Not All Onsite Inspections Are Created Equal

It’s important for installers to know what type of septic system inspection is required based on customer needs.

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At the WWETT Show in February, someone told us we really need to have a session or workshop on inspection of new systems. The person had attended our workshops in the past on inspecting existing systems at the time of property transfer. In Minnesota, as a part of the onsite sewage treatment program, there is a specific inspection track and license that covers inspecting new systems.

If your state does not have such a program, it would be a very good idea to work with your state regulators and your state installer association to get one established. We go to a lot of places around the country where local regulators who inspect new systems have very little if any specific training about septic systems. In fact, we regularly hear the story, “I had the ‘new’ inspector on my site and I had to show them what a septic is!’’

As professionals, we should find this unacceptable. It creates a lack of respect not only for the profession, but also for what are probably, on paper, very good regulations. The breakdown in communication and understanding usually happens in the field at the time of installation.


We’ll share our observations and thoughts about inspecting new systems. First, there are different levels and types of inspections:

There is the kind of inspection mentioned above, the time-of-transfer inspection, what we call an “operation-level’’ inspection. The objective is to determine if all the necessary parts of the system are there, in good condition and working the way they are supposed to. This gives the buyer some level of assurance the system will work the way it should when they take possession of the property.

There’s an assessment of the system when you, as a service provider, are going to take over its care and management. In this case, it’s not enough that the parts are there and they operate. They also have to be in such condition that you can take over management without the potential to lose money by having to replace or repair parts considered part of your maintenance contract in the event of a breakdown. All parts of the system including the final soil dispersal area are evaluated.

New system or compliance inspections are where all parts of the system are evaluated or assessed, but also compared to the most current rules or regulations. In the case of a new system, it obviously needs to meet those requirements to obtain an operating permit and the permit is not granted until they are met.

A compliance-level inspection may be required in some other situations and is often tied to property transfers or when the house is being remodeled with bedrooms or other rooms added. This would be done to make sure that the system would comply in terms of size and ability to treat any additional flows that may be generated due to the addition.


Local governments need to establish a comprehensive inspection program to enforce current code requirements. This should establish the frequency and times of inspection, the requirements of the inspection (what will be measured and when), a specific protocol for the inspections as they occur (what has to be left open, etc.), and allowable actions if the inspection cannot be performed within the time limits established. In addition, a certificate of compliance or noncompliance needs to be issued through the local unit of government with specific recommendations about what is needed to bring the system into compliance.

In Minnesota, the only people allowed to do these inspections are qualified employees of the local government or licensed inspectors. Qualified employees must meet all the education requirements to be licensed. The intent is to avoid a situation where the first real experience the inspector has with an onsite system is when he visits the site with the installer.

Specific items that should be addressed within the certificate of compliance (or noncompliance) include property and property owner identification, scale drawing of the system location with all setback distances indicated, such as property lines and easements, buildings and well setbacks.

To provide an idea of the scope of this requirement, the Arizona code lists 25 different setback requirements that must be addressed. This may sound on the surface like a minor detail, but it is in fact a significant activity. Finally, and probably most important, a field check of the soil conditions must be conducted. This includes evaluation of whether the system design incorporates the correct soil loading rate. The soil evaluation should also include an analysis for any limiting soil layers (water tables, dense impermeable horizons) and bedrock.


The bottom line is a compliance inspection involves a lot more time and effort than an operation-level inspection. It’s up to you to determine the details of an inspection for a system you plan to take on as a service provider. In future columns we will address some of the specific items in a compliance inspection and what it will take to implement them.


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