Septic Inspections: What You Need to Know

Home and property maintenance are no small tasks.

From interior design and landscaping to regular maintenance and repairs, a lot goes into keeping a home in excellent working conditions. With plumbing and access to clean water being two of the most crucial elements of a home’s functionality, maintaining a home’s septic system is key.

Septic systems play an essential role in any home’s plumbing system, providing a place for wastewater to be stored, processed, and purified. For a septic system to be as effective as possible, it needs to be regularly inspected and pumped out every two to three years.

In this article, we are discussing everything that goes into a septic system inspection, including how often you should have your system inspected and what the inspection process entails.

Keep reading to learn how you can practice good septic system maintenance at home!

What is a Septic System?

A septic system is a wastewater treatment system located on a specific property.

Rather than serving multiple properties and households, a septic system is typically used to process and treat the wastewater of a single household.

In urban settings, such as apartment buildings in a large city, a central municipal sewer system is used to treat wastewater. However, in more rural or suburban settings, a property may be too far from this central municipal system to connect to it. As a result, the property owner would need to utilize a septic system.

Septic systems are made up of several components, including:

  • Septic Tank: The septic tank is a watertight container that is buried underground near the building it services. In the septic tank, wastewater is stored while the solids in the water settle and separate into three main layers — the sludge at the bottom, the wastewater, and the scum that forms from oil and grease floating to the surface of the wastewater. A quality septic tank is crucial, as it connects the other pieces of the septic system to one another.
  • Home Pipe: The home pipe is the pipe that connects a household’s plumbing system to a septic system. This pipe is primarily intended for the transport of wastewater from a home into the septic tank, where it can then continue the septic system process.
  • Exit Pipe: An exit pipe is how the wastewater leaves the septic tank through a screened pipe, where it can then either be dispersed into the soil or sent for further treatment in an additional treatment system. The sludge and scum in the septic tank are prevented from exiting the tank by the shape of the pipe outlet and other structural components of the tank.
  • Drainfield: A drainfield is a portion of a property where wastewater is sent to be discharged and dispersed. The way this water dispersal works is that as wastewater enters the screened exit pipe, it is then pushed out into the drainfield as new unfiltered wastewater enters the septic tank. Once the filtered water enters the drainfield, it is purified by the soil and dispersed into the groundwater, where the water can then once again be sent to a building via a well.
  • Soil or Soil Alternative: For wastewater to be properly purified once it is dispersed into the drainfield, the soil must be of suitable quality for providing this final purification treatment. If a property does not have suitable soil in the drainfield area, an alternative may be needed. For anyone installing a septic system for the first time who is unsure if they have suitable soil for a drainfield, a septic system professional can help you assess and determine your needs.

How Often Should You Have Your Septic Tank Inspected?

As you may have guessed, a septic tank can fill up with sludge and scum over time, making it necessary to have your septic tank regularly inspected and cleaned.

According to the National Association of Wastewater Technicians, septic tanks should be inspected at least every three years and pumped (cleaned) every three to five years. It is further stated that a person should never try to inspect or enter a septic tank on their own, as dangerous noxious gases are present in the tank. Only a qualified professional should perform septic tank inspections.

If a septic tank is allowed to build up sludge and scum without regular cleanings to pump out this debris, a septic system can become overly full, leading to the system having a lower wastewater capacity. In turn, wastewater is pushed into your drainfield more frequently, heightening the risk of drainfield flooding.

Moreover, when septic systems go long periods without regular maintenance, the pipes can become clogged, leading to the system failing to function entirely. In severe cases, this can lead to backed-up wastewater traveling back through the home pipe and coming into a household via any means possible, be it the toilets, the sinks, or even the bathtub and shower faucets.

To prevent this potential damage — and the major costs associated with fixing the damage — ensuring you follow a regular schedule of inspection and pumping is key.

Signs of a Full Septic Tank

Though sticking to a routine of having septic tank inspections and pumpings performed every few years reduces the likelihood of septic problems, it’s still important to know the warning signs.

Here are five key signs to watch out for that may indicate a septic tank is too full:

  • Backed-Up Plumbing: If you begin noticing that your interior plumbing struggling to function, this can be one of the earliest signs of a septic system problem. This may include toilets struggling to flush or sinks and tubs taking a long time to drain. Some of these issues can be solved with drain cleaners — however, if you apply drain cleaner and the problem begins occurring very soon after, this is likely a sign the problem lies in the septic tank.
  • Extra Green Drainfield Grass: If your septic tank is beginning to get overly full of sewage and waste, liquid and matter can end up being pushed out in the drainfield at a faster rate. As a result, the grass on the surface of your drainfield may at first flourish from the extra moisture and fertilizer, leading to the drainfield appearing more lush and green than the surrounding grass.
  • Flooded Drainfield: If a septic system remains backed up for too long, the extra moisture being pushed into the drainfield can result in flooding. If this issue is not noticed and addressed quickly, the flooding can spread throughout the yard and even become a risk to buildings and structures if it spreads too close to building foundations.
  • Sewage Smell: When a septic system becomes severely backed up, you are likely to begin smelling sewage from your yard and, eventually, your home. Outside, this smell is produced by too much wastewater being pushed into the drainfield and can even indicate a leak in the septic tank. Inside, this smell indicates that sewage is beginning to back up into the home pipes.
  • Sewage Backup: One of the worst-case scenarios for an overly-full septic tank is when the sewage and wastewater begin to come back up through the home pipes, leading to a nasty smell and sewage coming through the drains and faucets of a home’s plumbing system. If you begin noticing this, you should immediately call a professional septic service and plumber.

How is a Septic Inspection Done?

In general, septic inspections and pumpings are a package deal.

Septic systems are primarily visual. As stated earlier, noxious gases and fumes can build up in a septic system, making a visual inspection a bit more complicated, as the inspector needs the proper safety gear to carry out the inspection.

Additionally, septic systems can sometimes be difficult to find, requiring inspectors to flush a radio transmitter device down a toilet to locate the septic tank. This device can be removed from the tank once the inspector locates the tank and is ready to open it up.

Professional septic system inspectors typically take a look at three key components of a system:

  • The Septic Tank: Septic tanks have manholes that enable inspectors to look into the tank to check the water and sewage levels. Sewage and liquid should not be higher than the exit pipe. The inspectors will also use a long pole to measure the depth of the sludge at the bottom of the tank — if the inspector discovers between 6 to 10 inches of sludge, this can indicate the tank is in need of pumping and may not have been pumped correctly previously.
  • The Exit Pipe/Dispersal System: After checking the tank, a professional septic system inspector will take a look at the exit pipe and dispersal system to ensure it is functioning properly and that nothing is restricting the flow of wastewater. This is accomplished in part by running the water inside a home and ensuring proper water pressure inside and even dispersal outside.
  • The Drainfield: To inspect the drainfield, a septic system inspector will take a look around the drainfield areas for any especially wet spots, soggy ground, or standing water. If standing water is discovered, it could potentially be a source of mold growth.

The Septic System Pumping Process

Septic system pumping is a process of removing the sludge and scum from a septic tank.

This is a highly important process, as it ensures the tank can function properly and that sewage does not become backed up in the system. To pump out a septic tank, a professional septic system maintenance person or team will arrive with a tanker truck and vacuum equipment.

This vacuum equipment consists of a large hose that can be used to suck out the solid sewage that is filtered out of the wastewater. In general, this pumping process is considered a two-man job, as one person needs to use a muckrake to break up the sewage while the other uses the hose to remove it.

How Long Does a Septic Inspection Take?

The length of a septic inspection highly depends on the state of your septic system.

If your septic tank and system are in good working order and you know exactly where the system is located, a septic system inspection can take roughly 1-3 hours to complete. However, several factors can make this process take longer, such as:

  • Unknown Septic System Location: If you do not know the exact location of your septic system, the inspector will first need to locate the system before the inspection can begin. This usually does not take very long, especially if the inspector has a transmitting tool that can be sent into the septic tank to locate it. To shorten the inspection time, it can be beneficial to both you and the inspector to locate your septic system before the inspection appointment.
  • Signs of Septic System Problems: After a septic system inspection begins, the inspector is going to keep a close eye out for signs of problems in your septic system. If certain problems are identified, such as backed-up sewage coming into the home or drainfield flooding, the inspector may need to take extra time to identify the source of the issue and determine how to fix it.
  • Septic System Pumping: In many cases, a septic inspection will include pumping as part of the process. Pumping out a septic tank is not only essential for septic system maintenance but can also make it easier for the inspector to take a look at the tank and identify any potential damage or issues. The pumping process can vary in length depending on how full the septic tank is. Smaller and cleaner tanks can take roughly 15 to 30 minutes to fully pump, while larger or more backed-up tanks can take upwards of an hour to pump out.

How Much Does a Septic Tank Inspection Cost?

When it comes to the price of a septic tank inspection, the costs can vary.

Most septic system inspection services will charge a base rate for the service, our base rate is $400.

However, these costs can quickly rise if your septic system requires a more intensive inspection and pumping. Depending on the severity of the issue, septic tank inspections can cost between $500 to $1000 for more in-depth services. Severe problems in your septic system can cost you $1,000 or more to repair damage and install any necessary replacement parts.

Here is a quick breakdown of factors that can drive up your septic tank inspection costs:

  • Camera Inspections: If it becomes clear to an inspector that your septic tank has a structural issue causing it to not function correctly, the inspector may want to perform a more in-depth inspection using cameras and other equipment. Depending on the inspection provider you are working with, these more intensive inspections can also be more expensive.
  • Severe Sewage Back-Up: For a septic tank and system that is severely backed up, the process of pumping and cleaning out this system can take longer and, thus, cost more. In cases where the sewage has backed up into your home, the septic system professionals may need to call in the help of plumbers to ensure your home plumbing system is clean and in good working condition.
  • Sewage System Leaks: When a leak in your septic tank is identified, this can quickly drive up costs, as a leak can be a difficult problem to fix. In the worst-case scenario, you may need to replace your septic tank entirely, which can be a huge hassle as your home plumbing system will be out of order as your septic tank is replaced. This further reiterates the importance of regular inspections for identifying problems early on before they have the chance to worsen.
  • Labor Costs: Finally, we have to discuss the labor costs. Depending on the severity of your septic system problem, more workers may need to be called in or the existing team may need to work longer hours to reach a solution. As a result, the overall labor costs of your inspection can increase, which can ultimately increase the cost of the inspection and pumping as well.

How Long Does a Septic System Last?

A well-maintained septic system can last for a very long time.

In general, a septic system can last for between 20 to 30 years before it requires major repairs or replacements. Some systems can last upwards of 50 years if the drainfield soil is of high enough quality and the owner of the system takes exceptional care of it.

The longevity of septic systems is vital, as installing a brand-new system can cost more than $15,000.

This also highlights the crucial importance of practicing exceptional septic system maintenance. Preventing septic system issues is the key to preserving your system for the maximum possible time — and for avoiding the hefty bill that comes with replacing a system.

How To Maintain Your Septic System

Aside from completing regular septic system inspections and pumping roughly every two years, there are several additional steps you can take to ensure your system is well-maintained.

Here are three key considerations for at-home septic system maintenance:

  • Water Usage: The more water you use, the more wastewater ends up in your septic system. As such, making sure you use your water as efficiently as possible is crucial for reducing the amount of overall water your septic system has to process. One quick way you can immediately boost your home’s water efficiency is to invest in high-efficiency appliances, like toilets and showerheads. It is also crucial to not run washing machines and dishwashers too often — aka, make sure your loads are full before you run your washing machine or dishwasher!
  • Waste Disposal: When using your plumbing system, it is vital to remember that everything you send down the drain ends up in your septic tank. You should avoid sending trash and debris down your toilet, such as tampons or thicker materials like paper towels. Additionally, try to avoid sending trash and grime down your sink drains, such as leftover foods, coffee grounds, grease, and cooking oils. Household chemicals should also be kept out of your plumbing system.
  • Drainfield Maintenance: As we have touched on several times, knowing the location of your drainfield and septic system on your property is incredibly important. Maintaining your drainfield comes down to keeping the area separate from other property activities. Avoid planting trees and plants too close to the system, as their roots can cause problems for the system down the road. Always park your cars away from the drainfield, as the massive weight and pressure can put undue stress on your septic system. Finally, make sure any household drainage systems are directed away from the drainfield, as this can lead to too much water buildup in the area.

Final Thoughts

Well-maintained septic systems are vital for a plethora of reasons.

Not only can a well-maintained septic system keep your home plumbing system clean and free of sewage but it can also help add to the value of your home. If you ever decide to sell, most banks will require an inspection of your septic system before approving financing for potential homebuyers. Thus, keeping your septic system in great working condition is vital for both your comfort and your home’s value.

When looking for a septic system inspection service, always look for a company that provides both inspection and pumping services. This can save you both time and money in the long run, as well as ensure your system is properly maintained for years to come.

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