I am thrilled to say, the problem with our septic has been dealt with AND the pump itself still works! We’re still not sure why it stopped pumping completely. More on that later.
The whole job was much, much bigger than we expected.
Also, my brother is a saint. God bless him! I don’t know how we would have managed without his help!
Let’s back up a bit.
This is what we had to work with.
I learned new things today. I was too young to remember most of this being installed, and then I was gone for 30 years, so I really knew very little about this system. For example, do you see that access pipe in the photo?
I had no idea what that was. I just vaguely knew it was there.
Oh, and that cap on it? That’s brass. Corroded brass.
Brass is not supposed to corrode. Not like what we found.
My brother said that thing has never been opened since the system was installed.
Now, when we were on a septic system before, it was a basic gravity system. No pumps. All the pipes in the household went to a single main outflow pipe that went out to a giant tank, with a one way valve at the end. As the tank filled, the solids would sink to the bottom and the liquid would eventually reach a second one way valve on the other side, allowing it to drain out. There would be an outflow pipe from the outlet to a nearby septic field. At the end, there would be pipes with drainage holes in them, spread out in various configurations. Since all of this is gravity based, slope is very important. It’s also important, in our climate, to make sure the tank, outflow pipe and septic field are covered for the winter. If the ground freezes, it can’t absorb the liquid. Plus, the pipes themselves can freeze.
Without the need for electricity and pumps, there’s not a lot to fuss with.
The system we have allows us to have a septic field very far from the house – much further than a gravity system could go. We also don’t have to cover the septic field, and the pipes are so deep under ground, they can’t freeze. We cover the tank itself for the winter, but that is more of a “just in case”, because it, too, is deeper.
Now, having used a gravity based system in the past, I still had it in my head that the outflow pipe from the tank to the septic field came straight out of the tank. I do remember the trench that was dug from the house towards the barn, but I didn’t remember anything from the tank, on the other side of the house, to the trench. Did it run under the old kitchen? How was that done?
Well, now I know, and it really should have been obvious. I just had it so stuck in my head that, of course the outflow went from the tank to the field, I didn’t realize I was looking at it, right in the basement.
When the float in the tank triggers the pump to turn on, the pump sucks the liquid into the house, through the pump, then into a pipe that goes straight up, bends towards the other pipes, then follows them across the room and out the basement wall, to the septic field out by the barn. I had not realized what that pipe was, until today.
Though my brother’s plan had been to install the new well pump, the septic problem was much more urgent.
The first thing to do was open up the access pipe.
Now, what should have happened was, when my brother took a pipe wrench to it, the cap would come right off.
After fighting with it, banging on it, using a spray lubricant on it, and very nearly breaking his pipe wrench on it, my brother ended up loosening the clamps and eventually was able to take the entire top piece off.
That’s metal in there.
This is not supposed to have anything in there.
He scraped some stuff out, then tried to use a plumber’s snake to get through.
That didn’t go far.
The pipe was solidly blocked.
What followed, over the next several hours, was us going through whatever we could scrounge, trying to get through the blockage. The plumber’s snake was too flexible to get through far, so we tried one of the drainage hoses for the hot water tank (for some reason, there are 3 of them in the basement). That was more successful, but they are only about 3 feet long. We kept going through both basements, trying to find something, but either they were not long enough or not flexible enough or might break off in the pipe. Finally, my brother went out to the garden shed to get a garden hose. While he was gone, I kept looking around and found, tucked away along a ceiling beam, a long piece of plastic corner molding. It was about 7 feet long, and I was able to get about 6 1/2 feet through – the farthest of anything we’d yet tried – before I hit something solid.
The septic tank is about 8 feet away from the foundation, plus the distance of the pipes inside the house. The main drain pipe joins the access pipe in a Y before continuing out the house, and there is a bend part way through.
It was all plugged.
It got so my brother and I were both openly wondering how on earth we’ve had functional plumbing at all. This was quite obviously decades of accumulated debris in there.
In the end, what we found that finally broke through all the way to the tank was the wire of an old chimney sweep we found in the new part basement. It was flexible enough to go through the bend, but rigid enough to break through the clog.
Once we had that opening, we were able to use the plumbing snake to make it wider, then jam the garden hose through. Finally, we hooked the garden hose to the cold water tap at the sink, and a slow trickle of water helped clear it even more.
In the end, it took about 3 – 3 1/2 hours to get to this point.
As you can see in the photo, quite a bit of sludge backed out of the opening, too. We honestly couldn’t even tell what it was. We are both rather familiar with what accumulates in plumbing, and we’ve never seen anything like this before.
Once we got the hose through so that it was actually in the tank, my brother went outside to take a look in the tank. He did that a few times over the next while, as we continued to try and widen the opening.
Finally, we were satisfied with how clear the blockage was.
It was then time to turn to the pump itself.
My brother had picked up a new pump, just in case. He also picked up a filter that would ensure no solid matter ever got into the pump, because that could just destroy it.
I was not able to stay, though, as I had to head out and pick up my daughter from work.
By the time we got back, the filter was installed.
Not only that, but the pump was working!
Since the tank was still mostly empty, my brother basically hot wired it to turn the pump on, ensuring there was water to prime it. It couldn’t be left running without more water being brought in from the tank, though, so he went back to the garden shed and grabbed another hose, attaching it to the outside tap near the septic tank, and opening the shut off valve in the basement. He filled the tank with the hose so that the float would trigger the pump, and it worked perfectly.
We’re still not sure why it stopped running. The clog had no connection to the pump. My thought was that there is some sort of fail safe in it.
The switch for the pump that’s on the wall is basically a kill switch. If the pump is running and won’t stop for some reason, it can be shut off manually here. My brother made it so that, if we ever need to turn it on again, we can do it by joining two wires that are currently separate, then flicking the switch to the on position.
By the time this was done, it was past 7pm – and my brother had needed to be home by 6! So the well pump was left for another day. The pump itself is now here, along with all the fittings and clamps needed. If something happens and it dies on us, and we need to call a plumber, all we would need is to have it installed. Since we’ve been extra careful about not using too much water at once, we haven’t been getting that pressure drop and grinding noise. As long as we keep that up, it should be fine until my brother is able to come back again and install it as his leisure.
I don’t know what we’d do without him. It’s not just that he has the skills and tools for the job, but the fact that he remembers when all this stuff was installed, and has worked on them over the years. He’s probably the only living person left who knows all about this stuff. He helped put them there.
One of the things he mentioned before leaving was that it would be a good idea to run more water through the pipes to clear out more of the blockages.
That was not a difficult thing to do, since we could now finally take showers!
I am just so happy we got this done, and that the pump did not need to be replaced. My brother can return a number of things he’d picked up, including the new septic pump, which is also a relief for me. The pump alone cost $400.
My brother is the best.