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Septic Tank Backup: Causes, Signs & Fixes

Very few plumbing disasters can disrupt a home like a septic tank backup. The aftereffects include water damage that spreads dangerous contamination and creates long-term problems.

For more than 25 years, ServiceMaster of Lake Shore has helped area residents deal with backed-up septic tanks. Based on that experience, we’ve developed this guide to help you navigate the worst.

Read on for critical information you need to deal with the aftermath of a septic tank backup at your home.

What Causes a Septic Tank Backup?

When it operates properly, a septic tank collects wastewater, breaking down solids and effluents. The contained system releases the treated water into the ground.

It’s a simple process, but there are situations that compromise its operation and cause the septic tank to back up. These are a few examples.

  • Tree roots crack and invade septic pipes.
  • Accumulated clogs harden inside inlet and outlet lines.
  • Excessive water use in the house overwhelms the septic tank.
  • Natural soil compression damages system components.
  • Storm flooding saturates the soil and overwhelms the drainfield.
  • Tank components age out, especially in acidic soil.
  • Original installation was sub-par, resulting in eventual system backups.

Warning Signs of a Backed-Up Septic Tank

warning signs of a backed up septic tank

You can’t see damaged pipes or a cracked tank, but there are clues that indicate system problems. Never ignore these signs of a backed-up septic tank.

  • Sinks and bathtubs empty slower than usual.
  • Drains gurgle and emit unpleasant smells.
  • Toilet water becomes dark and murky.
  • Basement drains repeatedly need to be cleared.
  • Water pools in areas around the septic tank.
  • Grass grows in thick patches adjacent to septic pipes.

Dangers of a Backed-Up Septic Tank

sewage backup chicago

A septic system backup pushes highly toxic water into your home through its drain pipes.

When sinks, bathtubs and toilets overflow, the dangerous contamination leaves behind water damage that poses serious health threats. Don’t risk your personal safety trying to clean up the mess.

Put everyone at home on alert, and secure areas affected by water from the septic backup.

What to Do When Your Septic System Backs Up

1. Shut Down Your Water Supply

This second step is very important. Shutting down the main water supply to your home reduces overall pressure on the plumbing system. Don’t turn on any faucets or flush the toilets.

Doing so will only increase the volume of contaminated water backing up in the septic system.

Power Tip – If your septic system includes a drain pump, turn off the tank alarm and double-check the float switch.

2. Contact a Licensed Plumbing Service

Repairing a backed-up septic system isn’t a DIY project. If you have a plumber on call, contact him or her, and explain the situation. If you don’t have the number for a licensed plumbing service, ask friends or neighbors.

You can also search online for plumbers in your area who take care of septic tank emergencies.

Power Tip – Give the plumber as much information as possible about your septic system’s type.

3. Call Your Insurance Company

Some homeowners insurance policies cover the damages caused by a septic tank backup. However, the tank itself may not be covered if the breakdown was due to neglect, general wear and tear or storm flooding.

Call your agent, confirm your policy details, and schedule an adjuster’s inspection as soon as possible.

Power Tip – You may want to relocate until the tank is repaired and water damage cleaned up. Ask your agent if your policy coverage includes temporary lodging.

4. Bring in Certified Water Damage Professionals

A backed-up septic tank leaves behind highly hazardous Category 3 water damage.

This isn’t a situation you can manage by yourself. Call a water damage restoration company, like ServiceMaster of Lake Shore. Our industry-certified technicians specialize in emergency cleanup, decontamination and restoration.

Power Tip – Diana Rodriguez-Zaba recommends, “Do all you can to stay clear of toxic black water from a septic tank backup. Don’t enter affected areas until you get the all-clear from our technicians.”

How to Avoid a Septic Backup

  • Have your home’s septic system inspected by a plumbing professional every one to three years. The tank should be pumped out every three to five years.
  • Keep greasy foods out of the garbage disposal. Instead, throw scraps directly into the trash. Be just as careful with greasy debris caught in the kitchen sink strainer.
  • Toilet paper dissolves in water, so it’s the only thing that should be flushed down a toilet. Don’t try to flush disposable wipes, paper towels or any other items.
  • Once a month, use a biodegradable treatment formulated to break down organic waste in the septic system. Choose a product that’s recommended for your specific type of septic tank.
  • Pay attention to the septic system’s drainfield. Keep the area graded so that it resists flooding, and keep it free of vegetation. Don’t park heavy equipment on the drainfield.

Dealing With Sewage Backup in Chicago, IL, or the Suburbs? We Can Help!

sewage cleanup chicago team

The aftermath of a septic tank backup can seem overwhelming.

It poses serious risks to your health and your home, but we can help. ServiceMaster of Lake Shore specializes in hazardous sewage cleanup, and we’re available 24/7.

Our industry-certified technicians are standing by and ready for your call: 312-707-8597.

Helpful Resources

Septic System Maintenance – EPA

SepticSmart Tips – EPA

Flooding and Septic Systems – National Environmental Health Association


What are the dangers of septic tank backups?

A septic tank backup contaminates interiors, creating a hazardous environment that includes dangerous water damage and fast-spreading mold. The situation needs to be taken care of by water damage professionals as soon as possible.

Why is my septic tank filling up so quickly?

There are several reasons why a septic tank fills up too quickly. The system pipes may be clogged, the drainfield is overly saturated, or the system isn’t properly sized for current use. A plumbing professional can diagnose the problem.

Can I shower if my septic tank is full?

Yes, but cut back on your water usage until you can have the tank inspected. Excess drainage from everyday routines, such as laundry, dishwashing and bathing, can push the tank past its limits and result in a septic system backup.