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Ag Matters Column: Tips to reduce likelihood of frozen septic systems

Last year at this time, we were not enjoying a white Christmas. In fact, we were pretty much snow free until early into the New Year. Winters without snow cover often raises concern of frozen septic systems and fearful visions of mad dashes to an outhouse, so snow to shovel should be considered a winter blessing.

Last year, many homeowners had to deal with the dread of a frozen septic system. Although this years snow cover may offer some protection, if we have a winter thaw and lose that cover, we can be in the same boat -- or tank -- in this case. Without a thick blanket of snow, and coupled with cold temperatures, some septic systems may freeze.

If you are confronted with frozen sewer system, your best option is to contact a professional sewage pumper or installer who can help determine the cause of the problem and offer solutions.

The U of M Onsite Sewage Program Web site at has detailed information on septic system freezing problems. It can also help you locate a professional in your area.

Many pumpers and installers have "steamers" and "high-pressure jetters" to unfreeze system piping and unless the cause of freezing is corrected, the piping will re- freeze.

There are many things you can do to reduce the chances of your system freezing yet this winter. Here are some precautions if you've had a problem or are concerned about having one. It's not necessary to do all of these, but pick and choose based on your situation:

--Add a layer of mulch (8-12 inches) over the pipes, tank and soil treatment area to provide insulation. A mulch of loose, fluffy hay or straw works well.

-- Use normal amounts of water; the warmer the better! If freezing is a concern, increasing water use from low to normal (normal is 50 to 75 gallons per person per day) can help the system. This includes spreading out your laundry schedule to possibly one warm/hot load per day, using your dishwasher and taking a hot bath. Do not leave water running all the time, as this will hydraulically overload the system. Also, do not add antifreeze to the system.

-- If you know you are going to be gone for more than a couple of days, plan accordingly. This could include having someone visit and use sufficient quantities of water in the home regularly. If you are going to be gone for an extended period (weeks or months), consider pumping the tank before you leave.

--Fix any leaky plumbing fixtures or appliances in your home. This will help prevent freezing problems and help your system work better year-round. If you have a high- efficiency furnace that trickles water into a drain, collect the water in a large container and empty it periodically.

Keep all types of vehicles -- including ATV's and snowmobiles -- and high-traffic people activities off of the system. This is a good rule to follow year-round.

-- Make sure all risers, inspection pipes and manholes have covers on them. Sealing them and adding insulation is a good idea.

-- Keep an eye on your system. If any seeping or ponding occurs, contact an onsite professional to help determine the cause and remedy. For more information, talk to your septic contractor or check the U of M septic Web site.

For more information on this or other topics involving sewage, contact me at the Polk County office in McIntosh at 800-450-2465, or at the Clearwater County office on Wednesdays at 800-866-3125. If e-mail is your thing, contact me at Source: Ken Olson.