I am buying a house with a septic system so what do I need to know?

A properly installed and maintained septic system will function as reliably as a city sewer connection. When you are buying a home though there are details about that system you need to check before your option period ends.

[tab: Introduction]

Many people are very reluctant to purchase a home with septic systems. Most of that concern is due to not fully understanding septic systems. So let’s first start with a little about septic systems so that you can ease some of those concerns. We will not delve deeply into the technical aspects of these systems as there are many different varieties available.  At the end of this post are a large number of references to help you understand everything you want to know about septic systems.

The term “Septic System” has been widely used as a general name for all varieties of “On Site Sewage Facility” (OSSF) systems.  The use of the term septic system in this way is not entirely correct.  It is important to know this especially if you are searching the Internet, speaking with local governments, or dealing with other professionals whose occupational specialty directly deals with these systems.  Your search results might not yield what you are expecting and possibly your conversations with some professionals might become confusing.  There are various different terms used to group all systems under one general name, are used interchangeably, and are used by both the government agencies as well as professionals.  Some of these terms used, and found when searching the internet, are listed here.  The first two are the most commonly used titles.

  • On Site Sewage Facility
  • On Site Wastewater Treatment System
  • On Site Sewage Disposal System, and a variation is On Site Underground Sewage Disposal System

So if all systems are not “Septic Systems” then just what is a “Septic System”?  If you would like and answer to that and how to identify your system type just click the next tab, otherwise you can move onto the the other topics.

[tab: System Types]

There are two basic categories of OSSF used in residential waste treatment systems; Anaerobic treatment systems, and Aerobic treatment systems.  Both of these two types have the same basic concept of using bacteria to break down the solid, and semisolid, waste that is flushed down your homes drains and into the treatment tank.  Anaerobic system tank(s) are typically sealed and buried from view and the exposure to oxygen.  Typically there is one tank with two compartments in the tank or potentially two separate, single compartment tanks.  Once the wastewater has been treated it is then sent to a buried distribution system to allow final treatment and absorption into the surrounding soils.  These systems rely on bacteria that can live and thrive without oxygen (anaerobic bacteria) as they typically are completely buried, although some systems might have sealed risers with accessible caps at ground level.  The term “Septic System” is actually associated with Anaerobic based OSSF’s.  We will not get into the explanation of what “Septic” means as it can become a very gross subject to discuss.  But you should understand that “Septic System” is really a technical term for an “Anaerobic System”.  The following image displays a typical anaerobic system.

In contrast an Aerobic system is designed to provide additional treatment of the waste water to provide a cleaner release of fluids either above ground with spray heads, or even below ground with distribution piping.  On most typical Aerobic systems there are three tanks with the center tank being split into two compartments.  The first tank, the “Pretreatment” tank, acts similar to an anaerobic “Septic System” tank.  Here most of the solids are separated from liquids and the anaerobic bacteria work on the solids.  What is left is then pushed to the second tank which is the aerobic treatment tank.  Within the aerobic tank air is forced through the mix with a pump called an aerator which provides the oxygen needed for aerobic bacteria to finish breaking down the waste.  The treated effluent (wastewater) is then pushed to a final pumping tank where it is distributed to above ground spray heads (high pressure pump) or potentially a buried distribution line system (either without a pump or a low pressure pump).  The water delivered to the pumping tank might be run across a chlorinator unit which is usually nothing more than a compartment to place specially made chlorine tablets that are safe for the environment.  Another option for the chlorination of the water is a chlorine drip system mounted in the pump tank that slowly releases an environmentally safe liquid chlorine into the tank.  An image of a typical aerobic system is displayed in the following image.

Now that you have a basic understanding of  OSSF types we can move to what you need to know about OSSF usage.  You can read this on the next tab.

[tab: OSSF Usage]

OSSF are not much different than a city sewer connection, as far as usage is concerned.  With a city sewer connection you flush your waste down the drains and it is transported to the city sewage treatment plant.  The city sewage treatment plant is a much larger version of your OSSF but performs the same basic function as your OSSF.  However, the city sewage treatment plant can handle a great deal more abuse than an OSSF and there are items of particular concern with your OSSF that do require additional attention.  These differences are very easy to adapt to and really require little effort to undertake.  Some of these adaptations can even help you, and the environment, in many ways.

All OSSF have requirements on how they should be used and these are generally the same.  For example you do not dispose excessive solids in the system.  By excessive solids it is generally understood that kitchen sink garbage disposals are not recommended for use as they can generate large amounts of solids in the system.  You should not flush other than human waste and toilet paper down your toilets.  Most, if not all, of the items people now flush down their toilets never do break down, even in a city sewage treatment plant.  Items such as cigarette butts, female hygiene products, disposable baby wipes, etc., all must be skimmed or filtered out of a city sewage treatment plant and hauled away.  In your OSSF they can cause big problems very quickly!  Excessive solids can quickly fill the treatment tank (anaerobic systems) and pre-treatment tanks (aerobic systems) requiring more frequent pumping of the tanks.  If you are not careful the excessive solids can build up and cause blockages in the system which can obviously cause back-ups into the home.  Depending on your system type these solids might also be forced out into your distribution piping causing backups there as well.  All of these issues can mean large repair bills.

Although grease is a liquid when heated it quickly becomes more semi-solid when cooled and in water.  Grease can cause many more problems than just adding excessive solids solids.  Grease can collect on the tanks sides, pipes, baffles, etc.  Grease can block pipes between tanks, damage pumping motors, spray heads, and can cause blockage in underground piping and drain fields.  Grease can coat solid wastes, and bind them together, making it more difficult for the bacteria in the tank to perform its job.  Grease can also affect the bacteria that are growing in the tank, and needed to break down the other wastes, and prevent it from growing or even kill it off.

As previously described the concept of an OSSF makes use of bacteria to break down the solid wastes.  Bacteria also grows in your home and you want to make sure your home is clean and safe for your family.  However, the same cleaners you use for your floors, counter-tops, laundry, toilets, etc., can also kill the bacteria in your septic tank.  Using these cleaners in moderation will not significantly disrupt bacteria growth.  The bacteria will continue to grow and the system will equalize itself and continue to function.  Continual, frequent and heavy use of these cleaning chemicals though can have an effect on the proper operation of your system.

There are other activities that you should prevent performing as well.  For example when painting, and using chemicals to clean paint brushes, the brushes and associated chemicals should not be washed/flushed down to the OSSF.  That would apply to any other activities where chemicals are involved such as washing down mechanical parts in solvents and then rinsing them in sinks that flow to your OSSF.  All of these chemicals can have the same effects as the grease issues and, if caustic enough, physically damage tanks and equipment.

This sounds like a lot of changes that you have to undergo in your lifestyle just to own an OSSF.  But it really is not, and many of the things you dispose now should not be even with a city sewage system.  Here are some very helpful hints, tips, suggestions, that can help you change the way you do things, help your OSSF last longer, help you prevent costly OSSF and plumbing repairs, reduce your OSSF pumping requirements, and help our environment.  Since most homes with OSSF are located in rural areas on tracts of land with plenty of additional space these tips can be implemented easily.

  • Establish a compost pile that you can use to create great, nutrient rich compost for addition to your flower and tree beds, or even a vegetable garden for your family.  Instead of a garbage disposal in the kitchen sink take all of your organic matters and collect them for emptying in your compost pile.  The links page has links to some very good composting references for homeowners.
  • When cooking with grease instead of draining the pan into your sink use an old coffee can, or other suitable container, to collect the used grease.  After the grease is cooled it can be properly capped and stored in the refrigerator until the container becomes full.  At that time it can be disposed of in the trash can.
  • When painting projects occur try to consider the use of disposable brushes and materials (rags, etc.) and properly dispose of these in the trash.  This will help prevent accidentally washing them in a sink and releasing the paint and chemicals into the OSSF.  If you do use non-disposable brushes and rags then clean then outside with a garden hose instead of in a sink.
  • When cleaning or working on equipment (cars, mowers, outside equipment, etc.) use disposable work rags or clean them with the garden hose outside instead of in the sinks and washing machine.  This can help prevent adding harmful chemicals to the OSSF.
  • When purchasing cleaners for the home (i.e. floor cleaners, laundry detergents, etc.) try to purchase and use products that are labeled “safe for septic systems”.  There are plenty of products on the market today that are marked this way but you might have strong preferences to the ones you now use.  If so then try to take additional precautions with their use and disposal to help lessen their effects on your OSSF.  For example:
    • If you very frequently mop and clean floors, use buckets of water and cleaner for other chores, consider emptying them outside instead of in sinks and toilets.
    • Reduce the concentration of the cleaner to water when filling buckets, sinks, washing machines, etc.  If you read the cleaners directions you might even find you are using way more than the manufacturer recommends to begin with.  Using the manufacturers recommended amounts work as well as adding “just a little more to make sure”.
    • Some cleaners such as the Clorox brand offer disposable Clorox wipe clothes that perform just as well for cleaning surfaces as does a bucket of water and a Clorox brand liquid additive to a bucket of water.
  • Don’t let your laundry pile up all week (or month) and try to clean it all on one day.  Your OSSF is rated to only handled so much wastewater discharge each day.  Overloading it by doing all of your laundry at once can have detrimental effects.  Additionally the amount of laundry detergents discharged all in one day can cause serious damage to the bacterial growth.  Instead break your laundry days up over the course of the week or month if possible.  Under the same concept do not run full loads of water for a half load of clothes.  Washing machines all have a :Load Size” selector which uses only the water needed for that size of load.
  • Place waste baskets, or other appropriate containers, in all rooms and areas with sinks, toilets, etc.  Make sure that all household members know to use these and not the toilets to dispose of other than toilet paper in the toilets.
  • Water softening equipment and swimming pool filters should not be back washed into the system if/when these actions are ever performed during the maintenance of them.  The chemicals and amount of water flushed can cause significant problems with the OSSF.  Also you are considering installing any type of water softener or filtration system in the home you should first discuss this with the OSSF maintenance company.  They can advise you of any system problems that could potentially occur from the use of these water systems.
  • Unless your OSSF is new then have it pumped and cleaned before moving in.  Then have it pumped on a regular basis as directed by your OSSF maintenance company.  The maintenance company can tell you when you should have it checked and pumped next.  Remember the interval is all dependent upon how much it is used and can vary from one pumping to another.

Many of the suggestions above really are no different than how you should now be treating a city sewage treatment system, and your homes plumbing.  By following these guidelines, and those recommended by your OSSF system manufacturer, you should have years of trouble free operation of your OSSF.  But now let’s look into what you should now for your property purchase that has an OSSF installed.  Check the next tab entitled “Property Purchase Considerations” for that information.

[tab: Property Purchase Considerations]

A properly installed and maintained OSSF will function well for many, many years.  An improperly installed or maintained system can fail and cause significant health issues for the homes residents as well as significant ecological problems in the surrounding land.  As a result over the last 15 years State and local governments have ramped up their regulation and monitoring of OSSF systems.  There are many requirements placed on them for installation, maintenance, and transfer of ownership.  When properly handled these requirements take little time and effort on the part of the homeowner.  When improperly handled they can become a significant source of aggravation from purchase through the life of the system.

For the home purchase there is information you should gather to become familiar with the system in place, and to help you perform a basic review of the system and its condition.  This will help you decide what your next step will be once you are ready to make your offer and/or once you are in your offer option period.  If you can it is best to obtain as much information as possible before the offer is made on the home.  This might not be possible if the seller chooses not to provide this information before any offer, or if there is no information readily available when you view the property before your offer.  If you are not able to obtain this information prior to an offer then you should ensure you obtain it when the offer is submitted.  You do not want to wait any time after your option period starts as you will need to schedule a full system evaluation before the option period end.  Speak to your Agent/Broker about how to word this in the offer contract.  For your purposes the following items of information should be asked for, and actions taken.  Each will be explained as to their importance.

The type of OSSF – Whether the OSSF is a conventional anaerobic septic system or an aerobic system can be an important factor in determining the potential future costs involved in maintaining it.  As can be seen from the diagrams above the anaerobic system is of a much simpler design, with fewer components and generally no electrical or mechanical parts.  On the other other hand the aerobic system contains pumps, aerators, spray heads, etc. which can all require maintenance, replacement, cost of electric to run them, etc.  The choice of installing one over the other is determined by many different factors beyond a homeowner’s preferences.  Many times the homeowner has no choice of the system type due to these factors and requirements.  Typically the aerobic system has higher overall maintenance and operation costs but functions at a much higher degree of efficiency than the anaerobic system.  When you are viewing the home before making your offer you can potentially obtain this piece of information just by looking.  The anaerobic system is usually completely covered both the tank(s) and distribution field.  The purpose of this is to help cut down on the potential issues of odors leaking from the tank in the surrounding area.  In contrast an aerobic system will generally have the pre-treatment tank only buried with the remaining tank(s) having risers to the grounds surface with accessible lids.  Some aerobic systems will have all tanks buried and no access lids visible.  Both arrangements are considered acceptable so do not be surprised if you do not find any accessible lids.  However the aerobic system will have an above ground aerator pump usually next to the home and in close proximity to a control panel mounted on the side of the home.

Manufacturer and Model Number of the OSSF – It is important to know who made the system so that you can find the manufacturer’s WEB site and obtain owner’s manuals for the system.  If available I would certainly read these manuals to help you determine if the manufacturer has/had specific usage and maintenance requirements to ensure proper operation of the system.  Each manufacturer might specify additional requirements for the installation of the system that are not readily visible but could play a part in the cost of maintenance for the system.  Most anaerobic and aerobic systems are fairly common in construction and requirements.  There are some systems out there though that have been manufactured with special installation requirements such as grease traps being installed either prior to the first tank or somewhere on the main drain line to the tank.  Some manufacturers might disallow chlorine drip systems on aerobic pump tanks and instead require a chlorine tablet distribution box instead.  Knowing these things can help you determine if the system might not have been properly installed to begin with, might have had an issue already where unapproved repairs had been made, and generally helps you better understand the system and its maintenance requirements.  If the system is an aerobic type then the manufacturer and model number should be posted on the control panel on the outside wall of the home.  For buried systems you would need to ask the owner as there are generally no places that are uniform in marking these.

Date the system was originally installed and the systems local government and/or State license number, registration number, or local permitting authority permit number – Over the years the control of septic system installation and maintenance might well have changed from one authority to another.  For example here in Texas until approximately 1999 the State and various regional authorities controlled OSSF’s for residential properties.  In that year the State of Texas continued to write the basic laws and requirements for OSSF but turned over the responsibility for controlling the installation and maintenance to local and county governmental agencies.  On the links tab there is a list of the various State’s governmental agencies responsible for dictating the State requirements for OSSF’s.  You can go to their WEB site to determine who now controls OSSF installation and maintenance.  I would certainly use this information to contact the appropriate controlling agency to ensure the OSSF system is properly registered with them.  If the system is not properly registered the controlling authority will advise you what steps need to be taken to register the system.  These steps could be simple and cost little or they can be complex and cost large amounts.  If the system was under the control of that authority when it was installed and was not registered and permitted it could potentially be a costly item to correct.  You would also want to ask the controlling authority if there was any record of major system repairs/replacement, what it was, and if it was properly permitted.  This can give you another indication as to the use, abuse, or quality of the system and its installation.

Name and contact information for the OSSF company that installed the system – The installation of an OSSF system is typically a public record item.  I have yet to come across an installation or maintenance company that would not discuss the particulars of an OSSF with me, or any other party interested in the property.  I would call them to verify the system information and if they have ever been back to the site to correct issues with the system either during or after any warranty period.

The maintenance records for the system – These records should include the name and contact information for any pumping company who has pumped the tanks and the dates pumped, OSSF maintenance company(s) that are responsible for the maintenance of the system, as well as any repairs performed to the system during its life.  These maintenance and pumping companies are generally required by law to maintain a great deal of information regarding the OSSF system.  This information too is usually filed with local controlling authorities and becomes public record.  Sometimes the maintenance company is also the same company that installed the system.  I would review the maintenance records to ensure the owner followed the required laws/ordinances and the manufacturers recommendations for the system maintenance and repairs.  I would also call these companies to see if they are aware of any maintenance they have recommended to the owner that needs to be performed and possibly has not.  Again I have yet to find a maintenance company that would not discuss the system records.

Cost to replace this OSSF – This information you will not obtain from the owner as quite frankly they have no idea.  As you speak with the OSSF installer I would ask them this question.  If the OSSF did need to be replaced at some time now or in the future what is the cost today to replace this type and capacity system?  If it is an aerobic system you might also ask what the replacement costs are (parts and labor) for the various components such as aerator pump, final tank pump, control panel, and spray heads.  The purpose of this information is so that you have an idea of what the potential worst case scenario is in the event significant issues, or near failure, of the system or its parts exist.  You should also use caution when reading any “Life Expectancy” document or statement for OSSF’s.  The life expectancy of any OSSF depends on many different factors to include; how well the system was installed, how well it was maintained, the quality of the materials and components, and pure luck!  I’ve encountered systems that were 30 years old and still performing properly.  On the other side of the spectrum were systems less than 5 years old that experienced catastrophic failures for various reasons, mostly related to abuse and poor maintenance.  Regardless of how much quality and care is put into an OSSF problems, and even failures, can occur at any time.

Inspection of the OSSF – The information above will give you a very good picture of the systems potential condition.  This is not the entire process for checking your system prior to the end of your option period.  When you have your home inspection the Home Inspector can perform a limited inspection of the septic system in an effort to determine if significant problem, or their potentials, exist with the OSSF.  Depending on the severity of the problems or signs the Inspector’s findings can potentially help you make a decision to either back out of your contract or demand repairs/concessions from the seller for OSSF system repairs.  What you need to keep in mind though is that no matter what the Home Inspector finds I would highly recommend a full pumping of the system tanks and an inspection by a licensed septic repair company.  The true condition of the systems tanks and covered components (covered by dirt or waste in the tanks) can not be viewed and evaluated without excavating access lids, pumping and hosing down accessible portions of the system for proper viewing.  Also only a properly licensed person or company can provide you a definitive condition report that can be used to change the system registration in your name, for some loan types such as government backed loans and programs, etc.  You might think this is money wasted but consider it this way.  If you pump and fully inspect the system before you move in you will know the system condition.  At this time the tank(s) are also now pumped, empty, and will not have to be pumped for at least two or three years, depending on your usage.  If you pump and fully inspect now and the inspection finds significant problems it was also well worth the money spent as you can ask for seller repairs, back out of the deal with confidence, or at least know what costs you are getting ready to assume.

The information above will give you a very good picture of the systems potential condition.  OSSF systems can be very expensive to replace.  By finding out everything you can reduces the chances of a surprise later.  The “Links and References” tab will have additional sources of information for you to learn more about OSSF systems.

[tab: Links and References]

General links for OSSF information:

Texas A&M Onsite Wastewater Treatment &Reuse WEB site
National Small Flows Clearinghouse
The Environmental Protection Agency Homeowner’s Guide to Septic Systems

Links on composting:

How To Compost .org
How To Compost At Home
Composting 101

This is a list to each State’s Agency that regulates wastewater treatment.

Alabama – Department of Public Health
Alaska – Department of Environmental Conservation
Arizona – Department of Environmental Quality
Arkansas
– Department of Health
California – Conference of Directors of Environmental Health
Colorado
– Department of Public Health and Environment
Connecticut
– Department of Public Health
Delaware – Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control
Florida – Department of Health
Georgia – Department of Human Resources
Hawaii – Department of Health
Idaho – Department of Environmental Quality
Illinois
– Department of Public Health
Indiana
– Department of Health
Iowa
– Department of Natural Resources
Kansas
– Department of Health and Environment
Kentucky
– Department for Public Health
Louisiana – Department of Health and Hospitals
Maine
– Center for Disease Control and Prevention
Maryland
– Department of the Environment
Massachusetts – Department of Environmental Protection
Michigan
– Department of Environmental Quality
Minnesota
– Pollution Control Agency
Mississippi
– Department of Health
Missouri
– Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS)
Montana
– Department of Environmental Quality
Nebraska – Department of Environmental Quality
Nevada
– Department of Health and Human Services
New Hampshire
– Department of Environmental Services
New Jersey
– Department of Environmental Quality
New Mexico
– Environment Department
New York
– Department of Health
North Carolina
– Department of Environment and Natural Resources
North Dakota
– Department of Health
Ohio – Department of Health
Oklahoma
– Department of Environmental Quality
Oregon
– Department of Environmental Quality
Pennsylvania – Department of Environmental Protection
Rhode Island – Department of Environmental Management
South Carolina – Department of Health and Environmental Control
South Dakota
– Department of Environment and Natural Resources
Tennessee – Department of Environment and Conservation
Texas – Commission on Environmental Quality
Utah – Department of Environmental Quality
Vermont – Agency of Natural Resources
Virginia
– Department of Health
Washington – State Department of Health
West Virginia
– Department of Health and Human Services
Wisconsin
– Department of Commerce
Wyoming
– Department of Environmental Quality

PS Inspection & Property Services LLC is a full service home inspection and light commercial inspection company servicing the entire Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex.  We strive to for the satisfaction of our customers in everything we do.  Our services offerings include:

Buyer home inspections
New Home Warranty Inspections
New Home Draw Inspections
Home Maintenance Inspections
Home Remodeling Inspections
Investor Inspections
Rental And Renter Inspections
Infrared Thermal Imaging Inspections
Energy Audit Inspections
Whole Inspections Or Inspections Customized To Your Needs

If you have an inspection need we can customize an inspection for it.  Please visit our main site at PS Inspection & Property Service LLC.

PS Inspection & Property Services LLC is a full service home inspection and light commercial inspection company servicing the entire Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex.  We strive to for the satisfaction of our customers in everything we do.  Our services offerings include:

Buyer home inspections
New Home Warranty Inspections
New Home Draw Inspections
Home Maintenance Inspections
Home Remodeling Inspections
Investor Inspections
Rental And Renter Inspections
Infrared Thermal Imaging Inspections
Energy Audit Inspections
Whole Inspections Or Inspections Customized To Your Needs

If you have an inspection need we can customize an inspection for it.  Please visit our main site at PS Inspection & Property Service LLC.

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