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Know the Signs of a Failing Septic System

Welcome to Bremner Construction’s guide on recognizing the signs of a declining septic tank. As Waterloo’s experts in the field of excavation and septic systems, we understand the importance of maintaining the health of your property and its environment. This comprehensive guide will help you identify issues with your system before they become major. 

Understanding Your Septic System

Before diving into the signs of trouble, it’s essential to understand how your system functions. Typically, they comprise a septic tank and a drainfield. The tank serves as a settlement chamber, separating waste into solids and liquids. Your drainfield treats and disperses the effluent into the soil. The design and type of system depend on the soil conditions and space available in your area. 

Septic Tank

The septic tank receives wastewater from the drain line. Once inside the tank, the fluid waste pumps into the drain field. Solid waste settles in the form of sludge at the bottom of the tank. Eventually, the sludge breaks down by natural bacteria, allowing it to pump into the drain field.

Drain Field

The drain field, or the leach field, receives liquid waste from the tank’s outlet and disperses it into the soil. Downward-sloped underground pipes and gravel are used in drain fields to spread wastewater from the septic tank. The drain field is arranged and designed to prevent runoff and wastewater from reaching your yard’s surface yard.

The Role of a Septic Tank in Waste Management 

The septic tank is a key component of your waste management system. It’s where your home’s waste, bacteria, and water converge. Inside, bacteria break down solid waste, reducing it to sludge and scum. The middle layer of liquid, or effluent, then flows out into the drainfield for further treatment. This process is vital for proper waste disposal and preventing contamination. 

Warning Signs of a Failing System

Recognizing the signs of a failing system can prevent costly repairs and environmental accidents. Here are some critical indicators: 

Indoor Indicators

Slow Drains

You don’t have to go outside to find out whether there’s something wrong with your system. You can look for the evidence right inside. A common sign that things aren’t operating as they should is slow-draining sinks and toilets. Your first impression may be that your pipes are clogged. In reality, the issue may be that your on-site waste management is in trouble.

Bad Smells

Another indication of a failing system is much more apparent than slow-moving drains. You’ll begin to smell foul odours right inside your home, and we’re sure you can imagine what kind of smells we’re talking about. These unpleasant odours mean that your household’s waste isn’t properly exiting through the system. This can cause a lot of trouble for your property and the surrounding environment. These smells come from the anaerobic conditions of the septic tank. They reduce constituents to potentially harmful gases and compounds. They include methane, hydrogen sulphide, carbon dioxide and ammonia.

Outdoor Signs

Soggy Ground

The signs of a failing septic system are a bit more subtle when you step outside. One to watch out for is wet, soggy ground around your drain field. Make note this may not always mean system failure. Try to be mindful of the amount of rain you get or the time of year. During the spring, for instance, the ground can be quite wet after all of the winter snow has melted away. Large amounts of rainfall will also leave your yard feeling soggy. In the heat of the summer, wet and soggy ground on your property is likely the sign of a clogged pipe or a failing system. 

Spots of Lush, Green Grass

Another common sign you can recognize outside is an unusually green or lush patch of grass around your drain field. This could be due to an overabundance of nutrients from wastewater leakage. While lush, green grass seems like a net positive, it also means that effluent isn’t properly draining into the ground. This can cause backups and all sorts of concerns for your system, your property and the environment. Be sure to keep a keen eye on where your tank and drain field are so you can stay ahead of any problems.

System Alerts

Many modern systems are equipped with alarms and sensors that will let you know if anything is going wrong with your system. These are super beneficial as these sensors will let you know of any malfunctions before they escalate into much bigger issues.

Regular Maintenance

Older systems may not be equipped with sensors and alert systems. So, the best steps to take to make sure your system is running smoothly is regular maintenance. Every once in a while, it never hurts to hire a professional to deliver a routine inspection. This will help you stay on top of any potential threats to your system.

Common Causes of Failure

There are many different events that can occur that will present problems to your system. These can be detrimental to your system and property.

Physical Damage

Tree Roots

It can be a surprise to some that tree roots can be incredibly destructive, with the ability to push through solid concrete. It should be no surprise that they can penetrate your system, create a leak in your tank, or clog up your pipes.

Ground Compaction

If you’ve had work done at your property, then it’s possible that heavy vehicles have driven over the area where your tank or leach field is. This can cause ground compaction and cause irreversible damage to your system.

Biological Factors

Harmful Material

Introducing certain non-biodegradable materials or grease into your system can potentially cause clogs at any point in your system. This could cause issues inside your home, in your, or out in the leach field.


Flushing chemicals down the drain can cause problems right inside your tank. A healthy system relies on the bacteria that are present in your tank to break down waste. Chemicals can kill that bacteria and slow or halt the waste breakdown process.

Overuse and Misuse

High water volume from repeated use is a significant factor that can overwhelm your system. This problem usually occurs when the amount of water entering the tank exceeds its capacity to process and treat it adequately.

Maintenance and Prevention Strategies 

There are many approaches homeowners can take to extend the life of their system. And with the proper maintenance and check-ups, a system last years without facing even the most minor issues.

Regular Inspection and Pumping

Having your system maintained and inspected on a regular basis will allow you to take a proactive stance. Pumping is no exception. Depending on your household size, it’s typically recommended that your tank is pumped once every three to five years. It’s an easy and essential measure to take to keep things running as they should. But three to five years is a long time, and it’s easy to lose track of when you last had your tank pumped. Always remember to keep track of your pumping schedule and set reminders so your routine pumping isn’t missed.

Proper Usage and Care

Another easy measure to keep your system running properly is being mindful of what goes down your drains and toilets. It’s best practice to keep everyone in the household knowledgeable about what can go down the drain or toilet. This is especially important if you have young children at home!


Recognizing the signs of a failing septic tank and taking prompt action can save you from costly repairs and environmental damage. Regular maintenance, proper use, and timely intervention are key to a healthy septic system. For expert advice and service, reach out to Bremner Construction, your local expert in septic system care and landscaping needs. 

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