In North America, approximately 25% of the population relies on septic systems – many of those people are renters.
Septic systems are fragile, meaning that septic problems are commonplace. If your rental property has a septic system, that’s no reason to avoid renting the property. However, it’s important to remember that maintenance of the system is clearly your responsibility.
To restate this point in legalese:
A lease implies a warranty of habitability, and to maintain habitability, the landlord must comply with all state and local codes, including plumbing and health codes.
When a call about a slow toilet, pooling water, or odors in the yard elicits visions of hundred dollar bills flying off into the sunset, take heart. It may not be as bad as you think.
Problem #1. That Slow Toilet Thing
The toilet’s backing up and — uh, oh — now it’s overflowing. Does it mean you have to schedule a pumping pronto? Probably not — at least, not unless it has been 10 years since the last one, and if you’re on top of things, you get the tank pumped regularly every five years. Here are some less costly alternatives:
Tenants can plunge a toilet. It’s easy, especially if you provide a toilet plunger in the bathroom. Remember, toilet plungers are the bell-shaped ones; the domed-shaped ones are for sinks. Instruct the tenant to fill the cup with water to ensure maximum compression. Plunging works 90 percent of the time, according to the Family Handyman. When it doesn’t, cover the shower, tub, and sink drains with duct tape and try again.
Include a toilet auger in the property’s emergency tool closet. A snake can take care of local blockages that are too impacted for a plunger to move.
Use Only Septic Safe Drain Cleaners
Most drain cleaners that can clear a toilet blockage quickly will wreak havoc on your septic system, and those that are septic-safe take hours or days to work. One fast-acting product that claims to contain only septic-safe ingredients, including enzymes, gets mixed reviews for effectiveness. In the end, it’s probably just as effective to pour a cup of vinegar and a cup of baking soda in the toilet.
Keep It Clean
The best insurance against blockages is to maintain toilets by pouring in a septic-safe, enzyme-based cleaner every month or so. Do not use any cleaner that contains sodium hydroxide, sulfuric acid, or any other caustic or acidic ingredient. Besides potentially damaging the pipes, these cleaners kill beneficial bacteria in the septic tank.
Problem #2. The Effects of Septic Additives
On the face of it, it seems like a good idea to instruct your tenants to pour a septic additive in the toilet every month or so, but septic experts are largely against this.
As a circular from Purdue University explains:
“Chemical additives have little positive effect on septic system performance, and in some cases may actually have a negative effect. These products can also be expensive. However, homeowners can inexpensively improve septic system performance by improving user habits.”
To keep the system in good working order, you should encourage your tenants to do the following:
- Avoid toilet disinfecting products that sit in the tank and dissolve slowly. These products release bleach into the water.
- Restrict the use of drain cleaners.
- Regulate the amount of detergent, soap, and bleach that goes in the drains.
- Avoid flushing unused prescription medicines down the toilet.
- Avoid putting paints, solvents, antifreeze, and other hazardous chemicals in the drains.
Experts recommend limiting what goes in the drains and toilets to organic, biodegradable matter. The septic tank’s natural digestive functions — like those in our own stomachs — are more than sufficient to keep it in good working order.
Problem #3. Sewer Smells
Face it: a septic tanks smells like a sewer. Fortunately, though, as long as it’s sealed, the odors never escape. When you do detect them, it’s usually because the tank is overflowing. Again, this doesn’t necessarily mean the tank needs pumping. Instead, the problem could be the following:
- Water runoff from that drain field — Has it been raining a lot lately? Or are you in the middle of a massive snow melt? Wait until things dry out before you assume something is wrong.
- A pump malfunction — Your septic system may have a transfer pump. If so, the pump may have stopped working. This is often due to nothing more than a tripped breaker. Sometimes it’s due to a blocked outflow pipe that a plumber can clear with a snake.
- Frozen tank or outflow pipes — If you’re having a cold snap, the septic system may have frozen. Although they will find it inconvenient, tenants may have to limit their use of the plumbing until the weather warms up. In a pinch, you can have the tank pumped, which should alleviate the problem for several days. That may be long enough for things to thaw.
Not all septic problems can be solved quickly and without expense, but if you work together with your tenants, most can be handled with minimum impact to quality of life.
It’s good to take an active role in fostering septic awareness, especially if your tenants are new to living with a septic system. Consider providing an instructive brochure when you sign the lease.