When your effluent pump breaks

Or rather, when it never worked to begin with.

Posted by Kyle

So by now you know that the week we moved in to this cursed house our well completely died. But what we haven’t mentioned yet is that very same week our effluent pump died. To be fair it probably never actually worked to begin with but still… No water in, no “water” out… Like I said, cursed.

Having been city dwellers all our lives the whole concept of a septic tank, pump and field was completely new to me. I am pretty handy but in this case I had experience dealing with anything septic related. So what’s a guy to do? Well go on the internet of course, someone, somewhere out there on the internet knows something about my problem right? Wrong. I searched every pump website, forum and rural living site I could find and came up with bupkis. For you see, 99 out of 100 septic tank and field systems have the pump in the tank. And that makes total sense. Waste goes in, pump comes on, waste goes out. Simple. In our case though the pump is in the house. Yes, the house.

Now you’re probably thinking why on earth would waste drain into the tank and then get sent back into the house only to get sent outside again? And I don’t have an answer for you… It’s a ridiculous concept. If your house was built any time after the early 80’s it is very unlikely you will have this type of pump but there are a bunch of houses out there with this system. What I ended up doing is calling my local septic guy who was surprisingly helpful – between his info and my own investigation I was able to diagnose and fix the problem. I decided to write this article for the one other person out there that has an effluent pump in their house. Taking a line from big H’s favorite movie, Moana, “You’re Welcome.”

First, let me explain what happens when this pump stops working. When your pump stops draining the tank starts to fill up with excess liquid. You should always be able to see the middle divider in the tank so if it is totally covered with liquid then you might have an issue. The liquids start fill the actual shaft of the septic tank. Mine is pretty deep because I have a basement so it wasn’t the end of the world (and this is also why it went so long before we realized we had a problem) but for people out there on a crawl space it is a little more problematic. The problem with the liquid backing up is that it starts to work its way back up in to your plumbing system. It will slowly fill up the pipes until you potentially have a backup in your floor drain. We noticed the issue just before the floor drain overflowed. Thank goodness. Words you never want to hear your wife say… “I think there is toilet paper in the floor drain.”

To help you understand how this whole system works I have drawn a schematic. The hand drawing below done by moi is a very basic diagram outlining the key components of the system. Waste flows out of the house and into the tank. Solids settle on one side and liquids spill over the divider into the other. When the liquid side gets to a certain level it triggers the “pill switch” which turns the pump on. Fluids are sucked through the intake into the house and then shot back out through the outtake to the septic field.

Authors Note: The septic field is not actually buried vertically like in my diagram. It is buried horizontally but I majored in Science, not art so that is about the best I could do. wp-1512103332251..jpg

Alright, with the schematic out of the way we can move on to the pump itself. Most older homes that have their original pump will have a yellow Monarch like in the picture below.a yellow monarch effluent pump

I couldn’t find one locally so we ended up going with the Red Lion like this one here. For all intents and purposes they are identical so it really doesn’t matter which one you choose (if you happen to live in the Canadian Prairies you can pick one up at Peavy Mart).

The pump itself is not very complicated, there is an intake and an outtake. You will have two 1 1/4″ black poly pipes feeding in to your house; one of those is coming from the tank and the other is going to the field. Make sure to label them before you disconnect the old pump. The pump will also have a hard-wired power supply feeding the motor end of the pump. There is a plate that you take off allowing you access to disconnect the two wires. Always turn off the breaker before attempting any electrical work and always use an electrical tester to confirm there is no electricity running to the area you’re working in.

The pump can run on 110V or 220V so make sure to note the way that your old pump was wired as there is a slight difference to how you will wire in your new pump (instructions are provided with the pump). You will know if it is 110V or 220V if you had two turn off one breaker (110) or two (220).

Once you have disconnected the pipe by loosening the hose clamps and disconnected your wiring then your pump just needs to be unbolted from the mount. Toss it in to the truck for your next run to the dump (or metal recycler if you are so inclined). Please be careful when lifting the pump, it is freaking heavy, use two people if possible.

Installing your new pump is pretty easy, just do everything you just did in reverse! Bolt your pump on to the mount (don’t tighten it yet as you might have to wiggle it to get the plumbing on). Next, reconnect your plumbing pipes noting which is the intake and which is the out. On the pump itself, the intake is the port that has the flapper on it located on the end of the pump. The flapper is the part that fails most often as it wears down over time. These pumps need a vacuum seal to create the suction necessary to drain your tank so if the flapper is leaking then your pump won’t work properly.

When attaching the plumbing pipes I like to use 2 hose clamps as this is human waste being pumped through the house and you don’t want any leaks. Once you have the plumbing connected you can reattach your wires in the same way you took them off making sure to reference the instruction manual for 110 vs 220 installation.

The last thing you will need to do before you fire up your new pump is to prime it. All of these pumps are self priming but that is only once they have been used. So before your first use you must prime the pump. On the top you will find a square plug, use a wrench to take it out and fill the pump with water. Once full, replace the plug and then you are good to go.

a red prime plug on a red lion effluent pump

With our pump it was a case of an old, worn out flapper. This caused the pump to continually lose prime. If you filled it with water it would work for a few minutes until the pump was drained and then it would stop sucking. When the pump runs dry it is very hard on the impeller and can cause the motor to burn out. All-in the pump was about $500 but if we had called someone in to do this job I guarantee it would have been $1000 or more for what took me half an hour to do. That’s it. Pretty straight forward and can save you a ton of cash.

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