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What causes a septic system to give up the ghost

What causes a septic system to give up the ghost
Several factors play into septic system failure.

Ric Schlosser and Sydney Ponsler showed farmers and others at the recent Johnson County home site and septic system seminar what happens when things go awry in your septic system.

To do so they used a model that features a side profile, cut-away view of a septic tank, fingers, the surrounding landscape and more. The model allows you to demonstrate what a system looks like if you could see below ground when it is working properly.

Related: Fact and myth about your on-farm septic system

Using the same model, you can simulate what happens when the system fails, Schlosser says.

Underground view: Ric Schlosser and Sydney Ponsler, a member of the Johnson County Youth Conservation Board, prepare to show the audience graphically how a septic system can fail.

Schlosser, director of the Johnson County Soil and Water Conservation District, helped the district obtain the costly model through a grant from the Johnson County Community Foundation. It's ideal for showing small groups what really happens to waste once it leaves the home and enters underground into a septic waste treatment system on your own property.

What can go wrong? First, if you're in the wrong soil type, say poorly or somewhat poorly drained soil, the water table can be too high for lengthy periods during the year. When the water table is too high, effluent in the perforated fingers has nowhere to go.

Ideally, it filters down through the soils and nutrients and harmful bacteria are removed. When the soil is full of water, effluent in the line sits there and stays in the fingers. Eventually, it can rise to the surface, especially if the system was installed in a low spot, it's extremely wet, and the volume put through the system continues to increase.

Related: To clean or not to clean your septic tank?

The more water that comes into the system from a washing machine or garbage disposal, the more pressure there is on a system.

Using red dye, Schlosser showed what happened when a system completely failed. Eventually dye, representing effluent, emerged on the side of a small rise. "That's where you would have a mess and it would smell if the system isn't functioning properly," he concludes.

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