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How To Find Your Septic Tank

Your new home might have won you over with its charming good looks and features, but there is most likely more to your new property than meets the eye. Many of the features that help your home function efficiently and that allow you to live a comfortable, modern life are not always visible. One of those features is your home's septic tank.

A septic system has the job of controlling and managing your home's wastewater. If you have a septic tank, anything you flush or send down a drain pipe will eventually end up in the tank.

One of the biggest questions we are asked is “How do I find my septic tank?” Eventually, every septic tank will fill up and will need to be pumped. When your tank's lid is not easy to find – especially if you are not the original homeowner – you might not have a clue on how or where to find the lid. How deep is a septic tank lid? In most cases, all components of the septic tank are buried between four inches and four feet underground.

If you are wondering if your new home in the Greater Syracuse area has a septic tank, there are a few ways to find out and to find the tank itself. First, though, it helps to understand what a septic tank and septic system do and why it is a good idea to know where yours is located.

What Is a Septic Tank?

undefinedA septic tank is a crucial part of a home's septic system. In the U.S., about 20% of homes use a septic system to manage their wastewater. Septic systems are most commonly found in the Eastern U.S., with homes in rural areas of New England being the most likely to have a septic system present. When houses are few and far between, it is often more efficient and economical to use a septic system to manage wastewater than it is to use a public sewer system.

When a septic system is in place, wastewater leaves the home and travels along the main drain pipe to the septic tank. A septic tank is a container that is watertight and is usually made of a material such as concrete, polyethylene or fiberglass. Often, the tank is buried underground.

The job of a septic tank is to hold onto the wastewater until any solids in the water separate from it. The solids sink to the bottom of the tank while anything that is less dense than water, such as grease and oil, floats to the top. Eventually, any remaining liquid, known as "effluent," exits the tank, where it drains into a leach field or drainfield. The soil in the leach field helps to filter the water and remove any bacteria, viruses and other contaminants from it.

The design of a septic tank prevents the solids or oils/grease from exiting the tank along with the water or effluent. Septic tanks installed in Onondaga County need to have inlet and outlet baffles, an effluent filter or sanitary tees installed to separate the solids from the liquids.

How Do I Know If I Have a Septic Tank?

How do you know if your home has a septic tank? There are usually a few ways to tell. One way to determine whether or not your home has a septic system or is served by the public sewer system is to look at your water bill. If you are using a septic system for wastewater management, then you're likely to see a charge of $0 for wastewater or sewer services from the utility company.

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Of course, if you have a septic system, it is possible that you will not get a water bill at all. That is because, in many cases, people with septic systems also have well water. If the water line that comes into your home has no meter attached to it, that is usually a sign that you are using well water and not public utility water.

Your home's location can also help you figure out whether or not you have a septic system and tank or are using public sewer facilities. If you live in a fairly rural area, there is a high likelihood that your home is served by a septic system. If you still are not sure, you can talk to your neighbors. If they all have septic systems, then your home likely does as well.

In some cases, there might be visual signs you have a septic tank. Often, when a septic tank is present, there is also a mound or small hill that is not a naturally occurring formation. It was created with the installation of the leach field and septic tank.

A surefire way to confirm whether or not your home has a septic system is to check your property records. It is likely that the building permit and blueprints for your home and property will contain information about the presence (or lack) of a septic tank.

Why It's Important to Know the Location of Your Septic Tank

Why should you bother to figure out the location of your septic tank? There are a few significant reasons:

1. To Be Able to Care for It Properly

undefinedThe first reason why you want to find your septic tank is that knowing its location allows you to maintain and care for it properly. The usual recommendation is not to build or place heavy items on top of the septic tank. For example, you don't want to park your car or truck there, nor do you want visitors to your home to park their vehicles on top of it. The weight of the cars might put too much pressure on the tank and cause it to collapse.

2. If You Want to Landscape or Remodel Your Property

If you plan on adding on to your house or hope to do some landscaping around your property, you need to know the location of your septic tank. You want to avoid planting anything with deep or long roots on top of or in the vicinity of your tank. It's possible for roots to grow into the pipes of your septic system, leading to clogs. When you know where the tank is located, you can plan your landscape design so that only shallow-rooted plants, like grass, are nearby.

Building a deck or other structure over the top of the location of your septic tank is also not recommended. For one thing, the weight of the structure could cause the tank to collapse. For another, it is difficult to get access to the tank if there is a permanent structure built on top of it.

3. If a Problem With Your Tank Occurs

Knowing where your tank is buried can also help you spot issues quickly when they come up. For example, you might wake up one morning and notice that there is flooding or ponding water in the area around your septic tank — a sign that your system is overloaded, and too much water is being used at once.

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4. Ease of Getting It Fixed

Finally, when you know where your septic tank is located, you can easily direct the plumber to it if there is a problem with the system — saving everyone time and money.

How to Locate a Septic Tank

The location of your septic tank is not a secret. There's going to be a way for you to find it and note its location for future reference, and here are a few of them.

1. Use a Septic Tank Map

undefinedFirst things first – consult a map. Often, using a map is the easiest option. Most counties retain records of the installation of septic tanks at all addresses. These maps should include diagrams showing the exact location of the tank on the property, and dimensions so that you can measure and find the exact spot. Don’t forget that landmarks might change throughout the years depending on when the tank was installed, so if there’s a few more bushes or a tree nearby, don’t count that spot out.

Tip: If you just purchased a property, this map should be included with your home inspection paperwork.

If you don't find a map or other documentation explaining where your septic tank is, there are a few places to check to see if you can get access to a map. One is your county health department. County health departments often maintain records of septic systems. You can also check to see if there is a property survey map available from your municipality or county. A survey map might contain the location of a septic tank.

Some homes are so old that any records about them might be patchy or even non-existent. If you can't track down a map or blueprint of your property and nothing seems to be on file about it at the county health department or in another municipal office, it can be worth creating your own map and documentation. That way, if you end up selling your home at some point, you can provide the next homeowner with everything they will need to find the tank and maintain their septic system.

2. Follow the Pipes to Find Your Septic Tank

If a map to your septic tank does not exist or you would like to create one for future reference or future homeowners, you still need to track down and locate the tank. One way to do that is to follow the sewer pipes that lead out from your home.

We’re sure you know, your septic tank is installed along the sewer line that extends from your home and into the yard. In the basement or crawl space of your home, you should be able to find a four-inch sewer pipe that will lead the way to your septic system. If your basement is finished, the sewer pipe might be hidden away in a closet or another closed off area. Generally speaking, though, you are looking for a four-inch diameter pipe that exits your house through a basement wall.

Note where the pipe leaves your house, and then head outside to find the corresponding area in your yard. Follow the pipe by sticking a thin metal probe (known as a soil probe) into the ground near the sewer line. Probe about every two feet. Most septic tanks are around 10-25 feet away from your home, and cannot be closer than five feet. Once you feel the probe striking flat concrete, fiberglass or polyethylene, you will have located your tank.

Another way to find the septic tank using the sewer pipe is to go through the pipe itself. We're not recommending that you try to climb into the pipe. Instead, use a drain snake, which you would ordinarily use to break up a clog in a toilet or drain. Thread the snake into the sewer pipe, noting any twists and bends along its journey. When the snake stops, it has most likely reached the tank. Don't try to force the snake to go any further because you do not want to damage the inlet.

Note how far you extended the snake as you draw it back, as well as any bends or curves. Once you know the distance the snake traveled and the approximate route it took, you can venture outside to look for the tank buried in the ground.

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A more high-tech way to find your septic tank is to flush a transmitter down a toilet and let it guide you to the tank. If you just want to check up on the status of your tank, but don't need to find it in the yard, you can thread a pipe camera through the sewer pipe to get a look at what's going on.

3. Inspect Your Yard

Septic tanks are installed to be as inconspicuous as possible. After time has passed and the grass has grown, sometimes it’s hard to really see the visual clues that pointed out exactly where your septic tank was installed. But that does not mean there won't still be clues helping to direct you to the location of your septic tank. First things first, you want to rule out places where your septic tank won't be:

  • Under the driveway or another paved surface.
  • Right against the house (the tank needs to be at least five feet away).
  • Next to your well (if you have one).
  • Near trees or areas with heavy plantings.
  • Under a patio, deck or another structure.

Once you've ruled out where your tank is not going to be, it is time to start looking for clues as to its location. Keep your eyes open as you walk your property and search for any unexplained high or low spots that might indicate a buried tank. For example, you might notice a hill or mound on your property, which is often an indicator that a septic tank is nearby.

Another thing to pay attention to when looking for a septic tank is the grass or other greenery in your yard. Depending on the condition of your septic system, the grass might be more verdant and faster-growing in the area near the tank. Or, if the tank was not buried properly, you might notice a "bald patch," or an area where the grass is having a hard time growing.

4. Talk to Your Neighbors

If your neighbors also have septic systems, they can help you figure out where your tank is hiding. Ask your neighbors where their septic tanks are in relation to their houses. Not only does talking to your neighbors about septic systems give you a way to figure out where yours is, but it can also serve as a friendly introduction to the rest of your neighborhood.

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5. Look for Your Septic Tank Lid

Finding your septic tank is just the first step in the process. Once you’ve found your tank, the next thing to do is find the lid. You can use your soil probe to locate it. Most septic tanks are rectangular and will measure about five feet by eight feet. Probe around the tank to locate the edges and mark the perimeter. If you do not feel the lid by probing, a shallow excavation with a shovel within the perimeter and near the center (or broken into halves for a two compartment tank) should reveal the location of the lid or lids.

Even after you've discovered the location of your septic tank's lid(s), we do not recommend opening it. The tank itself is likely to be full of unpleasant-smelling, if not dangerous, fumes. Be happy that you've found your tank, but leave any maintenance or repair work on it to a team of professional plumbers.

What to Do After You Find Your Septic Tank

Once you’ve located your tank, it’s time to call in the professionals. Trust us, opening up a septic tank is not something just anyone wants to do. Concrete septic tank lids are very heavy and require specific lifting tools to remove. Because of the contents, fumes can be toxic so please heed our warning and do not attempt to open the tank yourself. An open septic tank can be dangerous to anyone walking along your property, and if someone should fall in, it could actually be fatal due to the toxicity.

But before you call in a team of professional plumbers, there are a few things you can do to make sure others do not have the same problem finding the tank and to make finding the tank in the future easier.

1. Mark Its Location

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You most likely do not want to put up a big sign in your yard that reads "Septic Tank Here!," but you do want to leave some kind of marker so that you can find the tank and the lid easily when you need it. Ideally, the marker will be heavy enough that it does not blow away in the wind and cannot be moved easily by children playing in the yard. A few options include a patio paver, a potted plant or a decorative gnome or rock.

Along with placing a physical marker by the septic tank, you can create a map or diagram showing its location. Keep the map or diagram with your household documents for future reference.

2. Take Care of Your Septic Tank

Taking good care of your tank can save you thousands of dollars. It might cost a few hundred dollars every few years to maintain your system, but that's considerably less than the thousands of dollars it often costs to repair or replace a broken tank or malfunctioning septic system.

Two ways to care for your septic tank and system include not using your drain pipes or toilets like garbage cans and using less water overall. Don't flush anything that isn't meant to be flushed, such as a paper towels, facial tissues and cat litter. In the kitchen, don't send solid foods, cooking oil or medications down the sink drain.

You can also cut your household's water use by installing low-flow faucets and high-efficiency toilets. Another option is to be smart about when you use appliances that require a lot of water. For example, you want to avoid washing load after load of laundry or running your clothes washer at the same time as your dishwasher.

Call a Professional Plumber

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Septic system maintenance is not typically a do-it-yourself project. Whether your septic tank needs to be pumped or cleaned or you are looking to replace the tank at your home in the Greater Syracuse area, you want to call on the services of a professional plumbing company. If you've tried to find your septic tank on your own and are not sure of its location, it might also be time to call in the help of a local plumber.

Mr. Rooter Plumbing of Greater Syracuse can find, maintain or replace your home's septic tank. Whether you're currently experiencing plumbing problems or want to be proactive about your home's plumbing needs, contact us today.