home and familyHomemaking

Knowing When your Septic Tank is Full

Having a full septic tank can be disastrous. Your life comes to a halt because you can’t use your toilet, bath or shower, washer machine or sink without some sort of issue. If you can use these at all, you might find that you only have a limited time to use them as substantial water emerges around your tank. Here, we cover the most common signs of septic tank failure, but it’s important to understand a few things about your septic tank.

Septic tank

How Your Tank is Set Up

To understand what happens to a septic tank when it is full, it’s important to know how it is designed. Some tanks can vary, but most are similar to one another. A septic tank holds three layers of “waste”. The top layer floats on the top. This is referred to as scum. The middle layer is “effluent“. It’s water that exits the septic tank and into the drainfield where it slowly drains into the ground. The bottom layer is called “sludge”, which is a substance that is more solid. Within the tank, useful bacteria help to keep the septic tank healthy by breaking down waste. Most septic tanks are 10 to 25 feet from the home, but a septic tank probe can help find it.

Septic Tank Fullness

All septic tanks are full to some extent unless it has just been emptied. This means that you can be within a safe amount, but it also can mean that the tank is about to overflow or at the stage where it is overflowing. It’s generally a good idea to have your tank emptied between three and five years, but if you have more people in your family, use excessive amounts of water or have other contributing factors, you may need to empty your tank more often. Consider these signs to look out for before your tank overflows.

Bubbling Toilet

A bubbling toilet is troublesome. This indicates some sort of blockage. If you’re experiencing a bubbling toilet, you may also start to have issues with your shower drain. All pipes eventually lead to the septic tank, but all of the pipes meet at some point before is goes to your septic tank, and different pipes are lower than others. The pipes that are lower will become backed up first. If your toilet is bubbling or gurgling, water may be backing up in your shower as well.

Pooling Water

Everything goes into your septic tank, but water or “effluent” exits your septic tank and into the drainfield to slowly “leach” into the ground. As toilet paper and waste breaks up, it combines with water and creates sludge. The septic tank needs to be pumped when this layer comes within 18 inches of the septic tank outlet. Be aware that excessive usage of water can also create pooling, so you need to check into it, but be aware of other signs that your tank is full.


If you have experienced pooling water, you may have noticed an odor wafting in the air. Before you think this is normal, please know that it is not. This means your septic tank has reached all new “high’s”, and you desperately need to have it evacuated immediately. It’s worth noting, now, that wipes that say “septic safe” are rarely that. Wipes are thicker and tougher than toilet paper, but it doesn’t mean they can break down quickly. Even regular toilet paper can take time to break down. Wipes might eventually break down, but chances are that they can accumulate sludge quicker and block your drainfield. You’re better off throwing the wipes into the trash.

Greener Vegetation Above and Around Tank

Septic waste fertilizes vegetation, so you might notice that the grass or plants around a septic tank appear greener or healthier. This is great for your plants, but this indicates a major issue with your septic tank. The word “septic” denotes something horrible, but your septic tank is meant to help break down waste with bacteria and expel water that is safe enough to go into the ground. An overflowing septic tank can mean healthier vegetation, but it could mean that your tank is not “healthy”. Along with having your tank emptied periodically, it’s a good idea to make sure it’s healthy, and you need to have all three layers inspected regularly.

Water Backup

Scum can clog the drainfield, which can cause water to backup. Given that wastewater is septic, wastewater that backs up into the house introduces the home to dangerous bacteria. In addition, the wastewater can cause water damage and mold issues. Your carpet and other parts of your home’s surfaces may need to be replaced if they are damaged by backup wastewater. Septic tanks need to be emptied when scum comes within a foot of the outlet. If scum comes within 6 inches of the outlet T, wastewater can begin backing up into the home.

Regular inspections could help, but it’s not fail-proof because issues with septic tanks can spring up if anything goes wrong. A safe way to be sure is to get a level sensor for liquids, which can be remotely monitored, and it’s more efficient and accurate than inspections. Remote monitoring makes it an excellent option for the times you need to inspect your tank when you’re at home and away. Without it, you could have septic tank problems with your sludge or scum levels and not know it until it’s too late.


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