If you haven't lived on a property with a septic system, you might be surprised to learn there are steps which need to be taken to maintain the tank and there are things to avoid. When your home is hooked up to city sewer, the city maintains your sewer lines up to the point where the line enters your property. With a septic system, you are fully responsible for repairs and maintenance. Let's take a look at what septic tanks are and what you need to know before buying a home that has one.
More than 60 million people in the US are served by septic systems, according to the EPA.
Standard septic system (systems vary). Graphic by Reazo.com.
A septic tank is used to gather household wastewater from the toilet, washing machine, garbage disposal, etc., as it exits the home and then transfer it to an underground tank in the yard. The large watertight septic tank is made of cement, fiberglass, or polyethylene. It holds waste solids which settle to the bottom and is designed to prevent them from leaving the tank. In addition, there is an underground drainfield which collects and disperses the wastewater into the ground and away from your home. Above ground there are 2 covered openings, one used to inspect; the other used gain access to drain the tank. When properly maintained, you may never notice any difference between having a septic system vs. being hooked up to city sewer.
Before Buying a House with a Septic System
Before buying a house with a septic tank, talk to your real estate agent about your state's rules. Some states require inspections before the title can be transferred and your lender might require it too.
Before signing the buy/sell agreement, hire an inspector who will use a camera to look at the pipes to ensure they aren't compromised (ex. roots infiltrating the pipes). The inspector will also check to see that ventilation pipes were properly installed, providing a means for sewer gases to escape through the roof vs. drifting into the home. Ask the homeowner or inspector to provide a schematic of the septic system (tank, pipes, drainfield[s]). This will come in handy if you decide to buy the home, as you will want to avoid parking vehicles or heavy equipment in the area, avoid planting a garden or trees over the tank, and provide details to the septic service who will pump the tank. Ask when the system was installed to get a better idea of when it may need to be updated or replaced.
Discuss the size of the septic tank with the inspector too. A small tank will have to be drained more frequently. Ask whether or not an additive needs to be added to the system to help aid in the breakdown of solid waste (some septic companies advise against it).
Owning a Home with a Septic System
If you decide to purchase a house with a septic system, here are some signs which may indicate your septic tank has been compromised:
- Rotten egg odor (sulphur)
- Standing water that has a foul smell
- Gurgling sounds in your pipes, toilets, and sinks
- Slow clearing of water in your sink drains or toilets
Why Things Go Wrong
- Using too much water in a short period of time (ex. consecutive loads of laundry over a short period of time).
- Not having the system inspected every 2-3 years.
- Not have the tank pumped regularly (every 3-5 years, according to the EPA, depending on the number of people living in the home).
- Flushing items, besides toilet paper, down the toilet (ex. "flushable" wipes, dental floss, condoms, cotton swabs, cat litter, etc.). These can clog the system and potentially damage the components.
A few years ago, we experienced a problem with our septic line. While doing laundry, I noticed water accumulating in the basement near a floor drain. With the help of an emergency inspector, who used a camera to look at the line, we were able to learn why water from the washing machine wasn't making it into the septic tank (a rubber coupler was failing). The drywall and floor damage was minor and our insurance covered it, but we ended up having to hook up to city sewer which was very costly. If you're buying an older home (ours was built in 1966), with an old septic system, you could run into similar problems.
Maintaining your sewer lines is of utmost importance. If you don't take the necessary steps to maintain your sewer lines, you're going to face messy problems which can cost thousands of dollars. A well-designed and maintained septic system may need to be replaced after 25-30 years (ours lasted far longer than that).
Factors that will benefit your septic system:
- Install high efficiency toilets and shower heads
- Repair leaky faucets
- Use earth-friendly household cleaners (chemicals can kill the good bacteria in the septic tank, slowing down the process of breaking down solid waste)
- Garbage disposals contribute to the amount of grease and solids (up to 50%) that enter the septic tank. Get rid of your disposal or limit use.
- Do small loads of laundry throughout the week vs. doing many loads in one day.
- Use less water. Visit https://www.epa.gov/watersense for water saving tips.
When you're considering a home purchase, ask your real estate agent to include a septic tank inspection in your buy/sell agreement. Without an inspection, you may be faced with costly bills due to a faulty or neglected septic system. Also, talk to your agent about your state's rules regarding septic tanks. If you decide to purchase the home, be prepared to have the tank pumped every 3-5 years at a cost of $250-$500 (keep a record of this and any work performed on the system). Buying a home with a septic system might not feel much different from being on city sewer, but be cautious about what you're putting down the drains and toilet and stay on top of the maintenance.