Troubleshooting: Locating the Septic Tank and System Components

Troubleshooting: Locating the Septic Tank and System Components
Jim Anderson

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This article continues the series of discussions on troubleshooting systems from the perspective of a service provider. Even though this seems like one of those common sense items, the first task is locating the septic tank.

There are a number of approaches used to find the tank and other components. One method is to dispatch the technician to the site with the understanding that they are responsible for the locating if there is not an observation port or some other readily visible access point.

Another approach is to ask the homeowner if they know where the tank is located; if they do, arrange for them to be there. If they do not know where the tank is and there is not a visible observation port, now is a good time to discuss any additional fees involved with locating the tank and other system components. For routine inspections it is recommended to have a locating fee and a fee for the inspection itself. Troubleshooting should be similar; a locating fee and the troubleshooting fee. Some businesses in high volume areas have a separate service crew that does the locating and any excavation of access points before the pump truck and technician are dispatched.

This approach can be very efficient and generate additional revenue. Another approach for smaller businesses is for the technician to have locating equipment with him – transmitter, camera, or sewer rat to run down the house sewer to the tank. If a blockage is encountered in the sewer line during this process, the problem may be identified. The blockage could be from large solids that were flushed. It could from piping not being properly bedded so there is a bow in the pipe and solids have gradually accumulated at that point over time; in my area, these bellies in the pipe are also places where the sewage can freeze causing a blockage. The long-term solution here is to excavate and properly bed the pipe. A good suggestion is to also add a cleanout on the outside of the house for easy access.

It is never too soon to have the discussion with the homeowner that determining the problem may mean doing some excavation in their yard. Explain that in order to determine the problem it will be necessary to locate the access holes of the tank – excavate them and pump the tank through the access. It is not good practice or acceptable to pump the tank through the observation port and then try to inspect or evaluate the tank. If there is no observation port and the access holes are deeper than 12 inches from the surface, the observation ports should be added and access risers installed – this will make managing and caring for the system much easier in the future.

When the technician or service crew begins to dig up access risers to pump the tank, they need to be careful of any underground wires. This is especially true for systems that have a pump tank. Some installers have been known to run the electrical wires for the pump across the septic tank lid and some even use the handles of the access covers as a guide for the wires. This is bad installation practice, but it does happen. Being cautious is always the better approach. Once the tank is located, and the access manholes are located and uncovered, troubleshooting can continue.

About the Author
Jim Anderson is connected with the University of Minnesota onsite wastewater treatment education program, is an emeritus professor in the university’s Department of Soil Water and Climate, and education coordinator for the National Association of Wastewater Technicians. Send him questions about septic system maintenance and operation by email to


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