Of the many inner workings of a modern home, none is more essential to health and comfort than the wastewater treatment system. If a home is located outside the service area of a municipal sewer treatment system, it will have its own on-site system, commonly known as a septic system. These systems were originally intended to be a temporary solution until a public sewer system could be constructed. However, if development is sparse or terrain prohibits accessibility, construction of a public sewer system can be cost prohibitive or otherwise impossible. Therefore nearly one in four American households will forever have their own on-site wastewater treatment system. Regulations governing the design and maintenance of these systems protect the public health by maintaining the cleanliness of ground water and preventing pollution in our streams, rivers, lakes and oceans.
Septic Systems Range From Simple to High Tech
On the simple end is the conventional septic system. A pipe extends from the home or building, carrying wastewater to a watertight tank (usually made of concrete, metal or polyethylene) buried in the ground. Inside the tank the waste settles into layers. Heavier solids settle to the bottom, forming sludge. Scum and grease float to the very top. The liquid just below the scum layer (effluent) exits the tank, usually through a distribution box, and flows through perforated pipes into the drain field where it percolates into the soil. The size of the septic tank is based on the amount of waste it is expected to process. Local building codes specify the volume of the septic tank by number of bedrooms, or occupancy of a structure.
No two soils are alike. In fact, soil characteristics can differ greatly within just a few feet.” — Bill Meagher
An alternative septic system is one that must incorporate one or more specialized components to achieve acceptable treatment of wastewater. These systems are necessary when conventional systems are not capable of doing the job because of site conditions, such as where the soil is too dense or too permeable; too shallow in relation to ground water or bedrock; the water table is too high; or not enough land to accommodate a drain field. Components that can be used in alternative systems are sand filters, aerobic treatment units, disinfection devices, and alternative subsurface infiltration designs such as mounds, gravelless trenches, and pressure and drip distribution. Alternative systems usually cost more because they have more moving parts and electrical components, such as alarms, monitors and pumps. They also require more maintenance and monitoring. Each system must be custom engineered and installed for the unique site conditions and usage levels. There is a wide range of alternative systems on the market these days, with literally dozens of options and configurations available.
The Condition of an Existing Septic System
Nobody wants to experience unwelcome surprises after moving into a newly purchased home, especially when it comes to flushing toilets. In a typical home purchase, the property is required to undergo an inspection within 30 days of closing and the sewage disposal system is on the list of items to be checked. However, in the Commonwealth of Virginia, sewage must be actively backing up into the fixtures, or sewage must be visible on top of the ground for a septic system to be classified as “in failure.” Otherwise, it passes. In the absence of either of these two issues, the inspector will likely flush the toilets as additional confirmation that all is well.
The bad news is that oftentimes homeowners do experience the unwelcome surprise of a failing septic system shortly after moving in and the system has undergone some use. Many homes on the market are vacant and telltale signs of trouble will not be visible during the general inspection due to lack of recent use. A septic professional or soil specialist can conduct a separate, more thorough inspection of the septic system for a few hundred dollars.
Hire an Expert
Bill Meagher is a soil and environmental consultant. He and his team of engineers have been conducting soil studies for onsite sewage disposal systems, as well as other site-related services for property owners, since 1989. Bill explains that a soil specialist or septic company can conduct an inspection of a system where they actually dig around the parts of the system to reveal clues as to the system’s condition. “By digging them up, you can tell the condition by the flow levels; the scum lines, if roots are invading the system. And we can tell the date of the system even without the paperwork, by the width of the box and the construction materials,” Bill adds.
Ashley Miller of Miller’s Septic, located in Saluda, VA, recommends home sellers get a prelisting inspection of the septic system so that any issues that come up can be addressed long before a buyer is waiting to finalize the sale, especially since permits will be required and that takes time. If problems are found, amendments can be made before the sale goes through, potentially saving the new owner the cost of an expensive repair or replacement. Public records showing the design, age, repairs and other issues can be obtained at the county health department where the home is located. A system with multiple repairs would definitely send up a red flag.
Maintenance Is Key
Septic systems do not last forever, and age is not the only factor in a system’s longevity. The system’s lifespan can vary greatly, determined by its maintenance and usage level. With average use, they typically they last 25 to 30 years. The solids from the tank will need to be pumped out every three to five years, again, depending upon usage. This keeps the solids from invading the exit lines and causing clogging and backups. Alternative systems require more maintenance and monitoring. Many septic companies offer periodic inspections and routine servicing on a contractual basis for the more sophisticated systems. The Environmental Protection Agency has a wealth of information on this topic with plenty of tips to keep your system in excellent working order.
Three Categories of Sewage Disposal System Permits:
• New Construction
• Voluntary Upgrade
When a system fails, it falls into the repair section of the regulations. The current law requires the homeowner to repair the failing system to the greatest extent possible, regardless of the cost, driving the cost of some repairs up to $25,000 or more.
A voluntary upgrade is a solution for a less severe problem that has not yet reached the failure stage. All you have to do is put in a system that’s better than what you have. Bill says, “Typically the older systems were installed too deep in the ground for today’s standards so if you add a pump and raise your laterals out of the seasonal water table, you can pretty much get a new old system.”
The Cost of a New Septic System
Conventional system on well-draining soils: $7,000
A standard alternative system: $15,000 – $20,000
Extreme soils with wetlands involved: up to $25,000
It’s important to note that alternative systems aren’t always more expensive than conventional systems. Under certain conditions, a conventional system might require such a large drain field, it’s actually cheaper to go alternative. Keep in mind that if a home addition is in your plans, the sewage disposal system will likely have to be upgraded to handle the additional demand.
These days technology can overcome soil limitations and certain restrictions, whereas just a few years back, land might be considered undevelopable because the conventional system wouldn’t do the job.
Written by Carolyn August for Rodgers & Burton –
Carolyn is a writer and designer who has been working in the communications field for over 25 years. She will take on any topic to research and write about, and especially enjoys taking complex subjects and making them easy to understand. Often called a “renaissance woman” by her friends and colleagues, her many creative passions include writing, ceramic arts, music, fiber arts, gardening and winemaking. She and her husband share their Virginia farmhouse with two dogs, one cat and a pair of bald eagles who nest in their woods. When not creating, Carolyn prefers to be paddling on the waters of the Chesapeake Bay.