This article provides you with advice for people who are considering the purchase of a home with a private septic system, both in terms of testing and inspecting the system to make sure that it is functional and passes local standards of operation.
Obviously, there is no test that will guarantee that all of the defects have been purged from a septic system. However, regular inspections can minimize your chances of getting septic failure – which can lead to hazardous conditions and significant cost for repairs – not to mention provincial fines that come when you have let your system get out of inspection.
So, as the buyer, there are several questions you should ask about the system.
- How long ago was the property built?
- Does anyone occupy the property? If so, how many people live there, and how long have they lived there? If not, how long has the property stood vacant?
- How long has the current seller owned the property?
- Where can you find the septic system? (If the current owner has held the property for several years but does not know where the system is, this is a red flag, as this suggests that the system has never been pumped. However, the fact that the owner might know exactly where it is could mean that he’s pumping it more often than what is typical, which can also be a bad sign).
- What parts make up this septic system? (A typical system includes a tank and drain field. But is the tank steel or concrete? How big is it? Are there pits for seepage or separate drywells?
- What repairs have been done to the system? (Regular pumping is the right answer. A leach field that has never benefited from pumping may be on its last legs)
- When did the owner last have the tank pumped?
Once you have answers to these questions, it’s time to make a visual inspection of the site, looking for warning signs. This means walking around the land, looking for areas that smell like sewage or are simply wetter than the surrounding grounds. Has there been digging recently? How far away are ponds, wells, streams, rocky areas and other plant life? If you see warning signs for a sink hole, don’t keep walking – you don’t want to find it that way. Walk through the entire leaching fields and look for warning signs, such as unusually green grass, which could mean some seepage. A field that stinks and is soaked is a sign that the septic system has failed. Look out for steep slopes on the drain field, as that could reduce available surface area. Also look for drain fields that sit lower than the surrounding area, as they can gather rain water.
When you have an inspector out to look at the system, he is likely to want to run a septic dye test. This is beyond what is considered a typical home inspection, but many inspectors who work in areas in which septic systems are common offer this service as an add-on, for an additional fee. Make sure that you choose the consultant to run the test, and make sure that he is familiar with the standards of dye testing a septic system. Make sure that the inspector uses 50 gallons per bedroom, or 250 gallons of water, whichever is a larger number.
But what is a septic dye test? The procedure involves putting that test volume of water into the septic system to find evidence of some leak of effluent into the yard, or for a blocked pipe. Over time, pipes settle under the ground and break under the pressure of the soil above them. Systems may have been installed improperly too. The dye shows up in water that comes up to your yard surface as a result of some sort of leak in the system. Dye breakout can happen as quickly as 15 to 30 minutes after the water enters the system.
However, just because no dye appears on the ground does not mean that the system is in the clear. Some leaks do not send effluent to the surface at all, and other leaks do not send it to the surface for four or five days. So while you can expect to see a result within a half hour in most cases of a leak, remember that it can take longer for positive test results to come back.
Some professionals recommend a flooding test to see if a septic system has leaks. This involves sending 1,000 gallons of water through the system, with the hope that a leak will show itself under the higher water pressure. However, putting that much water into a system within two hours (which is the typical protocol) could push the system beyond what it was designed to carry, which could actually cause damage that was not already present.
After the test has been performed, you may want the next step to involve a septic contractor coming out to find, open, pump and check out the septic tank itself. Pumping is not always necessary; you should rely on the results of the earlier tests to see if more invasive analysis is necessary. If the tank is less than two years old and has gone through pumping in the past year, and you see no other signs of problems, then you might wait for the pump. Instead, you can call the contractor who pumped it the last time to get a perspective on the condition of the system.
Of course, pumping also has benefits. You can find out where the tank is, its material, and its current state. You can see if the baffles are still in good shape, and if the cover is safe. If you don’t know much about the system, but you do know that it has been at least three years since the last pumping, then you should go ahead and have this performed.
If you don’t have any signs of failure after doing these steps, then you are in the clear. However, if you see some signs of damage or failure, then it’s time to have a septic contractor take a few more steps to check out the system. These include finding and opening the distribution box that links the pipe from the tank to the drain field lines; digging up suspicious areas like wet spots in the leach field; looking at soil percolation tests, which test soil’s ability to soak up effluent; and then soil and site research to look at the soil quality and find out where the high water table comes each season.
Next, it’s time to talk to some neighbors. Talk to your neighbors and to other people in the area about how septic systems generally perform in the area. This anecdotal information can become quite useful. Take a look at water meter readings on the property (if available) to see what the people who live in the house now are spending on their monthly water bill, and see how that compares to your family’s water usage. Remember that a septic system can only handle a certain amount of water, so if your family uses a lot more, then this may not be the right system for your family.
If the system has not been cleaned out in a few years, and the seller will let you, get the tank pumped to find out the material that makes up the tank, as well as its size and any evidence of damage to components or backflow into the tank as pumping gets underway. If there is a high level of sludge or floating scum, that means the system is sending out solid waste – a sign of real trouble.
Finally, visit the local health department and ask for records about this system’s maintenance. What contractor did they use to get it pumped? Has it been pumped at least once every five years? What major repairs have already happened? Remember – you’re trying to see if what the owner told you is true.
The Importance of Regular Maintenance of Septic Tanks and Systems
If you have a rural property that does not have access to a municipal water and sewer system, then you rely on a septic system to take care of your family’s waste. It is easy to forget about this system, because, when all is working well, the plumbing lines and the storage tanks all remain underground and enclosed. However, when things go wrong, they go wrong in a big way – waste bubbling to the surface, with repairs that are extremely costly. In some cases the fines that are associated can be significant as well. These are risks that will occur to a private lender, if you get to a point where you need the services of one, so having records of regular maintenance of a septic system is an important part of reporting the property’s value. Let’s take a look at some of the specific warning signs that your septic system may need a visit from an expert.
Have you noticed any of these warning signs from your septic system’s performance?
- Drains slowing
- Toilets backing up
- Sewage odors emanating
- Spongy or especially green grass on top of the system
- Nitrate or bacteria appearing in your drinking water
- Effluent ponding on the surface
What can happen if you don’t respond to these warning signs?
- Contamination of ground water supplies and the surface water
- Backup into one or more of the toilets, bathtubs, drains or sinks on your property
- Damage to the interior of the property, if the backup is sufficiently severe
How can you keep your septic system maintained?
- Keep rainwater away from the septic drain field by diverting water flow
- Pump the septic tank(s) on a regular basis
- Keep an eye on your toilets and faucets for leaks
- Use smaller amounts of water for smaller laundry loads
- Do not put bulky items down the toilet that could cause problems in the system. Some examples include paper towels, disposable diapers, cigarette butts, facial tissues, tampons or sanitary napkins
- Do not use the septic system to dispose of such hazardous chemicals as paint thinner, gasoline, motor oil or varnish
- Minimize the use of heavy duty cleaners, as they kill the helpful bacteria in the septic tank
- Do not build anything on top of the drain field.
- Do not drive over the drain field.
- Keep soil from eroding from the drain field by planting grass atop it.
When you have a septic system, you need to get it regularly inspected. Otherwise, you could end up facing heavy fines. A thorough septic inspection involves a pump out, as well as a clean out of the whole interior tank, and an inspection of the interior. The inspector also uses dye to test the function of the septic line and a soil percolation test. If there is a pump tank, then the inspector also performs an electrical draw test. This can take as long as a week, as the dye takes that long to seep through the system.
When the inspector comes to your site, he evaluates the entire plumbing system of the property, looking for leaks in any equipment or fixtures. If there is sludge, the inspector measures the mat thickness and the depth. Then, the inspector looks to the distribution of the effluent, as well as the absorption areas, the filters and the risers.
All of these steps, taken together, still can’t guarantee you a fail-proof septic system. However, they do give you a start, and that’s all you can ask when you move into a new property.