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Septic Inspection Answers

What is a septic system?

A septic system is a sewage treatment system. The system is installed on properties that are not connected to a public sewer.

Septic systems have three main parts: a holding tank, distribution pipes, and a drainfield.

Human waste is broken down into liquids and solids in the holding tank. The liquid moves through the distribution pipes and is released into the drainfield though tiny holes in the pipes. The drainfield is an area of stone and dirt where a natural bacterial action completes the liquid waste treatment process.

To maintain the system, the solid wastes that have remained in the holding tank must be pumped out from time to time by a service professional.

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What is a septic certification?

A septic certification is a written document stating that an onsite sewage disposal system has been inspected and found to be in satisfactory condition according to established standards. It identifies the approximate location, size and configuration of the system components. It is not a warranty that the system will function properly over a period of time in the future.

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What should I know when buying a house with a septic system?

It's a good idea to clarify whether the home is hooked to a public sewer or if it uses a septic system. In most states, sellers are required to disclose a septic system. But, they may not disclose much about the condition of the system, unless you ask.

If a septic system exists, find out as much information as you can about the system. Here are some questions to ask the current owners:

  • How old is the system?
    Most systems that have been property maintained last about 25 years.
  • How has the system been maintained?
    Find out if the system has been pumped regularly and about any repairs that have been made. You can also ask the sellers for the name and phone number of their septic system service. Call the service and ask how the system has been maintained and if any problems exist.
  • What is the water capacity?
    Septic systems have a maximum water capacity. If your water usage is greater than the usage that the septic system is designed to handle, you'll have to consider cutting back on water use or upgrading the septic system.
  • Is it up to code?
    Septic systems must meet strict codes to comply with environmental safety and health standards. These codes have become more stringent in recent years. So, a septic system installed to code years ago may now require an upgrade to meet current requirements.
    If the septic system needs an upgrade, it's best to know before closing and to negotiate the upgrade as part of the sale. A motivated seller might be willing to give you a monetary credit to pay for the upgrade. Or, the seller may be willing to upgrade the septic system as a contingency of the sale.

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Do I need a septic system inspection?

It's in your best interest to have the system inspected by a professional inspector, even if you are hiring a home inspector. A home inspector will assess the condition of visible plumbing in the home, but will not conduct a detailed assessment of the septic system itself.

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What is involved in a septic inspection?

Most inspectors routinely conduct a dye test. This involves injecting a fluorescent dye into the septic system. If the dye shows up on the surface of the ground above the drainfield, the septic system is failing.

You should also ask for an "open pit test." This test involves pumping out the tank and removing the dirt that covers the top of the tank and distribution line. Mirrors or video cameras are then lowered into the tank so that it can be thoroughly inspected. At a cost of about $600, this test isn't cheap. But, it's the only way to determine the condition of the holding tank. Since a new septic system can run as much as $15,000, this test is worth the cost.

While the inspector is onsite, also ask if the septic system meets current code requirements. And, be sure to discuss your water usage needs to determine if the system is up to the task.

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What causes septic system failure?

Septic systems fail for many reasons. Sometimes a system fails because the tank simply needs to be pumped out. Other failures are more complicated and costly. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sites these common reasons for septic system failure:

  • the septic tank is not big enough
  • the drainfield is not big enough
  • the drainfield is not leveled properly
  • the system has been installed in unsuitable soil
  • the drainfield has been paved or has become hard-packed
  • seasonal ground table water is high
  • surface drainage does not drain from the drainfield
  • tree roots have interfered with the system
  • water softeners, water purification systems, and/or garbage disposals have interfered with the system

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Is my health at risk if my septic system fails?

A failed septic system is considered an environmental hazard because untreated wastewater harbors harmful viruses and bacteria that can contaminate well and ground water supplies. So, it's wise to have your septic system evaluated by a professional every three years.

If you allow your system to operate in a failure mode, your state's health department can shut your system down. You can also be held responsible under state and federal laws if your system is the cause of contamination. And, it's likely that you'll have to pay for a costly clean up.

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How much does a septic inspection cost?

Prices range from $400 to $600 depending on factors such as location and ease of access.

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Who pays for the septic inspection?

The seller usually pays for the inspection.

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