Powdered or liquid detergents -- septic tank

July 14, 2010

I've read so much here about advantages of powdered laundry detergent, I was genuinely surprised to see dissenting advice about this issue mentioned in Heloise's newspaper column last week.

In that column, someone wrote to say they had had a problem with their septic tank, ended up having to get it pumped out, and when they did, there was a mass of clumped-up powdered laundry detergent in it -- it had not dissolved! They said the guy who cleaned out the septic tank told them to only use liquid laundry detergent -- that it would not cause this problem.

We have a septic tank. I'm sure others here do, too. What do you think about this?

I have noticed there have been times powdered detergent in the dispenser did not fully dissolve, but left a residue. For this reason, I've been putting powdered detergent directly in the washer drum before adding laundry. I also only use powdered detergent in hot water. Do you guys think this is sufficient to prevent septic tank problems? Should I call a septic tank company and ask about this?

I'm sorry I don't have a link to that newspaper column.

Comments (42)

  • dadoes

    Perhaps it depends on the design of the individual septic system and local water conditions ... but while I have heard that warning batted-about by others, I've not heard directly from anyone who has had trouble confirmed to be caused by powdered detergents.

    My septic system is a bit over 5.5 years old and is inspected three times per year on a service contract with the installer. I've largely (90% of the time) used powdered detergent (both clothes and dishwasher) and they've never advised me of a developing problem. In fact, one of the service guys remarked that mine is one of the cleanest systems he sees, maybe because I never put grease or large amounts of food scrap down the drain.

    My neighbor's septic has been in place for a bit over 25 years, he says it has never been serviced, and only powdered detergent is used over there far as I've ever noticed ... LOL, however far that may be!

    Several family members have had septic systems for years, a couple dating back to the 1950s, and I've never heard mention from them of trouble caused by powdered laundry detergents. Maybe I just never heard about it, don't know.

  • suburbanmd

    I found a link to the Heloise column, below. I'm skeptical about it. How did the septic tank guy identify the stuff that was totally clogging the system as undissolved powdered laundry detergent? Did he identify it by smell? Take it to a lab? What does "totally clogged" even mean? A totally clogged septic system would need a new septic field, not mere maintenance. Did the letter writer look at the tank herself, or just accept what the guy told her? I wouldn't change a routine that's working for me, just based on this letter.

    Here is a link that might be useful:

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  • curiousshopper

    The entire "powder vs liquid" debate will soon be over because powders will soon be gone.

    Even now, I fail to see why anyone still used them because the liquids clean so much better. For years all of the R&D has been poured into liquids and it shows.

  • sspye

    I'm also quite skeptical of the Heloise column. How do they know it was powdered detergents? Did someone poor something else into the septic tank that was 'powdered'?

    My septic pumper guy has never said anything about my septic except for a large tree root that tends to invade it. My 750 gallon tank was installed in 1980 without any problems.

    curiousshopper, what evidence do you have that powders will be gone? I've noticed many of both in my local grocery stores. Also, you say that liquids clean much better...where do you get that information from? How do you know that all of the 'R&D' (research and development) has been poured into liquids? Do you work for a laundry detergent company?

  • dadoes

    While liquids are getting more prevalent, powders are still available here, even at Wal-Mart. I found a news blurb dated Sept 2007 advising that Wal-Mart is moving to carry only concentrated liquids, and that the transition was completed in all their stores across the U.S. by May 2008. Apparently not! Or ... maybe the meaning was not that they would eliminate powders ... but that they would eliminate non-concentrated liquids.

    And, manufacturers are still occasionally reformulating their powders, so apparently R&D on them is continuing.

  • calliope

    I don't know that liquids clean better. When powders dissolve they're 'liquids'. I switched a few weeks ago from a liquid back to a powder and just cranked out the best wash in years. As for the powders fouling a septic system.......what washer exists with no filter? Clumps of powder would be evident on your clothes and caught by a filter. People were using septic systems long before liquid laundry detergents ever became popular and I have never heard of fouled septics caused by powders.

  • dadoes

    Callipoe, most washers nowdays don't have filters. There sometimes is reference to "cleaning the filter" on frontloaders if the machine develops trouble draining, but that's only a debris trap in the tub outlet to protect the pump from stray objects, coins and such.

  • calliope

    Well, you can tell I crawled out from under a rock. That's ridiculous not to have a filter on a washing machine SOMEWHERE. Do the manufacturers suppose people are too time crunched to take fifteen seconds to wipe them out? How does the machine protect the pumps? What keeps lint and pet hairs from floating lose and then reattaching to your clothing? This is an improvement? I'm sorry, thanks for correcting me, and that makes me even more glad I didn't sink a few grand on a FLW.

    I went directly from a high quality top loader to a wringer washer. I saved the money up to buy a front loader but changed my mind. I can tell you one thing, I see how much lint my laundry generates. It isn't negligible. You could make a hat out of the felt I pull off after some loads. This goes down a septic? Synthetic fabrics one would suspect never biodegrade? Cold water washes with powers? Yes.........I can now see it might cause a problem.

  • cynic

    These same debates rage on and will never be settled one way or the other. I've used powdered and liquid and can't honestly tell that one cleans better, just because it's powder or liquid. I do note a difference in performance of detergents though. So using a poor powder will not give as good a results as a good liquid.

    Every septic system is different and peoples' use patterns make a difference on the system performance. Are you saying you have a tank only Mara? If so it needs to be pumped frequently anyway so I doubt it would make any difference even if there was a difference. If you are using a mound or drainfield you still need the tank pumped but not as regularly.

    I hear so many crazy claims I take all of them with a grain fistful of salt.

    And to deny the diminishing numbers of powdered detergents is just turning a blind eye to reality. I've seen many stores discontinue the powders altogether. The second largest grocery store chain in this area has dropped powders altogether in probably about 1/3 of their stores. (No, not all of the stores.) I understand why they drop them. People aren't buying enough to make it worthwhile for the stores to carry them. And Walmart has mandated compaction for their liquids that they will carry. At this point I haven't heard anything to suggest that they will altogether discontinue powders. I've never seen anything suggesting they will drop powders in the foreseeable future. In fact they carry their own Great Value brand in powder, which I've purchased several times. But you might see a 4' section of powders and 30' of liquids on the shelves. And I do feel safe in predicting that if sales on powders don't justify the shelf space, it'll be chucked out of the stores without hesitation. I have also noticed that even the "bucket" powders have been compacted in Walmart. Good marketing strategy actually. When the shelf can hold 1 unit of 1 cup per load or 2 units of 1/2 cup per load, which is more cost-effective for the store to carry?

    And yes R&D goes on for powders, of course. But it's naive to think they're spending the R&D dollars on powders like they are on liquids. For example, Tide brought out the "Total Care" and "Sport" lines in liquid only, not in powder, at least not yet. Will they bring out powder versions? Who knows? I wouldn't bet too heavily on it unless the Total Care and Sport lines really take off and they see a demand in the powder lines. Certainly doesn't suggest that R&D is spent equally on powder and liquid, and it would not make sense for them to so do. Same goes for the other manufacturers. All, for instance brought out their 3x some time ago but to my knowledge never brought out a powdered version.

  • mara_2008

    Are you saying you have a tank only Mara? If so it needs to be pumped frequently anyway so I doubt it would make any difference even if there was a difference.

    We have a septic tank and drainfield. The only thing a septic tank guy has ever warned us about was Charmin toilet paper, lol. I use both powdered and liquid laundry detergents, so I don't know if I have a problem, or not. I sure hope not!

    suburbanmd, thank you for linking that article. I couldn't find it online.

    As another poster said, I wondered if powdered d/w detergent would also be a problem? If not, why not? Hotter water temps, perhaps? I use powdered d/w detergent.

    I keep meaning to call our septic guy to see what he says about this. Alas, my busy schedule of late has made it hard for me to remember to do so. If I do, I'll let you guys know what he said.

  • curiousshopper

    In the latest Consumer Reports test, the powder vs liquid debate cleaning debate is solved.

    The Tide Coldwater liquid formula came in at #1, the Coldwater poweder lagged in at #13.

    The Cheer liquids (regular and dark) came in at #8 and #9, the Cheer powder came in at #23.

    If you look the Tide website, the powders only contain one cleaning enzyme while the liquids have four.

    In any event, the results speak for themselves.

  • westvillager

    Haven't powders and septic tanks been around long enough to provide honest empirical evidence? I tend to lean toward user error, lol, and wonder if it's a case of using too much detergent.

  • suburbanmd

    Consumer Reports rates front-loaders higher than top-loaders, particularly agitator top-loaders. curiousshopper, in view of your oft-stated antipathy toward front-loaders, does that settle the FL vs. TL debate for you?

  • curiousshopper

    As I've stated before, my front loader did a great job of cleaning IF I used the recommended amounts of detergent. However it wasn't capable of rinsing it out. If I used bleach the supposedly "rinsed" load just reeked of bleach. That simply confirmed what common-sense had already told me, that front loaders can't rinse properly with miniscule amounts of water.

    With my top loader I can use a full dose (or more) of detergent, bleach as needed and even with two full deep rinses it's done in 1/2 the time.

  • suburbanmd

    So CR ratings are the last word on the relative merits of products, unless you disagree with them :-)

  • curiousshopper

    Consumer Reports doesn't test rinsing ability. If they ever start, it's going to be eye opening, that's for sure.

    They are the last word, subject to the limitations of their tests.

    BTW, a while back someone posted a link to a European publication that did test rinsing and the most efficient machines were dismal at it. Surprise, surprise.

  • dadoes

    CR doesn't say what all exactly it is they test. In any case, rinsing would be an overall part of the machine's performance, whether tested specifically or not.

    CR's tests & reports are fraught with inconsistencies and occasionally have outright errors. I once notified them of an error in the feature listing of a washer (they reported that it doesn't have ATC and I know that it does). They thanked me for the contact, and never fixed the error on the report.

    Their reliability statistics are extremely limited in scope. My appliances that are 19, 13, 11, 7, and 6 years old and have never needed any repairs would not qualify for their statistics on grounds of being too old. The last annual questionnaires I recall asked only about items (appliances, electronics, and such) 5 years old or less. They also don't differentiate the type of repair. Replacement of a normal wear item such as a belt is given the same statistical weight as a drum exploded during high-speed spin ... both are simply counted as a repair.

  • totsuka

    When I had a septic system I always used liquid soap. But if you are getting your tank pumped out every 3 years it might not matter.

  • wiz2525

    Here's the real thing about septic tanks and soap of any kind as I have been told. Brown water and grey water. You know what brown water is. THAT is the only thing that should go in a septic tank. Unfortunately, my wife and I bought a place that was built by the government during the depression. 5 acres, a chicken coop, barn, pump house and a house with five acres. If the person who had it lived in it 5 years it was theirs. My septic tank is a 750 gallon tank. Grey water is any water other than toilet water. I started this search having the information about the enzymes and bacteria in the septic tank being degraded by the soaps. My HE side load clothes washer and the 2 showers are the only grey water items but that is enough and is a constant nagging concern. My wife came home and said someone at her work said we should not be using Tide in the septic tank. Seemed peculiar that one soap could be any more harmful to the enzymes and/or bacteria than another, but what do I know? I'm no chemist! It may be that what her friend was really referencing was powdered versus liquid. We haven't used powdered at all. So I was amazed to see NO reference to this brown water/grey water issue in this thread. Any idea here about a specific soap we should be using IF we are going to ignore the 'no grey water

  • suburbanmd

    There's all kinds of advice out there about septic systems. The bottom line, though, is that you don't want solids getting out of the tank into the leach field. They won't, as long as the sludge layer (on the bottom of the tank) and the scum layer (floating on top) aren't too thick, and the outlet tee is intact. An intact inlet tee is also supposed to help, because it minimizes disturbance of the solids that have settled. If you check these things regularly, then the system doesn't have to be a nagging concern. If it's hard to inspect the tank because the opening is buried, you might want to get a riser and surface-level manhole cover installed.

  • sandy1616

    FWIW I'm married to a commercial laundry chemist. He is anti liquid. Reason being that all of the detergents we buy off the shelf are full of filler, liquids or powders. The liquids contain agents to maintain viscosity, protect from rancidity, etc.. These ingredients are polymers, basically liquid plastics. All detergent leaves residue. The powder residue is more visible is the only difference.

    I do use liquids occasionally but mostly powder. As for the poster who stated Tide coldwater liquid as being more effective than the powder, he needs to read the labels. One has enzymes -the liquid- and the powder does not. A powder and the liquid of the same brand and type often vary completely in terms of ingredients. Liquids are sudsier due to the extras. HE powders often don't have a suds suppressing agent.

  • liriodendron

    Wow, Sandy: Lucky you to be married to a commercial laundry chemist!

    I always thought that it would be very useful to be married to an auto mechanic, a doctor, a veterinarian, a plumber or an electrician or a chef. (I suppose a hair stylist would be handy, too.) But to be married to someone who could explain the chemical intricacies of detergent formulations would really rock my world!

    I've practically worn out my copy of Smulders' book, but in truth I am a little dodgy on the chemistry so I'm not sure I completely understand it.


  • livebetter

    "I'm married to a commercial laundry chemist."

    Wow ... that WOULD be great! I'd have driven him crazy by now with all my questions and insanity ... lol.

    I've often read that about powders. There is a UK forum I've picked some good info from (written by people in the appliance field) and they recommend powder too.

    "Powder is the original detergent format and to this day it has all the technologies available in it, you get the full cadre of cleaning power in a powder so after that it only comes down to how good it is. I know it's potentially messy and harder to get home but it really is the best."

    "Liquid is the most convenient in many ways to a lot of people as you just pick up a bottle and pour it in. well, that's the theory at least.

    In practice liquid can cause a lot of trouble, especially for service engineers. You see, it's easily overdosed and this can cause no end of harm to a machine and that goes back to the tip about dosing on the first page, it really is vital to get it right or expect a bill for the engineer as manufacturers generally do not cover for detergent misuse which is the way they view these problems.

    If the dosage doesn't get you then the smell might, liquid detergents do not and cannot at this time contain a bleaching agent (nor is it ever likely to) so the bacteria doesn't always get killed in the machine. This can congeal and for a rather smelly mass which is not good for your nose or your machine and that's one of the reasons why I recommend a maintenance wash and why it has to be done with powder or tablets, so that theres a bleaching agent to remove any bacterial build up in the machine."

    "Do you use liquid detergent?

    If the answer is yes then this is most likely the problem as there is no chlorine bleaching agents in liquid powder and it has a tendency to smell a bit ripe after a while. It is also VERY easy and prone to over-dosing, which can lead to a congealed mass of goo in, or on, the drum which, in extreme cases can actually corrode the aluminium drum shaft.

    Shown in the photograph to the right is a badly corroded alloy drum support spider from just such treatment and this is, by far, not the worst that we've seen. In some really bad cases the support almost disintegrates.

    Sorry soap powder manufacturers, but we see this in the field after several years.

    The cure is to use powder (real stuff from a big box) and wash through a boil or hot wash with the machine empty, this is known as a maintenance wash. Or you can cheat and use dishwasher cleaner or bicarbonate of soda, both are very effective at cleaning this."

    Here is a link that might be useful: Smelly Washing Machines

  • sandy1616

    Lirio, livebetter - I do drive him crazy with questions. The problem is that he uses pure ingredients, 100% peroxide or pure chlorine for example, and our home washer isn't made like a commercial washer.
    I'm not trying for hospital grade disinfection and like my linens to last more than 3 washes. LOL!

  • Pat z6 MI

    Please note that the information from the UKwhitegoods links is 5-1/2 to 8 years old by now. Surely technology has improved.

  • mara_2008

    I do use liquids occasionally but mostly powder. As for the poster who stated Tide coldwater liquid as being more effective than the powder, he needs to read the labels. One has enzymes -the liquid- and the powder does not. A powder and the liquid of the same brand and type often vary completely in terms of ingredients. Liquids are sudsier due to the extras. HE powders often don't have a suds suppressing agent.

    Well, Tide HE powder w/bleach works FAR better on my white cottons than the liquid form. And it rinses out very well (I usually use white vinegar in the FS dispenser). Hmmm...

  • Pat z6 MI

    All Tide powders have enzymes, maybe not the same enzymes as the liquids, but they do have enzymes.

  • sandy1616

    pattan, Coldwater Tide liquid has 4 enzymes vs the usual 3 in Tide products. Tide Coldwater powder does not have enzymes but does have polymers which are unusual in a powder.

  • mara_2008

    I haven't used Tide Coldwater formula. Tide HE powder w/bleach works SO much better on my white laundry than the liquid form, I wonder if this is due to enzymes, polymers, or what?

  • mara_2008

    I haven't seen Tide Coldwater in powder form, only in liquid. I would be concerned about powder (not) dissolving well in cold water. JMHO

  • bulldinkie

    My hubby installs septics,he said he looked in one they were replacing the woman used tide liquid there was a huge blob on the ,ain pipe going out to drain fields it was that big it hung on pipe broke it off he said it looked like wax,or like fat.

  • mara_2008

    he said it looked like wax,or like fat

    This sounds more like an accumulation of fabric softener than like liquid detergent. Which is one reason I always dilute FS half and half when I use it. And I don't use FS in every load -- never in towels.

  • mara_2008

    I always dilute FS half and half with vinegar when I use it.

  • sparky823

    I can believe it was liquid detergent build up. I used All Free/Clear for several years. Had drain problems every 6 to 9 months. Had to have the drain line cleaned out and it would be fine for the next several months. Then I changed back to Tide powder and havent had the line cleaned since and that was 3 years ago. I have used some Tide and Wisk liquid since but not regularly--mainly just Tide powder-no problems.

  • Pat z6 MI

    Someone else say something here. Could it have been liquid detergent or not? Help. Trying to figure out if my sump pump gets clogged up from powdered Tide or liquid Wisk and Vaska and Cheer. Jeesh. Does it ever end?

  • Cavimum

    @patann - did you mean to write "sump pump" or do you mean sewer/sewage pump?

  • Pat z6 MI

    Cavimum, I really meant sump. I do know the difference but any time I can get info that might relate to my sump pump getting clogged up, I'm all ears. Or eyes.

  • Cavimum

    Why would detergent be affecting your sump pump? I am curious. The only sump pumps I've known of are to remove rain and spring water from under a building. Does your washer not empty into the regular sewer line?

  • Pat z6 MI

    No, Cavimum, I should have mentioned that my washer empties directly into our sump pump. don't know why the builders did that, but they did (40 years ago) and I have to take rugs to a laundromat so that the lint does not clog up my sump pump. I was wondering if the clogs I get might also be from more than the lint -- maybe liquid detergent or fabric softener or powdered detergent. If i knew what might be the culprit I could figure on fewer de-clogging events.

  • Cavimum

    My guess is the builders did that to save your septic tank. (I'm assuming you're on septic or it makes no sense why they put the grey wash water to a sump pump). It might be lint or undissolved powder detergent. I have no knowledge regarding how much sediment and 'stuff' sump pumps are designed to handle. Modern washers rarely have the good old-fashioned lint traps. It was always amazing to see what our old ca. 1977 Maytag captured.

  • dadoes

    Just to say, the filter on that 1977 Maytag did catch some lint, but it was a "passive" system depending on water currents circulating into the agitator barrel and wasn't as effective as it seemed ... not like an active filter via flow from the machine's pump. Not unusual that people aren't aware that those Maytags have a filter and leave it neglected and uncleaned literally for years (like my sister) to no obvious ill effect (of lint on the clothes). :-)

  • Cavimum

    @dadoes - My Maytag broke and while waiting for the repair visit, I went next door to our neighbor's to wash some clothes. She had the exact same machine. Out of habit, I pulled the lint filter before starting the cycle and it was extremely clogged up. When I mentioned it, she never knew it existed. Apparently she never read the owners' manual.

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