Inspect and maintain your septic system

A conventional septic system requires maintenance, inspection, and service every three years to ensure continued operation.

Most waterfront homeowners in NW Wisconsin utilize a conventional septic system. Not only is a properly functional system designed to protect their family’s health, but also to protect the surface and groundwater from contamination.

Conventional septic system diagram

Conventional septic system diagram

Steps to ensure a properly functioning septic system:

  • Pump or inspect your septic system every three years.
  • Divert surface water away from the drain field.
  • Avoid driving or parking on the drain field to prevent soil compaction.
  • Avoid obstructed drain lines by keeping roots of trees and shrubs away from the drain field pipes.
  • To prevent drain field clogs, avoid putting cooking grease, oils, coffee grounds, cigarettes, sanitary napkins, tampons, disposable diapers, paper towels down the drain or toilet.
  • Compost your vegetable scraps rather than using a garbage disposal.
  • Conserve water with low-flow toilets, faucets, and shower heads.

How do you know if your septic system is malfunctioning?

  • Sewage is backing up in the basement or drains.
  • Water is ponding or creating wet areas over the drain field.
  • Bright green grass over the drain field.
  • Dense aquatic plants along only your shore land.
  • Sewage odors.
  • Bacteria or nitrate in nearby well water.
  • Biodegradable dye flushed through your system can be detected in the lake.

Preventing Frozen Septic Systems

Although it’s been an unseasonably warm fall in Northwest Wisconsin, it’s never too early to start planning ahead.  If you’re buying a home or cabin up north, you may want to take extra precautions so its septic system doesn’t freeze up this winter.



This is usually only a problem during extremely cold winters when there’s very little snow.  We experienced an epidemic of frozen septic systems back in the winter of 2002-2003.  Some small towns in Northern Wisconsin even had their municipal systems freeze when the frost reached depths of eight or nine feet.

Usually it’s not the septic tank itself that freezes first; instead it’s the pipe between the house and the tank, or else the pipe leading from the septic tank to the drain field.  (Sometimes it’s the drain field itself.)  The first situation causes an immediate backup.  The second can turn your septic tank into a holding tank.  Both, however, can usually be resolved by your local septic experts.

To prevent these problems from happening in the first place, your best bet is to to buy several bales of straw next November.  Break them apart and fluff up the straw as you spread it out over the ground above your septic system and drain field.  You may also want to spread some over the area between your house and the septic tank.  In the spring, this straw will make great mulch for your garden.

(Every fall around here, you’ll see ads for “sewer hay.”  That term is used generically; it’s up-north lingo for just this kind of situation.  But make sure you get clean straw, rather than substandard hay with lots of weed seeds.)

Or, if you’re not into gardening, go to the home improvement store for a few sheets of 2” foam insulation.  Lay them out over your septic tank and drain field, put a couple of rocks on them so they don’t blow away before they’re covered with snow, and then sit back and wait for winter.

Need a break from studying up on septic sucking issues? Relax a bit by viewing some of my current listings (and maybe even take a few virtual video tours via YouTube), just click here.

Buying a lake cabin – what about septic systems?

Types of septic systems

If you’re living in town, then you probably have city water and sewer.  All you need to worry about now is paying a small bill every month.  But once you move to the country, you’re on your own.  Don’t worry, though.  Most of the time these systems work just fine.

Photo courtesy of

Still, before you buy a home or cabin, it’s important to know about its septic system.  Repairs and upgrades can be expensive.  Here’s a quick overview; to really understand septic systems thoroughly, you may want to do an online search on some of these terms and read further.

The first question you should ask is what type of system a particular home or cabin has.  There are three main types: conventional, mound, and holding. You may also hear about something called a “separate gray water system.” One other term I’ll explain briefly is “perc test.” You’ll want to know what it is and why it’s important.

A conventional septic system runs waste water and solids into a large concrete septic tank where bacteria digest the solids.  Liquids run out the other end into a drain field that’s made of perforated pipe buried in a gravel-filled trench.  Solids that don’t digest settle out into a sludge at the bottom of the septic tank.  Every two or three years, you’ll need to have this sludge pumped out.  It’s not expensive, and it’s no big deal.  It’s just part of owning a home or cabin that’s outside the city limits.

A mound system is similar, except that the drain field is above ground level, inside a large mound of gravel and dirt.  It’s used in certain special conditions—most often when the soil isn’t permeable enough, there isn’t enough soil before you reach bedrock, or the water table is too close to the surface.  Although the mound can be landscaped in a way that makes it less noticeable, it’s still going to be there.  Another negative is that mound systems often require a pumping system in between the septic tank and the drain field.  Otherwise, these systems work just like a conventional septic system.

A holding tank is just what it sounds like—a holding tank that needs to be pumped out as soon as it’s full.  I see them most often at older lakeshore cabins.  They’re usually only used for sites that are unsuitable for either a conventional or a mound system.  Sometimes, however, they were installed because they were a less expensive alternative.

As you’d expect, a larger tank is better.  But it still needs to be pumped out eventually.  And when it is, a large tank will cost more to empty.

You may be able to upgrade a holding tank to conventional or mound system.  But even if you can, it will be a fairly expensive undertaking.  Meanwhile, pumping out the holding tank will be a regular expense.  If the system serves a small cabin that’s only used on a dozen weekends every year, that’s less of an issue.  But if that cabin becomes a full-time, year-round home for a family of six, then you’re going to have a monthly pumping bill.

To help with that problem, some homes and cabins have a separate “gray water system.”  (You’ll also see them used in conjunction with conventional and mound systems.)  Gray water, as opposed to “black water,” is all the waste water that hasn’t come from a toilet.  Depending on local codes and regulations, your gray water can sometimes be released with little or no processing; you could even use it to water your lawn or garden.  Just be careful about what soaps you use, and avoid pouring too many household chemicals down the drain (probably a good idea anyway).

Finally, here’s one more term you should know about.  If you’re building a new home or cabin, you may hear about something called a “perc test.” That’s short for “percolation test,” and it’s a measure of how permeable your soil is.  If your building site is on clay soil that’s relatively impermeable, it could mean you’ll need a mound system or holding tank.  If it’s on relatively sandy soil, you can relax.  You’ll probably pass your perc test with flying colors.

More about septic systems from the Wisconsin DNR.