For many people across the region, this past winter was one of the worst in recent memory, both for the record-breaking amounts of snow and extreme cold. Given the issues the weather has already caused many people, it would be easy for those with septic systems to forget to think about maintaining those systems until it is too late.

"We have seen a tremendous increase in issues this year with how crazy this winter has been. I've actually been a lot busier this year than I have in the whole time we've owned this company. The weather this year has been a big issue," said Ulbricht Pumping & Associates office manager Lori Grace. "We wanted to get the word out there that the water freezing and thawing is causing a big issue this year, so people should be on the lookout if they have a septic system. We want people to be aware of it ahead of time so they can call us and we can try to get them taken care of before it becomes a bigger issue."

Ulbricht Pumping & Associates is a family-owned business that has been around since 1978. The business - currently owned by Steve Muenich and his family - offers residential and commercial septic pumping as well as several other septic services to residents of St. Croix, Pierce, Chippewa, Eau Claire and Dunn counties. The company has offices in Hudson and near Chippewa Falls.

"The main focus for Ulbricht recently has been on repairs and things of that nature, given the winter we've had. With the fact that we had super cold temperatures and no snow, that put a lot of frost in the ground and when things started warming up, it pushed the frost down which started freezing stuff up," Grace said. "Now, with the big warmup and everything thawing out, it is hydraulically overloading everything. But now is the time we are finding out that the septic system was already compromised. Now it is just being brought to your attention faster."

According to Grace, there are several signs that something might be wrong with a home's septic system, including:

• Soggy, mushy areas or standing water in the drainage field

• Water or black slime in the inspection pipes

• Brighter, taller and greener grass growing in the drainage field, which indicates the fields are holding bio-material and water

• Toilets flowing more slowly than normal, or doing something different than they normally do

• Freezing in the drainage field

"The homeowners can kind of do some investigation themselves. There are inspection pipes out in the drain fields, so if you take the lids off those, put a stick all the way to the ground and find that there is water or black slimy stuff on it, there is a problem with the drain field. It is an indication of failure," Grace said. "At that point, it is worth getting it looked at right away, versus waiting until it is backed up into your house. Once it is backing up into your house there isn't anything we can really do at that point. So it is always a good idea to call your provider and let them know what is going on. Most of the time we can evaluate stuff over the telephone."

General maintenance

According to Grace, the best thing a homeowner can do to prevent septic backups is to keep up with the general maintenance of the system, such as having the septic filters cleaned regularly.

"You want to prevent stuff from backing up into the house. Once things back up into the house, now you are looking at repairs inside your house, too, because you have to cut drywall and carpet out and replace it. It can get real expensive, real fast. But if you call us or your provider, we can come out and look at it and tell you what to do so that doesn't happen," Grace said.

Although septic systems are similar from home to home, every household's maintenance schedule is different depending on family size and usage, Grace said.

"Homeowners call us and we will tell them what to do and what not to do based on their household usage. We can educate them on that. If you are a household of a little old lady, she might not need to pump her septic other than the three-year evaluation. But you get a family of six in a household and they might need to pump it every year," Grace said. "It is one of those things that is always different for each individual household. By doing that, you are saving your system, like in the thousands of dollars. Once the system fails, it needs to be replaced and it is costly."

If you have any questions, Grace suggests giving Ulbricht or your local service provider a call, as they can usually talk you through a lot of issues over the phone. But if an issue is too big for the homeowner to handle, Grace said one of Ulbricht's operators will be out to a home as soon as possible to work with the homeowner to solve the problem from start to finish.

"We've been seeing a lot of issues cropping up this year. It has been an unusual year. It is by no means a normal year. We encourage people to just call us and at least ask questions since there is no such thing as a dumb question when it comes to this," Grace said. "I'd rather people ask what they think is a dumb question as opposed to not doing anything and now you have a nice, nasty, goopy mess in your basement. So we want people to call us with any questions so we can save it before it gets to be a problem, if possible."

If you've experienced freezing in your drainage field in the past, Grace recommends calling your septic company/provider and they will let you know what things you can do to prevent it.

"There should never be water in your drain fields. The fact that it froze indicates that there is an issue, because it means that there was water out there, otherwise it wouldn't have frozen. Typically what causes that is a bio-mat building up. We come out and do free evaluations for those things to determine whether it is a water issue or what kind of issue it is," Grace said. "Sometimes it could be a pipe that is broken. Or it could be any number of other things, but now is when you find out about it because things have frozen up or you've gotten a lot of water backing up in the house and things of that nature."

In addition to offering pumping, real estate inspections, installation, general maintenance, soil testing and repairs, Ulbricht also offers emergency services if needed.

"If you notice an issue, stop using your water and give us a call. We will go forward from there. We don't want stuff to start backing up into people's basements," Grace said.

For more information about Ulbricht Pumping & Associates, or questions about septic systems, contact Lori Grace, office manager, at 715-386-8277 or info@wisconsinseptic.com; or visit wisconsinseptic.com.

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