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This article discusses what a property buyer can do to determine whether a home or other building she is buying is connected to a public sewer line or to a private septic system. A reader asked, " >How do I know if the house I am purchasing has a septic tank?" Often the answer to this question is well known, documented, and everyone is confident of the facts. But in older communities, especially if the age of a building is greater than the age of the community sewer system, even if a sewer is installed right in the street in front of a building, that building may never have been connected to the sewer line.
How to Determine If a Building Is Connected to a Private Septic Tank or a Public Community Sewer System
Failure to connect an older building to a sewer line can lead to some ugly surprises, including unanticipated expense to repair an old septic system, expense to connect the building to the new sewer line, and even serious life safety hazards if an old septic tank is at risk of collapse.
Our friend Steve Vermilye, an inspector and contractor in New Paltz, New York, discovered that an office building that everyone thought had been connected to the New Paltz sewer system for decades was in fact connected to an old cesspool in the back yard of the property. That condition was discovered during new construction, happily before someone fell into the cesspool.
Citation of this article by reference to this website and brief quotation for the sole purpose of review are permitted. Use of this information at other websites, in books or pamphlets for sale is reserved
to the author. Technical reviewers are welcome and are listed at "References."
This is a chapter of Inspecting, Testing, & Maintaining Residential Septic Systems an online book on septic systems.
Septic tanks or other private onsite waste disposal systems are used to handle sewage and wastewater in neighborhoods that are not served by a municipal or community sewer system.
Sewer systems include large sewer main drains that are routed through neighborhoods they serve, often in the street but sometimes through an easement across multiple properties. These drains carry sewage and wastewater to a community or municipal sewage treatment plant, sometimes by way of one or more pumping stations if the terrain is hilly.
What Questions to Ask About Public Sewers or Private Septic Systems When Buying a Home, Building, or Property
The realtor or seller of a home or other property should be able to tell a buyer answers to the following questions, but if s/he cannot, we have lots of advice on how to find these important answers anyway:
Is the building connected to the public sewer or does it use a private septic system? Don't assume that every home on a street is connected to the public sewer main that runs nearby. We discuss how to find the answer to this question at Clues Indicating a Building is Connected to Sewer.
There are five possible outcomes to these questions about sinks, toilets, sewers, and septic tanks:
If no one seems to know if the building is connected to a public sewer or a private septic tank and drainfield system, don't give up, we can still find out what you need to know. We discuss this case atWhat if Nobody Knows if its Sewer or Septic?
If the building is connected to a private septic system, lots of other important detailed questions need to be asked. See our detailed advice at SEPTIC SYSTEM, HOME BUYERS GUIDE which discusses the inspections and tests that should be performed, introduces the need for septic system maintenance, and describes how to find septic tanks, distribution boxes, and drainfields.
If you are told that the building is for sure connected to a public sewer system, there are still a few questions to ask, and if the home is an older one that could have been built before the sewer system was put in place, there are some important questions to resolve about safety, older septic systems that may still be in place, and more. We discuss these at Guide for buildings Connected to a Public Sewer where we handle the cases of both newer homes and older homes which have different concerns about connecting to a public sewer.
A building may be connected to both public sewer and private onsite septic systems. It sounds odd but some older buildings that have been connected to a public sewer may still have old laundry sinks running to a drywell or even a bathroom still connected to a septic tank or cesspool. We tell you how to figure this out at Guide for buildings Pre-Dating Sewer Installation.
A building may have no waste piping, or almost no waste piping system whatsoever. If we exclude buildings that are immediately obvious as having no plumbing whatsoever, there remain a smaller number of cases in which a building has self-contained or waterless systems for washing or toilets. You'll probably notice this as soon as someone needs to use a toilet or even wash a dish. But it's not as odd as you may imagine. Some buildings may use self-contained very limited-capacity waterless or low-water toilets, for example, and some may use graywater systems that recycle and re-use much of their wastewater. We discuss these systems at SEPTIC DESIGN ALTERNATIVES.
What Does It Mean If No Public Sewer Line is Available at a Property?
If there is no sewer system present the home cannot be attached to one and a local septic system is or should be present.
But don't worry, it's possible to treat building sewage and wastewater onsite safely and with good sanitation.
Millions of private homes in the U.S. and in many other countries are served by private onsite septic and wastewater treatment systems.
See some basic comments about buying a home with a septic tank at
SEPTIC SYSTEM, HOME BUYERS GUIDE
which discusses the inspections and tests that should be performed, introduces the need for septic system maintenance, and describes how to find septic tanks, distribution boxes, and drainfields.
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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.
Pennsylvania State Fact Sheets relating to domestic wastewater treatment systems include
Pennsylvania State Wastewater Treatment Fact Sheet SW-161, Septic System Failure: Diagnosis and Treatment
Pennsylvania State Wastewater Treatment Fact Sheet SW-162, The Soil Media and the Percolation Test
Pennsylvania State Wastewater Treatment Fact Sheet SW-l64, Mound Systems for Wastewater Treatment
Pennsylvania State Wastewater Treatment Fact Sheet SW-165, Septic Tank-Soil Absorption Systems
Document Sources used for this web page include but are not limited to: Agricultural Fact Sheet #SW-161 "Septic Tank Pumping," by Paul D. Robillard and
Kelli S. Martin. Penn State College of Agriculture - Cooperative Extension, edited and annotated by
Dan Friedman (Thanks: to Bob Mackey for proofreading the original source material.)
Books & Articles on Building & Environmental Inspection, Testing, Diagnosis, & Repair
The Home Reference Book - the Encyclopedia of Homes, Carson Dunlop & Associates, Toronto, Ontario, 25th Ed., 2012, 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. Field inspection worksheets are included at the back of the volume. Special Offer: For a 10% discount on any number of copies of the Home Reference Book purchased as a single order. Enter INSPECTAHRB in the order payment page "Promo/Redemption" space. InspectAPedia.com editor Daniel Friedman is a contributing author.
Or choose the The Home Reference eBook for PCs, Macs, Kindle, iPad, iPhone, or Android Smart Phones. Special Offer: For a 5% discount on any number of copies of the Home Reference eBook purchased as a single order. Enter INSPECTAEHRB in the order payment page "Promo/Redemption" space.
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.