When a septic inspection is needed for a home sale, it can become overwhelming. You have so much that needs to be done for the home sale. Plus, you are taking in a lot of information in areas that may be new to you. On top of all that, a septic inspection can come with lots of extra charges and testing you weren’t expecting. This guide should help you clear through some of the fog of buying a home with a septic system and the different tests needed. We will cover the process of septic system inspections and how you can prepare. Before we get started into the process it’s important to understand our code of conduct for running these inspections.
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No matter who we work for, we believe it is our ethical responsibility to make sure the septic system is a working utility for the next buyer. Whenever we show up to a home we ask ourselves the question: Would I buy a home with this septic system?
We also believe that we are here to help, not hinder, the home sale. We want to see homes go to settlement, because home sales are the reason we have a job. This means that we don’t add up unnecessary repairs or testing beyond what’s needed. We are not here to get as much money as we can out of a home sale, but to make sure the septic system is working.
Septic Inspection Process
The septic inspection process has a simple overall plan. We work down the line of the septic system and check every component. This process follows the flow of the sewage; starting from inside and ending at the drain field. We’ll begin by gathering as much information as needed. We ask about the septic system history, maintenance, and location. From here we can begin inspecting.
The first component we start with is the building sewer pipeline. We check to see if there are pipelines that should be going into the sewer line that are not connected. This would include grey water discharges such as the sink and washing machine. We are also looking for lines that shouldn’t be going into the sewer line that are. For example a wet basement sump pump. This is also a good time to check if there is an alarm for your pump tank. This will be helpful later in the inspection. We’ll then open up your sewer line and inspect the line all the way to your tank.
We use a push camera and take videos and pictures of the interior of your sewer line. This allows us to show evidence of any problems. Most inspectors will just flush a toilet and try to tell if there are any problems based on the way the water comes out at the end of the pipe. This can be used to check for sags, but is not completely accurate. A push camera inspection allows us to see much more detail. For example breaks, disjointed pipes, root intrusion, and deteriorated pipes. Next we can look at the structural integrity of the septic tank
Septic Tank Inspection
Now we are ready to look at your septic tank(s). When we open up your tank we look at the liquid level inside. Many will see how full the tank looks and think that it is ready to pump. This is actually a good sign. The septic tank needs to be full in order for it to spill over to the next component. If it is too low that means either the the septic tank has a crack or the tank was recently pumped out. Now if the liquid level in the tank is too high then there is a problem, but a tank should look close to full whenever opened. After the tank is opened up and we verify the proper working height of the liquid level, we will move on to looking at the tank’s interior condition.
If you want an overview of how a septic tank works and the problems that can arise inside the septic tank click here.
When inspecting the inside of the tank we use a digital camera and take pictures of the interior of the tank. This gives us a better view of the tank’s interior, and, if there are any problems, it allows both parties to see the issues in plain view. All the septic tanks must be opened up and inspected. If there are two chambers to a tank they must both be opened and inspected.
After the septic inspection report is finished a pumper will come out before settlement and pump out the tanks. At this time he/she can shine a flashlight down into the tanks and look for any cracks below the liquid level. This cannot be done until the condition of the drain field is determined. We will explain more about this later.
In some septic systems there will be an extra tank used for holding the pump. These work a little differently than typical septic tanks.
Septic Pump Tank Inspection
The pump tank is used in certain drain field types. A pump tank has a different purpose than the septic tank. The pump tank is not meant to treat sewage like a septic tank, instead it houses the pump and receives enough effluent to pump up to the drain field. We will check the interior structure of the tank but we also need to look at the functioning of the pump.
The pump runs by a float switch dangling above it. When that switch floats and turns upside down the pump will run and push the treated sewage towards the drain field. Above the float switch is an alarm switch. It turns on through the same method, but instead of turning on the pump it runs an alarm. This alarm lets the homeowner know that the pump isn’t running. At this point a homeowner needs to call a pumper to remove the sewage and take a look at the problem. The alarm is your last line of defense against sewage filling up to a point where it will spill out of the tank. Once we examine all of the tanks we can move down the line to the drain field.
As the treated sewage leaves the septic tank(s) it flows into the drain field. This is the most expensive portion of the septic system. The drain field is found by using a probe rod that we push into the ground. When we hit the stone gravel in the drain field we know that we’ve found it. From here we can determine the size, shape, and type of system. When we inspect the drain field we are primarily concerned about the moisture level in the field. We push the probe rod down into the bottom of the stone and measure the level of standing liquid in the drain field. If the liquid level is above the stone the drain field is unsatisfactory. If the liquid level is near the top of the stone we can run a hydraulic load test. Depending on the type of system we can determine if the standing liquid is close enough to the top for more testing.
If you want to learn more about drain fields and drain field problems click here.
How a Buyer Can Prepare For a Septic Inspection
During the inspection you can feel free to ask us as many questions as you like. We love well informed clients. It’s one of the reasons we created this blog, so that you can learn about the system you’re investing in. We will typically find every component in the system and then come and walk you through our field survey. This allows us to know everything that could be wrong in the system before we walk you through and we can give you a tour of your system explaining how it works.
Read materials ahead of time
When we talk to clients they can seem inundated with all of the new information. You are trying to picture how everything works, plus you are trying to grasp the problems with the system. On top of that, you may have your home inspection going on as well. This can create an overload of information. If you spend a little bit of time before the inspection getting an idea of how a system works and problems that can arise, you will understand a lot more the day of the inspection.
Of course the best place to start is right here on our blog. We are constantly updating our website with information that is relevant to your specific system. After the home sale keep coming back to see tips on maintenance. There are other sites out there that offer some information but they are hard to find and some of the information is untrustworthy. One I would recommend, however, is the EPA’s website. They have a few nice summaries on the septic system and basic maintenance.
How a Home Seller Can Prepare For a Septic Inspection
Do NOT Pump the Tank Before the Inspection
Sometimes a pumper will recommend pumping your tank before you put your home on the market. Don’t listen to them! When you pump a tank it throws off the inspection. If a tank is pumped out the sewage that would go out into the drain field is instead filling the tanks back up again. This allows the drain field to dry out. It would be the same as a having a vacant home for a few weeks. It doesn’t give an accurate representation of the drain field’s ability to drain. When an inspector observes that the septic tank has been pumped out he will require a hydraulic load test. Plus, you will have to pay to pump the tanks out again after the buyer’s inspection is done.
Septic Inspection Precertification
Imagine you put your house on the market. Everything looks good after the home inspection and the buyers are excited to get to settlement. And then the septic inspection comes back unsatisfactory. Now you are stuck in a process of replacing a tank or a new drain field. A replacement drain field will require permits, running perc tests with the health department, bidding out to contractors, and major construction. This can really throw a wrench into what could have been an easy sale.
This is why we recommend a septic system precertification before you put your home on the market. Even if it isn’t as major as a new drain field, it’s best to know ahead of time if there are any repairs or replacements needed. This will take a lot of stress off during the home sale process, plus the realtor will have a septic report to help market the home.
Gather Any Paperwork on the Septic System
Before the inspector shows up it can help the inspection process to have any permits or previous septic inspections present. A permit helps finding the location of every component of the system. If there is a secondary septic tank or an extra trench that was hidden sometimes only having a permit will help find these. If you received a septic inspection before you put your house on the market, or you have an inspection from when you sold your home hold on to that report. Having a second report to show any information that was previously disclosed may help you show the next inspector anything they might have missed.
Know that you can use a second inspection.
It can be a huge let down when there is a problem found with your septic system. If there is a major problem like a new tank or drain field, it is best to get a second opinion. The first inspector may have missed something that led him to the wrong conclusion. If thousands of dollars are at stake a second opinion inspection may well be worth the money. When we do a second opinion inspection we will look at what the previous inspector has reported. We then perform our own field survey, inspect each component individually and submit a final report.
What if my septic inspection did not pass?
If your drain field is unsatisfactory even after getting a second opinion you will have to start the process for a new replacement installation. This requires a contractor/designer to work with the health department to run perc tests, soils descriptions and find a new absorption area. When we design a septic system we make sure that the system is one that will work for your soils and has a reasonable price tag.
Hydraulic Load Test
When an inspector sticks a probe rod into a drain field he is assuming that there have been constant flows into the septic system. If there is no sewage entering the drain field there is no way to tell if the drain field is working properly. This is where a hydraulic load test becomes necessary.
The idea behind a hydraulic load test is to introduce a specified amount of water into the field to see if it is working properly. A hydraulic load test will be necessary whenever there has been an interruption of, or changes to, the typical daily flows of wastewater. This can occur because of a vacant home or because a component on the septic system has been fixed and now it needs to be tested. Even a home being vacant for one week is enough time for the liquid level in a drain field to be affected.
This may seem like a short amount of time to throw off an inspection. But, consider how often you leave your home for longer than 7 days. Most people don’t go on vacations at that length except for once a year. The rest of the year that drain field is receiving constant flows of wastewater. We want to test the drain field when it looks the way it would for most of the year.
How long does a septic inspection take?
The amount of time for a septic inspection to be completed depends upon how long it takes to find and uncover every component of the septic system. We work to be both thorough and efficient. Giving an exact time is difficult because it depends on the type of septic system that is being inspected. If a system has more components, and they are all difficult to locate, than it will take much more time to inspect.
It’s important to know that a septic inspection may sometimes require multiple days. Make sure that there is enough time before the end of your agreement period to get all testing done. The most common reason for an inspection to last several days is when a hydraulic load test is needed. If you weren’t expecting a hydraulic load test, then it can be a scramble to schedule in the necessary additional testing. We recommend that you give us a call as early in the agreement period as possible. We also try to work with you as much as possible to get your report completed within your agreement period.
One other factor to keep in mind is rainfall. Heavy rain can throw off an inspection and the septic system should be given 48 hours of recovery after the storm has ended. This is not a common issue and would only be necessary in significant rainstorms.
What is included in a septic inspection?
Besides the actual inspection process a septic inspection includes two things: a septic inspection report and a sewer line video.
We write every septic report within 24 hours of the inspection. Within the report we will explain all of our findings and any actions that need to be taken. These are again summarized at the end of the report. We also add a few basic tips on maintaining your system.
When we inspect the sewer line we will record it on video. This allows us to show any problems that arise. We will send this video along with the septic inspection report for your personal records.
Hopefully this guide has given you some confidence when you are planning to buy or sell a house with a septic system. Having a little bit of knowledge on septic inspections can make your day of testing a lot easier to understand. We’ll keep updating our blog about your specific septic system and how to maintain it.
If you would like to learn much more about inspections and septic systems in general click here to learn about our ebook.