Complete Home Buyer's Guide to Septic Systems
Instructions for Buying a Home With a Septic Tank
HOME BUYERS GUIDE to SEPTIC SYSTEMS - CONTENTS: what a home buyer needs to know about buying a home with a septic tank & leachfield, how to maintain the septic system, what goes wrong with septic systems, & how to diagnos & repair septic system & drain line failures or backups.
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How to check out the septic system when buying a home.
This article series answers just about any question you might have about buying or owning a house with a septic system. The article gives critical advice to people buying a home with a septic tank and drainfield or similar septic systems.
We explain what a septic system is, we identify its basic parts, and we explain the basics of how private or onsite septic systems work.
This home buyer's guide to septic systems tells what inspection, testing, and maintenance are recommended
when buying a home with a private septic system.Here we explain how to reduce the risk of a costly
surprise by asking questions, visually inspecting the septic system, and by testing the septic system before buying a home. The drawing of a conventional two-compartment septic tank at page top and discussed in this article was provided courtesy of Carson Dunlop Associates.
The articles in this series explain what a septic system is and outline step by step septic inspection and testing
for home buyers. Learning a little about how septic systems work (described here) and
about septic cleaning (removing septic waste), and testing a septic system before buying a new home can help you
avoid installing a septic system or replacing the septic system as a big surprise.
Because the septic tank and drainfield at a property are buried, thus hidden from view, because these components are expensive to replace, and because a costly problem can be present but not obvious, it is important to understand the septic system and to inspect and test it when buying a property served by its own private septic tank.
Septic systems include buried septic tanks (sewage tanks) and drainfields - expensive and hidden from view such as in the photo at left.
This document provides advice for home buyers who are buying a home with a private septic system:
homes using a septic tank and drainfield or similar soil absorption system.
Other chapters of this guide explain what goes wrong with septic systems, 5-recommends and describes septic inspection
and test methods in more detail, explains how to be sure your septic inspection and septic test are conducted properly,
tells you where to get more septic system information about a given property,
and warns of unsanitary or dangerous site conditions.
If you need to know how to install a septic system,
or if you find that you have a sewage pit (cesspool) this website provides articles explaining those topics too. If you prefer to read a basic guide to septic system inspection and testing for home buyers all in one brief article,
see SEPTIC SYSTEM TEST BASICS.
Our schematic of a conventional two-compartment septic tank (below) illustrates the first of two major septic system parts: the septic treatment tank. The image is provided courtesy of Carson Dunlop Associates.
What is a Septic Tank and How do Septic Systems Work: Nine Basic Questions & Answers
Home buyers frequently ask us these questions about septic systems:
"What is a Septic Tank?
What is a Leach Field?
How does a septic system work?
What does the existing septic
system consist of at my new home?
Do I have a Cesspool or Drywell?
How do I know if the septic system is working properly?
What septic inspections and tests should I have performed when I am buying a home?
How long will a septic system last?
Is septic system maintenance necessary?"
To help buyers obtain the necessary information to address these questions, we have put
together this document to guide them in making informed decisions regarding
the potential problems and costs associated with a property's septic system.
What You Need to Know, Find-out, & Do when buying a home with a septic system
How Septic Systems Work. Here is the minimum you need to know and what you need to do (or have done) when buying a property with a septic system
Our sketch below shows the second major portion of a septic system: the effluent disposal or drainfield or soakaway bed that disposes of clarified effluent liquid waste that leaves the septic tank.
So how does a septic system work? A private onsite septic system means that the waste from your building drains (sinks, showers, toilets)
goes into a septic tank which retains the solids and lets the effluent flow into the soils on the
To avoid contaminating the environment, including nearby wells and waterways, septic system wastewater must be treated to reduce its pathogenicity. Luckily naturally-occurring bacteria found in the septic tank and drainfield soils accomplish this task - as long as the septic system is working properly.
In a standard septic tank and drainfield system, about 40% of the treatment of sewage wastewater occurs in the septic tank, and the remaining 60% occurs in the drainfield trenches and surrounding soils.
Properly designed and installed private septic tank and drainfield or soakaway bed systems are functional and sanitary. Private septic systems serve
more homes in the U.S. and many other countries than any other waste disposal method. But the components
are costly and do not have an indefinite life.
Below in more detail we provide a LIST of the MAJOR COMPONENTS of Residential Septic Systems: Septic Tank, Drainfield, & a Description of How Septic Systems Work
Steps to Take When Buying a Home With a Septic Tank
Because of the potential repair/replacement costs involved,
and because the system is buried and cannot be exhaustively inspected and tested, you want to do what you
can to evaluate the condition of the septic system before you complete the purchase of the property.
Here's what to do: If you are buying a home with a septic tank and drain field, here's what you need to do,
as succinctly as possible. Each of these steps is described in more detail below, and in even
more detail in linked-to documents.
Steps 1 and 2 are essential. Step 3 is usually a good
idea. Step 4 depends on the results of steps 1,2,3 but is usually a good idea. Step 5 is not
usually done but might be necessary. Step 6 is what you do if you're being really thorough.
Synonyms for "septic system" used by the general public include septic waste system, sewage systems, and water sewage systems, even Roman sewage systems.
All of these refer to onsite systems which hold and separate sewage waste from its liquid effluent which is treated further and then disposed-of by
any of a variety of means which we will discuss.
At this site we also discuss special considerations for handling septic waste such as
garbage disposal septic tank waste volume and what to do about it. Perform these steps in the order we list them. (For example, don't pump the tank before a loading and dye test.)
Ask About the Septic System - where is it, what's installed, what's the service and repair history. If the owners don't know where the septic system is, ask how long they've lived in the home: that will be informative.
Make a Visual Site Inspection for signs of trouble. Here's a great clue: if nobody knows where the septic tank is, then you can be sure nobody has been maintaining the septic system as regular pumpouts are an important part of septic system maintenance and septic system life preservation.
To find the septic tank see SEPTIC TANK, HOW TO FIND. If you can find the tank, for safety, be sure that there is no evidence of collapse or subsidence on the property, and be sure that the septic tank (or cesspool, or drywell) has a safe cover so that no one can fall into the tank.
Perform a Septic Loading & Dye Test to see if it produces evidence of a failure. Hire a home inspector who knows how to perform and will include this test.
See PRE-PURCHASE SEPTIC DYE TEST
See SEPTIC DYE TEST WARNINGS for warnings about what can go wrong during septic testing or what can give false test results.
Watch out: don't pump a septic tank before the septic test: doing so will prevent a valid septic loading & dye test.
At SEWAGE LEVELS in SEPTIC TANKS we explain how to interpret the meaning of high or low sewage levels in the septic tank as well as thick or thin scum or sludge levels. For general septic tank maintenance
Get Outside Information about the septic system: There are some independnt sources of information about the septic system at your property that you can check in order to be thorough.
See ASK OUTSIDERS - also discussed in HOME BUYER'S SEPTIC TEST
Check neighboring properties and their nearby septic systems both for advice for dealing with a neighboring septic system producing odors or seepage and to look for encroachment onto the property you are buying
See NEIGHBORING SEPTIC SYSTEM PROBLEMS for details.
Conflicts of Interest at Septic System Inspections & Home Inspections
Watch out for conflicts of interest when hiring a home inspector or a septic system inspector to examine a property before purchase. Choose an inspector who is qualified, experienced, and who will protect your interest.
Because sale of homes is a low volume high stakes deal, everyone involved feels a lot of pressure. That pressure explains why a home seller and real estate agents are very nervous about any inspector who they thinks may "rock the boat" and jeopardize their sale, though that's no excuse for putting the new home owner and occupants at risk of financial injury or worse, personal injury.
Real estate is very much a "caveat-emptor" buyer beware transaction, and the buyer is expected to perform her own due diligence. In fact, in our OPINION some of the pertinent real estate laws, while reasonable on the face of it, such as excusing an agent from liability regarding any representation of property condition, may at times encourage ... well how should we put it ... not the most honest behavior.
The concerns felt by the real estate profession may have contributed to the recent elimination of the NYS Home Inspection Advisory Board who tried monitored and advised on legislation regulating home inspectors in New York State. That news, reported by NYSAHI, was a sad step in a bad direction.
But more encouraging, in April 2012, the Code of Ethics for Home Inspectors for the State of New York, Title 19 NYCRR, now includes this text:
197-4.7 Conflicts of Interest
e) Home inspectors shall not directly or indirectly compensate, in any way, real estate brokers, real estate salespersons, real estate brokerage companies, lending institutions or any other party or parties that expect to have a financial interest in closing the transaction, for future referrals of inspections or for inclusion on a list of recommended inspectors or preferred providers or any similar arrangement.
That provision means that inspectors can't pay realtors for referrals. The fly in the ointment of that salve is that nothing prevents a realtor from "steering" a home buyer to inspectors whom the agent knows will soft-soap or under-report concerns at a property. All it takes is a list or a wink and a nod when naming names.
That is why we have long held that folks buying a home should obtain inspection services from experts who have absolutely no relationship with others in the transaction and who are referred by independent sources such as professional home inspector associations or friends or neighbors. In our OPINION real estate agents and even lawyers for whom real estate closings are a significant part of their business should only refer their clients to independently-maintained lists of inspectors and never to their own lists or friends.
The New York State Association of Home Inspectors (NYSAHI) considers placement by a realtor (or attorney) on a list of "preferred providers" constitutes a referral, as do oral or un-written referrals as well.
Conflicts of interest are not just unethical, they invite a lawsuit for fraud.
Watch out: septic system inspections are not included in typical state home inspector regulations and laws, even if the inspector was also performing a home inspection at the time. In essence, as of 2012, ancillary property inspection and testing services such as septic inspection and testing and environmental inspections and testing are not covered by home inspection regulations.
A home inspector or a septic system inspector cannot tell you whether or not you should buy a property. But s/he is expected to tell you about conditions that are dangerous, things that need near-term expensive repair or replacement (like a septic tank or drainfield if that inspection is performed), and about things you need that just don't work at an acceptable level of safety and reliability. An inspector who skips those items didn't do such a great job.
It would be unusual for the cost of repairs to be such a big portion of purchase price that a buyer should not proceed with the purchase. But a buyer needs to know what repairs are needed now and in the near future, what condtions are unsafe, and what conditions are causing rapid costly damage to the property - that's how the buyer can make a financially responsible financial plan, know how much money is needed, and know the priority of how to spend repair dollars.
Perhaps if enough cases of deception, manipulation, soft-soaping, or ms-representation by inspectors who are plagued by conflicts of interest reach the courts, those who are not moved by ethics will be moved by the law, and by the cost of failing to protect their putative clients.
List of Major the Major Components of Residential Septic Systems: Septic Tank, Drainfield, & More
SEPTIC SYSTEM COMPONENTS - the Basic Parts of a Conventional Septic Tank and Leachfield
Our sketch of a typical septic tank and drainfield (below) illustrates how waste moves from the building to the septic tank and how liquid waste is ultimately treated and disposed-of in the leachfield or drainfield.
The purpose of a septic system is to retain solid waste in the tank and to dispose of
effluent waste water into the ground without contaminating the environment.
To accomplish this
a septic system consists of the elements shown in the sketch above.
In simplest terms, a septic system consists of a holding tank which
retains solid waste and grease from household waste water, and an absorption
system or "leach field" which disposes of liquid wastewater or "effluent" which
leaves the septic tank for absorption below ground into soils at the property.
Let's just outline these main septic system parts in a little more detail:
The main waste line or "sewer line" connects the home's plumbing to the septic tank.
The septic tank which is often buried just a few feet from the house foundation wall,
receives all waste (solid and liquid) and has the main job of retaining solids and grease.
Solids settle to the bottom of the tank as sludge. A floating scum and grease layer forms at the
top of the tank.
Baffles at the tank inlet and outlet reduce the velocity of
liquid moving through the tank and prevent solids and floating scum from leaving.
Clarified effluent is allowed to flow out of the tank into a soil absorption
system. In some states (Connecticut since January 1991) septic tanks now consist of two
compartments in order to do a more effective job, and increasingly other jurisdictions (Alaska, Pennsylvania) require that new and up-graded onsite wastewater disposal systems use two-compartment septic tanks.
A effluent distribution pipe direct the flow of effluent from the septic
tank to the leaching system, often connecting first to one or more distribution boxes
which in turn distribute flow of effluent evenly into the leaching system.
A leaching system, or soil absorption system, also called "drainfield", a soakaway system, leachfield, or seepage bed
disperses the sewage effluent into the surrounding
natural soils. There are many types of leaching systems but the most common is a network
of perforated pipes buried in gravel-filled trenches. The specific type
utilized on a particular property depends on the soil conditions
and the amount of space available.
Galleries or "septic galleys", seepage pits and sand beds have historically been
Most distribution piping and leaching systems are "gravity" systems, meaning the flow runs through
piping and distribution boxes without the assistance of any mechanical device,
such as a pump or siphon, but some homes pump their effluent uphill into a mound system.
wastewater treatment systems are also available to handle difficult sites.
Question: we are buying a home with a septic tank and know nothing about it. The home looks well maintained. Should we get the septic system inspected?
We are in process of buying a home with a septic system. Your information has been quite helpful. We know NOTHING of septic systems. I'm trying to figure out what kind of system it is, we've been told it's not aerobic so by default does that mean it's anaerobic? We know it was pumped 7 months ago and that the owner of 3 yrs has never had any problems. The house, built in 1986, is VERY well maintained as attested to by our home inspector. Fortunately I have a lifelong friend that lives on the same street so she's told me about her system, etc., but I'm not sure ours is the same. What concerns should we have? Should we absolutely get it inspected? I'd appreciate any advice. - Stephani S. DFW -Texas
Reply: yes, absolutely.
Stephani S DFW Texas
Even at a well maintained home it would be a mistake to assume that a buried system such as" we link to some basic information you will want to read.
You should not buy a property with a septic system without some due diligence in discovering just what is installed and what clues or tests indicate that the system is or is not likely to be functional.
There are serious health and safety risks involved as well as possibly expensive repairs needed.
In the article above, at "Steps to Take When Buying a Home With a Septic Tank" we tell you what is recommended.
The basic approach includes asking questions, a visual inspection of the home and site, and then depending on what we learn, an escalating series of inspections or tests, depending on what is discovered at each step.
Question: there are septic smells at a property I'm buying. The realtor says they're going to replace the distribution box, pump the septic tank, and put in a "bio kit" - will anything good come from this?
I'm trying to buy a home in Vt. And I noticed a septic smell while walking around the property as I look down there's a stream of black water running. The owner called his septic people to check out the problem. This is the response from his realtor. "They replaced the dbox, pumped the field and put in a bio kit. They will come back in a week to see how its doing!" I'm not sure what I should view this. Anything good from this kind Sir? - Jack Garlin
Reply: not much.
Jack, the realtor is someone with a conflict of interest and not a person on whom you can rely to protect your interest, money nor safety when you are the buyer of a home. Even a well intentioned real estate agent in the case you describe will not know the condition of the system, will not warrant you at all about the future usability of the system, and is not held legally responsible for property conditions.
Pumping the septic tank gives the septic drainfield a few days off from having to absorb septic effluent. That might, for a few days, diminish the septic odor - fooling you into thinking everything is OK.
Fixing a bad distribution box is a good repair in that if the old box was routing all of the septic effluent into say (making this up as an example) just one septic drainfield trench, leaving three other trenches un-used, the overloaded trench will quickly fail. By routing effluent into all of the septic drainfield trenches we reduce the load on the bad trench and might get more life out of the system. It depends ... on the age of the system, soil conditions, and condition of the other trenches. You could ask the septic contractor what they found and what they recommend. The contractor won't want to make the realtor and seller mad by ratting them out, but you could point out that you are moving in and would be his new customer.
Putting in a "bio kit" on a failed septic system is sort of a pig-in-a-poke. I am guessing that someone is adding an aerator to an existing septic tank. The aerator can improve the level of treatment of the septic effluent, thus reducing (but not eliminating) the degree to which effluent discharged from the tank contaminates the environment. And depending on septic tank design, the aerator might, by keeping septic tank contents agitated in a single compartment tank, actually speed the destruction of the drainfield by pushing solids out into the drainfield.
If the present septic system is in failure mode - that is, effluent is not being handled by the drainfield, symptoms include odors and smells on the property. Even if the odors are diminished by some means, by no means has that "fixed" the failed drainfield. Expensive repairs are likely to be in your near future.
Question: Question: Septic system distances: I'm planning a garden at a property with an aerobic septic system and aerators. How far away should I plant? Aerobic septic system with aerators and sprinkler heads
I am buying a property in Forney, Texas that has an aerobic septic system. I believe the system has aeraters (sprinkler heads) in the back of the property.
I want to have a vegetable garden and some fruit trees planted. How far away should I plant from the aeration field? - Marylin
What is the distance requirements from the septic to home and well to home? - Katie
Good question Marilyn and forgive that this sounds a bit glib, that's not intended - my OPINION is that you want your garden far enough away to not pick up septic effluent. That depends on soil properties - how water flows through the soil, as well as ground slope and of course the distance that the sprinklers actually spray. I'd allow for wind-blown effluent overspray too.
So I'm afraid that an arbitrary number like 20 feet would be just arm-waving speculation, and an absolutely safe number like 100 feet may be overkill. Details about recommended planting distances from septic fields for trees, shrubs, and gardens are given at PLANTS & TREES OVER SEPTIC SYSTEMS.
Katie there is not a fixed distance from home (the structure itself) to septic tank nor to distance from home to a water well. For example a typical minimum recommended distance between septic tank and the structure is ten feet but some states allow five and others, 100. The maximum distances are set in part by terrain.
But what you should also be asking is what are the required distances between septic system components and other site features such as wells, streams, lakes, etc. For example required distances between a septic tank and a private well is typically 50 feet but varies up to 100 feet in some states.
Question: My septic inspector found evidence of a partly flooded drainfield - is that a septic failure?
We are buying a home and the inspector said there are 5in of water in vent pipe in seepage area. does this mean it's failing? - Lady
Lady I'm guessing you mean that an inspection pipe in a septic drainfield is showing five inches of water. Standing water in the drainfield would be evidence of drainfield failure. Now there could be a surge of water if a test was being run, but if the level was remaining static in the standpipe, the system is flooded and in failure. In my opinion.
Thanks for your response! I can only hope you read this one soon. Well, we are having quite a dilemma. The letter says that it has capacity of 1000 gal, and was at normal level, baffles are intact (although bill says baffle replaced), "vent pipe in seepage area had 5 inches of water in it," "ground at end of leach field had fractures between the trees...cause unknown." No drain back from leach field. No ponding at this time. "Operating under saturated conditions." "was a time several years ago where saturation on surface."
Here's my concern. I don't know a ton about septic systems (although after this week, I could site laws in 5 states and name each component to you). But, everything I see is saturated=failing. And, if it failed it past (saturation on surface) and hasn't been fixed (it hasn't), and is currently saturated but operating...is that really right?
To me, that would be a failing system or a defect in the septic. Saturated + pooling in past + dry weather/saturated now.
But, their realtor and our realtor just want the letter to be "reworded" to sound better. When I spoke with the technician who did the review, he said, I should be good to have no back up in house, but it could be a problem if I ever needed a permit and health dept came out.
My thought would be to have a 2nd opinion, but my realtor feels the test passed. I also feel like the history of previous surface saturation would qualify as a defect, which wasn't on disclosure.
Can you help me understand what I am missing? I really like the house and don't want to be a pain, but it isn't adding up?
Lady a few clues are evident from your comments.
"baffle replaced" - the previous baffle, whose job is to keep solids in the septic tank, had failed enough to need replacement. By the time it's noticed and repaired, solids have most likely been flowing to the drainfield, adding to clogging and reducing its life.
"normal level" and "no drain back in the tank" - mean that at that MOMENT the drainfield was not so saturated that the effluent is so high that it flows backwards into the septic tank during pumpout. That does not, however, mean that no drainfield areas could be saturated or at end of life.
"Operating under saturated conditions" means the drainfield had been seen in failure mode. We don't know if the problem was local surface waters and runoff, groundwater, or purely septic effluent. That distinction will be significant in deciding what repairs are needed - we need to direct groundwater and surface runoff away from a drainfield. And when a drainfield is "saturated" it is not working, not treating effluent, and is contaminating the environment.
No ponding "at this time" is a safe way of having made the realtor happy but covered the inspector for liability. No ponding could be because of little or no use, tank pumped out to give a respite, the season of very hot dry weather, or other events that temporarily make the fields look as if they're working.
With the history that you report, the septic system has failed in the past, and as no one has reported to you that any substantial repairs (like new drainfield or found and repaired broken drainfield piping) have been performed, it has NO predictable future life. (Without actually digging up more components we don't know exactly what's wrong - a broken pipe is a minor repair compared with replacing a drainfield. The latter sounds much more likely from your description)
Your plan to buy the home would be irresponsible if it didn't include funds to repair or replace the septic system.
Thank you for making me feel sane. And, yes, the system had been pumped for the test. I am glad to know that I'm at least asking the right questions. We had planned to talk with the county tomorrow to find out more, but at least I don't feel like such an idiot now. I keep feeling like people think I'm making this up to complain about it, and I'm not sure why it's a surprise to anyone, especially since it was built in 1972.
You sound sane to me, but I add that most people don't buy a new home often, so they are at a bit of an experience disadvantage vis-a-vis other players in the transaction such as real estate agents, attorneys, inspectors who have other interests.
Real estate is a tough business; when I've witnessed court disputes the judge always has taken the position that because a buyer knows it's a big financial decision with other parties who have conflicting interests (realtors, seller, some attorneys, and some home inspectors), the judge feels that the responsibility for due diligence is on the buyer, and the judge won't accept an argument that you relied on "puffing" or obfuscation by anybody else.
I'm not advising not to buy the property - it would be very rare for me to inspect a property and find that there was absolutely nothing in need of attention. But buy with a better picture of the real cost: purchase price plus necessary repairs, and proceed accordingly.
Question: My septic inspector failed the septic drainfield during wet conditions after Hurricane Irene; the owner disputes the results and may have added something to the fields to try to "pass" the system. Whom can I trust?
My inspector failed the drain field on a house that I wish to purchase yesterday September 6. 2011. On August 30th was the first inspection which was a few days after Hurricane Irene. The inspector said the tank needed a clean out. Our inspector recommended waiting until Saturday for the field to dry out due to the excessive rain from the Hurricane.
Then the homeowner insisted on being at the inspection and wanted no one on his property so he pushed the inspection to one full week since he was on vacation. In the meantime the tank was cleaned out. It again rained the night before and day of the inspection of the tank and field.
Our inspector failed the field. The homeowner who claims he went to school for septic engineering is disputing the results. He is saying that the inspector did not check the bed yesterday to see if it had drained and only looked in the tank. He claims the inspector said too much rain to test and told the homeowner and 2 witnesses that the septic should be fine, bed is far enough from house and he could test sometime in October.
Do you think the homeowner is lying and maybe adding or already added something to the septic to try to get it to pass inspection? We are debating having a different inspector return to the property. I am afraid he may hire someone he knows due to his admission of being a septic engineer. Also, can you tell if someone added something to treat the field? If you could please let us know ASAP. Thank you my whole world revolves around this issue. I have kids in school and soon no house to live in since mine is being sold in a few days. - R.F.
Reply: Caveat emptor: when buying a home you have to rely on consultants who are both competent and have no conflict of interest
A competent onsite inspection by an expert who has expertise in septic system testing usually finds additional clues that help accurately diagnose a problem or answer questions about the condition of the system.
That said, here are some things to consider:
Your inspector who wanted the tank pumped most likely would have asked that as an extra step in inspecting and diagnosing the system
A septic drainfield has to work even in rainy weather; indeed, however, if hurricane Irene had actually caused local area flooding, that'd be sufficiently abnormal as to decide to wait on testing
An owner who won't allow people on a property is in my experience waving a red flag of warning to watch out for a cover-up of a costly problem. I emphasize that point even though I understand that selling a home is a nervous time for the seller too.. Everyone wants everything to go smoothly. And on occasion I've seen sellers do very suspicious things not because there was really a serious issue, but because they were afraid there might be one. It's a mistake.
I agree with the owner, however, that just looking at the tank is hardly a competent inspection; however, one might see something at the tank, such as drain-back into the tank during pumpout or lost tank baffles that would be very indicative of a field failure.
In real estate law just about everywhere the courts opine that because buying a home is a major expense and because there are parties with strongly conflicting interests, a buyer who relies on representations by a seller or a real estate agent is ... well how should I say it ... being ill-advised. Details are at Conflicts of Interest at Septic System Inspections.
Home buyers are responsible for performing their own due-diligence and would be wise to rely only on advice from parties whom they are absolutely sure have no conflict of interest in the deal. Part of due diligence also involves doing your best to be sure that your advisors are not only unbiased, but competent.
In my experience and opinion, it's rare that a problem is so costly that buying the home is a mistake. It's correct, however, that the true cost of the property needs to be understood by the buyer to include the cost of necessary repairs for the property to be safe and habitable.
In sum, in the conditions you described, you would be wise to presume that on purchasing the home, at any time thereafter you are likely to face costly septic system repairs or even replacement of the drainfield; depending on the tank, its materials and conditions, there may be work there too. Age of the system, materials used, and other site clues would perhaps raise or lower the worry level but with no better data, the bottom line is unchanged.
Question: After I lived in my New House for a few months I had the Septic Inspected and it Failed - but the septic system "passed" when I made the purchase two months before. How could they sell a home with a bad septic? How could the first inspector pass and the second inspector fail my septic system?
I purchased a home in Rochester, NY in February 2012. No one had been living in the house for around six months so the bank requested $7,500 escrow. Once I lived in the house for 1-2 months I was told to get the home inspected and once passed I'd get the escrow money returned.
I got it inspected and it failed. The tanks in there are 500 and 300 gallons and are made of steel and have concrete covers. The tanks are from around 1968 when the home was built. The house was inspected and I was told it was fine. I never saw the inspection report but my lawyer did.
Do you know the NYS laws that cover this? How could they sell a home with a bad septic and how could it have passed inspection?
Company "A" Septic Tank Service inspected it on 7-5-11 and didn't note any problems. The bank then wanted it inspected again and the same company did it for them again on 12-12-11. Again nothing noted that anything was wrong with it. I was told the last time it was emptied was July, 2010.
I hired Company "B" to inspect the tanks and he failed them on 4-4-2012. He said the tanks were old and rusted and could cave in at any time and that the lines going into it were rusted and leaking. Both of these gentleman have been in this business for years and years and are know for their expertise.
Company "B" said when he went for schooling at Delhi they said that steel tanks were banned and not allowed since 1968. I believe him and trust him and feel he's looking out for my welfare and obviously Duane Marshall was looking out for the welfare of the sellers of my home.
Now what do I do? Is there a law that states it should have been changed over before the home closed? How could Company "A" pass it when Company "B" did not? I know that in two months the condition of them couldn't have deteriorated that much.
Please help. I don't know what to do or how to proceed. My lawyer seems to think I'll be lucky if I get the sellers to even cough up half of the $4,000 that Company "B" said it will take to replace it. The seller worked for and was a leader in a labor union his entire life. You can't tell me he didn't know and realized what he was selling and doing to me. I'm looking for any direction and/or help/laws to assist me?
- [Anonymous for privacy ]
A competent onsite inspection by an expert usually finds additional clues that help accurately diagnose a problem or evaluate the condition of a system - certainly not something I can accomplish by email. .
That said, here are some things to consider:
In my OPINION, if you did not receive an adequate or honest inspection and report of the condition of the property and its septic system before it was purchased, whomever steered you to an inspector who didn't do the job gave you very bad advice. So you may have three parties against whom you have complaint: the seller, the inspector, and the realtor.
You will want to consult your attorney again, or if necessary find one familiar with real estate law and financing, for an authoritative answer about what you can or cannot be compelled to do. Those are legal questions. My OPINION is that the terms and conditions of financing you cite are levied by the lender, your bank, and the specifics are not regulated by law. But it is my OPINION and experience that if there is a case of failure (errors and omissions) or real estate fraud, you may be entitled to some financial relief.
There is no doubt that there can be very serious conflicts of interest in real estate transactions. A home inspector or septic inspector who depends on real estate agents for referrals is serving two masters - his client (you) and the realtor (his "real" client). The inspector may not want to get in trouble with you, but s/he doesn't want to upset the real estate agent or referrals will stop. Stop dead.
It's no surprise that two different septic "experts" would make different findings of the condition of the septic system, depending on how thoroughly and carefully they did their job. Some "defects" permit an honest difference of opinion - such as "how many years more might my roof be expected to last" because experience and judgment come into play. Other "defects" or facts are unambiguous. A septic tank is steel or not; its baffles or lid or tank are rust perforated, damaged or missing, or not.
I expect your attorney, realtor, and any other expert to confirm that there is no law in New York that would have required a property owner to replace a working, functional, steel septic tank after a certain date. However if a septic system is not working, it may violate local or state health department regulations and when that failure is discovered it would at that time require proper repairs.
At this point your priorities should not be on litigation or arguing, but rather on finding out exactly what will satisfy your lender, how to get that work performed, and how to make sure that your home and all of its systems are safe, sanitary, and functional.
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 Code of Ethics and Regulations for Home Inspectors, Department of State Division of Licensign Services, New York State, Addition of Subparts 197-4 and 197-5 to Title 19 NYCRR, SUBPART 197-4 CODE OF ETHICS AND REGULATIONS FOR HOME INSPECTORS, web search 4/11/2012, original source:
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The Home Reference Book - the Encyclopedia of Homes, Carson, Dunlop & Associates Ltd., Toronto, Ontario, 2010, $69.00 U.S., is available from Carson Dunlop, and from the InspectAPedia bookstore. The 2010 edition of the Home Reference Book is a bound volume of more than 450 illustrated pages that assist home inspectors and home owners in the inspection and detection of problems on buildings. The text is intended as a reference guide to help building owners operate and maintain their home effectively. InspectAPedia.com ® author/editor Daniel Friedman is a contributing author. Field inspection worksheets are included at the back of the volume.
Advanced Onsite Wastewater Systems Technologies, Anish R. Jantrania, Mark A. Gross. Anish Jantrania, Ph.D., P.E., M.B.A., is a Consulting Engineer, in Mechanicsville VA, 804-550-0389 (2006). Outstanding technical reference especially on alternative septic system design alternatives. Written for designers and engineers, this book is not at all easy going for homeowners but is a text I recommend for professionals--DF.
Builder's Guide to Wells and Septic Systems, Woodson, R. Dodge: $ 24.95; MCGRAW HILL B; TP;
Quoting from Amazon's description: For the homebuilder, one mistake in estimating or installing wells and septic systems can cost thousands of dollars. This comprehensive guide filled with case studies can prevent that. Master plumber R. Dodge Woodson packs this reader-friendly guide with guidance and information, including details on new techniques and materials that can economize and expedite jobs and advice on how to avoid mistakes in both estimating and construction. Chapters cover virtually every aspect of wells and septic systems, including on-site evaluations; site limitations; bidding; soil studies, septic designs, and code-related issues; drilled and dug wells, gravel and pipe, chamber-type, and gravity septic systems; pump stations; common problems with well installation; and remedies for poor septic situations. Woodson also discusses ways to increase profits by avoiding cost overruns.
Country Plumbing: Living with a Septic System, Hartigan, Gerry: $ 9.95; ALAN C HOOD & TP;
Quoting an Amazon reviewer's comment, with which we agree--DF:This book is informative as far as it goes and might be most useful for someone with an older system. But it was written in the early 1980s. A lot has changed since then. In particular, the book doesn't cover any of the newer systems that are used more and more nowadays in some parts of the country -- sand mounds, aeration systems, lagoons, etc.
Composting Toilets - Books & References
Composting Toilet System Book: A Practical Guide to Choosing, Planning and Maintaining Composting Toilet Systems, David Del Porto, Carol Steinfeld. Quoting an Amazon review: Del Porto's book is the definitive composting toilet book at this time. There is nothing even close. His book covers all aspects of composting toilet systems and touches on graywater issues as well. He treats the composting toilet as part of the home system. If a person is seriously interested in installing/having a composting toilet, this book can save him/her all of the mistakes people usually make. He even (carefully) explodes some of the advertising myths that the purveyors of composting toilets would have us believe. The book covers ready-made systems as well as home built systems. As trite as this sounds, the book truly is a must for someone considering installing composting toilet.
The Humanure Handbook: A Guide to Composting Human Manure, 3rd Ed.,
Joseph C. Jenkins. Quoting part of an Amazon review: The Humanure Handbook provides a wealth of thoroughly researched, hands-on experience and scientific data that demonstrates that after a natural process called "thermophilic" bacterial digestion, which occurs in a compost bin and where all pathogens are killed, excreta is then converted to a valuable nutrient for agriculture and thereby completing a full-circle life cycle. Most importantly, effluent can then be kept out of our drinking water and not treated or referred to as an undesirable "waste product". The information is conveyed in a humorous, folksy, down-to-earth easy to understand style along with drawings, charts, tables, photos and a wealth of resource info for further research. Jenkins' website has a forum for sharing more info, experiences and to answer any and all questions in the process of humanuring and constructed wetland gray water treatment.
Thermal composting of fecal matter as treatment and possible disinfection method--laboratory-scale and pilot-scale studies,
B. Vinneras, A. Bjorklund, H. Jonsson. Quoting Amazon review: When using toilets where the urine and faeces are collected separately for reuse as nutrients in agriculture, the collected matter should be disinfected. One way to do this is by thermal composting. Composting of different material mixes was investigated in a laboratory-scale experiment. This showed that the best mixture for dry thermal composting was a mix of faeces, food waste and amendment. The urine was collected separately by use of urine-diverting toilets. A new method was developed to mathematically evaluate and estimate the safety margins of pathogen inactivation during thermal composting. The method is based upon a mathematical calculation of the number of times total inactivation (at least 12log"1"0 reduction) of the organisms is achieved. In a pilot-scale experiment, the disinfection of a faeces/food waste mix was performed with a calculated safety margin of more than 37 times the total die-off of Enteroviruses and some 550 times that of Ascaris. Thus, well functioning composting seems to be
effective for disinfection of faecal matter. To get a high temperature in all of the material, the reactor has to have sufficient insulation. A major disadvantage is the initial need for handling the raw un-disinfected material. The degradation of the organic matter in the compost was almost 75%, resulting in a small final volume that could safely be recycled.
Experiences with a composting toilet article from: Countryside & Small Stock Journal, available as HTML download.
Quoting Amazon review: This digital document is an article from Countryside & Small Stock Journal, published by Countryside Publications Ltd. on May 1, 1994. The length of the article is 1516 words. The page length shown above is based on a typical 300-word page. The article is delivered in HTML format and is available in your Amazon.com Digital Locker immediately after purchase. You can view it with any web browser.
From the supplier: A composting toilet is a good alternative to propane burning toilets, but it also has many problems. The worst part is emptying the waste and compost every 4-6 weeks. Other problems are the fan that must be kept running constantly and bug infestation.
US EPA Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems Manual [online copy, free] Top Reference: US EPA's Design Manual for Onsite Wastewater Treatment and Disposal, 1980, available from the US EPA, the US GPO Superintendent of Documents (Pueblo CO), and from the National Small Flows Clearinghouse. Original source http://www.epa.gov/ORD/NRMRL/Pubs/625R00008/625R00008.htm Onsite wastewater treatment and disposal systems,
Richard J Otis, published by the US EPA. Although it's more than 20 years old, this book remains a useful reference for septic system designers.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Water Program Operations; Office of Research and Development, Municipal Environmental Research Laboratory; (1980)
"International Private Sewage Disposal Code," 1995, BOCA-708-799-2300, ICBO-310-699-0541, SBCCI 205-591-1853, available from those code associations.
"Manual of Policy, Procedures, and Guidelines for Onsite Sewage Systems," Ontario Reg. 374/81, Part VII of the Environmental
Protection Act (Canada), ISBN 0-7743-7303-2, Ministry of the Environment,135 St. Clair Ave. West, Toronto Ontario M4V 1P5 Canada $24. CDN.
Manual of Septic Tank Practice, US Public Health Service's 1959.
Greywater System Books
The New Create an Oasis With Greywater, Art Ludwig; Buy New: $14.25. Ludwig is one of the most thoughtful, prolific, and sometimes controversial writers on gray water systems and alternative designs. We recommend his book as clear, easy-to-understand writing aimed at property owners who want or need to consider a graywater installation to conserve water, recycle water, reduce water use, or to reduce the load on their septic system. This is the latest edition of this Art Ludwig's greywater design book classic.
Builder's Greywater Guide, Art Ludwig; Buy New: $10.17. Installation of Greywater Systems in New Construction & Remodeling; A Supplement to the Book "Create an Oasis With Greywater" (Paperback).
Quoting a review from Amazon: I recommend that you get the 3 companion books on greywater treatment "Create an Oasis", "Branched Drain Greywater Systems" and "Builder's Greywater Guide". The information in these volumes will keep most of us far more informed than most of the regulators, the system builders, and the experts-in-theory. These volumes are real-world gems. Art Ludwig has cut to the core of wastewater issues. He's obviously done all of his homework, mulled-over the variables, and come up with a common sense, economically reasonable, environmentally responsible approach to wastewater. I expect to save money that I would have spent on a post-septic tank, aerobic unit that would seemingly have been ecologically responsible; but because of the technological overkill, ultimately that system would have defeated my altruistic environmental concerns.
... These books talk the talk and walk the walk better than anything else that I've seen. Buy a set for yourself, a set for your neighbors, and a set for the regulators.
Branched Drain Greywater Systems [superseded by "The New Create an Oasis with Greywater"], Art Ludwig. If you already have this book but are in the process of installing new gray water systems you should take a look at the newer
edition listed first above in this section of our Greywater book recommendations.
You may prefer the newest edition, but there is great information in this older version, perhaps all you need, and these copies are
sold at very low prices - an aid to people of limited means.
Rainwater Catchment Systems for Domestic Supply: Design, Construction and Implementation,
Erik Nissen-Petersen, John Gould. (Mr. Ludwig, while much appreciated, is not the only author providing really useful design guides for graywater systems--DF)
Quoting from an Amazon review: This book reviews the art of roof and ground catchment systems for rainwater. The water collected can be used for household or other purposes. The designs are aimed for individuals with limited access to electricity and/or civic water utilities. The text includes drawings, photographs and step-by-step instructions.
One might say the book is really written for the 'aid worker' since it also considers ethnic and gender issues that would be 'obvious' to the future owners of the the systems.
Guidelines on rainwater catchment systems for Hawaii, (CTAHR resource management publication)
Patricia S. H Macomber. This more technical document may be especially helpful for rainwater collection and recycling systems for climates
where there is heavy rainfall such as demonstrated for Hawaii.
Design for Water: Rainwater Harvesting, Stormwater Catchment, and Alternate Water Reuse, Heather Kinkade-Levario. Quoting from Amazon's review: Design for Water is an accessible and clearly written guide to alternate water collection, with a focus on rainwater harvesting in the urban environment. The book: Outlines the process of water collection from multiple sources-landscape, residential, commercial, industrial, school, park, and municipal systems
Provides numerous case studies, Details the assembly and actual application of equipment, Includes specific details, schematics, and references.
All aspects of rainwater harvesting are outlined, including passive and active system setup, storage, storm water reuse, distribution, purification, analysis, and filtration. There is even a section on rainwater harvesting for wildlife. In addition to rainwater, there are several affordable and accessible alternate sources, including cooling tower bleed-off water, air conditioning condensate, gray water, and fog collection. Design for Water is geared to providing those making development decisions and guidelines with the information they need to set up passive harvesting techniques. The book will especially appeal to engineers, landscape architects, municipal decision-makers, developers, and landowners.
Heather Kinkade-Levario is a land-use planner in Arizona and the author of the award-winning Forgotten Rain. She is president of Forgotten Rain L.L.C., a rainwater harvesting and stormwater reuse company.
The Toilet Papers: Designs to Recycle Human Waste and Water : Dry Toilets, Greywater Systems and Urban Sewage (Paperback) Sim Van Der Ryn, Wendell Berry; Quoting from an Amazon review: With a title like "Toilet Papers" and from a distinguished eco-architect like Sim Van der Ryn, I needed no intro or review to buy a copy of this little, but well researched historical over-view of effluent mitigation and current eco-friendly toilet design. This book is filled with good line drawings and photographs to depict everything from the historical perspective to the current dry toilets and their construction..
Quality issues in harvested rainwater in arid and semi-arid Loess Plateau of northern China,
K. Zhu, L. Zhang, W. Hart, M. Liu, H. Chen (out of print, find by search and deferred order).
Amazon's description may be helpful: Loess soils cover vast areas in the arid and semi-arid regions of northern China. Due to the lack of reliable surface water and ground-water, rainwater harvesting has played a prominent role in farmers' domestic usage and agricultural irrigation. An economical and valid type of water storage cistern with optimum design of components has been introduced to rural areas in the Loess Plateau. Different collection alternatives showed apparent variations in rainwater quality. By using different catchments, such as mortar roofs and cement-paved courtyards, compacted land or road surfaces, rainwater can be effectively collected for storage in cisterns. This study focused mainly on the quality of rainwater harvested from the different catchment systems and stored for different periods of time. By analysis of the water samples stored in these cisterns, it was evident that rainwater quality could be improved significantly by self-purification during the storage. With emphasis on rainwater quality affected by the
different catchment systems, it was found that the measured inorganic compounds in the rainwater harvested from roof-yard catchment systems generally matched the WHO standards for drinking water, while the concentrations of some inorganic compounds in the rainwater collected from land and road surfaces appeared to be higher than the guideline values for drinking water, but generally not beyond the maximum permissible concentrations. However, Fecal Coliform, which is an important bacteriological parameter for the three catchment systems, exceeded the limits of drinking water to a greater extend. Trace amounts of 55 organic pollutants were identified, including aliphatic hydrocarbons, aromatic compounds and phthalate esters, etc. The analytical results indicated that roof-yard catchments that included the ''first flush'' usually provided safe drinking water with low organic contents, even for rainwater collected immediately after rainfall. In contrast, rainwater harvested from road surfaces had poor quality
with respect to the organic constituents, regardless of stored time.
City eying home water-recycling technology; uses bath and washer water for irrigation., (ReWater Systems' equipment for greywater irrigation):
This is an article from: San Diego Business Journal [HTML] (Digital) available online in digital format. I have not (yet) reviewed it -- DF
Onsite Wastewater Disposal Books
Onsite Wastewater Disposal, R. J. Perkins;
Quoting from Amazon: This practical book, co-published with the National Environmental Health Association,
describes the step-by-step procedures needed to avoid common pitfalls in septic system technology.
Valuable in matching the septic system to the site-specific conditions, this useful book will help you install a reliable system in
both suitable and difficult environments. Septic tank installers, planners, state and local regulators, civil and sanitary engineers,
consulting engineers, architects, homeowners, academics, and land developers will find this publication valuable.
Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems, Bennette D. Burks, Mary Margaret Minnis, Hogarth House 1994 - one of the best septic system books around, suffering a bit from small fonts and a weak index. While it contains some material more technical than needed by homeowners, Burks/Minnis book on onsite wastewater treatment systems a very useful reference for both property owners and septic system designers.
Septic Tank/Soil-Absorption Systems: How to Operate & Maintain [ copy on file as /septic/Septic_Operation_USDA.pdf ] - , Equipment Tips, U.S. Department of Agriculture, 8271 1302, 7100 Engineering, 2300 Recreation, September 1982, web search 08/28/2010, original source: http://www.fs.fed.us/t-d/pubs/pdfimage/82711302.pdf
Septic System Owner's Manual, Lloyd Kahn, Blair Allen, Julie Jones, Shelter Publications, 2000 $14.95 U.S. - easy to understand, well illustrated, one of the best practical references around on septic design basics including some advanced systems; a little short on safety and maintenance. Both new and used (low priced copies are available, and we think the authors are working on an updated edition--DF.
Quoting from one of several Amazon reviews: The basics of septic systems, from underground systems and failures to what the owner can do to promote and maintain a healthy system, is revealed in an excellent guide essential for any who reside on a septic system. Rural residents receive a primer on not only the basics; but how to conduct period inspections and what to do when things go wrong. History also figures into the fine coverage.
Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank, Bombeck, Erma: $ 5.99; FAWCETT; MM;
This septic system classic whose title helps avoid intimidating readers new to septic systems, is available new or used at very low prices.
It's more entertainment than a serious "how to" book on septic systems design, maintenance, or repair. Not recommended -- DF.
US EPA Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems Manual Top Reference: US EPA's Design Manual for Onsite Wastewater Treatment and Disposal, 1980, available from the US EPA, the US GPO Superintendent of Documents (Pueblo CO), and from the National Small Flows Clearinghouse. Original source http://www.epa.gov/ORD/NRMRL/Pubs/625R00008/625R00008.htm
Water Wells and Septic Systems Handbook, R. Dodge Woodson. This book is in the upper price range, but is worth the cost for serious septic installers and designers.
Quoting Amazon: Each year, thousands upon thousands of Americans install water wells and septic systems on their properties. But with a maze of codes governing their use along with a host of design requirements that ensure their functionality where can someone turn for comprehensive, one-stop guidance? Enter the Water Wells and Septic Systems Handbook from McGraw-Hill. Written in language any property owner can understand yet detailed enough for professionals and technical students this easy-to-use volume delivers the latest techniques and code requirements for designing, building, rehabilitating, and maintaining private water wells and septic systems. Bolstered by a wealth of informative charts, tables, and illustrations, this book delivers: * Current construction, maintenance, and repair methods
* New International Private Sewage Disposal Code
* Up-to-date standards from the American Water Works Association
Wells and Septic Systems, Alth, Max and Charlet, Rev. by S. Blackwell Duncan, $ 18.95; Tab Books 1992. We have found this text very useful for conventional well and septic systems design and maintenance --DF.
Quoting an Amazon description:Here's all the information you need to build a well or septic system yourself - and save a lot of time, money, and frustration. S. Blackwell Duncan has thoroughly revised and updated this second edition of Wells and Septic Systems to conform to current codes and requirements. He also has expanded this national bestseller to include new material on well and septic installation, water storage and distribution, water treatment, ecological considerations, and septic systems for problem building sites.