Winter Septic Tank Problems and how to avoid them

As you might imagine, the harsh conditions which accompany a New England winter here in Connecticut can be a challenge for your septic system. Cold weather, dramatic changes in temperature, ice, and snow, as well as more time at home and holiday guests (during “normal” years!), have the potential to create issues and unpleasant situations or, in some cases, seriously damage your septic tank.

While winter septic work isn’t our favorite type, if you have a problem we’d be happy to help rectify it. Let us know!

To prevent these situations from becoming problematic, we recommend an ounce of prevention as opposed to a pound of cure. So here are some of the common problems that septic systems or sewer connections might be plagued with during the cold winter months as well as what you can do to keep them from happening.

Improperly Functioning Pipes

During warmer weather, clogged or leaky septic pipes will often cause improper and inefficient drainage, including foul odors. This same situation during the winter can be far more of a problem. Cold temperatures can cause backed up or leaky water to freeze, and frozen wastewater can lead to overall septic system damage. What’s more, if you have well water, it may contaminate your drinking water. To avoid these issues, fix leaky pipes and address clogs before the cold weather sets in. If it’s too late and you are dealing with these issues now, contact us and we can do an inspection of your system to locate the cause of the problem before we need to dig.


Frozen Tank Components

When ice, sleet, or snow gets deep into the components of your septic system, it can freeze them, or even the entire system. When these components are frozen, it will slow down the metabolic rate of the naturally-occurring microbes in your septic tank. This means that waste will not be able to be broken down and your tank will fill prematurely. This problem can be easily avoided by providing your system with an insulating cover or blanket to keep it warm during the colder months. Vegetation around your tank can help shield it from the cold as well. Running your water and using your septic system every day can also help reduce the risk of freezing.

Compacted Snow and Soil

backyard ice hockey rink

As much as we love ice hockey, building a rink over your septic tank is not advisable.

During the last decade, we haven’t really had to deal with long-lasting snow on the ground (and its associated weight and lowered ground surface temperature). However, if snow becomes compacted – when played upon by the neighborhood kids or driven over – it can turn to ice and become an issue. That’s because the heavy, cold layer can make the soil above your tank and in your drain field compact and dense, making it less effective at insulating your tank. This can lead to wastewater that will not be properly filtered and drained. To avoid this, be sure to aerate your soil before the cold weather sets in and activities that compact snow above your septic tank or leaching field.

Improper or Overuse of Septic System

During the winter (especially this pandemic winter!), we all spend more time at home. This puts a greater strain than normal on your septic system. The winter holidays also involve having out-of-town guests not used to the “idiosyncrasies” of your particular system. At a minimum, these two dynamics – and their accompanying increase in toilet, shower, and laundry usage – will lead to your system being overworked. Also, guests may unwittingly flush ill-advised items down the toilet, leading to clogs or damage. Avoid these issues by staggering showers and laundry to minimize wastewater. Remind guests – especially those with children – what items can and can’t be flushed down your toilet.

Tank Pumping Troubles

To be clear, it’s much, much easier to pump a septic tank when the ground is not frozen or when there isn’t a foot of snow covering your lawn. This is why we encourage all of our customers who have concerns to schedule these types of services before the onset of winter. However, that doesn’t mean we don’t provide this service in the winter months because, well, stuff happens. If you have symptoms of a full tank – water or sewage from toilets, drains, and sinks backing up into the home, bathtubs, showers, and sinks that drain very slowly, gurgling sounds in the plumbing system or standing water over that tanks outside and familiar, foul odors – contact us.

Leaking showers, sinks, or fixtures

Besides wasting gallons of water depending on the severity, a leaking faucet can also result in additional septic tank problems in the winter. If a shower or other fixture has a leak, it will send water down into the septic system. Usually, wastewater from the house has bacteria and this is good for the septic system. However, clean water does not help in replenishing the septic tank with bacteria. This clean water will cause hydraulic overload and it will reduce the rate at which bacteria break down the organic waste. This means the heat generation will also be reduced and that can be bad for a septic tank during winter because it can make it freeze.  Additionally, the trickling water can freeze in the pipes because it is not moving fast enough. The lesson here is to address these issues for the health of your septic system as well as your household water budget.

While pre-winter maintenance is the best way to prevent issues during the cold months, that doesn’t mean we can’t help if you are having issues with your septic system or sewer hookup. If you have concerns or questions,  please contact us.

COVID-19 Considerations:  Please know that we are working safely during the COVID-19 crisis; you can learn more in our blog post about this.