Septic Equipment and Drainfield Inspection

About one in four homes in the United States have an individual well for fresh water and a septic system for sewage, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). These are houses in rural areas without municipal water and sewer services. Homeowners depending on septic tanks and drainfields should have their systems inspected at least every three years, per the EPA, to identify and address common minor problems before they worsen. Septic systems service contractors may improve customer satisfaction rates by more clearly articulating inspection processes, common problems inspectors discover, and some typical solutions.

Conventional and Alternative Septic Systems

There are two common sewage management options you may recommend using these basic descriptions for customers who are building new homes or replacing old septic systems: 

Conventional septic systems: These systems often utilize the standard gravity-driven movement of effluent through the septic tank and out into the drainfield. Or, a pressure distribution system can be used to pump wastewater more evenly throughout the drainfield.

Alternative septic systems: These options include aerobic treatment with oxygen to break down solid waste matter and render cleaner wastewater than conventional systems produce. Sand filter systems are used to pump and disburse effluent where insufficient amounts of soil would otherwise diminish the effectiveness of waste treatment. Finally, mound systems are raised drainfields with soil added for a sufficient treatment process.

What Does Septic Tank and Drainfield Inspection Involve?

Septic Systems Inspectors examine the septic tank, distribution box, and drainfield (leach field, absorption field). All three of these primary components must be in acceptable structural condition and perform as designed to pass inspection. A certified inspector will first locate the septic system either from drawings remaining from the permit process, if possible, or by flushing a small removable radio signal transmitter down the toilet. Then, the inspector will:

  • Run water faucets and flush toilets to confirm that there is appropriate water pressure and that distribution to the drainfield is acceptable.
  • Perform a visual inspection of the drainfield to look for standing water as well as black or green coloration in it (mold).
  • Take off the septic tank cover and measure the water level. If the tank is full or the wastewater contents are above the outlet line, the system is not functioning as designed. It is overfull, indicating a possible drainfield issue.
  • Pump the tank and use a flashlight to examine it carefully for possible leaks, weathered spots, rot, weakened spots, chipped surface, or hairline cracks.
  • Measure the level of the layers of scum, sludge, and other solid waste in the tank. Some septic pumping services inappropriately pump the material from the bottom of the tank, leaving a dense layer of sludge. 
  • Inspect the baffles to make sure they are not covered by waste solids and that they are a few inches above the sewage level. There should be no indicators of past overflows.
  • Check the D-box (located between the tank and the drainfield to distribute effluent evenly to all the field lines) for issues restricting the wastewater flow or affecting the evenness of the distribution. Identify wet or sunken ground near the D-box as signs of issues.
  • Look for tree roots near the septic system equipment that have the potential to penetrate pipes or even the tank structure.

Common Septic System Problems Found in Inspections

The solution to a problem with a septic system and the cost of the remedy is based on which component is affected and the nature and extent of the damage to it. These are some of the most common issues revealed by septic system inspectors:

Failed septic pump

The pump in the septic tank sends the wastewater flowing into the drain field. Within a few years, depending on the rate of usage, a pump becomes worn out and must be replaced.

Compromised tank wall

Shifting of the ground over time, exposure to weather elements, falling tree limbs, being hit with vehicles or lawnmowers, encroaching tree roots, etc., can cause a leak. A steel septic tank can rust, a concrete one can crack, and a polyethylene or fiberglass tank can split. 

Disconnected or clogged baffles

If baffles are damaged, clogged, or disconnected from the inlet or outlet pipes for the septic tank, they cannot prevent the buildup of dense scum from clogging the pipes.

Damaged D-box

If the Distribution Box is damaged, the proper dispensation of wastewater into the drainfield is affected. Concrete D-boxes can normally be expected to perform well for up to 20 years. However, they can be damaged by dense sludge concentration, encroaching tree roots, being hit by heavy equipment, etc., causing a blockage in the septic tank or drainfield problems.

Insufficient bacteria level

An Aerobic Treatment Unit employs oxygen and healthy bacteria together to break down waste material in many modern septic systems. When a septic tank is not used for an extended period, its efficiency can be diminished, and it may be necessary to add bacteria to restore it.

Encroaching tree roots

Trees growing near a drainfield can penetrate pipes or even the septic tank. Removing destructive roots can cause breakage of the critical lines or require digging up and replacing part or all of the drainfield.

Swamplike Drainfield

If the drain field is swampy or emitting a sewage odor, it’s not functioning as designed. A repair to eliminate standing water along the laterals requires removing the excess water and any clogs. Then the technician will add necessary enzymes and bacteria and enzymes to restore the balance of the field. Or, in some cases, the drainfield may need to be replaced.

Septic tank is not draining

If the tank isn’t draining, it’s probably blocked, or there may be roots or sludge clogging pipes. The problem may be a relatively minor baffle clog that is quickly accessible or a more extreme condition requiring the replacement of a lateral line or even the entire drainfield.

Tank is overflowing

The sludge layer in a septic tank should take up a maximum of a third of the tank capacity or no more than its holding space to the baffles. A tank may merely be full and need pumping, or there may be a problem that can require a repair or replacement of part or all of the system.

Sunken soil near the tank

A leaking septic tank or line going to the drainfield can be a serious problem impacting the usability of the system. The severity of the issue depends on whether it is due to a simple clog, pipe corrosion, a structural breach in the tank, damage to the drainfield, etc.

Drainfield leak

Leaking at one side of the drainfield may be a sign of tank damage, a clog in the system, an issue with a connection, or another cause. Remedial methods will usually initially involve removing the excess water from the drainfield and infusing enzymes and good bacteria to restore balance in the system.

Undersized septic system 

If a septic system is becoming overwhelmed, as indicated by standing water on the drainfield, it may be necessary to increase the capacity of the system to accommodate the number of occupants in the home. 

When Should a Septic System be Inspected?

When a residential septic system is pumped with appropriate frequency for its level of usage and is routinely inspected, it can perform well for up to 25 years or longer before being replaced. Generally speaking, a home septic tank should be pumped out at least every 1 to 5 years. The number of home occupants, septic tank size, grade slope, trees, and other considerations should be factored in when creating a schedule for regular inspections.

Home sellers should have a septic system inspection before listing their property. Mortgage companies often require it, and state and local regulations may require a septic inspection to allow the transfer of a deed. 

Be sure to get written confirmation from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) that the septic system has passed the required inspection and that the local health department authority has approved it.

You may opt to copy and give the above general information to your customers and prospects, including the basic septic system inspection checklist. That may help you ensure that they retain more of the information you provide for their reference as they consider your proposals. 

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