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. Today’s inspectors need deep pockets as well because technology exists that allow us to inspect underground pipes with the use of expensive equipment like our Ridgid push camera and pipe locator—in our opinion this equipment is a requisite tool for the job. 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. We begin our search for the tank at the downhill side of the home and look for clues and start probing until we hit something flat and hard. When this fails, we look for a clean-out where we can use our sonde and pipe locator to find the tank. Clean-outs are usually found in the basement, crawlspace or outside. When no clean-outs are found we flush an transmitter (about the size of a small egg) down the main waste line until it finds its way to the tank and then use our locator to track it down—as you can imagine, some transmitters we never see again (money flushed down the drain).
Challenge #2:Digging to the tank
After locating the corners of the tank we dig over where we assume the lids might be. Most tanks have two compartments—each with its own lid. Typically, we dig 2 holes for the tank and sometimes a third for the ‘d-box’ or distribution box. We may run into rubble and roots which make the digging difficult. Most tanks are between 1.5’ and 2.5’ underground– we charge extra for extra deep tanks (between 2.5’ and 4’). Tanks below 4’ we do not inspect because heavy machinery and other gear/precautions are needed (per OSHA). Using our depth sensor, we have found tanks over 8’ deep in the ground! 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 cracked or damaged when we arrive. We carry standard sized lids in the truck for replacement so we can continue with the inspection and prevent hazards to the occupants. Some older tanks have over-sized concrete lids known in our industry as ‘coffin lids’—they can be as large as 3’x5’ (over 100 pounds) and may require the use of a hoist to hold them open. Most of the time the only thing that escapes when we ‘pop’ a lid is the sweet smell of victory but occasionally we experience a backed-up system where raw sewage comes flooding out– never a pleasant outcome.
(And finally…) The Inspection:
Once we have access to all the components we 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.
For a conventional gravity fed system we use our action camera equipment to take photos and video of the inside the tank— we verify that the inlet, outlet, sanitary tee, tank and baffle wall are intact and functioning properly. We take a core sample from each compartment to verify they are fermenting properly. We scope the main line to and from the tank into the d-box or drain field– taking video/photos along the way. We are looking for bellies/roots in the line, clogged/crushed lines, cracked/leaking/over-full tanks, missing/damaged filter/sanitary tees, and more. We verify that effluent is entering and leaving the tank and check the grading and clearances from the home, well, property line and water sources.
The result of all our work is a HTML based Homegauge report with expandable photos and video and clickable links to resources. We consider ourselves educators and pride ourselves on our presentation. See a sample report here. After the inspection we bury the lids and carefully replace the sod over the dig-site. We cover the disturbed area with wheat straw to help the grass recover. We provide same day or next business day reports and are available for follow-up emails or calls.
On pumping the tank: Emptying the tank allows us to inspect below the effluent line to look for more defects in the tank and can help inform us how the drain field is accepting effluent. Pumping allows a more complete inspection, but it also effectively doubles the cost for our clients which is why we offer it as an option. For those who are interested in pumping the tank, we schedule, coordinate, and pay the pump company as a service to our clients. Pumping starts at $275. Travel fees apply outside of the Asheville area. A $75 charge is applied to over-full tanks. Some of our partners offer estimates for repairs at no additional charge. Pumping the tank is also recommended every 3-5 years.