Farm Horizons, February 2014

How to protect your septic system from freezing temps

By Tara Mathews

Most people don’t think about their septic system until there’s a problem, but listening for, and looking at the system’s alarm is crucial, according to Darian Litzau, owner of Litzau Excavating of Lester Prairie.

The septic system alarm will generally have a light and a buzzer that will activate in the event of an issue, and is located above ground on the tank, or in the basement.

When a septic system freezes, it can cause water to back up into the house, and result in a hefty bill when excavating is needed, Litzau said.

So far this winter, Litzau Excavating has had to defrost one mound-style septic system that was installed 15 to 20 years ago, and has had to thaw that system multiple times in the past, according to Litzau.

The area in which the mound or drain-field begins is the most common site for freezing issues, he said.

Ground settling around the supply line and mound site can cause the layer of dirt above the supply line to be as little as 1 or 2 feet deep where the mound or drain-field begins, and sometimes causes the pipe to bow, which will prevent the water from draining back to the tank.

Fortunately, there are options for trying to prevent such a disaster from happening.

“Using the septic system is the best prevention,” Litzau stated. “I have seen cases where the kids go to college, and suddenly, the parents have a freeze-up in the septic system.”

“I know that generally, we are taught to conserve water, but use more water if a concern arises,” Litzau added.

Placing bags of leaves over the site prone to freezing can help prevent frost from reaching the lines also, according to Litzau.

In some cases, digging up the line to insulate is necessary, but this can be very costly, especially in the winter when the ground is harder.

Septic systems installed in the last eight to 10 years have been supported by placing the normal 2 inch supply line pipe inside a 4 inch pipe, so ground settling doesn’t cause the pipe to bow, and there is more insulation around it, so it can drain back without issues.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency website gives these tips from the University of Minnesota:

• Place an 8-to 12-inch layer of mulch on the pipes, tank, and soil treatment system to provide extra insulation.

• Fix any leaking plumbing fixtures or appliances.

• Keep all traffic (people, animal, and vehicle) away from the system, as compacted snow and soil cause the frost to go deeper into the ground.

• If you are going away for an extended period, have someone go to your home and run warm water regularly, or have the tank pumped out before you leave.

• If your septic system freezes, call a professional.

If a septic system continues to freeze despite continued usage or using leaf bags as insulation, the supply line pipe should be dug up and placed inside a 4-inch insulator pipe, Litzau stated.

Sometimes, digging the septic system can cause more issues for the homeowner because systems installed more than 10 years ago may not conform to current regulations.

“If we run into a situation where the system is non-conforming, we cannot work on it unless we adjust it to conform to current legal standards,” Litzau said. “Otherwise, I could lose my operating license.”

There are also septic heaters available, which would be placed inside the vent of the septic system and then plugged into an electrical outlet.

Septic heaters range from $995 for a timer-controlled model, to $1,595 for a fully automatic model, according to the Septic Heater Company website.

The units come with a three-year warranty, and are guaranteed to prevent septic freezing.

The electrical cost of using a heater averages $1 per day, but will vary due to depth of tank, pipes, frost and snow cover, according to Chris Norgaard, owner of Septic Heater Company.

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