The phrase “septic system” in a home listing is notorious for scaring away potential buyers—they might see the system as antiquated, expensive to repair, or hard to maintain. But septic systems don’t have to be scary—with a solid maintenance record and a good inspection, a septic tank and the associated parts can easily last for decades. If you’re considering a new home with this system buried out back, don’t automatically opt out because you don’t know the answer to, “How does a septic system work?” Read this first.
1. A septic system is meant to filter wastewater.
The first step towards clearing up any uneasiness about a septic system is to understand its purpose and how it functions. Let’s start with the various parts. The system consists of a large septic tank, drainfield (also called a “leach field,” the network of perforated pipes that spread out from the septic tank and release out the filtered wastewater into the soil), distribution box, and baffles, all of which are buried underground.
So, how does a septic system work? The wastewater from your home—from toilets, sinks, showers, and appliances—exits the house through the pipes into the tank. Once in the tank, the solid matter (also known as “sludge”) settles at the bottom. The buildup over time provides a luxurious home for beneficial anaerobic bacteria, which work to break down the solids and release the grease, oil, and fats (the “scum”). These byproducts rise to the top, where they hang out in the tank, kept separate by a set of baffles. Meanwhile, the remaining wastewater (also called “effluent”) flows through outlet pipes into the disposal bed or drainfield, where it is slowly and safely filtered by the soil.
2. These systems require attention and maintenance to keep running smoothly.
Maintaining a septic system is rather simple. Here’s how:
- Be careful of what you send through the system. Paint, chemicals, kitty litter, coffee grounds, “disposable” wipes, diapers, and feminine products should never be sent down the drain, because these could clog the septic system.
- Avoid using any additives in the system. According to the National Small Flows Clearinghouse, there are two types of additives: chemical and biological. Though these products are marketed to do everything from accelerate the breakdown of solids to improve the state of the drainfield, they usually wreak havoc on the bacteria that are supposed to keep the system working well.
- Never park or drive over the drainfield, as the weight of the vehicle could damage the pipes.
- Be careful when planting bushes or trees near the drainfield. Some water-loving species, such as weeping willows, can send roots into the drainfield, outlet pipes, or even the septic tank itself. The Virginia Cooperative Extension suggests a good rule of thumb: if a tree will grow to be 25 feet tall, keep it at least 25 feet away from the drainfield.
- Get the tank pumped out every two or three years, on average, by a professional septic service. Typically, the professional will also conduct a visual inspection of the component at the same time.
- At the first sign of potential failure (described below) call in a professional! The sooner you call, the cheaper a fix might be.
3. It’s important to recognize the signs of failure.
Failure of a septic system might go unnoticed at first. Slow-moving interior drains and gurgling sounds from those exterior drains are often the first sign. Then there might be occasional bad odors emitting from the septic tank, drainfield, or drains in the home; sewage backing up into the house; or difficulty with flushing toilets. Outside, the vegetation over the drainfield might suddenly become lush and full, indicating a possible blockage or break in the outlet pipes.
4. Don’t fall victim to the common misconceptions.
Many misunderstandings (even myths) about septic systems can give someone pause when considering a home that has one. Let’s set the record straight:
- Nobody really has a septic system anymore. Actually, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says about 20 percent of homes have a septic system—that’s one in five.
- Septic systems routinely fail. With solid maintenance, a septic system can last for up to 40 years—or even longer, according to the EPA.
- Septic systems stink. A properly maintained septic system should not emit any unpleasant odors. If you smell a bad odor emitting from drains or the septic area itself, there’s a problem.
- A septic system can contaminate a well. If a system is installed properly and maintained regularly, it will not contaminate a well on the property. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the system must be located at least 50 feet from the well to help ensure the separation of drinking water and wastewater.
- A home inspection will look at the septic system. A home inspection tends to focus on systems within the home; therefore, it rarely includes more than a cursory look at the septic. To get a complete picture, look for a professional who knows exactly how a septic system works and how to thoroughly inspect it.
5. Know how to find the best septic system inspector.
When placing an offer on a home, that offer is almost always contingent on the results of a full inspection of the property—including the septic system. It’s important to remember that what is said on a seller’s disclosure form is not a good substitute for an inspection. The homeowner typically won’t have the skills or equipment to properly inspect the system; if there are problems, the homeowner might not be aware of them.
It’s also vital to note that a home inspection usually doesn’t include a good look at the septic system. A general home inspection will evaluate the home itself, the systems within the home (such as plumbing and electrical), the condition of the roof, and possibly some of the exterior areas. A thorough look at the septic system often requires training that a general home inspector might not have. Therefore, always go to a septic system professional to get the inspection.
As with hiring most professionals for home maintenance, it’s best to seek out an inspector with an excellent reputation. Your neighbors and your realtor may be able to offer a few good leads. Keep in mind that choosing someone local will also ensure that they’re familiar with applicable regulations—neighboring municipalities may have different rules regarding septic tanks. Call each potential inspector and ask questions about how they handle the job; for instance, some might use cameras to look at the distribution box and drainfield, while others might dig to do their inspection. This can make a difference in cost, but it might also make a difference in aesthetics, especially if you don’t want delicate landscaping disturbed.
Once the inspection begins, the professional will search out pumping and maintenance records, look for signs of leakage or backup, measure the sludge and scum levels, establish the age of the tank, and more. The inspector will also assess the condition of the drainfield, tank, and all associated parts and confirm that the tank is properly sized for the home. If the home has additions that were created after the septic tank was initially installed, an inspector may make recommendations to accommodate. For instance, a 2-bedroom home needs a different size tank than a 3-bedroom does.