I have been politely nudging a friend to let me shadow him on his septic pumping service calls in the North Valley for a while. I’ve wanted to see the process firsthand to be more knowledgeable on the topic for my real estate clients. It had been months since I first mentioned it. I was beginning to think that Mike wasn’t taking my request seriously.

Today, he texted at 7:07am.

I grabbed my phone on the nightstand and peered at the message through puffy eyelids. “Inspection up at Carefree Highway…if you’re interested.” he wrote.

I was on the road a few minutes after half a cup of coffee.

In his spare time, Mike has logged hundreds, who knows, thousands of jumps as a parachute instructor. He base jumps off of radio towers and 400-ft rock walls in the Superstition Mountains. Mike is fun to drink with. Don’t turn down Mike when he calls because adventure is always right around the corner.

At the site

This particular residential property near Black Mountain is being sold to new owners. The buyers requested a state-certified inspection of the system before the property proceeded to close of escrow. That is exactly what Mike is licensed to do.

From the surface, the septic system appeared to be in good shape. The clues though are inside, Mike explained. We discussed the cause-and-effect of septic tank maintenance.

This particular tank was newer, rectangular in shape, and made of concrete. Other tanks are made of polyethylene or fiberglass. The design, size, components and materials used to construct a tank can all give clues about its age. This tank had wide 24″ risers and PVC baffles which indicated that it couldn’t be the original.

Mike knew that this tank is only about 10 years old. Much newer than the 40-year old home that it services.

Mike fired up the 3500-gallon pumping truck and assembled 100 feet of hose uphill to the tank lid. He had the 1500-gallon septic tank empty in about 12 minutes. We washed down the walls of the tank from above with a garden hose and sucked out the residual sludge. Here is a view from above down inside the septic tank. It had just been pumped dry. That is the concrete floor of the septic tank at the bottom.


septic tank riser view down inside into outlet baffle


The blue circular object is the top of the outlet baffle filter in the second compartment of the septic tank. It is the last chance to collect any solids before the effluent flows out to the drain field.

Once the 2-compartment tank was pumped clean, the routine inspection quickly revealed needed repairs. Fine roots from two big eucalyptus trees nearby had already pierced the concrete lid of the tank. Separately, the inlet baffle inside the primary compartment from the house was canted up which causes solids to back up into the pipe coming from the house.

These are both issues that can’t be solved from ground level. They required closer inspection. Mike grabbed a 7-foot ladder from the truck and scrambled down into the tank. “Wanna come check this out?” I heard a voice echo from the hole and chamber beneath my feet.

Underground in a septic tank

Once inside, I saw how efficiently the eucalyptus trees had used the septic tank as a water source. A thick hula-skirt of matted roots hung from the wall of the tank. The solid concrete tank lid is conventionally sealed against the tank walls with an epoxy at installation. However, trees in the desert are incredibly resourceful. They get through. This is the evidence.


septic tank inside roots concrete septic system eucalyptus


Over time, roots will drink a septic tank dry, leaving only tightly compacted solids at the bottom. The resulting sludge is hard to break up and can require expensive maintenance calls.

The tank interior was about 12-feet long, 5.5-feet wide and 5.5-feet tall. Not a place where you want to hang out for hours, but surprisingly spacious to allow for repairs and maintenance.


septic tank interior view riser inside two men


We spent about four minutes inside the tank. Mike evaluated the root situation and began to devise a repair to the inlet baffle after consulting with the seller. Today’s treatment of root killer will give the new owner of this home a head start on dealing with the two eucalyptus trees in the future.

I learned a lot more today about septic systems. Here’s a photo that I snapped of the two of us in the septic tank just before we climbed out.

One more thing. I am launching a new hashtag on Twitter today with the photo above. Going to call it #SepticTankSelfie. Don’t try this at home.

Fiddlesticks. Someone may have already beaten me to it.


I love Los Angeles, and it’s been very good to me, but if everyone is running around telling the stories, who’s living them? You don’t play characters that are celebrities – you play guys who know exactly what to do when their septic tank’s blocked. – Matthew McConaughey, American actor, producer, writer and director