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What to Do Before You Buy a Home With a Septic System

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You’ve finally found your dream home… and it has a septic system. 

If you’re a bit nervous about taking the plunge and buying a home with a septic tank, you’re not alone: Many homebuyers aren’t sure what to think about septic systems. 

But as it turns out, septic systems are more common than you might think. In fact, one in five U.S. households treat wastewater with a septic system, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. While it’s true that such systems do require regular maintenance, the upkeep is minimal.

Don’t let this home feature scare you away! Here’s what you should know before you buy a home with a septic system. 

How Do Septic Systems Work?

Septic systems are used by homes that aren’t connected to municipal sewers. Contrary to popular belief, septic systems don’t turn a home’s wastewater into drinking water. Rather, it’s a standalone system that collects, treats and disposes of a household’s wastewater.

First, a pipe collects a household’s wastewater from:

  • Toilets
  • Sinks
  • Bathtubs
  • Showers
  • Garbage disposal
  • Dishwasher
  • Washing machine

The pipe transfers waste into a watertight, underground tank. Inside, solids — a.k.a. “sludge” — settle to the bottom, while anything that floats — or “scum” — rises to the top. The sludge and scum remain in the tank until it’s pumped out.

In between lies a middle layer of wastewater known as “effluent.” In a standard septic system, anaerobic microbes break down effluent, which then drains into a surrounding drain field. As effluent disperses across the field, beneficial bacteria further break down contaminants as soil filters the wastewater.

An aerobic septic system adds two more steps to the process. After the waste separates into layers, the effluent flows into a treatment tank. Here, an aerator circulates oxygen, creating a friendly environment for aerobic microbes that break down waste quickly.

Finally, the wastewater passes into one last tank where it’s treated with a disinfectant that kills pathogens. At this point, the wastewater is considered clean enough to use for watering landscaping plants or to disperse into the soil.

Questions to Ask Before Buying a Home With a Septic System

Before you purchase a house with a septic system, look into your state’s rules. Some states (and some mortgage lenders) require a septic system inspection before the title can be transferred to a new owner. Keep in mind that standard home inspections don’t always include the septic system.

Other questions homebuyers should ask include:

  • The system’s age: The average life of a septic system is approximately 25 years, depending on its usage and maintenance.
  • The system’s location on the property: If the current owner doesn’t know, this may indicate a lack of maintenance.
  • What is installed: This includes details such as the type/size of tank, and system type (standard or aerobic).
  • When the tank was last pumped: If the current owner offers to have it pumped, ask them to wait until the time of the inspection; as the tank should be pumped at the same time as the inspection to meet NAWT Inspection guidelines.

Take time to review the service and maintenance records. While pumping frequency depends on factors like tank size and the amount of waste generated by the household, tanks should typically be pumped every three to five years. Home records should reflect consistent maintenance.

When you’re touring the property, ask to see the drain field. Be on the lookout for any indications of problems; these may include damp or wet areas, patches of bright green grass or unpleasant odors.

When to Call a Certified Septic Inspector

Even if you don’t notice any red flags on your walk-through, a professional inspection is necessary before making any final buying decisions.

A licensed septic inspector will provide an objective assessment of the system’s condition and note potential issues. An inspector should also:

  • Describe the system’s condition in detail
  • Note if the drain field and tank are a proper, safe distance from water sources such as wells
  • Inspect inlet and outlet baffles
  • Provide a schematic of the system and drain field so you can avoid parking vehicles or planting over the drain field and tank

When a Septic System Fails

What happens if a septic inspection finds issues or, worse, if a septic system fails? It’s time to call in a professional service.

Dealing with septic tank issues isn’t a DIY-friendly activity; in some cases, it’s actually illegal to service your own system. In addition, septic tank service requires specialized tools and parts, as well as experience with electrical issues. Plus, working in wastewater may expose you to microbes and waterborne diseases. Why take the chance?

Regular maintenance is key to a septic system’s long life. While pumping frequency depends on tank size and household wastewater output, regular professional inspections will help nip any problems in the bud.

Homeowners can take steps to promote septic system health. These include:

  • Avoiding additives that claim to break down solids and minimize the need for pumping; these have been found to damage tanks
  • Not flushing anything but toilet paper down the toilet (e.g., dental floss, hygiene products, kitty litter, etc.)
  • Avoiding excessive water use (e.g., washing small loads of laundry on a washer’s large-load cycle)
  • Installing low-flow shower heads, faucet aerators and efficient toilets
  • Not washing toxins such as cooking grease, oil, paint and cleaners down the sink
  • Avoiding the use of chemical drain de-cloggers
  • Reducing or eliminating the use of a garbage disposal

Following these steps and a regular maintenance schedule can help keep your system in good condition.

Having a septic tank doesn’t have to be scary. If you’re considering a house with a septic system, take the time to ask the right questions. Most importantly, enlist professional help and have a certified inspector take a look.

If you have septic system questions, Van Delden Wastewater Systems has answers! Whether you need an inspection, maintenance or a new system, we’re here to help.

Photo by Pixabay


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