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SEPTIC SYSTEM INSPECT DIAGNOSE REPAIR
SEPTIC CARE INSTRUCTIONS
SEPTIC D-BOX INSTALL REPAIR
SEPTIC DRAINFIELD FAILURE DIAGNOSIS
SEPTIC DYE TEST PROCEDURE
SEPTIC FAILURE SIGNS
SEPTIC INSPECTION & TEST GUIDE
SEPTIC LIFE EXPECTANCY
SEPTIC SUPPLIES & PARTS
SEPTIC SYSTEM DESIGN ALTERNATIVES
SEPTIC SYSTEM DESIGN BASICS
SEPTIC SYSTEMS, HOME BUYERS GUIDE to
SEPTIC SYSTEM SAFETY WARNINGS
SEPTIC TREATMENTS & CHEMICALS
SEWAGE BACKUP PREVENTION
SEWAGE EJECTOR / GRINDER PUMPS
SEWER GAS ODORS
SEWER LINE REPLACEMENT
SINKHOLES, WARNING SIGNS
SOAKAWAY BED FAILURE DIAGNOSIS
SULPHUR & SEWER GAS SMELL SOURCES
TOILETS, INSPECT, INSTALL, REPAIR
TRAPS on PLUMBING FIXTURES
TREATMENTS & CHEMICALS, SEPTIC
VIDEO GUIDES: Septic Videos
WATER CONSERVATION MEASURES
WATER SOFTENERS & CONDITIONERS
WATER SUPPLY & DRAIN PIPING
WATER, WELLS, WATER TANKS: TESTING GUIDE
WASHING MACHINES & SEPTIC SYSTEMS
WASTEWATER TREATMENT BASICS
WINTERIZE A BUILDING
Septic system inspection & test procedures: here we provide a complete guide to septic system inspection & testing: this article series answers just about any question you might have about buying or owning a house with a septic system. In articles listed here we explain in complete detail how to buy, inspect, test, diagnose maintain and repair septic tanks and all other components of septic systems.
We give in-depth information about conventional septic tanks, drain fields, septic pipes, and septic waste handling. This page organizes and links to our detailed septic system inspection, test, repair, and design articles, including our online septic systems book. Septic testing class presentations, photos, sketches, tables, links to products and consultants are provided. If you do not quickly find here information you need, CONTACT US. [Above photograph shows an open access to a steel septic tank.]
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The procedures used must cope with the difficulty that a septic system consists of buried components, involves major costs to replace, and may involve serious health and life safety risks as well. The major steps in septic system inspection and diagnosis are discussed below in narrative form.
Home buyers of a property with a septic tank should be sure to read Buyer's Guide Home Buyer's Guide to Septic Systems Inspection & Testing - What to Do, Step by Step.
Inspecting, Testing, & Maintaining Residential Septic Systems - An Online Septic System Textbook
Septic system inspection procedures, defects in onsite waste disposal systems, septic tank problems, septic drainfield problems, checklists of system components and things to ask. Septic system maintenance and pumping schedules.
A "septic system," also referred to as a private, on-site waste disposal system, receives waste water and solids from a Building's plumbing facilities (bathrooms, kitchens, shower, laundry), treats, and then disposes of the effluent from this waste, by permitting it to absorb into soils at the property.
"Treatment" is accomplished by bacterial action in the "septic" or "treatment" tank and it is mostly accomplished by bacteria in the soil around and below the effluent absorption system, or "drain field."
This bacterial action is needed to reduce the level of pathogens in the effluent discharges from the waste system into the soil.
The principal components of a private on-site waste disposal system usually include the following:
Many variations on this general scheme are used, depending on local climate, soil conditions, available space, economy, and available materials. Special equipment and systems may be designed for problem or difficult sites such as rocky or wet ground, permafrost, or wet tropical marshlands.
Readers who are unfamiliar with what a private septic system is and the types of systems installed should review articles and sketches of septic system components found at The Septic System Information Website
Types of treatment tanks, adsorption systems, pumps, and other special equipment are discussed in some further detail in this text, and are listed in the septic system inspection checklist data. For a more detailed introduction you may want to read our Lockwood article "What is a Septic System" and then return here to continue by using your browser's "BACK" button.
Providing inspection and diagnosis of on-site waste disposal systems is an extremely valuable public service which helps protect people from expensive unanticipated septic system repair costs and helps protect public health by assuring sanitary disposal of sewage and gray water waste from buildings.
More importantly though, such inspections may detect and warn about serious safety hazards at some properties.
The strong warnings issued below intend to reduce septic system safety hazards for inspectors and property owners/occupants, but it is not the author's intention to dissuade inspectors from providing this valuable service.
Danger lurks at cesspools, open covers, tanks or tank covers in poor condition, and from high levels of methane gas. These risk collapse, falling, asphyxiation, and other potentially fatal hazards as well as risks of unsanitary conditions.
Septic and Cesspool Inspection Safety:
Requirements, including licensing and education requirements for septic system inspectors or test personnel vary among states & provinces. Here we list examples of qualifications for septic inspectors.
If you perform septic inspections you are obligated to do so with proper information, training, procedures, and in some communities a license is required. Some states (e.g. CA, CT, NJ, MA) have specific certification requirements for inspectors of septic systems, as well as specific regulations regarding the performance of the inspection itself. Be sure to obtain information pertinent to your own state, usually from the state health department or state department of environmental protection.
For example, Massachusetts septic inspectors will want to look at the links and the Title 5 regulations at our page on the Massachusetts Septic Testing Law. Other links to septic system installation and inspection regulatory agencies are at our "Local, State, U.S. Federal Government, & International Agencies & Resources for Septic Systems Wastewater Treatment" page.
Watch out: too often we hear from readers that their "septic inspector" was a septic tank pumping company who did nothing but pump the septic tank, or that their inspector simply looked around the site and gave a generic septic inspection report that did not provide the information recommended in the article above.
The next chapter proceeds with inspection of the septic system components.
This article explains detailed "how to" steps instructing the investigator in how to inspect specific septic components for signs of failure. The following section will discuss types and causes of septic failure and will provide criteria that define "failure."
Before digging up your septic tank or calling a septic pumper, if you think the septic system is failed because of drain blockage or drains backing up into the Building, you should to see "Diagnosing Clogged Drains: Is it a blocked drain or the septic system? - A First Step for Homeowners". If you link to that text, please return here using your browser's "BACK" button.
At above-left we see n effluent breakout in the yard soon after new owners occupied the home. Some careful gentle excavating explored the problem to confirm that the breakout was in the drainfield, not at a collapsing septic tank.
Outside waste piping conducts sewage (black water and gray water) from the Building to the treatment tank or "septic tank," and from the treatment tank to the distribution box. These lines should be of solid, non-perforated material and need to be protected from mechanical damage (such as by vehicles). Piping extending from the distribution box into drain fields is normally perforated, though solid lines might be used if effluent is being processed by more specialized devices such as seepage pits, galleys, or a sand-bed system.
House to septic tank
This line may become blocked by waste, damaged by collapse of a section, or invaded by roots. Detection of these conditions is fairly easy by routing a snake or power snake from the Building drain to the septic tank.
An experienced power snake operator can often tell by "feel" that a drain line is collapsed, partially collapsed, or invaded by roots. While you may make a temporary "repair" of such a condition by drain-cleaning, if the line is broken or root-invaded, you should expect to have to excavate and replace it soon.
The septic tank and cleanout access covers are easy to spot next to this home in northern Maine. Because this property is located close to the seashore, extra care to review clearance distances as well as condition of the septic system are in order. See SEPTIC TANK, HOW TO FIND
Tank to Distribution Box
By viewing the entire site to locate the drainfield or soakaway bed it is often possible to make a good guess at the D-box location between the septic tank and drainfield.
Drain field piping
In a conventional "drain field" of perforated pipes buried in gravel-filled trenches, a drain line may be invaded by tree roots. This is why experts advise keeping tree and shrub plantings away from drain fields. Vehicle traffic can also collapse this or any outdoor waste piping, which is why experts advise against ever driving over a drainfield or over any other septic system components.
Also see SEPTIC DRAINFIELD LOCATION: how to find the septic drain field or leaching bed.
The purpose of the treatment tank or "septic tank" is to contain solid waste and to permit the beginning of bacterial action to process sewage into a combination of clarified effluent, settled sludge, or floating scum in the tank. An intact, un-damaged septic tank is normally always filled with these materials.
Only by pumping and visual inspection can actual tank capacity and condition be completely determined. Probing in the area of a tank, without excavation, is not recommended as the probe may damage a steel or fiberglass tank.
Steel septic tanks
Since steel tank tops can be replaced while leaving the old tank in place, the condition of the top itself is not a reliable indicator of tank condition. See STEEL SEPTIC TANKS for details about steel septic tanks.
In our photo at left we see a round steel septic tank cover - really too close to the building, but easy to find. The waste line between this building and the septic tank will be short but may be hard to access if it's accessible only through the crawl space.
Concrete septic tanksConcrete tanks at an existing septic installation are usually viable, but might have damaged baffles or cracks that permit seepage of groundwater in or septic effluent out around the tank. Occasionally we've seen tanks made of poor-quality concrete (insufficient portland cement) which eroded badly. If the tank outlet or absorption system have been blocked, examination of the tank interior may show that effluent is or has been above the top of the baffles (see "baffles" below) thus indicating a system failure discussed next. See CONCRETE SEPTIC TANKS for details about concrete septic tanks.
For detailed guides to inspecting different types of septic tanks see SEPTIC TANK INSPECTION PROCEDURE
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