It’s SepticSmart Week: Keep Jack Frost from nipping at your septic system

Contact: Daniel Olson, 218-846-8108

St. Paul, Minn. — Sept. 21 through 27 is SepticSmart Week. This time of year, families with septic systems should take precautions to prevent costly septic system problems during the winter.

Prevent freezing in the first place. Insulation is key to preventing pipes and drainfields from freezing. Allowing grass to grow an extra six inches over the entire system (septic tank, connecting pipes and drainfield/mound) in the fall can protect it from frost. Another good insulator is a layer of mulch (for example, straw, leaves, or hay) spread eight to 12 inches deep over the system. Other ideas include maintaining wildflowers or native grasses over your tank and system.

Don’t be a drip, keep it hot. Dripping faucets trickle water into the system, which can cause ice to build up and eventually freeze a pipe closed, often right where the septic pipe leaves the home. Fix all leaks and keep the system “energized” with regular doses of warm water during the winter ― the warmer the better. Spread out your laundry schedule so you run one warm/hot load a day. Use the dishwasher and take hot baths. However, DO NOT leave water running all the time, as this will hydraulically overload the septic system.

Keep off the grass (and snow). Keep all vehicle, animal and human traffic off the system. This is a good rule to follow all year long as compacted snow and soils cause frost to go down deeper and faster. Pay special attention to the area between the house and the septic tank. Stay off these areas even during the winter as compacted snow provides much less insulation than undisturbed snow.

Keep it safe. Make sure all septic tank covers are in place and firmly attached to prevent someone from falling in. Make sure all inspection pipe caps are in place and in good shape to keep cold air out.

Keep new systems under cover. A new septic system covered with bare soil can have problems with freezing the first year. Cover a new tank, mound/drainfield with an insulating layer of mulch or similar loose material.

It’s frozen. Now what? If your septic system freezes, call a septic system professional. For Minnesotans, the MPCA website includes a search tool for finding certified professionals in your area. Search online for “MPCA SSTS licensed business search.”

If it’s not feasible to correct a problem, the only option is using the septic tank as a holding tank until the system thaws naturally in the spring. Have a pumper empty the tank when it starts to fill up.

There are some things you should never do to try to fix a frozen system:

  • Do not introduce antifreeze, salt or a septic system additive into the system.
  • Do not pump sewage onto the ground surface.
  • Do not start a fire over the system to attempt to thaw it out.
  • Do not run water continually to try to thaw the system. This can overload the system.

For more information on how your septic system works and how to keep it healthy all year, go to the SSTS Practitioner and Homeowner Information webpage.