When looking to buy a home you may find the home doesn’t have municipal water or sewer service, which means that the property has a well and a septic system. Conversely, you may already own a home with a septic system. Unfortunately you can’t determine if these systems are operating properly simply by looking at them. The only way to know for sure is to contract for a septic system inspection.
As many as one in five households nationwide get their water from a well and rely on a septic system for wastewater management. These systems are used to treat and dispose of relatively small volumes of wastewater, usually from houses and businesses located in suburban and rural locations not served by a centralized public sewer system.
New England states have the highest proportion of homes with septic systems. In Rhode Island over 35% of homes and businesses are served by septic systems. And 30% of homes in Connecticut use septic systems. This includes some of the wealthiest suburbs in both states.
Septic system inspections are essential to protect your health and that of your family, so homeowners should schedule them regularly. Nevertheless, because septic systems are buried under ground, they’re often the last thing on a homeowners’ mind, until something goes wrong.
Before we address how often you should bring in a professional for a septic system inspection let’s take a look at how septic systems work, the types of inspections, and things to look for that are signs you need a septic system inspection.
How Septic Systems Work
A typical septic system consists of a septic tank and a soil absorption field (drainfield). The septic tank consumes organic matter and separates floatable matter and solids from the wastewater. In conventional or soil-based systems, the liquid (known as effluent) is discharged from the septic tank into a series of perforated pipes buried in a leach field, chambers, or other special units designed to slowly release the effluent into the soil. This area is known as the drainfield.
Alternative systems use pumps or gravity to help septic tank effluent trickle through sand, organic matter, constructed wetlands, or other media to remove or neutralize pollutants like disease-causing pathogens, nitrogen, phosphorus and other contaminants. Some alternative systems are designed to evaporate wastewater or disinfect it before it is discharged to the soil.
The water and waste from the house go into the septic tank from one main drainage pipe. The septic tank is a buried, water-tight container. Its task is to confine the wastewater long enough to allow solids to settle down to the bottom, while oil and grease floats to the top. Compartments and an outlet stop the sludge from exiting the tank and moving into the drainfield area. The liquid wastewater then exits the tank into the drainfield.
The drainfield is a shallow, covered, excavation made in unsaturated soil. Pretreated wastewater is discharged through piping onto porous surfaces that allow wastewater to filter through the soil. The soil accepts, treats, and disperses wastewater as it percolates through the soil, ultimately discharging to groundwater. If the drainfield is overloaded with too much liquid, it can flood, causing sewage to flow to the ground surface or create backups in toilets and sinks.
Finally, the wastewater percolates into the soil, naturally removing harmful coliform bacteria, viruses and nutrients.
Types of Septic System Inspections
There are two types of septic inspections – Visual and Full.
A visual inspection involves asking a few questions, such as how old the house is, how often the owner pumps the septic system, and when the last inspection was. The inspector will then flush all the toilets and run all the water in the house to make sure the water pressure is up to par and everything is draining properly. Finally, the inspector will go out to the drain field to make sure there is no standing water, which can indicate a cesspool.
A visual inspection is valuable, but only a full inspection can let you know the health of the septic system. A full inspection includes everything a visual inspection includes, but it also goes the extra mile.
In a full septic system inspection, the inspector will open the cover to the septic tank and check the water level. The inspector will then run water in the house to make sure it is properly flowing from the house to the septic tank, and to make sure the water level within the tank does not rise when they introduce more water.
Then the septic tank will get pumped so the inspector can look for any backflow from the absorption area. Backflow level indicates if there is a problem with your drain field. The flow level is then checked again to make sure every aspect of the septic system is in working order and there are no blockages.
Signs to Look For
When wondering if you need a septic system inspection, here are a few things to look out for.
Puddles in Your Yard – If there is standing water in your yard over your septic system, it’s a good idea to get an inspector over there to check it out. It could be toxic so keep away (pets too!) from the water.
Backups – A high level of plumbing backups is a sign that something is wrong with your septic system. It could be something as easy as a tiny repair, or as extensive as a tank replacement. Either way, you need an inspector to figure that out.
Healthy Grass – If your grass is greener over your septic area than it is in other parts of your yard, it’s time to check your septic system. When a septic system begins to fail, it puts more water out into the ground which can enrich your plant life but can be dangerous for people.
How Often to Inspect
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) you should have your septic systems inspected every one to three years. On average, a septic system should last about 25 years. Despite what professionals advise, many homeowners put it off for more than five years.
Many homeowners wait until something goes wrong to call the septic inspectors. At that point, inspectors will often recommend you repair or replace your septic system, which can cost thousands of dollars.
Also, before purchasing a house, prospective buyers usually hire an inspector to complete an inspection. The inspection often includes inspecting the structure of the house and checking for any pests. One of the most important not-to-be-forgotten aspects of the house is the septic system inspection.
Getting a regular septic system inspection and pumping will not only save you money from needing a major repair, but it will also help you avoid any unwanted surprises if you decide to sell your house.
Because a home’s septic serves as a private sewerage system, the homeowner or potential buyer is solely responsible for any preventative maintenance and resulting repairs. This only reinforces the need for a regular septic system inspection.
CMS Home Inspection performs functional septic inspections for potential home buyers and property owners in Rhode Island and Connecticut. Identifying potential issues within septic systems serves as an important step of the home buying process. Let’s connect if you have any questions or want to schedule an inspection.