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Lack of snow cover could cause septic system freeze-up

ABOUT 40 BALES OF HAY, WERE NEEDED to put down the desired 10 inches of insulation over this septic system in rural Detroit Lakes earlier this week. The MPCA recommends that between 8 to 12 inches of insulation be placed over underground septic systems to prevent freezing when there is insufficient snow cover to do the job..

While the lack of snow cover in the lakes area so far this winter may be good news for some local residents, it definitely isn't for those homeowners who use their own septic systems.

Dan Olson of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency says that frozen septic systems could become an issue for many rural homeowners if the area doesn't receive adequate snow cover before local temperatures start to fall to arctic levels.

"Snow helps to insulate septic systems and keep them from freezing," Olson said. "Fortunately, temperatures across the state have remained relatively mild so far, but that could change any time.

"Not all septic systems are susceptible to freezing," he added, but "if people have experienced any problems in the past, they might want to take some precautions this year."

Once frost has gotten into the ground, putting insulation over it won't do much good, Olson noted.

"If you're thinking of putting down some insulation, now's the time," he added. "Once the frost goes down into the ground, it's going to stay all winter."

Olson said that about 10 to 12 inches of insulating mulch should be sufficient to prevent freeze-ups for most underground septic systems.

Straw, hay, leaves or some other form of loose cover that will stay in place and not become compacted is preferred. Keep human, animal and especially vehicle traffic off the covered system.

In fact, this is a good rule to follow all year round, as compacted snow and soil can cause frost to go down deeper and more quickly into the ground. Pay special attention to the area between the house and the septic tank.

Once a freeze-up has occurred, however, putting insulation down is not a good idea until the following spring.

"Once you have a freeze-up, insulation will just make the ground take longer to thaw," Olson said.

Also, once a freeze-up has occurred, it's important to call a licensed septic system professional. If there isn't one listed in the phone book, the MPCA has a search tool on its website for finding certified professionals in Becker County and the surrounding area, Olson said.

"It's pretty tricky to thaw these systems out once they do freeze," he added.

The pros will have steamers and high-pressure jets designed specially for thawing pipes, as well as heat tape and tank heaters. Cameras may also be sent down into pipes to determine exactly where freezing has occurred.

If the system is full of ice, or there is evidence of leaking, fixing the problem will most likely have to wait until the ground thaws in the spring.

When this happens, the septic tank will have to be used as a holding tank until the system thaws naturally. This means the tank will need to be pumped out when it becomes full, which can become a costly solution if multiple pumpings become necessary.

"That's a real incentive to make sure your system doesn't freeze," Olson said.

Besides insulation, another tip for ensuring that a septic system won't freeze is to run warm water through the system each day, by taking hot baths or running your dishwasher, "to keep some energy in the system," Olson said.

Once freezing has occurred, however, running water through the pipes continually will only overload the system. There are a few other things that you should never do to try to fix a frozen system, such as:

• DO NOT introduce antifreeze, salt or a septic system additive into the system.

• DO NOT pump sewage onto the ground surface.

• DO NOT start a fire over the system in an attempt to thaw it out.

For more tips on cold-weather septic system care, as well as ways to keep your system healthy year round, Olson recommends visiting the University of Minnesota's Onsite Sewage Treatment Program website at