Septic, Well, and Pump Q and A

A person using a well pump.
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Q. A septic system was placed in our mountain cabin for management of the sewage. We use it on weekends. Shortly after moving in and ever since, there is a strong sewage smell noticeable.

We have looked around where the septic tank is but do not see any sort of leakage. Our contractor says it is from the "stink-pipe" on the roof and is normal for new construction. It should improve the more we use it.

Is he throwing us a line, or will this get better? It makes it hard to enjoy the natural beauty of the mountains when all you can smell is the septic system.

A. Septic systems, and public sewer systems, are vented through the drain/waste/vent stack through the roof. After you use it a while, the sewer gas problem should lessen somewhat as the new tank fills up with water waste.

The prevailing winds at your cabin also could be the reason that the septic tank gas is a problem there. A downdraft over the stack is causing the sewer gas to be more noticeable. You'll just have to use the system more and see.

TIP: Plumbing consultant Mark Vander Sande suggests, “Check all the traps on all the fixtures and make sure they are all full of water. As this is a cabin and not used all the time, some water may evaporate from traps and sewer odor will get past.

Q. We bought our house a year ago. We were told in the disclosure that the septic tank was removed by the city years ago and everyone was connected to the city sewer.

septic tank

The problem we have is that there is a floor drain that goes to the removed septic tank. There is a spot in our yard where the ground sinks every few years, from what neighbors told us.

We filled it this summer. I was wondering if it could cause any long-term problem to let the central air drain into that old hole in the ground?

A. It depends on how much that floor drain is used. If there are underground veins where water travels, this area will probably sink a little over time.

Q. I have two greyhounds that like to dig, but they also need to run, and the septic area is close to the back door where I would put the dog door.

Obviously I need to keep them out of the septic area, but I was wondering how to fix the holes. I was wondering whether the ground might be poisonous for them.

A. Fill in the holes, and if your dogs love to dig, bury some chicken wire just under the surface in those areas. It's cheap and prevents digging. After many years the chicken wire will just rust away.

Do not worry too much. Nature has a way of cleaning up our messes. Bacteria and microbes in the soil and in the waste itself do a spectacular job of breaking down the waste. It's nature's recycling.

Q. I had a well dug and now I don't know what kind of pump to buy. Should I get the jet pump or in well pump? I kind of like the jet pump so it is easy to get to if something goes wrong. Is there any difference in them as far as pressure?

pump in a well

A. A sub pump, though a bit more expensive to begin with, will give you years of trouble free service. This is not the case with jet pumps. You also need to know the static water level and flow test results to be able to choose a suitable pump.

Q. I had a pump installed at the front of my house to drain away standing water when it rains. The discharge pipe was directed under the house through a crawl space and into a downspout drain, which happens to be under our bedroom window.

Now whenever it rains we hear this intermittent gurgling/sputtering noise. Is there anything we can do short of moving the pipe to another location?

A. The problem may be the shutoff height on the pump is set too low. The pump is still running and sucking air while the water level is too low to pick it up without drawing air at the same time.

Try adjusting the on/off arm or float to a higher setting and pour a bucket or two of water into the pump.

Q. I have a Gould's ½-horsepower jet pump and pressure tank, both replaced about three years ago. I also had all new well pipe installed and foot valve replaced. For about a month I've noticed the pump kicking on when no water is being used.

At first, it was about every 1½-hours, now it kicks on about every ½-hour. The pump kicks on, comes up to pressure set at 30/50, shuts off, the pressure slowly starts to fade to minimum pressure, and cycles again.

Could I need to re-pressurize the pressure tank? The tank came pre-charged at 28 pounds.

A. If your pump does this without any water usage, it's a sign of a small leak somewhere in the system. First, shut off the valve to house, when pressure is high. Watch the gauge and pump.

If the pressure decreases and the pump comes on now, then the leak is in the tank, pump, or out to the well. Visually check all joints. Look for even the slightest leak. If you find nothing, chances are it's underground or down the well.

There's an easy way we "well guys" always tell if the foot valve or any other fitting down the well is leaking. Make up a small fitting to fit where the prime plug goes.

It should be a T with a gauge on one side, a snifter (air valve like on a bike tire) on the other, and a nipple to fit the pump on the final one. This can all be put together for less than $10 and may save you pulling a lot of pipe up.

Close off between pump and tank. If you don't have a valve for this, remove the pipe from pump and plug the opening. Now, tape the fittings you made and screw in. When tight, pump in about 60 psi and watch it for 15 minutes. If it moves, you have a leak.

Q. I have a well, and when the water is running, there is a surge in pressure, not a whole lot but noticeable. It will happen repeatedly maybe every 15 to 20 seconds. Any clue as to what is making this happen?

well pump

A. This sounds like your tank is water logged and the “surge” is the pump repeatedly starting. With the water pressure down and pump switched off, check the air pressure on top of the tank. It should be 2-psi less than your cut on pressure (or around 28-psi usually).

If it's very low, then pressurize it up to 28 with a bike pump or compressor. Start the pump and see if it's better now. If you get water out of the air nipple, then the bladder is holed and you need a new tank soon.

Q. I need to stop the short cycling until I get a chance to change the tank. Is this the correct procedure to do that?

I shut off the well, open the cold water faucet to bleed air pressure out of the tank, close the faucet, add air to the top of the tank until I get 28 PSI, and then I turn the well back on.

A. You've got it close. When you open the faucet, or preferably drain valve on the tank, you are trying to get rid of the water, not air pressure. The tank has to be nearly empty of water before you re-pressurize it with air.

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