Septic System photos: P 65-P 68
The main components of a septic system consist of the drainage lines, the holding tank and the leaching fields or seepage pits.
The drainage lines are usually visible in the lower level of the house. These lines are slightly pitched downward to drain out into the septic system holding tank.
The holding tank functions as a detention tank for the sewage solids. The tank will be buried underground and the cap, which is removable for cleaning the system out, will be about one foot below the soil.
Leaching fields and seepage pits are used to drain the liquid wastes down into the earth. The leaching fields and seepage pits are connected to the holding tank by drainage lines. Leaching fields are found in newer construction or rehabilitated older septic systems. In some areas seepage pits and cesspools are no longer permitted because they are not as sanitary as leaching fields.
The life expectancy of a septic system is about 30 years. The lifespan of the system will depend upon the type of construction and the maintenance given it. The basic operation of a septic system is as follows:
The drainage lines carry all of the liquid and solid wastes to the septic holding tank.
The solid waste remains in the bottom of the holding tank. The liquid waste rises as the tank fills and is carried by drainage lines to the leaching fields or seepage pits.
The liquid waste then runs through the drainage lines. These lines have perforated holes in the bottom when they reach the leaching field area of the lawn.
The liquid waste goes through the holes in the bottom of the drainage pipes and follows the air pockets or voids in the soil as it moves downward.
You may come across septic systems that have an alarm which monitors an internal pump located inside the holding tank. The purpose of the internal pump is to carry the liquid waste upward to the leaching fields, to be drained away safely. A pump is required when the leaching fields are located higher in elevation than the holding tank. Therefore, the liquid waste cannot travel by gravity to be drained away. The liquid waste must be pumped to the location of the leaching fields. This is not the normal type of installation since almost all septic systems use gravity for the drainage. However, the pumps are needed on some systems due to a variety of reasons. Some reasons why a leaching field is installed higher up than the holding tank is that the property size was too small, there are excessive rocks in the soil, there are poor percolation rates in some of the soil, etc.
The alarm is installed to monitor the internal pump inside the holding tank, to make sure the pump doesn't malfunction. There is a water float in the holding tank that will trigger the alarm to go off if the water level gets too high. When the water level rises too high, then it's an indication that the pump is not operating properly and repairs are needed. You can identify the alarm by a small electrical box that's located inside the house. This box will have a red light on it and should be marked with some identification. There may be a test button on the alarm box to periodically test it for proper operation. Ask the owner if you can test the alarm during your inspection to see if it's operating properly. Don't test these alarms unless you get permission from the owner. You want to tell the client to speak to town hall and the septic installer about the septic alarm. Since they're only used for abnormal conditions, the client may find out some important information by asking questions.
Try to get as much information as you can about the septic from the owner or Realtor. Use the preinspection questions that I mentioned earlier for a guideline but don't be afraid to ask other questions for further info. Don't be surprised if they don't know very much about the septic system. Unfortunately, this is often the case.
I'll tell you another war story that ought to jar you a little bit. I did an inspection once and the client, the Realtor, the seller, and the real estate listing all stated that the house was connected to the municipal sewer system. I always tell my clients that they need to confirm this with the town hall records since there is no way for me, or any inspector, to see underground to verify that the house is connected to the city sewers. (I'm not Superman with X-ray vision). Later during the backyard inspection, the client mentioned to me that he was thinking about putting a swimming pool in the backyard after he bought the house. So, as always, I told the client to check town hall to make sure he could get the approvals to install a pool and get price estimates BEFORE losing on the house.
Well, about four months later, I got a letter from this client's attorney. The letter stated that the client went to town hall to find out about installing a pool in his backyard - AFTER he bought the house. He was awfully surprised to find out that the house had a septic system and was not connected to the city sewer system! As a result, the client not only couldn't put a swimming pool in his yard, but he had to deal with a septic system that hadn't been maintained for who knows how long!! If the seller of the house didn't even know he had a septic system, then obviously he didn't call any septic contractors to clean out the tank and inspect it internally every few years. So the probability of having to pay to replace a decayed and neglected septic system and leaching fields, just added insult to injury for my client! I told this client and his attorney that they were "barking up the wrong tree" if they were even thinking about complaining to me. The seller, the Realtor, and the real estate listing, and even my client, all gave me incorrect information when they told me the house was connected to the city sewer system. Moreover, the client chose on his own to not follow my advice to check town hall records before he closed on the house. I also had a copy of this client's written inspection report that I had sent him. I explained to the client's attorney to read specific pages in the report which clearly stated my advice to this client before he closed on the house. As a result, I never heard a word from that attorney or client again about this complaint or problem. They realized the client himself was to blame and they could only consider suing the seller and Realtor - but certainly not me.
So learn a lesson from this example and don't make the same mistakes this client did. You may end up paying dearly for it later with a lot of money and aggravation. There's no way to tell for sure if a main drainage line leads to a septic system or a city sewer system because they're identical. The only hints you might have are these:
If the house is connected to the city sewer system then the drainage lines will usually lead through the foundation wall facing the street. This is different from many septic system installations which are located in the rear of a house, away from the street. However, there are city sewer hookups from the rear of some houses and there are septic systems hookups in the front yard of houses as well.
If the house is connected to the city sewer system then the main drainage line should have a "U " shaped trap near the foundation wall. This is different from septic systems which are not supposed to have a "U " trap. A "U " trap isn't needed because the sewer gases that build up in the septic tank should follow the drainage line up through the house and out of the plumbing vent stack in the roof. However, you will find city sewer hookups without the "U " trap, and you'll also find septic system hookups that have been installed with a "U" trap.
The point I'm trying to make, is that there's no way to know for sure whether or not the house is connected to the municipal sewer system. So mention to the client that the only way for him to determine this is to check with the building or health departments at town hall. Now do you see what I mean about being thorough and Covering Your Assets. This is why you need to ask the owner the preinspection questions and be up front and honest with your client.
You're very limited in what you can evaluate about a septic system. You're limited because all of the components are underground and aren't visible, except the interior drainage lines. Also, you have no idea of what the past maintenance history has been. That's why you want to find out from the owner how often the system has been pumped clean. Tell the client to get documentation of the past history from the septic contractor maintaining this system.
Often sellers will pump a septic system out just because the house is being put on the market for sale. I've seen many septic systems that haven't been pumped for over five years. However, the seller would have the system pumped just so that they could tell potential buyers it was recently cleaned. It's similar to driving a car for many years without changing the oil. The car will run on dirty oil. However, it'll cost you money in wear and tear and the car will eventually die prematurely due to the lack of proper maintenance.
Septic systems are very expensive to install or rebuild if they're no longer operating properly. You don't want to get stuck holding the bag to install a new septic system because you told the client the system was fine before he bought the house. If you can't get enough information about the past maintenance history or your testing shows problems with the septic system, then tell the client to have the system pumped clean and inspected internally by a licensed septic contractor. I always tell the client to have the septic system pumped clean and inspected internally. I do this regardless of whether there is evidence of problems or lack of maintenance to the system. The reason for this is the limits of evaluating an underground system that you can't even see! Also, the dye testing done during a home inspection is very limited. I'll talk more about this a little later.
Pumping the septic system clean and getting an internal inspection serves several purposes that benefit you and your client:
You don't have to worry about telling someone the system is OK when all of the major components are located underground and can't be seen. When the system is pumped out clean, the septic contractor can internally inspect the holding tank and the drainage lines coming into and out of the tank. This gives him a visual look at the interior of the tank and often the septic contractor will provide a written report for this service. The fee the septic contractor charges for this service is well worth the money spent. Tell the client that having the septic tank pumped and internally inspected is similar to buying an insurance policy for the system.
Another benefit is that if the client does buy the house, then they'll be moving in with a cleaned out septic tank. Their newly cleaned out tank shouldn't need any maintenance for quite some time.
You may also recommend that the client have a septic contractor partially dig up the leaching field area to do a more extensive evaluation. This will allow them to see if the fields or pipes are clogged.
Septic systems MUST be pumped out clean and inspected internally every two to three years at least.
Septic systems must be pumped out clean and inspected internally every two to three years at least. It should be more frequent than every two years if there are many people in the house or they do a lot of entertaining. I know a septic cleaning contractor in my area who has one customer that gets their tank cleaned every 3-4 months because they have a very high water usage.
You will encounter some home owners who think you don't have to pump septic tanks clean. They believe in the fairy tale myth that the bacterial action inside the septic tank decomposes all the solid waste away. There are some products sold that claim to help the decomposition in septic tanks. Some home owners think you merely have to use these products instead of pumping the tank periodically. You must tell your client that this is totally incorrect and the client needs to have the tank pumped and internally inspected. When this occurs you'll often have a third party say, "If it's not broken, don't fix it. " My response to that is, "Should you wait until you're terminally ill before going to the doctor for a physical or medical check?"
I'll explain the importance of why a septic system needs to be cleaned and inspected internally at least every 2-3 years. If a septic system is neglected, the solid waste that's in the holding tank will begin to build up. Eventually, the solid waste will rise to the top section of the holding tank where it'll be carried with the liquid waste into the drainage lines. Instead of just liquid waste entering the leaching fields, the solid waste will also begin to enter the fields.
As the solid and liquid waste moves through the perforated holes in the drainage lines, it'll move into the air pockets or voids of the soil. The solids will eventually clog the air pockets and voids of the soil until there's nowhere for the liquid waste to go but upwards. From this point on, the septic system is a "failed" system. It's a failed system because the liquid and solid waste will begin to rise because it can't travel down into the soil. Puddles and sewer odors will begin to develop on the lawn over the leaching fields. When a septic system has failed it may have to be moved or rebuilt. This is a major expense to accomplish. If you don't believe me, just call a septic contractor in your area and ask what it costs to install a new septic system.