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Monday, February 13, 2017

Am I buying a time bomb?


Many first time buyers, or perhaps buyers moving out to the country for the first time, encounter something that they have little or no idea about – a septic system. Many people have lived their entire lives in cities of communities that have sewer systems. They never worried about where things went when they flushed the toilet, nor did they concern themselves about hiring someone to come pump out a huge tank in their back yard. If they had any notion of a septic system maybe it was from watching the 2000 movie Meet the Parents, which probably didn’t leave a favorable impression about septic fields.

So, now they are looking at houses out in the country a bit and seeing the terms Well and Septic on the listing ticket. What’s that all about? Should you be concerned if you see that? Am I buying a time bomb? The short answer is NO, you need not be overly concerned; but you should take the time to educate yourself about these waste disposal systems and what that means in terms of your responsibilities.

A septic system performs the same functions as the sewer system, just at a much smaller scale and much more close to home. Everything that goes down a drain in the house or is flushed down a toilet has to go somewhere and has to be dealt with somehow. In settings with sewer systems your house is hooked with pipes to much larger pipes that carry all of the waste water from all sources in your house (and every other house around you) to a central waste treatment plant somewhere. You really don’t care where that is at; unless, perhaps, you happen to live right next door to it. At the waste treatment plant the waste from thousands of homes is treated with chemicals and natural bacteria in huge ponds. The bacteria are there to breakdown and digest the solids in the waste water. Eventually the clean  water that results is released into stream or lakes.


Individual septic systems perform the same functions, just underground and right out in your back or side yard.  The waste water from your house flows into a large tank (called a septic tank, which is named thus because the water and waste that flows into it is septic - infected with bacteria) usually of 1000 gallons of more. The septic bacteria came mostly from you, but that’s likely more than you really want to know.  Anyway the septic tank provides a place where good bacteria can work on the solids in the waste water to break then down and digest them. The solids tend to settle to the bottom, providing a smorgasbord for bottom-feeding bacteria. Some remain suspended in the water which is directed out of the tank and into the septic field. The septic field is a series of pipes with holes in them that are buried several feet underground. The holes let the water escape out into the soil where other good and hungry bacteria digest whatever is in the water for them to eat.

A well designed and properly installed septic field can last for a very long time, if it is also well maintained. However, they are not necessarily design to last forever. A study of septic systems published in 2013 by Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) via a grant from the NYS Water Resources Institute with funds provided by the NY State, had this advice.

Most septic systems will fail eventually. These systems are designed to have a useful life of 20 to 30 years under the best conditions. Older septic tanks with concrete or metal parts degrade over time. Eventually the soil in the drain field becomes clogged with organic material. Many other factors can cause the system to fail well before the end of its “natural” lifespan. Pipes blocked by roots, soils saturated by high water tables, crushed distribution pipes, improper location, poor original design, or poor installation can all lead to major problems. The most common reasons for early failure are misuse or inadequate maintenance by homeowners. When a system is not pumped regularly, solids build up in the septic tank, then flow into the drain field and clog it.
Symptoms of Septic System Failure –

·         Slowly draining sinks, bathtubs and toilets.
·         Surface emergence of wastewater
·         Lush green grass over the drain field, even during dry weather
·         Nitrate, nitrite, or coliform bacteria in your well water

An excellent article by Mila Ready outlines the main reasons that septic systems fail. The bottom line is abuse or neglect (or both) by the owner. One of the more common things that I see in my little patch of the world is people overloading their septic system by having more people in the house than the system was designed to handle. When the developer lays out the plans for developments that will have septic systems associated with each house they have very specific guidelines about how many bedrooms the house should have given the proposed size of the septic field. The idea is that a three-bedroom house will house maybe four or five residents with their waste byproducts. Some developers then build houses with “bonus rooms” that they sell with a wink of the eye as the fourth bedroom. Sometimes owners just add bedrooms through add-ons or converting spaces in basements or elsewhere into bedrooms.  The result is a house with 5-people in it, all contributing to the waste going into a septic system that was design to handle 3-4 residents. He system gets overwhelmed and fails.

The other things that I see a lot is poor or no maintenance of septic systems. Many sellers tell me that they don’t even remember that last time that they had the septic tank pump out. Why is that important? Well, eventually the solids can build up to the near the top of the tank and get into the pipes that make up the field and clog them up. The other thing that can happen is that the field itself gets “clogged” with solids and can drain away the liquids, so they eventually come to the surface. Remember the scene from Meet the Parents when the main character was driving through the soggy, failed septic field – yuck.

Going all the way back to the headline question; perhaps you are buying a time bomb, if you don’t pay any attention to this very important system. You should have the septic tanks pumped out every 2-3 years and many will also recommend not putting normal kitchen waste down a garbage disposal. In fact, most country homes were built without disposals to begin with. Some of the solid kitchen waste that you might put into the septic system by grinding them up in an in-sink disposal just don’t “digest” the way that other waste matter does and can clog the system up. Animal fats and meats are particularly bad for the system.

If the septic system fails due to a clogged field, there are companies that profess to have remedies that you can introduce into the system to clean it out (here are links to two of them – NewTechBio and REX-BAC-T). Think of them as super hungry bacteria that get in there and eat everything they hit.  Most septic companies would probably disagree with that and still recommend replacing the whole system.; however, replacing a septic system can cost $8-15,000 (more if it is an engineered field). Hope springs eternal, so maybe trying one of those modern biotech solutions first is worth the few hundreds that they may cost. Of course, the best solution is not to have a failed system in the first place, so regular maintenance is still the lowest cost approach. You can get on the right track by insisting that the septic be pumped out as a condition of your purchase offer.

So, you don’t have to fear the septic like a ticking time bomb, but you do need to be mindful of its ability to blow up in your face, if you don’t take care of it. Set up a regular maintenance inspection and pump out with a local septic company to remain flushed with pride about your home.


Norm Werner is a full-time Realtor® working under the Real Estate One brokerage in Milford, Michigan. For more about Norm visit his web site – hppt://www.movetomilford.com.

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