy Flush, for those that don’t know, is a flush half way through your business. Mostly to help with smell but in our case it helps to keep from clogging the toilet. With this method most of the solids are flushed before the paper even goes into the toilet. It’s been working for us so far. Hope it helps your readers.

    Woody Woodpecker

  • For at-risk areas, connecting to an adequate public sewer system is the most satisfactory and trouble-free method of disposing of domestic sewage from private residences. Where access to a public sewer system is unfeasible or too expensive, proper siting and design of an onsite sewage system is critical to avoid its premature failure.

  • These last few days I went to my mountain cottage just to learn that the septic had collapsed. We´re in the process of getting the money to rebuild it…after 35 years of intermittent service.

  • Great tip about making sure you pay attention to the warning signs early. My wife and I need to get a contractor to inspect our tank. I think it might be leaking.

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