Talk about sticker shock!
When Glendora, Calif., realtor Marty Rodriguez and her neighbor inquired about replacing their 30-year-old septic tanks and connecting their ranch-style homes to the city sewer system, they got an estimate for $150,000 (or $75,000 apiece). Despite that punch-in-your-gut estimate, they decided to greenlight the project and avoid future septic tank expenses.
“It would have cost even more to repair the septic system,” said Rodriguez.
The septic system was installed in 1980 when Rodriguez built her custom home in the Glendora foothills. Over the years, the in-ground 1,500-gallon tank had slowly decomposed, leaving behind crusty deposits that proved increasingly stubborn to flush out. Also, the leach lines and seepage pits that supported her septic system drained poorly in the heavy clay soil, requiring extensive repairs. Trying to extend the life of her current septic system would have been like applying a Band-Aid to a broken leg.
After her dollar-wrenching experience, Rodriguez is now doubly aware of alerting her buyers to potential septic system expenses. Currently, in the United States, about 25 percent of the population relies on septic tanks.
A time bomb waiting to explode?
“You may go 30 years without an incident, but if a problem arises just once, you could be facing a big bill,” Rodriguez said. “That’s why it's so critical that a fully certified inspector specializing in septics and sewers signs off on the system before a homebuyer takes possession of the property.”
Indeed, in many states, including California, property cannot be transferred without the septic system being certified.
Glendora plumber Mike Albo said the inspection should involve more than popping off the cap and shining a flashlight inside the septic tank.
“Ask the inspector what his experience is,” Albo said. “A conscientious inspector will check the plugs, crawl up in the attic or under the house if it’s on a raised foundation. He may run cameras down lines. He’ll check how quickly water drains out of your sinks and bathtubs, and your leach lines and cesspools, as well.”
The thorough testing is often well worth the investment.
“The cost of replacement is huge … it’s huge,” said Albo, his eyes widening. “It’s not going to make you happy.”
At first blush, replacing or repairing a failing septic system doesn’t seem that it should be so costly. A septic tank is merely a small-scale sewage treatment system common in areas with no connection to main sewage pipes, provided by local governments or, in lesser cases, private corporations.
"The septic tank is like the fuel filter for your car; you have to keep the gunk and residue out or pretty soon you’re going to have a problem,” said Tom McCoy, owner of A&D Drain and Pumping Service in Ontario, Calif.
How a septic tank works
A septic system consists of a tank (or sometimes more than one tank) between 1,000 and 2,000 gallons in capacity, connected to an inlet wastewater pipe at one end and a septic drain field at the other. These pipe connections are generally made via a T pipe, which allows liquid entry and exit without disturbing any crust on the surface. Today, the design of the tank usually incorporates two separately capped chambers, separated by a wall.
Wastewater enters the first chamber of the tank, allowing solids to settle and scum to float. Bacteria begin digesting the volume of solids. The effluent flows through the dividing wall into the second chamber where further settlement takes place, with the excess, relatively clear liquid draining from the outlet into the leach field (or drain field or seepage field, depending upon locality).
The remaining impurities are dispersed into the soil, with the excess water eliminated through percolation, eventually returning to the ground water through evaporation, and by uptake through the root systems of plants.
The age-old technology is simple enough, but nature often dictates the cost of repair and replacement for which there is no reliable book of suggested prices. “There’s no norm anymore,” Albo said.
“Building a seepage pit is like building a well,” McCoy noted. “You could go down 12 feet or 60 feet. Similarly, a leach field could start out as a four-foot trench and deepen to a 10-foot trench, depending on the pitch of the land and the soil and other factors.”
Big septic tank expenses
If both soil compaction and percolation tests are required, more expense is involved.
“The percolation test runs about $2,500,” McCoy said. “The soil analysis, conducted by a special kind of geologist, runs about $4,000. Hopefully, the city is on the ball and has already done local soil testing.”
Additional costs can include water table issues and jurisdictional disputes between city and county ownership of the land and sewer connections.
Although plumbers answer many fairly routine service calls, the truth is, every experience can be like opening Pandora’s Box. Their investigations can lead them down many different pipes and pathways.
“If I know they’re on a septic,” Albo said, “the first question I ask is ‘When was the last time you had it pumped?’”
A&D charges $235 to pump out a septic tank, with about half that amount going to the dump site operator.
Amazingly, many homeowners don’t even know if they’re on a septic system. “I run into about 20 calls a year like that,” McCoy said. “They never had a problem, so they never inquired.”
Usually, some easy detective work will reveal a stopped-up or overflowing septic tank. A foul odor is one red flag, but not always. “A lot of septic tanks are buried, and the homeowner doesn’t have a clue where they are,” McCoy said. “It’s not unusual to find some buried under driveways.”
Albo recently answered a call from a Glendora homeowner whose kitchen sink didn’t drain. After probing around, he discovered that the kitchen sink was hooked up to a septic tank while the rest of the house, including the pool, was connected to the city sewer.
“It took me a while to figure out,” said Albo, who ended up running a line from the kitchen sink to the main line connecting to the sewer. “The original owner never informed the current owner that the sink was on a septic. It happens.”
Handle with care
Of course, septic systems would probably last longer if they were treated with more care and respect -- not as the private dumping grounds for last night’s three-layer casserole.
“Don’t dump coffee grounds, cooking fats, wet-strength towels, disposable diapers, facial tissues, cigarette butts and other non-decomposable materials into your house sewer,” Albo warned. “These materials will clog your system.”
If you must use a garbage disposal, Albo recommends removing septic tank solids at least annually. “Ground garbage will likely seep out of the septic tank and plug up the drainfield,” Albo added. “It’s better to compost or deposit the materials in the garbage to be hauled away.”
Household chemicals, including detergents and bleaches, can be unfriendly to septic systems as well. That’s because super-sanitizing can actually arrest the growth of good bacteria needed to breakdown the solid waste material inside the tank.
“I try to steer my customers away from using a lot of anti-bacterial agents like bleach and Lysol,” McCoy said. “Instead, use disinfectant wipes and cleaners to clean surfaces and then discard them in the trash.”
To promote waste-eating bacteria colonies inside the septic tank, there are myriad remedies that have been suggested. “I was told -- but never tried it -- to put a raw chicken inside the septic tank,” Albo said.
McCoy, meanwhile, recommended adding brewer’s yeast to encourage bacteria growth.
“Activate it first in some warm water,” McCoy said. “Then drop it in the toilet.”
Despite their finicky temperaments, septic systems have many advocates. McCoy said a well-functioning septic system is more ecologically sound than a sewer hook-up because the filtration works like a meadow or marsh naturally recycling the gray water back into the environment. It’s no accident that the root systems of flowers and trees closest to the septic system often flourish the most. “The roots travel to where water and nutrients are,” McCoy noted. Those same lush roots, however, can breach septic tanks and leach lines and cause further havoc.
Albo, like Rodriguez, simply wants homebuyers to be aware of the current household sewage system they’re inheriting before they sign a purchase contract.
“I’m always amazed that when people go shopping for a house, they don’t ask the big questions, like, ‘What shape is the roof in?’ or ‘How’s the plumbing?’” Albo said. “But most people don’t look at that. They say, ‘Oh, look at the nice cabinets or the granite countertops.’ But if their plumbing sucks, what good is the house?”
Rodriguez said she makes certifying the plumbing system, including septic/sewer, priority No. 1.
“You just want to know what you’re dealing with,” Rodriguez said. “You want to be able to advise your home buyer correctly. If your client has five kids and wants to buy a home from a couple of empty nesters whose home is on a septic system, I want to know if that septic system can support that larger family.
“I don’t want any septic surprises for my clients,” she added. “I know how expensive these fixes can be!”