What is included in a Septic Inspection?

septic inspection monster

The septic inspection is the most challenging and physically demanding of all real estate inspections–it’s no wonder that professionals in our industry joke that it’s a ‘crappy’ job.  A good inspector should have a sharp eye, a strong back, and a robust stomach.  Conventional gravity-fed septic systems are not too complex and the inspection itself can be straight forward, as we discuss in further detail below, but gaining access to the tank and its components is the most difficult part of the job:

Challenge #1: Locating the tank. 
It is common for homes in our area (even newer ones) to have missing septic permits.  When permits are found they are helpful, but they only provide a hand-drawn diagram that can be mis-leading or just wrong.   Most tanks haven’t been pumped in ten years or more let alone the recommended 3-5 years (some tanks haven’t seen the light of day in decades).  Over time tanks and drain fields can get buried under decks, patios, additions, outbuildings, fill/garbage/etc. or they become overgrown with shrubs and trees.  The search for the tank typically begins at the downhill side of the home to look for clues and to start probing until something flat and hard is found.  When this fails, the inspector may look for a clean-out to scope and locate the tank that way.  Clean-outs are usually found in the basement, crawlspace or outside.  When no clean-outs are found the inspector may use a flushable emitter (about the size of a small egg) down the main waste line until it finds its way to the tank and then use their locator to track it down—as you can imagine, some emitters are never found again (money flushed down the drain).

septic inspection,septic inspection cost,septic inspection report
septic inspection,septic inspection cost,septic inspection report

Challenge #2:Digging to the tank
After locating the corners of the tank the inspector digs over where they assume the lids might be.  Most tanks have two compartments—each with its own lid.  Typically, they dig 2 holes for the tank and sometimes a third for the ‘d-box’ or distribution box.  The inspector may run into rubble and roots which make the digging difficult.  Most tanks are between 1.5’ and 3’ underground– an excavator is typically needed when tanks are below 3′.   It is not uncommon to find tanks found 8’ deep in the ground or more that have been covered during re-grading projects!  The digging part of the job can take hours- sometimes in rain, snow or the hot sun.

Challenge #3: Opening the lids
Most septic tank lids are made of thick concrete and are not easily opened.  Special tools and techniques are needed to tease them open.  Many lids are already cracked or damaged when the inspectors arrive.  Many inspectors carry standard sized lids in the truck for replacement so they can continue with the inspection and prevent hazards to the occupants.  Some older tanks have over-sized concrete lids known in our industry affectionately as ‘coffin lids’—they can be as large as 3’x5’ (over 100 pounds) and may require the use of a hoist or other special equipment to hold them open.  Most of the time the only thing that escapes the lid is ‘popped’ is the sweet smell of victory but occasionally raw sewage comes flooding out because the system is backing up– never a pleasant outcome. 

septic inspection,septic inspection cost,septic inspection report
septic inspection,septic inspection cost,septic inspection report
septic inspection,septic inspection cost,septic inspection report
septic inspection,septic inspection cost,septic inspection report

(And finally…) The Inspection:
Once the inspector has exposed all the components they can perform the actual inspection.  Most septic systems are simple in concept and the design has not varied much in decades.  There is a main plumbing line to and from a 2-compartment tank—the system is gravity fed so everything must slope gently downhill. The first compartment is designed to ferment the bulk of the ‘solids’ and the second compartment breaks down smaller solids into a clear liquid. The baffle wall, sanitary tees and a filter are designed to keep solids from clogging the drain field (earlier tanks do not have these). The drain field disperses the clear effluent to soil organisms near the surface for the final phase of fermentation. Sometimes when home sites do not ‘perc’ well, or accept effluent well, more complex systems are installed. Lift stations pump waste to other locations off site where the soil is more accommodating. Some systems look like what you might see under the hood of a diesel Mercedes Benz—manifolds, timers, valves, control boxes, sensors/alarms etc… these are designed to simulate the fermentation process that would ideally take place in a conventional drain field.

septic inspection,septic inspection cost,septic inspection report

For a conventional gravity fed system the inspector will verify that the inlet, outlet, sanitary tee, tank and baffle wall are intact and functioning properly and take pictures/video.  The inspector may take a core sample from each compartment to verify they are fermenting properly.  The inspectors will verify that effluent is entering and leaving the tank and check the grading and clearances from the home, well, property line and water sources.

After the inspection the inspector buries the lids and carefully replaces the sod over the dig-site.  Some inspectors may cover the disturbed area with wheat straw and/or re-seed to help the grass recover.  Many inspectors will provide estimates for repair work. 

On pumping the tank:  Pumping the tank is recommended every 3-5 years.  Pumping the tank during an inspection is a necessary maintenance item and allows for a more complete inspection.  

septic inspection,septic inspection cost,septic inspection report


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