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Inspecting, Testing, & Maintaining & Designing

Residential Septic Systems - Septic Systems Online

Septic Systems Online Book: This book (and website) explains septic system
design, inspection, and test procedures, and explains the causes of defects in
onsite waste disposal systems, septic tank problems, septic drainfield problems,
checklists of system components and things to ask. Septic system design,
alternative designs for difficult sites, septic maintenance and septic tank pumping
schedules are provided.

Citation and brief quotation for purpose of review or reference are permitted. Use
of this information in electronic form, soft copy, online web pages, in books or
pamphlets for sale is reserved to the author. Review comments and content
suggestions are welcome. Home buyers who want less technical advice should
see the Home Buyer's Guide to Septic Systems. Also see The Septic Systems
Home Page. © Copyright 2009 Daniel Friedman, All Rights Reserved.
Information Accuracy & Bias Pledge is at below-left.

Use links just below or at the left of each page to navigate this document or
to view other topics at this website. Green links show where you are in our
document or website.

What is a Septic System

A "septic system," also referred to as a private, on-site waste disposal system,
receives waste water and solids from a building's plumbing facilities (bathrooms,
kitchens, shower, laundry), treats, and then disposes of the effluent from this
waste, by permitting it to absorb into soils at the property. "Treatment" is
accomplished by bacterial action in the "septic" or "treatment" tank and it is
mostly accomplished by bacteria in the soil around and below the effluent
absorption system, or "drain field." This bacterial action is needed to reduce the
level of pathogens in the effluent discharges from the waste system into the soil.
The principal components of a private on-site waste disposal system usually
include the following:

• piping connecting the building to the treatment tank
• a septic or treatment tank which retains solid waste
• piping connecting and conducting clarified effluent from the treatment tank
to a distribution box
• a distribution box connecting the effluent line from the tank to the
absorption system or "drain field"
• an absorption system which permits effluent to drain to soils below
• a bio-mat or bio-mass of pathogen-digesting bacteria which forms in soil
below the absorption system.

Many variations on this general scheme are used, depending on local climate,
soil conditions, available space, economy, and available materials. Special
equipment and systems may be designed for problem or difficult sites such as
rocky or wet ground, permafrost, or wet tropical marshlands.

SAFETY WARNINGS - Septic Tank Safety Warnings for Septic
Inspectors, Septic Pumpers, and Homeowners

This chapter is maintained at Septic System, Septic Tank, & Cesspool Safety
Warnings for Septic Inspectors, Septic Pumpers, and Homeowners

Providing inspection and diagnosis of on-site waste disposal systems is an
extremely valuable public service which helps protect people from expensive
unanticipated septic system repair costs and helps protect public health by
assuring sanitary disposal of sewage and gray water waste from buildings. More
importantly though, such inspections may detect and warn about serious safety
hazards at some properties. The strong warnings issued below intend to reduce
septic system safety hazards for inspectors and property owners/occupants, but
it is not the author's intention to dissuade inspectors from providing this valuable
service. But danger lurks at cesspools, open covers, tanks or inspectors and
property owners/occupants, but it is not the author's intention to dissuade
inspectors from providing this valuable service. But danger lurks at cesspools,
open covers, tanks or tank covers in poor condition, and from high levels of
methane gas. These risk collapse, falling, asphyxiation, and other potentially
fatal hazards as well as risks of unsanitary conditions.
• Don't work alone: Falling into a septic tank or even leaning over a septic
tank can be fatal. Do not work on or at septic tanks alone - workers can
become suddenly overcome by methane gas.
• Do not ever go into a septic tank unless you are specially trained and
are wearing the special equipment and gear for that purpose, including
self-contained breathing apparatus.
• Don't enter the septic tank: Never go into a septic tank to retrieve
someone who has fallen in and was overcome by toxic gases without a
self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). if a SCBA is not available, call
for emergency services and put a fan at the top of the tank to blow in fresh
• Don't lean over the septic tank openings Do not lean over or stick your
head into the septic tank to examine its interior - you could fall in to the
tank or become overcome by gases and fall into the tank, an event which
is likely to be fatal.
• Don't ignite flames Do not light a flame at or near the tank - methane gas
is explosive. At one tank pumpout my client described the explosion and
burns received by the pumping contractor when he stood by the tank and
lit a cigarette.
• Site must be ventilated: Decomposing wastes in the septic tank produce
toxic gases (such as methane) which can kill a human in a matter of
minutes. When working on a tank be sure the area is well ventilated.
• Rope off & Mark Dangerous Sites: If your inspection discover that there
are dangerous conditions, such as an unsafe tank cover, tank collapse, or
a home-made septic tank or cesspool (which are at increased risk of
sudden collapse) such areas should be roped off and clearly marked as
dangerous to prevent access until proper evaluation and repairs can be
• Safe covers: be sure that the tank and its access ports have sound and
secure covers that do not risk collapse and which cannot be removed by
• Septic & Cesspool Collapse Hazards: Old steel tanks, thin, rusting steel
or rotting home-made wood tank covers, site-built tanks and cesspools,
and recently-pumped cesspools are at particular risk of collapse. Falling
into a septic tank or cesspool is likely to lead to rapid asphyxiation from
methane and in cases of collapse, there is risk of becoming buried. The
author has consulted in cases involving such fatalities (homeowner fell
into a site-built cesspool), and at one site inspection, walking near an
overgrown area the author himself stepped through a rusting steel septic
tank top, surviving only by throwing himself into a nearby clump of
• Beware of
o flimsy, rusted, old-steel, home-made, or missing septic
tank/drywell/cesspool covers
o abandoned systems which may not have been filled-in
o collapsed, or collapsing septic tanks or cesspools
o possible presence of multiple components at a property,
abandoned or in-use
• Unsanitary conditions: Be alert for unsanitary conditions such as surface
effluent or sewage backups into buildings, events which risk serious viral
and bacterial hazards and which indoors, may require professional
cleaning. Be alert for personal sanitation hazards when working around
septic systems, such as open cuts or failure to wash properly after working
on systems.
• Damage to Septic Components: Avoid damaging septic system
components or the building: Improper septic testing procedures, such as
flooding a dosing-system, can damage the system. Also, remember to
check for leaks into or under the building being tested when running water
into the building fixtures and drains. Don't leave water running unattended
- at risk of flooding the building.

Septic System Safety Warnings for Home Owners and Home Buyers

Septic system concerns for a building owner start with safety. Here are some red

• Signs of collapse-possible fatal hazards: include depressions or "soil
subsidence" anywhere on or around the property. Any suspect area should
be roped-off and absolutely no one should walk over or even close to such
a spot until it has been investigated by a professional.
• Old or abandoned systems: such as site-built cesspools or drywells
were often made with a thin steel or wood cover which with age can
collapse. If the history of the site or visual observation suggests that there
are or were old systems at the property, professional investigation is
warranted. Improper "abandonment" (failing to fill-in a pit) can lead to
sudden collapses. Signs that there may be old systems at a property
might come from anecdotal evidence (ask a neighbor, ask the local septic
installing or service companies), or visual evidence such as seeing
abandoned waste pipes at basement or crawl space walls or floors. Don't
assume that an old house which is now connected to the public sewer
didn't previously have an on-site waste disposal system.
• Septic service by untrained workers: such as aerating, agitating, or
pumping out an old site-built cesspool, can lead to sudden system
collapse. Prevent access over or near any such systems.
• Unsanitary conditions such as discharge of sewage effluent to the yard
surface, to a nearby well or stream, or previous septic backups into a
building deserve professional attention. Indoors special cleaning may be
needed to remove bacteria or other pathogens
• Septic testing by inexpert "inspectors" who may not follow an
adequate procedure increases the risk of a costly surprise.
• Uninformed homeowners may not notice a danger or malfunction
.Homeowners should review the safety warnings listed above. The
information here is general in nature. Since conditions and requirements vary
widely at individual sites, the you should obtain qualified expert advice pertaining
to the specific system about which you have questions, and should not rely on this
general text for costly diagnostic/repair/replacement decisions. In other words, I'll
try to give you some helpful information. In exchange, don't expect me to pay for
your new septic system.

Septic Inspector Qualifications/Licensing
If you perform septic inspections you are obligated to do so with proper
information, training, procedures, and in some communities a license is required.
Some states (e.g. CA, CT, NJ, MA) have specific certification requirements for
inspectors of septic systems, as well as specific regulations regarding the
performance of the inspection itself. Be sure to obtain information pertinent to
your own state, usually from the state health department or state department of
environmental protection. For example, Massachusetts septic inspectors will
want to look at the links and the Title 5 regulations at our page on the
Massachusetts Septic Testing Law. Other links to septic system installation and
inspection regulatory agencies are at our "Local, State, U.S. Federal
Government, & International Agencies & Resources for Septic Systems
Wastewater Treatment" page.

• Septic System Inspection


INSPECTION AUTHORITY: some municipalities and states (EG. Pennsylvania)
provide septic inspection and testing certification. However a generalist inspector
such as an ASHI professional, in the course of a home inspection, is permitted to
observe and report visual evidence of defects, probable, or possible defects, just
as any contractor might observe and report when coming to a property for any

For municipalities requiring certification of septic test providers, home inspectors
should consult with local officials for further advice.Note: some authorities, such
as New Jersey Administrative Code 7:9-3.17 (b)5 require septic system
evaluations to be performed only by a licensed professional engineer, licensed
health officer, licensed sanitary engineer, or trained technician under supervision
of the septic system inspector as defined in the pertinent code. However our
review of these codes finds them probably unenforceable since in some
instances the codes contradict themselves (see quote below) or the code
agencies provide homeowner pamphlets calling for annual inspections which are
made by the homeowner him or her self. "All testing of operating systems which
requires a hydraulic loading which is in excess of the design flow shall be
performed under the supervision of a licensed professional engineer." (New
Jersey EPA, Sub 12, 7:9A-12.7 System Testing.") Some codes also require that
the details of the septic evaluation procedure itself be included in the report.
[Information courtesy of Ed Fitzgerald, ASHI.]

The next chapters discuss ways in which septic system components fail, and with
the inspection of the individual septic system components.

• Use links just below or at the left of each page to navigate this document or to
view other topics at this website. Green

FAILURE CAUSES - Septic Failure Causes: How Does Each
Septic System Component Fail? - What to Look For During a
Septic Inspection

This chapter is maintained at Septic Failure Causes: How Does Each Septic
System Component Fail? - What to Look For During a Septic Inspection, but text
is repeated here for readers who scroll down rather than linking to the separate

This chapter discusses detailed "how to" steps instructing the investigator in how
to inspect specific septic components for signs of failure. The following section
will discuss types and causes of septic failure and will provide criteria that define

Before digging up your septic tank or calling a septic pumper, if you think the
septic system is failed because of drain blockage or drains backing up into the
building, you should to see "Diagnosing Clogged Drains: Is it a blocked drain or
the septic system? - A First Step for Homeowners". If you link to that text, please
return here using your browser's "BACK" button.

Onsite Waste Disposal System Failure Criteria

Massachusetts Title 5 lists specific failure criteria and serves as a good model for
septic inspections anywhere.

• Backup anywhere in the system
• Discharge of effluent to the surface, stream, etc. regardless of whether or
not septic dye is observed
• Static effluent level or floating scum over the top of the baffles in the septic
tank [added by DF]
• Static effluent level above outlet in the D-box
• System has to be pumped more than 4x/year
• Metal septic tanks (municipality dependent; note that in special site
conditions small metal tanks may be the "only" solution and may be
approved by local officials. An owner/buyer must be informed of the
implications of such installations.)
• Soil Absorption System (or cesspool, etc) is at a depth exposing it to the
maximum groundwater level

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Inspecting Outside Waste Piping

Outside waste piping conducts sewage (black water and gray water) from the
building to the treatment tank or "septic tank," and from the treatment tank to the
distribution box. These lines should be of solid, non-perforated material and need
to be protected from mechanical damage (such as by vehicles). Piping extending
from the distribution box into drain fields is normally perforated, though solid lines
might be used if effluent is being processed by more specialized devices such as
seepage pits, galleys, or a sand-bed system.

House to tank

This line may become blocked by waste, damaged by collapse of a section, or
invaded by roots. Detection of these conditions is fairly easy by routing a snake
or power snake from the building drain to the septic tank. An experienced power
snake operator can often tell by "feel" that a drain line is collapsed, partially
collapsed, or invaded by roots. While you may make a temporary "repair" of such
a condition by drain-cleaning, if the line is broken or root-invaded, you should
expect to have to excavate and replace it soon.

Tank to Distribution Box

The same failures can occur on this line as from house to tank. Opening the D-
box can also show whether or not effluent is being directed uniformly into each of
the leach lines. A tipped D-box can overload one line and cause early failure of
the absorption system. If this is happening, flow adjustment end-caps (eccentric
holes) can be installed in the distribution box on the inlet end of each of the drain
lines, permitting adjustment of effluent delivery into each line, perhaps relieving
the problem line and redistributing effluent into the others.

Drain field piping

In a conventional "drain field" of perforated pipes buried in gravel-filled trenches,
a drain line may be invaded by tree roots. This is why experts advise keeping
tree and shrub plantings away from drain fields. Vehicle traffic can also collapse
this or any outdoor waste piping, which is why experts advise against ever driving
over a drainfield or over any other septic system components.

INSPECTING TANKS - Inspecting Septic Tank Condition

This chapter is maintained at Septic Tank Condition - How to Inspect Septic
Tanks but text is repeated here for readers who scroll down rather than linking to
the separate chapter.

The purpose of the treatment tank or "septic tank" is to contain solid waste and to
permit the beginning of bacterial action to process sewage into a combination of
clarified effluent, settled sludge, or floating scum in the tank. An intact, un-
damaged septic tank is normally always filled with these materials. However the
inspector performing a "visual" check of the septic system needs to be alert for
some important findings:

• Subsidence at the tank location - may risk dangerous, potentially fatal
• Evidence of recent work
• Evidence of backup or effluent breakout at the surface in the tank area

Only by pumping and visual inspection can actual tank capacity and condition be
completely determined. Probing in the area of a tank, without excavation, is not
recommended as the probe may damage a steel or fiberglass tank. When a tank
is uncovered for pumping additional critical details may be observed before the
pumping operation

• Condition and safety of the tank and access covers
• Liquid and waste level in the tank - evidence of waste passing over the
baffles - a flooded system, an indicator of system failure
• damage to the tank baffles

When the tank is opened and to be cleaned or pumped out additional information
is available:
• Thickness of scum and sludge levels: Septic tank maximum scum and
sludge buildup prior to pump out, and instructions for measuring the
floating scum layer thickness and settled sludge layer thickness in a septic
tank are available in a separate chapter at Septic Tank Pumping Guide
• Back-flow of effluent into the tank during pumpdown - an indicator of
flooded leach fields
• Additional evidence of damage to the tank baffles
• Evidence of damage to the tank itself - cracks, leaks

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Steel septic tanks

Steel tanks typically last 20-25 years, then rust, and collapse. Before this time
steel baffles may rust off (damaging the drain field with sludge) or the tank top
may become rusty and unsafe. Since steel tank tops can be replaced while
leaving the old tank in place, the condition of the top itself is not a reliable
indicator of tank condition.

Rusting steel tank covers can cause death! Rusted covers can collapse. I
have reports of children and adults who have died from this hazard, as recently
as December 1997. In 2000 I consulted in a fatality involving an adult falling into
a cesspool. At a building inspection I myself stepped through a hidden, rusted-
through steel septic tank cover. Falling into a septic tank, drywell, or cesspool is
quickly fatal, either from being buried by falling soils and debris, or by
asphyxiation. Septic gases are highly toxic and can kill in just minutes of
exposure. Even leaning over an empty (just pumped) tank has led to collapse
and fatality of a septic pumper.

Steel tank baffles: rust out and fall off, permitting solids to enter the soil
absorption system

Steel tank bottoms rust out permitting effluent to leak into soils around the
tank, possibly giving a large void in tank at time of testing, thus subverting a
loading or dye test.

Concrete septic tanks

Concrete tanks at an existing septic installation are usually viable, but might have
damaged baffles or cracks that permit seepage of groundwater in or septic
effluent out around the tank. Occasionally we've seen tanks made of poor-quality
concrete (insufficient portland cement) which eroded badly. If the tank outlet or
absorption system have been blocked, examination of the tank interior may show
that effluent is or has been above the top of the baffles (see "baffles" below) thus
indicating a system failure discussed next.

Concrete tanks can crack or sections may separate causing leaks with the
result of not only improper disposal of effluent (wrong location) but also
subverting an attempt at a septic loading and dye test since when the system is
un-used the tank liquid levels drop abnormally. The inspector may detect this
condition only if there is a tank inspection port which is readily and safely
accessible for before, during, and after inspection when running a loading and
dye test.

Home made or "site built tanks- [TBD]

Site built systems, in my experience, are often under-sized and worse,
dangerous. There is a serious risk of collapse of old rotting wood covers,
collapsing concrete block dry-laid tank or "cesspool" walls, etc. Other types of
tanks and home-made onsite systems are described below at Septic Tank Type,
Capacity, Material Details

Baffles: Inspecting the Condition of Septic Tank Baffles

Baffles in a septic tank are provided to keep solids and floating scum and grease
inside the tank. Baffles are provided at both the inlet to the tank (from the
building) and the outlet from the tank (to the absorption system).

Broken baffles or high sludge levels can cause solids to flow out of the tank and
into the absorption system. The result is reduced absorption into surrounding soil
and eventual failure of the system. Floating scum thickness and settled solids
thickness can be measured through access ports into the tank or cesspool.
Finding solids at or covering the outlets or damaged baffles should result in
report of a very questionable adsorption system and possible major repair cost.

Concrete tank baffles: may erode from chemicals, detergents, poor concrete
mix, water flowing over top of baffles, or may be broken by improper pumping
procedures If baffles are lost or damaged (rusted off on a steel tank or broken off
on a concrete tank), they can be repaired or replaced. For example at a steel
tank the contractor may simply insert a plastic piping "Tee" into the tank inlet or
outlet to create a new baffle system.

However, depending on how long the tank was used without good baffles, the
volume of solids and grease that moved from the tank to the absorption system
will have begun clogging soils there and will have reduced the future life
expectancy of the absorption system.

Baffle damage and repair, or even a complete tank replacement when the
absorption system has been left alone always lead the author to warn the
building owner that the future life of the absorption system may be in doubt and
that additional expense will be involved.

Solids: Inspecting the Level of Accumulated Solids, Sludge and
Floating Scum in Treatment Tanks

Solids entering a septic tank are intended to remain there until pumped out
during tank service. A large portion of solids settle to the bottom of the tank as
sludge. Grease and floating scum remain at the top of the sewage in the tank.
Baffles (discussed above) help keep solids, scum, and grease in the tank.
Bacterial action in the tank make a modest reduction in the solids volume and
begin the processing of sewage pathogens, a step later completed by soil
bacteria in the absorption fields.

Net free area: If the sludge level becomes too high or the floating scum layer too
thick, in addition to risking passage of solids out of the tank (damaging the
absorption system), the remaining "net free area" of liquid in the tank is reduced.
When the net free area becomes too small, there is insufficient time for waste
entering the tank to settle out as bottom sludge or top floating scum. That is, for
an in-use septic tank with a small net free area, the frequent entry of solid and
liquid waste will keep the tank debris agitated, thus forcing floating debris into the
absorption system where the life of that component will be reduced (due to soil

The importance of keeping an adequate net free area in a septic tank
is the reason that tanks need to be pumped at regular intervals.
Building owners who never pump a tank until it is clogged have
already damaged the absorption system. Measuring septic tank
sludge thickness & scum layer

Septic tank maximum scum and sludge buildup prior to pump out, and
instructions for measuring the floating scum layer thickness and settled sludge
layer thickness in a septic tank are available in a separate chapter at Septic Tank
Pumping Guide: When, Why, How to Pump A Septic Tank

SEPTIC TANK TIPS - Septic Tank Types, Capacity, Material

Septic Tank Types: concrete and steel septic tanks and warnings are
discussed above at Inspecting Septic Tank Condition.

Septic Tank Size Requirements and How to Calculate the Size and Volume
of a Septic Tank are discussed in a separate chapter, " Table of Required Septic
Tank Sizes: Septic Tank Capacity vs Usage in Daily Gallons of Wastewater Flow
& How to Calculate the Size (in gallons) of a Septic Tank"
Other septic tank types: might include site-built cesspool using concrete blocks
or rubble, steel drums, or other. Beware of very limited capacity, failure to comply
with local codes, etc. Steel tanks are at high risk of rust and collapse, and higher
risk of loss of baffles; frequently tank cover is damaged by excavation for
pumping if no cleanout opening is provided.

Limited Capacity of site-built equipment: Homemade systems are very likely
to be in violation of local plumbing codes and standards; significant costs to cure
may be involved. Tanks smaller than 900 gallons are below minimum size in
some jurisdictions. Areas of wet soils, or very small yards should suggest that
there may not be room for a conventional absorption system.

Extra costs will be involved in repairing or extending such installations. Sand-
bed filtration systems may have to be replaced with other more costly systems
when their operation fails or a use permit expires. Systems that dump into local
waterways may require periodic inspection and re-certification by state
departments of environmental conservation, or may be outlawed. Use of
"drywells" to separate graywater from sewage may be clues of limited system
capacity. Graywater may not be discharged to the surface nor to storm sewers.

More Reading:
Septic Tank Pumping Guide which gives the tank pumping schedule as a function
of tank size and wastewater usage (or occupants).
Septic System Additives & Chemicals and advice about using them to "help" or
"inoculate" or "fix" your septic system.

INSPECTING THE D-BOX - Inspecting the Septic System
Distribution Box

This chapter is maintained at INSPECTING the D-BOX but text is repeated here
for readers who scroll down rather than linking to the separate chapter.

The distribution box
(more than one may
be in use) connects a
single effluent line
from the septic tank to
a network of
absorption system
components such as
drainfield leach lines
or to a network of
seepage pits or
galleys. The photo
above shows the
adjustable weir outlets
that permit balancing flow among drainfield lines. (Source EPA who used photo
from Ayres Associates.) More sketches of D-box layouts and configurations are
shown in this EPA drawing.

Regulating effluent distribution: In good system design the outlet openings
from the distribution box to each drainfield line can be adjusted to regulate the
flow among the various absorption lines. Elegantly simple, a plug with an
eccentric hole is inserted into the end of each leach line fed from the D-box. By
turning the plug in the end of the leach line pipe one can place the eccentric hole
higher or lower with respect to the bottom of the distribution box, thus
compensating for a slightly tipped box, differences in leach line length, or
differences in leach line condition.

Uneven effluent distribution: If a distribution box becomes tipped (or clogged)
effluent may be routed to only a portion of the absorption system, thus
overloading it and leading to a "breakout" of effluent at the surface or to clogging
and system backup. An examination of the box interior may show flood lines in
the box if the drain field has been clogged or saturated in the past even if at the
time of inspection the box is not flooded.

If the fields have been flooded you should be pessimistic about the remaining life
of the absorption system. If the box is tipped and/or effluent has not been
uniformly distributed among the drainfield lines (assuming they are of equal
length and in equally good soils), only a simple adjustment of the outflow may be
needed. Round plugs with eccentric openings may be present or can be inserted
in the D-box outlet openings to regulate flow among the individual absorption
lines. (C)Trap Daniel Friedman Copyright Protected text.

Tipped or flooded distribution boxes, resulting in uneven loading of soil
absorption system lines. This condition can flood one or two lines leading to early
field failure.

INSPECTING FIELDS - Inspecting the Absorption System or

This chapter is maintained at SEPTIC FIELD INSPECTION - Septic Failure
Causes: How Does Each Septic System Component Fail? - What to Look For
During a Septic Inspection. Text is repeated here for readers who scroll down
rather than linking to the separate chapter.

This chapter discusses types of septic system failure in the drain field, leach
field, seepage bed, or similar component. We list the causes of each type of
septic component failure, and list the septic component failure criteria or in
other words what conditions are defined as "failure"?. The detailed "how to" steps
instructing how to inspect specific septic components for signs of failure are
discussed in the text above.

Absorption Field Failure Causes of drainfields and leaching
• Soil clogging at the biomat layer which forms below and around the
drainfield trenches (or other absorption systems). The biomat is a bacteria
layer which forms in soil below and around drainfield trenches where
septic effluent or wastewater is discharged. This layer is critical in the
processing of fine biological solids and pathogens which are in the
effluent, and without it the septic system would not be adequately treating
the effluent. Inadequately-treated effluent released into the ground risks
contamination of nearby ponds, wells, streams, etc.
• Driving over the absorption system, leach field, drainfield
• Paving over the absorption system
• Flooding the absorption system with surface or roof runoff, or rocky,
poorly-drained or under-sized sites may simply lack capacity
• Use of septic tank or drain field additives which claim to extend system
life can generate so much activity in the tank that solids are held in
suspension and forced into the soil absorption system! Do not add any
treatments, chemicals, yeast, or other treats to a septic system. In general
these treatments don't work, may ruin the system, and are illegal in many
localities. There is no magic bullet to repair a bad SAS.
• Improper original construction , especially on rocky, poorly-drained
sites (pipes settle, for example)
• Houses clustered around a lake: often will have a marginal system as
properties were crowded together, built as part-time summer-camps, were
built without code supervision, and often were built using amateur,
marginal home-made systems.
• Age: eventually even a well-maintained SAS will clog and have to be

More Reading:
The formation, clogging, and measures to protect and extend the life of the
biomat is discussed at Septic System Absorption System Biomat Formation as a
subchapter of this text.
DISPOSAL vs TREATMENT - Effluent Disposal and Drain Clogging

In simplest terms, there are two visible septic effluent or onsite wastewater
disposal failures:

• Toilets or other fixtures back up into the house - but first see "Diagnosing
Clogged Drains then return here using your browser's "BACK" button.
• Effluent or sewage appears at the surface of the yard, or the neighbor's

Septic odors may also indicate a system failure or an imminent failure. But such
odors may also be produced by defects in the plumbing vent system or other site
conditions. Beware, sewer gas contains methane and is explosive if it reaches a
dangerous concentration inside a building.

Typical causes range from things that are easy and cheap to repair, to a need for
complete system replacement:

Septic Systems Online Book

• Clogged pipes
• Broken pipes
• Damaged tank
• Tipped distribution box
• Clogged/broken soil absorption piping
• Clogged absorption soils (grease & solids)
• Saturated soil absorption area
However there can also be septic effluent treatment failures. Effluent may not
back up or appear on the surface, but if insufficiently treated effluent reaches a

private well or any stream or waterway, the environment is being contaminated --
an unacceptable condition. Historically many people have just worried about
disposal. As the quality of drinking water deteriorates in many areas and as
population grows in many previously thinly-populated areas, proper treatment
has become the real concern for everyone's health.

For example, if there is not sufficient soil between the bottom of the soil
absorption system trenches and the local groundwater, the local environment is
being contaminated.

Failures: (leach fields, drain fields, seepage pits)
Drainfield life: What destroys or shortens the life of the absorption

It's easy to ruin or shorten the life of a drainfield/leaching bed:

• install a drainfield in wet weather (which compacts the soil)
• drive over the drainfield or build a parking lot over it (compacts soil, breaks
• plant trees on the septic absorption field (roots enter pipes)
• put a swimming pool in the middle of a drainfield - yes I've seen people do
• forget to pump out the septic tank regularly (solids/grease are discharged
into the fields, clogging the soil)
• direct roof runoff or surface runoff across the drainfield or into the septic
tank (flooding the system)
• install the drainfield in an area of high seasonal water tables (flooding the
• use the septic system to dispose of illegal oils, chemicals, fats, greases -
one system in New York near the Taconic State Parkway was connected
to house in which was operated an illegal drug manufacturing operation.
So much contaminant was flushed down house drains that the workers
contaminated their own well and poisoned themselves
• discharge excessive salts or other chemicals which destroy the The
formation, clogging, and measures to protect and extend the life of the
biomat is discussed at biomat in the drainfield
Soil Absorption System Failure Criteria
• Breakout of effluent observed (& I consider odors as well)
• BOH evaluation in MA if within 100 ft of surface water supply
• within Zone 1 of a public well
• within 50ft of a private well
• between 50ft and 100ft of a private well if well fails bacteria test.

Septic Systems Online Book

The Drainfield: Leaching Bed Soil Condition & Liquid level

The absorption system or "drain field" has two jobs. First, it disposes of liquid
effluent by permitting it to seep into the soil below. Second, a "bio-mat" of
bacteria which forms in the soil below the drainage field processes pathogens in
the septic effluent to make the effluent sufficiently sanitary as to avoid
contaminating nearby ground water.

This distinction between successful "disposal" and successful "treatment" is
important to avoid groundwater contamination but has not been addressed by
regulation in every municipality. Municipalities which require a minimum distance
between the bottom of the drain field trenches (or equivalent component) and the
top of the seasonal high ground water table have recognized the importance of a
working bio-mat and the need to provide adequate dry soil for it to function.

Even in a well-designed drainage field, eventually the soil surrounding the
drainfield device (perforated pipe in gravel trench or other seepage system)
becomes clogged with grease and debris. Examining an excavated cross-section
of a failed drainfield will often display a black or gray band of sludge and grease
of about 1" thickness at the inside perimeter of the gravel trench. When this layer
of soil becomes sufficiently clogged the passage of effluent into the soil below is
slowed and eventually blocked, leading to the need for replacement. Keeping a
tank pumped so as to reduce the passage of debris and grease into a drain field
will extend its life.

This is the most expensive problem to correct. Look for septic effluent seepage to
ground surface in area of equipment or downhill from such equipment. Look for
(illegal) drain field line extensions to nearby streams, storm drains, or adjoining
properties where the temptation to "fix" a failing system by sending the effluent to
an improper destination overwhelmed a previous owner or repair company. In
some areas inspectors use septic loading and dye test. Seepage may be due to
overloaded tank, failed absorption system, or blocked/broken piping (may be less
An excavator or septic contractor will often explore one or more drain lines (or
similar components) by excavating a portion of it to look for evidence of flooding
or soil clogging. We've used a simple probe at the end and along a leach bed to
check for flooding of that component. (Be careful not to break or collapse old

Guide to Septic Drainfield PERC TESTS - Septic Soil Percolation
Requirements and Soil Depth Requirements for Septic Absorption
Systems / Septic System Drainfields

This chapter is maintained at Soil Percolation Requirements and Soil Depth
Requirements for Septic Absorption Systems / Septic System Drainfields but text
is repeated here for readers who scroll down rather than linking to the separate

Perc Tests: What is a septic system soil percolation test?

In specifying the size and type of absorption field (leach field, seepage pits,
galleys, other) a septic engineer or health department official will require that a
soil percolation test or "perc" test be performed. You may hear it described as a
"deep hole test." The first time I participated in this procedure I found myself
smiling with surprise at how low-tech the procedure actually was (in New York
State.) After identifying the most-likely location on the lot for placement of a
septic drainfield, the excavator used a backhoe to dig a rough hole about 5 ft.
deep. Happily no groundwater immediately filled in the hole (which would have
been bad news).

Perhaps this is why builders try to have this test done in July which is the period
of most-dry weather and lowest groundwater table levels. After digging this rough
hole, the septic engineer poured a 5-gallon (joint compound) bucket of water into
the hole. In some cases a few buckets might be dumped therein.

After that sophisticated move, the observers simply watched the rate at which the
water disappeared. a one-inch drop in water level in this hole in three minutes
was considered very good. If the water was found still in the hole at no drop in
level the next morning, this was considered seriously bad and probably requiring
some soil exchange or other special design measures.

What are the soil perc standards> and other soil requirements
for septic systems?

I like the Massachusetts Title 5 Septic Inspection criteria for defining a (at least
possibly) functional drainfield, as the text explains the role of the biomass below
the absorption bed, sets soil depth requirements, and recognizes the importance
of keeping the bottom of the working biomass area in well drained soil sufficiently
above the seasonal high water table.
Here is an example of soil requirements for a functional drainfield. This version is
particularly clearly written and is for residents of Ohio but the principles apply
anywhere. "In Ohio, soil absorption systems can be used in areas where the
percolation rate of the soil is between 3 and 60 minutes per inch (soil
permeability between 1 and 20 inches per hour).

At least 4 feet of suitable soil is required under the soil absorption system to
provide adequate treatment of the septic tank effluent. To accommodate the
construction of the system and provide adequate soil cover to grade, a minimum
of 5 1/2 to 6 1/2 feet of suitable soil is needed above the limiting layer.

A limiting layer may be bedrock, an impervious soil layer (hardpan, fragipan) or a
seasonally high water table (gray soil or mottles). The soil absorption system
must be at least 8 feet from any drain line on the lot, 50 feet from a water supply,
and 10 feet from the property line, right-of-ways and the house. Septic systems
cannot be placed on the flood plain and are limited to areas with less than a 15
percent slope." Ohio State University
Fact Sheet "Septic Tank - Soil Absorption Systems"

Our separate article by Lockwood includes a description of the calculations to
answer the question: How Big Should the Leach Field Be? and includes a
practical example using sample calculations and a table of soil percolation rate
vs. field size

FIELD SIZE - Septic Leach Field or Septic Absorption Field Size: How
large does the absorption field need to be?

This chapter is maintained in complete form at FIELD SIZE.

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to view other topics at this website. Green links show where you are in our
document or website.

The size of the absorption field needed (in square feet of area, presumably also
unencumbered by trees, driveways, buildings, etc.) can range considerably
depending on the soil percolation rate. A lot with a good percolation rate or "perc"
of perhaps one inch of percolation in three minutes might require about 4500
square feet for a typical three bedroom home. If the same home were built where
there was a poor a soil percolation rate of an hour per inch, 9000 square feet or
more might be required for the absorption area.

Drainfield size and location also have to take into account local zoning - setback
requirements from property borders, setbacks from streams, wetlands, wells,
water supply lines, and other encumbrances.
Drainfield trench/line specifications

In the most common design of drainfield, perforated pipes are buried in gravel-
filled trenches to form the drainfield. Pipes are placed across the slope line of
sloped property (so that all of the effluent doesn't simply rush down to and leak
out at the end of the drain line pipe). While some experts describe the bottom of
these trenches as "level" in practice they are dug to slope slightly, perhaps 1/8"
per foot or less.

A typical septic leach field trench is 18 to 30 inches in depth, and 8 to 12 inches
wide. The trenches are dug about 6 feet apart which allows, in good design,
space for a set of replacement trenches to be placed between the original ones
when the first set fails. The maximum length of a trench is typically about 150
feet but I've found installations that were three times that length.

Where lot space does not permit drainfield trenches such as I've just described, a
septic engineer may specify that seepage pits or galleys are to be installed.
These fit in a smaller space since a single pit may be 6' to 8' in diameter. But the
depth to which effluent is being delivered (4' or more) means that the sewage
effluent is unlikely to be fully treated by a biomass. These systems may
successfully "dispose" of effluent but they are probably not adequately "treating"

[See Tables for sizing drainfields and mound systems, USDA, soils, guide to Soil
percolation tests, trench dimensions, loading in gpd per foot. e.g. , moderately
limited perc rate of 5-10 min/inch has max sewage loading rate to trench and bed
bottom of 1 gallon per square foot per day per trench and .5 gal per bed.

The Biomat: The formation, clogging, and measures to protect and extend the
life of the biomat, or organism layer below and around soil absorption system
effluent discharge piping is discussed at Septic System Absorption System
Biomat Formation as a subchapter of this text.

MOUND SYSTEMS - Septic mound systems

The complete form of this chapter is maintained at MOUND SYSTEMS.

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to view other topics at this website. Green links show where you are in our
document or website.

To build a mound system, extra soil is brought to a site and sculpted to form a
drainfield of adequate thickness and area. These systems are common where
soils are rocky or where there simply is not enough soil above the local water
table to provide adequate absorption.
A mound system may be fed by gravity at some sites but it's also common for the
effluent to reach the mound by having been "pumped-up" from a septic tank.
Pump-up (to elevations higher than the building main drain exit) and some septic
mound systems use a single or duplexed pump either in a clear baffled section of
the tank, or in a separate effluent pumping chamber. Duplexed systems offer
more reliability. If the first pump fails the second takes over, and an alarm bell or
light are turned on. Grinder/Ejector pumps are used at both private and public
sewage disposal systems to pump up from low areas (such as a basement toilet)
where the sewer line exits the building at a higher level and where gravity drains
are therefore not workable. Flush-up toilets, systems that use a venturi-system
rather than a grinder pump, may be encountered but may be in violation of local
plumbing codes as they may comprise an unsanitary cross- connection (using
house water pressure to force sewage up and out).

What ruins a septic mound system?

A good way to ruin a septic mound system or to build one with a short life is very
common in the Northeastern U.S. where I find what I call "pseudo mound septic
systems" in which the builder has killed two birds with one stone. Instead of
clearing an area and bringing in the proper volume and type of soil to build the
mound, the builder finds a spot into which s/he can push all of the tree stumps
and construction debris from the building project. The stumps and trees are then
buried with backfill to produce an nice looking "mound" with just enough soil to
bury a network of drainfield pipes. If you see a mound system that has horizontal
trees sticking out of its base, or if it has mysterious pipes leaving its base, I would
be very suspicious about the design and longevity of the system, as well as
concerned about its legality.

Septic Pumps and Alarms for Septic Tanks and Mound Systems

[TBA] Additional data on this topic for Canada: see Ministry of the Environment,
Class 4 Sewage Systems, on hand via AC

DRYWELLS - or seepage pits for disposing of gray water onsite

The complete form of this chapter is maintained at DRYWELLS.

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to view other topics at this website. Green links show where you are in our
document or website.
A drywell, or "seepage pit" is used at some building sites to receive "gray water"
from a laundry, sink, or shower.

The pit may be site-built of stone or dry-laid concrete block, rubble-filled, or
constructed of (safer) pre-cast concrete. Design may be similar to that of a
cesspool, described above, but only gray-water and not sewage is discharged
into a drywell.

Drywell Warnings
• Safety: the same concerns for collapse hazards apply as were described
above for cesspools.
• Limited septic system capacity is implied by the presence of a drywell.
Wet soil conditions or limited space for a functioning drain field (for the
septic system) often leads property owners to reduce the liquid load on the
septic system by routing gray water to a separate drywell. Where such a
system is installed owners/buyers should be alert for these conditions and
should expect to face extra costs for system maintenance and repair as
well as limited septic system capacity.
• An exception to the warning above: at a large building where a sink or
laundry are added in an area distant from piping connected to the septic
system, an owner may add a remote drywell as an alternative to
inconvenient and costly routing of a drain line from the laundry to the
existing septic system.

Drywells in many areas are a misnomer since during wet weather as water
tables rise, the "drywell" is not very dry and in fact may fill up with water and
simply stop working.

In wet areas of the Northeastern U.S., for example, I disagree with the practice of
"solving" a roof drainage disposal problem at a flat site by building a "drywell"
since in my experience these fail rather soon and in some cases even fill up and
work backwards, sending water back to a building footing drain or roof drainage
system where water then leaks into the building!

CESSPOOLS for onsite wastewater disposal

See CESSPOOLS for the complete version of this chapter.

A cesspool combines the septic treatment tank and
absorption system into a single component. Basically a
cesspool is a stone or concrete block or (safer) pre-
cast concrete (photo) lined pit into which sewage is
discharged. Solids remain in the pit, effluent is
absorbed into soil below and at the sides of the
cesspool. This older design was often used where there is limited physical space,
and where the soil absorption rate high. We have more to add to this section, but
the bottom line is that for most installations you should consider this an obsolete,
limited capacity system likely to need replacement, and involving significant cost.
Some immediate concerns are stated next.

Cesspool Safety Warnings
• Safety Warning: do not walk over the top of or close to the edges of a
cesspool or any other onsite pit or excavation because of the danger of
fatal collapse. Keep pets and children away from such systems.
• Safety Warning: there is a high risk of cesspool collapse, risking fatality if
someone falls in to one of these systems. This is particularly true for older
site-built systems that were often made of dry-stacked stone or concrete
block, and more-so if such systems are not protected by a very secure
• Safety Warning: pumping cesspools is dangerous since older site-built
systems may be more likely to collapse inwards when relieved of their
• Safety Warning: aerating or agitating sludge at the bottom of a cesspool in
an attempt to renew its function or extend its life also risk system collapse.

Cesspool Failure Criteria (MA)

Failure Criteria for Cesspools: If the waste level is within 12" of the inlet pipe near
the top of a cesspool the system is at end of life and needs to be replaced. Some
municipalities and experts will state other distances. In Massachusetts according
to the Massachusetts Title 5 Septic Law the following are considered a failed or
unacceptable cesspool installation:

• less than 6inches of freeboard
• less than 1/2 day's storage
• within100 ft. of a pond or dug well (surface water supply)
• within50 ft. of a private well (modern sanitary well)
• between50 and 100 ft from a private well if well fails bacteria test
• inMA, within Zone 1 of a public well
• BOH evaluation is required if within 50ft of any surface water
Definitions of Levels 0-1-2-3 of Septic System Inspection and

See SEPTIC INSPECTION TYPES & LEVELS for the complete version of this

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to view other topics at this website. Green links show where you are in our
document or website.

Anyone inspecting septic systems MUST be familiar with the hazards and safety
concerns discussed at SAFETY WARNINGS

Please see SEPTIC INSPECTION TYPES & LEVELS for our complete article
on this topic. That article includes these subtopics:


Basic descriptions of these levels of septic testing follow below but full details are
in the above articles.

LEVEL-0 Septic Inspections - Basic Visual or Visual Plus Loading &
Septic Dye Test - no pumping

This level of inspection is typically provided during a "home inspection" for real
estate transactions. It pumping may not be appropriate if the system is a recent
installation (less than 2 years old), or if it has been recently pumped (a year or
less, perhaps more depending on tank size and building occupancy), and if there
are not other historical or site observations raising question about the system

1. VISUAL ONLY: Basic visual inspection and reporting of information
(Performed by home inspector or other expert) (Some municipalities
require this test be performed only by specifically licensed septic
contractors or engineers.)
2. VISUAL PLUS LOADING DYE TEST - Visual + Dye test and system
loading. Warning: using an inadequate amount of tracer dye or an
insufficient volume of water for this test will make it meaningless.
Therefore ordering a "stand-alone" septic loading and dye test of a system
should be expected to cost considerably more than such a test which can
be performed overlapped in time with other building inspection services.
Beware of quick, minimal tests which place only a small volume of liquid
into the system (perhaps 50 gallons over 10 or 15 minutes).

LEVEL 1 Septic Inspections: Level 0 plus open accessible covers,
plus Loading/Dye Test, possibly Pumping

This inspection is comprised of:

1. The steps in a Level 0 inspection
2. Additional visual inspection steps to open accessible covers & inspect
3. Septic Dye Test: This inspection usually include a septic loading and dye
test. If a dye test is to be performed it must be done before the system is
pumped or further inspected - otherwise the loading test cannot test the
absorption system.
4. Pumping: In some states such as Pennsylvania, this level may include
requiring tank pump out and inspection. (Performed by home inspector or
other expert) (Some municipalities require this test be performed only by
specifically licensed septic contractors or engineers.) This is the
Pennsylvania PSMA definition for level-1. More detail is at Level 1.

LEVEL 2 Septic Inspections: Level 1 plus scum and sludge levels,
pump tank, check D-boxes

This inspection is comprised of:

1. The steps in a Level 0 inspection
2. The steps in a Level 1 inspection
3. Additional steps to:
o locate, excavate if needed, open, inspect the septic tank determine
the septic system capacity, scum thickness, baffle condition, etc.
(Performed by septic pumping contractor or other expert.) (Some
municipalities require this test be performed only by specifically
licensed septic contractors or engineers.) More detail is at Level 2.
o pump and inspect the emptied septic tank, baffles
o locate, excavated if needed, and inspect the distribution boxes
LEVEL 3 Septic System Inspections Level 2 plus soil and perc tests,
poss. engineering analysis

This inspection is comprised of:

4. All of the steps in a Level 0,1, and 2 inspection
5. Additional site excavation to make test openings in leaching area, other
test holes to observe soil conditions, test the soil percolation rate, and if
needed, perform other engineering work necessary to certify an existing
system or to permit specification of system replacement. (Performed by
septic pumping contractor, engineer, or other expert.) (Some municipalities
require this test be performed only by specifically licensed septic
contractors or engineers.)

How to Perform a Septic Loading & Dye Test

The septic loading and dye test procedure, data to be recorded, and minimum
quantities of water and septic dye needed are discussed in a separate chapter at
Septic Loading and Dye Test Procedure Details - a chapter of this text
"Inspecting, Testing, & Maintaining Residential Septic Systems".

Septic Dye Test Warnings to be Included With Septic Test Reports
1. If property has been vacant more than a week or the system has been only
minimally used, additional levels of testing and inspection are necessary to
determine system condition. If the system has been serviced recently, contact the
septic pumping company to inquire about the type and condition of the waste
disposal equipment. If the system has not been serviced recently, limited but
important additional information regarding the condition of the system may be
obtained by having a septic contractor open, clean, and inspect the septic tank
(and distribution boxes). Particularly in the case of older systems that have not
been serviced, if the property owner will permit this step we recommend it.
Excavation and pumping are beyond the scope of our loading and dye-test
procedure. Practices in some states require pumping and inspection at sale.
2. Septic systems are basically a "buried" installation which is hidden from normal
visual inspection. Many possible problems may not show themselves at the time
of a visual inspection, and
3. thus one cannot make accurate prediction of the future condition of the
system. Determination of location, condition, or life expectancy of buried
septic components is not possible from a visual inspection. Costly
problems may not be visible.
4. Periodic pumping is recommended to prevent costly damage to the
absorption system. Pumping frequency depends on system usage, tank
size, and other factors.
5. The inspection includes visual examination of probable tank and
absorption system areas, surface and perimeter, at the beginning, during,
and at the end of a loading or dye test, if such was ordered and

SEPTIC CLEARANCES - Online Table of Required Clearances:
Distances Between Septic System & Wells, Streams, Trees, etc.

This chapter is maintained at Online Table of Required Septic Clearances:
Distances Between Septic System & Wells, Streams, Trees, etc. but text is
repeated here for readers who scroll down rather than linking to the separate

Common guidelines are at least 50' clearance or distance between the well and
the septic system tank or 150' between the well and the septic drainfield or
leaching bed. Beware that local soil and rock conditions can make these "rules of
thumb" very unreliable. See "One and Two Family Dwelling Code, Section P-
2510-Combined Seepage Pits and Disposal Fields," and Table P-2504, "Location
of Sewage Disposal System." Other references are cited at the end of this table.

Typical clearances for septic tank, soil absorption system (SAS), etc. This table
describes distance requirements between septic components and wells, streams,
trees, property boundaries, lakes, etc. A second section of the table gives
distances from wells to septic systems and other encumbrances. NOTE: these
distances are for conventional onsite waste disposal systems which specify
clearances presuming that effluent is being disposed-of after minimal treatment
such as is received by a septic tank or cesspool. Advanced onsite wastewater
treatment systems, such as those described by Jantrania and Gross (2006),
permit substantial reduction in these clearances, depending on the level of
treatment achieved.

Septic System Clearances from Wells, Buildings, & Other Site Features
Min. Separation From Septic Tank Drainfield Mass.Title5 NY UPC
. EPA General FL . . . .
Structures to
- 5 ft 5 ft 8 ft - 10 ft -
Structures to Sewer
- - - - - - 2 ft
Property line - 5 10 5 - - -
Water supply piping - 10 10 - - - -
Non-potable water well - - 50 - - - -
Water supply well 50 50 75 100 50 - -
Public water well - - 200 - - 50
Streams - 50 - 50 - - 50
Large trees - 10 - ? - - -
High water line of lake
- - 75 - - - -
Soil Absorption
System above
- - - - 4 - -
groundwater (water
Soil Absorption Sys.
- - - - - 150 -
Min Area
Tank cover soil backfill
- 6"-?" - 12"-24" - - -

Cesspool Clearances and Specifications
Cesspool min. freeboard - - - - 6" - -
Minimum volume - - - - 1/2 day - -
Separation from Surface Water Supply - - - - 100 - -
Separation from private well - - - - 50 - -
Separation from private well, bad
- - - - 50-100 - -

US-HUD/FHA Distances from Well to: Note 1 below
Property line 10
Septic tank 50
75 (may be modified based on local
Absorption field
75 (may be modified based on local
Seepage pit
Absorption pit 75 (may be modified based on local
Sewer line 10 if line has permanent watertight joints
Other sewer line 50
Chemically poisoned
Dry well 50

US-EPA Distances from Well to:
Septic tanks 50
Septic leach fields 50
Livestock yards 50
Silos 50
Petroleum Tanks 100

Liquid Tight Manure Storage 100
Pesticide & Fertilizer
Storage & Handling
Manure stacks 250

Distances are in feet unless otherwise stated
SAS = Soil Absorption System - Leach Field etc.
Mass.Title5 = Massachusetts Title 5 Septic Code
FL = Florida
NY = New York State
UPC = Uniform Plumbing Code
-1 Distance from source of pollution - proposed construction, US Dept. of Housing and Urban
Development, FHA, Local acceptable standard No. 3, June 18, 1992, Ref. Hud Handbook 4910.1
Chg 1, Appendix K, Pg K-27
EPA references above and for other EPA information see Well Construction and Maintenance
[Details to Help Avoid Well Water Contamination] US EPA

Septic Systems Online Book
>ALTERNATIVE DESIGNS - Additional Septic System Inspection
and Maintenance Chapters under development

In case you scrolled down rather than using links at the left, information about
alternative septic designs is maintained in separate chapter files listed below.

• See SEPTIC DESIGN ALTERNATIVES - Alternative Septic System
• [TBD: Working document notes: add from on hand, tables for sizing
mound systems, USDA, soils, percs, trench dimensions, loading in gpd
per foot. E.g. , moderately limited perc rate of 5-10 min/inch has max
sewage loading rate to trench and bed bottom of 1 gallon per square foot
per day per trench and .5 gal per bed. this chapter is under development.
• [TBD: Working document notes: add from on hand, septic tank
abandonment procedures and hazards ... see FLASHI seminar notes] this
chapter is under development.
• [TBD:Working document notes: add from on hand, septic tank capacity,
average sewage flow gpd vs. minimum effective capacity in gallons ...
FLASHI and other refs. Few locales may permit new tanks under 900g].

FAILURE LAWSUIT - A Defective Septic Inspection and
Septic System Failure Litigation Case Study
SepticAPedia ©

SEPTPROB.TXT - Excerpt from DJ Friedman arbitration file

The complete version of this chapter is maintained at FAILURE LAWSUIT.

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Complaint that Septic Test Was Not Properly Performed

[home inspector's name deleted] performed a septic dye test, erred by putting
water in laundry sink in the basement; ran 125g water, reported system in
satisfactory condition; Buyer later found no proper system installed, had to install
a "trans vac" pump up mound system, for $16,000, total damages $28,000. Area
reported to be known for poor drainage, making mound system requirement
Approach to Analysis of the Septic System Test Complaint
1. ASHI Standards of Practice (exclude requiring Septic test)
2. Define existing professional standards for performing visual + dye test
3. Claim basic error made: test in laundry sink - no evidence. connects to

Assertions Made by the Plaintiff Regarding Inadequate
Performance of a Septic Loading and Dye Test - Errors of
Omission and Commission
1. Common practice includes visual inspection of yard and interior and
plumbing to address the pertinent questions, + dye, volume of water,
reinspection for breakout. Pertinent questions include attempting to assure
that drain used for test drains into the septic fields.
2. An error can be inferred if dye and loading water volume were not
introduced into the proper drains. If this is the case, whether or not the
proper volume of water was run is probably moot.
3. It is possible that knowledge of area soil characteristics, age of property,
local building conditions and practices, might have served as a basis for
caution or warning, regardless of whether or not dye was found at the
surface. Such warnings are at the discretion of the inspector.

Questions In Determination of Adequacy of Septic Test
1. Is there visual evidence in basement of the subject property that the
laundry sink does not or might not drain to same location as main house
sewer line? [Yes-arrangement of piping; height of exit of septic drain
above sink]
2. Does client recall and can testify that dye was introduced only in drywell?
How much water was run? Over what time? (125 g in 1/2hr is about 4.2
gpm which is possible from a reasonably strong flow at a single sink
faucet. Typically 3-4 gpm for a kitchen sink, or single tub, depending on
pump pressure switch settings, control valve settings, clogged piping, type
of pump, etc.) What type of well and pump equipment are provided?
Shallow well, deep well, submersible pump vs 2-line jet pump? At what
pressure does the pump cut in and out, what type of holding tank is
installed, what is the average water pressure in the house, what is the
measured flow in gpm from the faucet used to perform the test? only. 125
gals in 1/2 hr is possible and reasonable, but a bit less than the usual
volume of water run for septic tests.
3. Would a conventional and properly conducted test absolutely, probably,
possibly have revealed a failed system?
o what conditions led to discovery of failure (number of occupants,
level of usage, time until failure noted after initial occupancy)?
o exactly what equipment was discovered when the old system was
o can one reliably infer from what was discovered that question 3 is
pertinent and that q3 can be answered?

Court Hearing Notes regarding inadequate septic testing
1. Water was run into laundry drain, nowhere near and no visible connection
to main house drain; photo details strongly suggest laundry drain does not
or may not drain to septic - wrong place to test. No dye was used.
2. Septic report indicates dye was used etc - in boilerplate. Minimal info.
provided by report
3. Home inspection report - a checklist form - completely blank plumbing
section - suspect inspector was distracted by something and just forgot
this topic - does not meet ASHI standards for plumbing inspection.
4. Septic failed immediately on occupancy - probably less than 200g water
5. Subsequent discovery on excavation indicates no functioning septic -
sludged tank, no leach lines except. one pipe, completely root-filled.
Strong possibility that a proper loading and dye test would have failed;

References: Septic System, On-site Waste Disposal Inspection,
Maintenance, Testing, Repair, Design: Septic References

The complete set of septic system inspection, testing, design, and repair
references is maintained at SEPTIC REFERENCES.

Use links just below or at the left of each page to navigate this document or
to view other topics at this website. Green links show where you are in our
document or website.

• We discuss the requirements for different levels of inspections (level 0, 1,
2 septic inspections) at: Septic System Inspection Types & Inspection
• Field worksheets for various types of septic system inspections can be
found at Checklists for Inspecting, Testing, & Maintaining Residential
Septic Systems
• See Septic Tank Inspection Procedure for details of inspecting septic
tanks themselves and a septic tank inspection checklist.
• See Septic Field Inspection Procedure for details of inspecting septic
• See Septic Loading and Dye Test Procedure for the details of that process
• See Septic Inspection Testing for our full list of septic inspection methods
and procedures.
• See Signs of Septic System Failure: A First Step in Septic Diagnosis, for
septic system failure criteria
• See our online septic system inspection course at Inspecting Onsite
Waste Disposal Systems - Septic System Testing Methods & Procedures -
a Classroom Presentation
• See Inspecting, Testing, & Maintaining & Designing Residential Septic
Systems - for our Septic Systems Online Book on this topic
1. "EPA Design Manual: Onsite Wastewater Treatment and Disposal
Systems," R. Otis et al, EPA 625/1-80-012. GPO Bookstore, 26 Federal
Plaza, Room 110, New York NY 10278 212-264-3825.
2. "Septic Systems," T. & A. Ferrero, Tri State ASHI Seminar, November 6-7
1993, and attachments listed below.
3. "Septic Tank Pumping," Paul D. Robillard, Kelli S. Martin, Penn State
College of Agriculture, Cooperative Extension, Agricultural Engineering
Fact Sheet SW-161, Agricultural Engineering Department, 246 Agricultural
Engineering Building, University Park PA 16802 814-865-7685 814-863-
1031 FAX.
4. "Preventing Septic System Failures," Paul D. Robillard, Kelli S. Martin,
PennState College of Agriculture, Cooperative Extension, Agricultural
Engineering Fact Sheet SW-162.
5. "Mound Systems for Wastewater Treatment," Paul D. Robillard, Kelli S.
Martin, Penn State College of Agriculture, Cooperative Extension,
Agricultural Engineering Fact Sheet SW-164
6. "Septic Tank Soil Absorption Systems," Paul D. Robillard, Kelli S. Martin,
Penn State College of Agriculture, Cooperative Extension, Agricultural
Engineering Fact Sheet SW-165
7. "The Soil Media and Percolation Test," Paul D. Robillard, Kelli S. Martin,
Penn State College of Agriculture, Cooperative Extension, Agricultural
Engineering Fact Sheet SW-163
8. "Level 1 Septic System Inspections During Real Estate Transactions,"
Paul D. Robillard, Kelli S. Martin, Penn State College of Agriculture,
Cooperative Extension, Agricultural Engineering Fact Sheet SW-166
9. "Take Care of Your Septic Tank," Washington State Septic Tank Pumpers
Association, (WSSTPA) (Les Eldredge, President, 206-334-8263);
Courtesy of Bob Kelwitz, 10/93. Items 3-9 provided courtesy of Jules
10. "Cottage Country, Environmental Manual for Cottages," 6th Ed., 1989,
ISBN 0-7729-5085-7, Environment Ontario, 135 Clari Ave. West, Suite
100, Toronto Ontario M4V 1P5
11. Septic Tank Maintenance," Circular 1343/January 1990, and "Why Do
Septic Systems Fail?," K. Manci & J.A. Moore, Extension Circular
1340/January 1990, Oregon State University Extension Service, and
"Know your Septic System," a homebuyer's guide to on-site septic
systems, Washington Association of Realtors, Govt. Affairs Dept, PO Box
719, Olympia WA 98507 206-943-3100, provided by Len Sherr, Bend OR
12. One and Two Family Dwelling Code, Section P-2506, Septic Tank Design
and Construction.
13. "The Septic Tank Home Wastewater Treatment and Disposal System,"
Southern Rockingham Regional Planning District Commission, 19 Main
St., Salem NH 03079 603-893-5766
14. "Septic Tank News & Views," Stanley Carraway, Florida ASHI Seminar,
October 9-10, 1993 available from FLASHI Chapter, includes some USDA
tables and charts on design, loading, and references the New (1992)
Chapter 10D-6, Florida Administrative Code, Standards for Onsite Sewage
Disposal Systems.
15. Pennsylvania Septic Management Association, RD 3 Box 3231, Moscow,
PA 18444
16. HUD Handbook 4910.1 (Well Clearances)
17. "Private Sewage Disposal, Some Suggestions," RES-I-TEC, 145D Grassy
Plains St., Bethel CT 06801 1989
18. "A Homeowner's Manual for Septic Systems," Robert Berg, Wastewater
Facilities Management Element Bureau of Construction and Connection
Permits, State of New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection,
Division of Water Resources, January 1990, 609-984-4429, courtesy of
Lewis Home Inspections
19. "What Remodelers Should Know About Septic Systems,", Russ Lanoie,
Journal of Light Construction [New England Builder], July, 1988, p. 31-36,
RR#2, PO Box 146, Richmond VT 05477
20. "Water Conservation and Wastewater Disposal," R. Siegrist et al., 1978,
ASAE Pub. 5-77:121-136
"Soil Infiltration Capacities as affected by septic tank effluent application
strategies. In: Proceedings of the 3rd national
21. Symposium on Individual and Small Community Sewage Treatment."
ASAE Pub. 1-82 pp. 72-74. ASAE PO Box 410, St.Joseph MI 49085
22. "Aerobic on-site systems studied in New Mexico," Asbury R. and
Hendrickson C., 1982, Journal of Environmental Health, 45:86-87
23. "Soil Clogging: Mechanisms and Control," R. Otis, Proceedings of the 4th
National Symposium on Individual and Small Community Sewage
Treatment, ASAE Pub. 07-85 pp. 238-250, ASAE, 2590 Niles Rd., St.
Joseph MI 49085-9659
24. "Residential Graywater Management in California," A. Ingham, 1980.
California State Water Resources Control Board, PO Box 100,
Sacramento CA 95081
25. "On-site disposal of small wastewater flows," R. Otis, 1977, Department of
Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Wisconsin, Madison.
26. NAHB Library, several resources listed, contact NAHB, 15th and M Streets
NW, Washington, DC 20003 202-822-0203. "Pumped septics - improved
waste-water systems distribute effluent from septic tanks over a wide area,
preventing contamination of drinking water," Noele Stuart, Popular
Science, My 1989, p. 84; "Septic tank effluent pump systems: an
alternative to conventional sewers and grinder pump systems," Small
Flows, October 1991, p 4. Courtesy of Heather Groves, NAHB Library and
Information Center. 800-368-5242 Ext 204 (CD ROM search service, fees
involved, for GTHBA members and NHBA members)
27. "Septic Tank/Water Softener, potential effects of water softener use on
septic tank soil absorption on-site wastewater systems; the effect of home
water softener waste regeneration brines on individual aerobic wastewater
treatment plants," Water Quality Research Council, Water Quality
Association, 477 E. Butterfield Road, Lombard IL 60148
28. "Design Handbook, Grinder Pumps, Low Pressure Sewer Systems,"
Environment One Corporation, 2773 Balltown Road PO Box 773,
Schenectady NY 12301 518-346-6161 (Richard C. Grace, Sales Mgr.)
29. "What you should know before buying a home served by a septic system,"
State of Connecticut, Department of Health Services, 150 Washington St.,
Hartford CT 06106, via Allspect, Westhaven CT and Butterly's Building
Inspection Service, CT.
"Soil infiltration capacities as affected by septic tank effluent application
strategies," D.L. Hagett, et al, 1982, In: Proceedings of the 3rd National
Symposium on Individual and Small Community Sewage Treatment." ASAE Pub.
1-82, pp. 72-84.
30. ASAE, PO Box 410, St Joseph MI 49085, current address: ASAE, 2950
Niles Rd., St Joseph MI 49805-9659, courtesy of Bob Stead, ASHI.
31. "Aerobic on-site systems studied in New Mexico," R. Asbury and C.
Hendrickson, Journal of Environmental Health 45: 86-87,
32. "Soil clogging: mechanisms and control," R. Otis, 1985, in National
Symposium on Individual and Small Community Sewage Treatment."
ASAE Pub. 1-82, pp. 238-250.
33. "Residential Greywater Management in California," California State Water
Resources Control Board, PO Box 100, Sacramento CA 95801
34. "EPA Design Manual: Onsite Wastewater Treatment and Disposal
Systems," R. Otis, et al., No. EPA-625/1-80-012 (or later edition if avail.)
35. "On-site disposal of small wastewater flows," R. Otis, Dept. of Civil and
Environmental Engineering, University of Wisconsin, Madison WI
36.Private communication and "Private Sewage Disposal System," septic
37. checklist developed for ITA, Inspection Training Associates,
38. O'Malley, 1016 S. Tremont Street, Oceanside CA 92054,
39. Private communication, K. Oberg to DJ Friedman, 12/15/93,
12/16/93, 7/22/94
40. Private communication, J. Appleby to DJ Friedman, 9/16/93,
Venice FL
41. Private communication, D. Barnett to DJ Friedman, 9/15/93,
Evansville IN
42. Private communication, N. Becker to DJ Friedman, 9/15/93
43. Private communication, E. Fitzgerald to DJ Friedman, 9/94,
Adoption of New
44.Jersey environmental protection law addressing septic system
operation and
45.maintenance, Subchapter 12, documented in New Jersey Register,
8/21/89, Cite 21
46.NJR 2635. Requires annual inspection beginning in 4th year after
47.describes acceptability criteria, inspection steps, conditions of
48. Private communication, T. Moore to DJ Friedman, 1/15/94,
49. Septic System Evaluation," Goshen NY, 914-294-3398
50. Private communication, S. Vermilye to DJ Friedman, 1/15/94, and
51. sample checklist, 914-255-8888.
52. Private communication, D. Surette to DJ Friedman, 5/6/94
53. Private communication, R. Klewitz to DJ Friedman, 10/1/93
54. Private communication, L. Scherr to DJ Friedman, 10/1/93,
55. Cascade Home Inspection, Bend OR
56. Private communication, G. Reid to DJ Friedman, 12/6/93
57. Private communication, G. Carroll to DJ Friedman, 11/29/93,
58. Action Inspection Service, Cincinnati, OH
59. Private communication, R. Johnson to DJ Friedman, 11/5/93,
60. The Home Specialist, Inc., Roswell GA
61. Private communication, E. Rawlins to DJ Friedman, 10/7/93,
Boca Raton FL,
62.and "You and Your Septic Tank, a guide to the proper operation
and maintenance
63.of a septic tank system," Department of Natural Resource
Protection, 500 E.
64.Broward Blvd, Suite 104, Fort Lauderdale FL 33394 305-765-5181,
65. Broward County, FL, January 1993
66. Private communication, R. and B. Williams to DJ Friedman,
67. Williams Home Inspection Co, Hollis NH
68. Private communication, A. Carson and R. Dunlop to DJ Friedman,
2/6/92, 11/10/93
69. Private communication, L. Cerro to DJ Friedman, 8/22/93
70. Private communication, R. Passaro to DJ Friedman, 9/15/93,
71.Res-I-Tec Corp., Bethel CT; also see Passaro's "Private Sewage
Disposal, Some
72.Suggestions," NY Metro ASHI Seminar, October 1993 (cc on hand)
73. Private communication, J. Falcone to DJ Friedman, 10/15/93
74. Private communication, C. Greenberg to DJ Friedman, 9/9/93
75. Private communication, V. Faggella to DJ Friedman, 9/14/93,
76. 9/24/93, Yorktown Heights, NY
77. Private communication, R. Stead to DJ Friedman, 9/20/93,
Charlton MA
78. Private communication, T. Lewis to DJ Friedman, 9/20/93,
79. Lewis Home Inspection, Lawrenceville NJ
80. Private communication, G. Guarino to T. Lewis, 12/12/91,
Septic system
81.failure and inspection limitations, Township of Hopewell,
Department of Health,
82.201 Washington Crossing, Pennington Rd., Titusville NJ 08560
83. Private communication, C. Eldredge to J. Falcone, 3/27/91,
84.Certification and Testing Information from the Pennsylvania
Septage Management
85.Association, Curt Eldredge, General Manager, Wastewater
Management, Inc., West
86.Chester PA 19380 215-436-4045.
88. Wells and Septic Systems, 2nd Ed., Max and Charlotte Alth, Rev. by S.
Blackwell Duncan, Tab Books, 1992 ISBN 0-8306-2137-7
89. Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems, Bennette D.Burks, Mary Margaret
Minnis, Hogarth House Ltd., 1994, ISBN 0-9641049-0-3
90. The Septic System Owner's Manual, Lloyd Kahn, Blair Allen, Julie Jones,
Shelter Publications, 2000, ISBN 0-936070-20-X