Start Asking Questions Well Before You Pop the Septic Tank Lid

When conducting a septic system evaluation for a real estate inspection, gather as much useful information as possible before you get started

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We have gotten a few inquiries about the type of questions that inspectors should ask homeowners when a septic system is to be inspected for a property sale. Our tongue-in-cheek answer is that it depends on if you are talking to the buyer or the seller. 

We like to start our system inspection classes raising that little bit of real estate inspection humor. But while it is true that the questions and answers will vary depending on whom you are dealing with, there are some questions you want and need to have answers to regardless of who is paying if you are interested in doing an unbiased inspection.

Having answers to these questions before opening any part of the system will help when evaluating the results of your observations. It also will give you a check on how forthcoming the current homeowner has been in their answers! Some of the information can be obtained through other sources, such as the local planning and zoning office. But there is no substitute to getting information from the people most affecting system performance.

User habits are important

The questions can be divided into at least three general areas: information about the homeowner and residence, information about the system and information about household water use.

In terms of the owner and residence, these questions may come up: Is use full time, part time or seasonal? Seasonal use indicates a reduced level of use with resting times in between. How many residents are using the system, and what are their relative ages? An older couple versus a family with teenagers in the mix will indicate a potentially higher level of use. What is the current number of bedrooms and bathrooms, and has this changed from time of system installation? Additional bedrooms indicate additional use. Is there any type of in-home business? Hair styling, taxidermy or painting could all indicate increased water use and introduction of chemicals or cleaners that can have an impact on system longevity.

Questions about the current system should include the following:

When was the current system installed? This indicates not only how long it has been used, but the likelihood it is up to current standards or will need to be upgraded. How many tanks are in the system and what are their sizes? Knowing system age helps with some assumption about tank sizes and whether it is single or multi-compartmented. Has the system been regularly maintained? Is it on a regular maintenance schedule, and when was the last time it was pumped or evaluated? A system under a regular maintenance schedule is probably in better shape and had any problems corrected as they arose. 

Regular maintenance usually goes hand in hand with access, so these questions should be asked: Are there risers over the maintenance holes, and can all parts of the system be accessed from the surface without excavation? The in-field portion of an inspection will go a lot faster if everything is accessible and does not have to be located. As an aside, if components need to be located, you should have a separate fee for locating versus the actual system inspection. Along with location and access questions, do the septic tanks have effluent screens? Or were they fitted after the fact with these screens? Over the past decade, most states have moved to require these as standard at septic tank outlet baffles. System age also helps determine if this has been done.

Also ask whether the system has ever experienced freezing or effluent surfacing problems. If there have been backups, evidence of this will likely show up when the tank is inspected. Ask if there have been repairs done on the system, and if so, when and why they occurred. When the system inspection is conducted, these areas can be looked at specifically to see if the repairs were completed.

Ask whether there have been or are odors associated either around the system or in the house. Odors may indicate problems including effluent surfacing or lack of adequate system venting. What kind of cover is over the soil treatment part of the system, and is it below or above ground? Is there a pump or pump in the system? Where are they located and what is the purpose — to deliver sewage from the basement? Or deliver effluent to higher elevation than the septic tank? When were the pumps last serviced and are there high water level alarms? If they have a management plan, what are the dose sizes and the number per day?

Water-using devices

If there is a water well, where is it located relative to the system? What is the distance?

There are questions about household product usage that should be asked and can help explain conditions you will encounter when you begin to open components during your inspection. 

What water using devices are in the house — garbage disposal, water softener, dishwasher, washing machine (top or front loading), water treatment devices (iron filter), whirlpool or hot tubs? These increase water use and are items to keep in mind when evaluating the current system condition.

Excessive use of cleaners, antibacterial products or bleach can have a negative impact on the biology of septic tanks and will be evident when examining tank contents. Other potential problems that can interfere with solids settling in the tank include certain types of medicines being taken by the occupants. 

A good question for both the buyer and seller is whether this is their first experience using a septic system. If so, it indicates you will probably need to spend a little more time educating them about septic system importance and why you are asking these questions. 

In future columns, we may focus more specifically on some aspects of these questions related to troubleshooting and system inspections. This may seem like a long list, but the answers are the key to a complete inspection. 


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