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Guide to Septic Systems

The following article appeared in the 1998 Summer/Fall Edition of "The Ontario Hoser", published by
the O.S.L.W.L.A. It contains basic knowledge about the workings of septic systems and what to look for.

Potential buyers of a single-family home have many questions regarding the septic system that will serve the house. This is a condensed guide to assist buyers in obtaining information about the many concerns they may have, regarding the potential problems and expenses associated with a home's septic system.

The purpose of a septic system (subsurface sewage disposal system) is to dispose of the water generated by the occupants of a home. Soils on the property can then disperse without causing an adverse effect on the ground water, the environment and public health.


Some of the common symptoms septic systems experience

• Plumbing fixtures may display difficulty in releasing their contents, for example: slow draining, bubbling, backups, etc. This condition may be system-related but it could also indicate a clog in the piping or sewer line. You should have the interior piping checked before proceeding with an investigation of the sewage disposal system.

• Large volume discharges, such as, washing machines, dishwashers and bathtubs, cause either a backup, as listed above or, an overflow of sewage above the septic tank or leaching field. If this condition is usually at its worst, during and/or directly following a heavy rain, then the septic system is indeed suspect. If backup alone, occurs independent of wet weather, you might first check for a partial blockage of the main drain that has occurred some distance from the house. In such cases, a small discharge will simply be held by the main waste pipe, draining slowly past the blockage, while a large discharge will cause a backup.

• Foul septic odors in storm drainage piping, catch basins, footing drain piping or curtain drain discharges may indicate that sewage from your property or an adjacent one is entering these ground water systems.


Sources of Information about Your Particular System

What can a potential buyer of a home do to gather as much information as possible relative to the present condition of a system? What will the possible future expenses associated with the septic system be? Listed below are a few suggestions:

(1) Obtain Information from the Present Property Owner

• Ask for any drawings, regarding the actual location (an "as-built drawing") of the existing septic system.

• Ask for records regarding the maintenance of the system.

• Has the septic tank been pumped at a frequency of at least 3 to 5 years?
- What pumping contractor was used?
- If a system contains a pump, how often has it been maintained?
- If repairs have been made, when and to what extent?

• Ask about the past performance of the system.
- Have any of the symptoms described earlier manifested during the life of the system?


(2) Do a Site Inspection of the Property

• Once the locations of the septic tank and leaching fields are known, walk over the entire area and observe whether there is any evidence of a sewage overflow condition. Greener grass in the leaching area may not necessarily indicate a system problem. If, however, the area is completely saturated and odorous you should be very concerned. It most likely indicates an active failure.

• Try to get a sense of how natural conditions are affecting the capacity of the property to disperse water.
- Is the sewage disposal area located in a depression, which would have a tendency to collect run-off rainwater.
- Is the lot flat? Is there a watercourse of wetland (swamp) near the leaching system?
- Is the system virtually at the same elevation as nearby wetlands?
- Are there steep slopes and/or ledge outcrops, which reduce the available area for leaching purposes?

• All of the above factors could indicate that the existing system will experience difficulty or, that there may not be much additional area suitable for sewage disposal on the lot if needed in the future.


(3) Go to the Town/City Building Department to Review the Property's File

• Ask the town building inspector or appointed sewage system inspector to review the file with you.
- Is there enough information in it for him/her, to give you an opinion on how the existing system and/or lot meets the present health code requirements?

• Ask for the records regarding maintenance of the system. Look for any orders, which required remedial action.

• Your goal is to, confirm and supplement information received from the property owner. Obtain guidelines concerning the proper maintenance of a subsurface sewage disposal system.

• If you are contemplating an addition to the home or plan on renovating an unfinished basement, discuss the possibilities with the inspector and determine the procedures you would have to follow to accomplish your plans. In some cases it will not be possible to "enlarge" an existing home.

• Ask about the general neighborhood, the frequency of repairs, ability to install proper size repair systems in the area, etc.

(4) Obtain Additional Information from Outside Sources

• Presently, many home sales are contingent upon a home inspection. Part of the inspection usually includes a report on the existing septic system. [Note: Septic Inspections are beyond the scope of a professional home inspection but are offered as an additional for-free service by some professional inspector services who serve areas where private systems are common.]

• Talk to neighbors about the general performance of septic systems in the area and specifically the system on the property you're interested in. However, this is suggested only for those comfortable approaching this subject with strangers and with the realization that the information gathered may not be totally factual for various reasons (devaluation of their own property; not wanting to spoil the sale of a friendly neighbor, etc.)

• Hire your own consultant either a professional engineer [who is specifically familiar with septic system design and repair] or, licensed septic system installer, who performs a great deal of work in the particular town. They can give you advice as to the condition of the soils and septic systems in the area and what might be expected (especially pertaining to costs) if/when you find problems with the existing system.

• Obtain water meter readings (if the home is serviced by a municipal water supply) to determine what the present occupants of the home are utilizing. Then compare those results with what your family is presently using. If your family is using significantly more water than the former occupants, you may be asking for trouble if the sewage system is undersized by today's standards. Inspections should include:
- Type of tank material-old steel tank may be at or end useful life
- Tank size- along with usage determines appropriate pumping frequency and system capacity
- Evidence of damage to tank components- broken baffles may mean the leaching bed has been damaged
- Evidence of backflow into the tank during the start of pumping indicates a flooded leach field and possible failure
- High sludge level and/or excessive floating scum level- indicate high risk of having pushed solids out into the bed area, possibly causing damage.

• If the system has not been cleaned in the last few years, have the tank pumped to obtain this additional information.


Final Overview

When buying a home, especially one that is old and does not have a sewage disposal system that meets today's standards, the fundamental question that should be answered is:
"When the existing system fails, how will we repair it and how much will repairs cost?"

The more information the buyer obtains, the better able he or she will be able to the judge the adequacy of the existing system. Repair cost estimates can be obtained from a licensed installer for a fee should the site investigation be required.

Source: Internet Site http://www.Inspect-ny.com/septic/septtext.htm