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Septic Systems

Septic systems are used to process waste water from homes not connected to a municipal sewage treatment system. While a septic system is a rare subject of conversation for most homeowners, there are three instances when it should be of concern:

Buying, Building, or Expanding a House with a Septic System

If there is an existing septic system, hire a qualified inspector to assess the condition and capacity of the system. This can alert you to any existing or upcoming problems and whether the system has the capacity to meet your family's needs. For a new system, you will need a professional designer since the efficiency of the septic system will depend on the leaching field. A specialist determines whether the soil has adequate percolation characteristics (as determined by the “perc test”) for draining the septic tank. If not, additional fill material may need to be added (keep in mind that these engineered systems are a lot more expensive --some reach well over $10,000 -- and should be maintained carefully).

Periodic Cleaning

The septic system separates solids (which settle at the bottom of the septic tank) from liquids (which flow into the ground through the leaching field). Since scum accumulates in the tank, periodic cleaning of the tank is necessary. Depending on the number of people living in the house and the size of the system, this should be done every one to three years.

When Problems (smell, drainage problem, etc.) Arise

Common causes of failure:

  • neglecting to inspect and clean the septic tank regularly
  • lack of understanding on proper use of the system
  • poor soil conditions and/or faulty design or installation

Keep in mind that periodic maintenance and inspection can avoid significant expenses later.


When hiring a septic system inspector or designer, make sure they have local experience

and the appropriate licensing. Some states require specific certification for inspectors and may also have specific regulations regarding the inspection itself. If you are unfamiliar with the requirements in your area, the State Health Department or Department of Environmental Protection is usually a good place to start.

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