What does it take to certify a septic system?

I frequently receive calls from home buyers who would like to contract me to “certify” an on site septic system condition.  But what is a “Septic System Certification”, and who can actually perform that?  Read on for more.

[tab: Introduction]

Septic pumping truck

McGee Contracting from Greenville, TX

 

 

Often I am called to perform an inspection only to certify the condition of an On-Site Sewage Systems (OSSF or more commonly called a septic system) as a result of a requirement from the buyers mortgage provider.  Many times it is because of an FHA, VA, or other special loan requirement.  As a Home Inspector I perform a limited inspection on septic systems as part of the home inspection.  Many times clients are unaware of the limited nature of this inspection as opposed to a septic system “certification”.  It is important for home buyers to understand the the difference between these two activities.

As a licensed Home Inspector we have some latitude in what we can inspect on an OSSF but even that is limited by Texas laws, the nature and extent of what is required to “certify” the condition of an OSSF, and the time plus resources needed to fully “certify” and OSSF’s condition.  The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) manages the State’s OSSF program.  This program includes not only the licensing of persons working on OSSF systems but also licensing of the system itself.  The TCEQ WEB site can be found HERE.  On this site you will find links to the laws, license database of OSSF installers/servicers, as well as a wealth of other information.

So what does it take to actually certify the condition of an OSSF?  Recently I had my own OSSF system fully serviced and the process used is the same as what is typically required to certify the system for these mortgage loan requirements.  This was also an opportune time to take a few pictures to show you what goes into this certification process, and why it is important to use an expert OSSF installation and maintenance company like McGee Contracting out of Greenville, Texas (903-454-3618).  The team at McGee Contracting installed my system and has maintained it for over 10 years.  Every time they perform a major routine service of my system they are actually performing the steps needed to certify the condition of my system.

So let’s take a look at what the certification process entails and why you should not expect this during a normal home inspection.

[tab: The certification]

There are no real rules or laws that pertain to how an existing OSSF system is certified other than a full inspection of all accessible parts of the OSSF system for viewing as well as testing/evaluating the condition and operation of the system.  There are different types of residential OSSF systems and in a previous Blog entry I have provided a description of these.  You can find that entry HERE.  With this Blog we will use the more prevalent and newer aerobic style OSSF system.  These systems have more equipment involved but the steps for certifying an older conventional system is the same but shorter.

Step 1 – Locating and uncovering the septic tanks.

Locating and uncovering septic tanks

Picture 1 - Locating and uncovering septic tanks

My particular system is a triple tank aerobic system where the very first tank (solids tank) has the access cap fully buried (covered over).  The solids tank is the one at the top of the picture with the two mounds of dirt piled on either side of it (click the picture for a larger view).  Some systems will have all covers accessible and others might have all covers buried.  All tanks must be accessed for a proper OSSF certification.

 

 

Step 2 – Viewing the current contents and pumping all tanks.

I left out the picture of the tanks current contents as I don’t think you really want to see that (Chuckle).  It is important for the servicing team to view the current contents as it can provide information as to how long the system has gone without proper servicing and if the system has potentially been abused by disposing of materials that an OSSF was not designed to handle and/or could damage the system.

Breaking up the solids and scouring the tank sides

Picture 2 - Breaking up the solids and scouring the tank sides

After the tank contents have been viewed the next step is to properly break up the tanks contents and, if properly performed, scouring the inside walls of the tank (Picture 2).  In the solids tank the solids can often clump together as they are waiting to be broken down by the bacteria within the tank.  Additionally the inside walls of the tank can become coated with solids which can hamper the view of the tanks walls while inspecting for cracks and damages.

Here Larry McGee uses a special gas powered agitator to break up any solids and cause a strong swirling motion of the tanks contents which will help scour the side walls and free any solid particles cleaning to the walls.  At the end of the equipments shaft is essentially what looks like a boat’s propeller that performs this action.  On an aerobic system solids can sometimes be found in the second tank as well as the first (the solids tank seen here), and this process will be performed for all tanks as needed.

Pumping and hosing down the septic tanks

Picture 3 - Pumping and hosing down the septic tanks

The tanks are now ready to be pumped out and the insides hosed down to further clean them and make their inside surfaces visible.

 

 

 

 

Step 3 – Inspecting the system components

Removing, cleaning, and inspecting the dousing pump

Picture 4 - Removing, cleaning, and inspecting the dousing pump

Now that the system is empty the actual component inspection can start.  The entire system is now available for inspection in as much as it can be without a full excavation of the dirt around the tanks.  Excavating the entire tank is not a necessary action as the interior of the tanks are checked for damages that might have breached the tanks walls causing leaks.

During the inspection the following components are checked for operation and visible wear as well as damage:

 

  • The electrical and alarm control panel.
  • The aerator unit which are mostly located above ground but some can be located inside of the tank itself.
  • The visible condition and operation of the aerator line from the exterior mounted aerator to the tank.
  • The conditions of the tanks as viewed from the inside walls.  This will also include the condition of any attaching lines and baffles between tanks.
  • The dousing pump (see Picture 4) has already been removed and will be cleaned/checked for visible signs deterioration and damage to it and its electrical connections and float switches.

For systems with a dousing pump that feeds surface mounted effluent spray heads the actual pump and spray head operation might be checked before the system is pumped or after.  This will depend on different local conditions and the preference of the person performing the inspection.

In addition to inspecting the system itself there are other factors that will be looked at to provide a system certification.  Some of these include, but are not limited to; the proper positioning and location of the system, the materials used to construct the system, and if the system has been properly licensed and maintained.

If the OSSF system is in good operational order, with no issues noted, and has been properly permitted/installed as required then the system will receive a certification that it does meet all requirements by the State of Texas, any local municipality rules, and is acceptable to the mortgage person for loan approval.

[tab: Who can certify]

There are only four people/groups that can provide a State certification (the certification mortgage people generally require) for an OSSF system.  The first is of course a properly licensed OSSF contracting company and/or licensed OSSF maintenance technician.  A list of these can be found on the TCEQ WEB site.

Another that can certify these systems are Texas State Registered Sanitarians that have training in OSSF systems.  The Texas Department of State Health Services controls the program for Registered Sanitarians and maintains the rules and lists of Sanitarians on their WEB site HERE.  Not all Registered Sanitarians have the training required to certify OSSF systems and neither the TCEQ nor TDSHS sites will specify which are qualified to certify OSSF systems.  If you need a certification you can call the local City or County Helath Departments and they can tell you, or provide you a list, of the Registered Sanitarians they are aware of that perform this service.  Another item to keep in mind is that a Registered Sanitarian can not pump an OSSF system as that requires the license of an OSSF contractor or pumper.

A licensed Professional Engineer that is trained and certified in the design and installation of OSSF systems can also perform the certification.  However, I have yet to find an Engineer or Engineering firm that performs any certification services for anything but a new OSSF system being installed.  Even then those Engineers are very rare to find.

The last group that can certify the status of an OSSF are the City or County Health Departments as they are also the ones typically managing the new OSSF installation program for their jurisdictions.  Governmental entities are not in the business of becoming involved in real estate transactions unless they are called out for a problem system that has already been identified by others.  The Health Departments are more than happy to help you understand any system requirements but will not be available for your private transaction needs.

[tab: What a Home Inspector does]

So now you can see the depth of what it actually takes to “certify” an OSSF system.  There is actually quite a bit involved not only with required licenses but also steps and procedures.  I’ll bet right now you are asking yourself this important question.

So what value is a licensed Home Inspector and their limited OSSF inspection?

There is actually quite a bit of value in even a limited inspection of the OSSF system on your property.  A good Inspector can look for the signs of trouble and provide advice on how to proceed with any recommended further checking.  There are even times when a good Inspector can identify major issues that would not be beneficial for the buyer to even pay for any further OSSF checks.  I have encountered these situations myself and just recently experienced one worth mentioning.

Earlier this year I received a call for a property inspection where the listing and disclosure documents only listed the sewage as a “septic” system.  The home was listed as approximately 12 years old.  The OSSF system was only approximately 9 years old as reported by someone intimately familiar with the property.  That person also made comments during my conversation with them that sent up red flags along with the OSSF system age comment.  Prior to even the inspection day I had potentially identified the system type as a disallowed cesspool system that had not even been permitted for installation.  My client was immediately notified as they were in the middle of their option period and needed to have it further checked which can take some time arranging.  Upon arriving on site it was verified the system was an illegal cesspool system, made of disallowed materials and components, and it was discharging waste openly in a pit less than 30′ from the home.  There was no need for any further evaluation of that system as it would need to be replaced by the local and State laws.  A new system would cost the client $6000+.  In other cases I have found system issues that could be readily identified and estimates easily obtained to determine if the client wanted to bring out a licensed septic company for further checks and a full certification/evaluation.

So there actually is considerable value in having a licensed Home Inspector perform a limited system inspection.  However because of the potential repair or replacement costs of an OSSF system I always highly advise buyers to have a full certification/evaluation performed of any OSSF system before the end of their option period.  Even if nothing is found then your system has been completely serviced and you can have peace of mind knowing it is ready for your use for several more years before the next needed major service.

[tab: Links and References]

McGee Contracting is a septic installation and maintenance contractor located in Greenville, TX.  Please contact them for your septic system needs.  They can be reached at 903-454-3618.

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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