Some folks are worried that with the lack of snow it could be a year of trouble for those with septic systems due to freezing. For the most part, most people keep their septic tank thawed by passively letting warmth from the discharge water and the generated heat from the waste composting at the bottom of the tank do its thing.
For the past few years, Fairbanks has dodged 50-below temperatures, let alone weeklong stretches. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts conditions for Alaska in its 2016 U.S. Winter Outlook, which covers December through February. It gives precipitation and temperature predictions for different regions of the state, but does not give a definite prediction for the central Interior. For the Tanana Valley, it is no mystery that this has been a scant fall for precipitation, with only a few inches of snow on the ground in late November.
If we have colder weather and with little precipitation added, there could be trouble for a lot of folks who have septic systems in the Tanana Valley. Undisturbed snow accumulation helps to insulate pipes and septic vaults from freezing, with air pockets in the loft of the snow helping to keep the cold from penetrating the ground. It is usually at the beginning of breakup that the snow starts to compact and we see wide swings between cold nights and warmer days. This is also when the frost starts to migrate down into the earth and frost is the most troublesome for septic tanks.
There are some things you can do to help reduce problems with wells and septic lines. To begin with, do not walk or drive over the underground copper water lines that run from wells to the crawlspace or basement of a house. Having traffic over that buried plumbing line can compress the snow on the surface and “drive down” the frost to the line throughout the fall and winter.
If your copper water supply line cannot easily be buried and comes up and out of the top of the wellhead, there should be a cable of heat trace along the bottom of the supply pipe, and both should be covered with black pipe foam. The pipe, cable and foam can then be wrapped with fiberglass lightly and put inside a 1-by-1-foot box of 2-inch blue board. The cable should not be spiraled around the pipe but placed underneath the pipe. Another strategy is to scatter straw over your septic vault and leach field, but be sure to rake it up in the spring and summer.
We will see what the winter will bring but, hopefully, for your septic’s health, there will be more precipitation and relatively warm temperatures for the next three months.