Tips: Winter/Spring Threats to Septic Systems

Arctic cold and spring thaws both can present challenges to people who have individual septic treatment systems.

"People don't usually think about taking precautions with their septic systems until they have a problem at their own home," said Pat Shelito of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's (MPCA) Brainerd office. "But by then the damage is done, and problems can be expensive to correct."

Even if you did not take precautions before the start of winter, it's not too late to do so now. According to Cass County (Minn.) Environmental Services, people can do the following to help protect their septic systems from freezing and backing up into their homes:

  • Place a layer of straw, leaves or hay over the pipes, tank and drain field for insulation.
  • Use your water regularly. Regular water use, especially warm or hot water helps prevent a system from freezing.
  • Do not drive any vehicles, snowmobiles or all-terrain vehicles over your system. This is particularly true when the ground is softened by spring thaws.
  • Have your tank pumped if you plan to be gone for an extended period of time. Also have a neighbor come over and flush toilets or run warm water down your system periodically while you are gone.
  • Fix any leaky plumbing fixtures that may send a constant drip of cold water into your system.

Contact a professional septic pumper if you have already experienced a problem or fear you may have one starting. They are qualified to pump your tank if needed and/or determine how best to thaw out any frozen areas. If one of the pipes is frozen, the pumper will need to use a steamer to clear the ice.

"The worst thing a person can do is to try and fix the problem themselves," Shelito warned. "That can make an existing problem worse and could damage the system."

In fact, the tank is usually not what freezes; it is the pipe between the house and the tank; or the drain field that freezes.

If your drain field (the open area, or piping network in which the surrounding soil absorbs the liquids from a septic tank) is already frozen, there is little that can be done except to have a certified septic pumper check and pump the tank regularly until the weather warms.

"A family of four may have to pump their tank every week if the drain field is frozen, but someone who only does one load of laundry a week and lives alone can get by for longer," Shelito added.

Already had your tank pumped but are experiencing a backup in your home? Then it's even more likely that the pipe between the house and tank is frozen, and you should call a professional to assess the problem.

A number of fact sheets are available on the MPCA Web site for more information on how best to prepare and maintain septic systems throughout the year, at Additional information about the proper care of septic systems is available on the University of Minnesota Extension Service's Web site at

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