3 Common Septic Problems at Rental Properties

Written on March 14, 2016 by , updated on December 9, 2016

Septic ProblemsIn 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.

Related: 2 Basic Renters’ Rights Included in Every Lease

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:

Plunge It

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.

Snake It

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.

Work Together

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.

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14 CommentsLeave a Comment

  • Pam Lassila

    I think that having sewer smells is a good enough reason to get my septic tank checked! If it smells like that before it overflows or floods my lawn, i don’t want to consider the other possibilities! I am so grateful that there are people who will do that and they know what they’re doing!

  • Nina

    My landlord refuses to have the septic fix and wants to send the septic company once per month causing me a extremely inconvenient , anyone have a suggestion ?

    • Aly

      How did this get resolved for you? Septic company quoted my landlord at 40k to replace the system and regrade the land. He’s refusing.so every 3 weeks it backs up into my shower. I have 2 kids and this is just insane. What are my rights?

      • Angela Stone

        You can legally break your lease without having to pay if they refuse to fix it. Unsanitary living conditions are a sue able offense. I had the same issue with my slumlords. Eventually the septic company told them they would not pump it anymore because it was doing nothing to help and they couldn’t continue to ethically do it.

    • Vicky Powell

      My son and daughter in law are renting this house, the landlord keeps saying they’ll get ours after they get this other septic tank fixed it’s now backing up into the tubs running out from under the commodes when we use the washer. HELP

    • Antoinette Gilbert

      Yes hone! Tell them by law they have to give u an #24 hour notice before entering your unit!!🤔🤨 Heck u are paying rent n like myself might be undressed when they just wanna “pop up”! No thank U!!🤬🗣👎🏽

  • Jared

    We moved in and immediately found the septic had fallen in on itself, it was 1950s redwood. The septic company removed the cover and has left it open with just a tarp over it? The stench is bad and with 6 people in the home we are concerned! The property management company says it could be a while now with permits, expenses and other issues.
    As renters do we have rights to ask for a rent reduction or other compensation for this inconveniences?
    Thanks and also based in Felton, CA.

  • Cat

    I live in Maryland
    Does the land lord reverse you for not having water for 4 days?

  • Denise Perez

    I rent a trailer that is on landlords property (plus there are 6 other trailers that are rented out as well) in Las Cruces,NM. Landlord hasn’t had septic tank cleaned out since last year and constantly is overflowing into neighbors front yards. All he does is siphon out the water while the human waste is collecting in septic tank. He owns the property and is on Dona And county line. Can I report him to the county and file a complaint against him?

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  • Tanya

    Hello I’m not a landlord I an a Tennant our house we rent sits on lower property than our neighbors our rental house also has no gutters. And our tank overflows constantly. Can’t do laundry without the toilet and kitchen sinks gargling. Now we had tank emptied and got a lot of rain the past day or so. And its now draining really slow and more often times then not the toilet doesn’t want to go down. I don’t know what to do the landlord isn’t doing anything about it. She says it’s up to code with the health department. I just want to have more knowledge on the subject and know my rights as a Tennant.

    • Louie

      invite the landlord over with all there friends and family, supply long stemmed flavor straws and fold up chairs around the cesspool…let them participate in draining the pool.

  • Jay

    I am currently renting a unit in a 3 family home. Our unit is the only one on septic, which we did not know upon move in. Our lease outlines that we are responsible for any drain clogs or stoppages.
    When our toilet got backed up, we contacted the landlord (as our lease agreement states to do) and they gave us a name and number to call for repairs. They never mentioned to us who would be responsible for repairs and simply advised us to call. After their plumbers came out, they informed us that baby wipes in the system caused the clog, which they’re claiming cost over $600 to repair and required 2 plumbers. We had no idea of the cost up front and are now expected to pay as they quoted we “failed to maintain” the plumbing. Is this legal to do

  • Donna Schierbaum

    My daughter rents from a slumlord and he just told them they have to pay for the septic being pumped. Also, he won’t give them a copy of the lease

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