Septic & Cesspool Safety:
This document describes key septic system collapse and sinkhole safety warnings for homeowners and home buyers of properties using onsite septic systems and cesspools.
Septic tanks, cesspools, and drywells present serious hazards including septic cave-in's or collapses, methane
gas explosion hazards, and asphyxiation hazards.
Simple precautions which we describe here can help avoid a dangerous or expensive septic problem.
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SPECIAL SEPTIC SYSTEM SAFETY WARNINGS FOR HOME OWNERS - Septic System Warnings for Home Owners and Home Buyers
Septic system concerns for a building owner start with safety.
The photograph at the top of this page shows what can happen when a truck drives over a cesspool, drywell, or seepage pit.
Luckily in this
case no one was injured, but the seepage pit was destroyed and significant costs were involved in installing a new seepage pit
as well as in repairing the soils compacted and damaged by the heavy equipment necessary to pull this dump truck out
of the pit into which it fell.
Here are some red flags that suggest collapse hazards at septic systems, cesspools, drywells, or seepage pits:
- 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.
- Odors: sewer gas is explosive. A septic backup, contamination, or blockage or simply improper drain-waste-vent piping installation can leak dangerous sewer gas into a building where a spark can cause an explosion.
- Old or abandoned septic or cesspool 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 or inexperienced homeowners may not notice a danger or malfunction. Homeowners should review the Septic System Safety Warnings listed above
If your home uses a cesspool, drywell, or seepage pit, be sure to review our Cesspool Safety Warnings - Specific Warnings about Cesspool Collapse Hazards.\
- Cesspools or drywells that are constructed of dry-laid stone or concrete block, are especially at risk of sudden collapse if a septic service company has pumped down the sewage level in the cesspool and that risk is still greater if someone has attempted to "restore" cesspool operation or function by aerating or jetting or agitating the sludge layer on the bottom of the unit.
- 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.
Citation of this article by reference to this website and brief quotation for the sole purpose of review are permitted. Use of this information at other websites, in books or pamphlets for sale is reserved to the author. Technical review by industry experts has been performed and is ongoing - reviewers are listed at "References."
This article is part of our series: INSPECT TEST & MAINTAIN SEPTIC SYSTEMS
Continue reading at SEPTIC & CESSPOOL SAFETY or select a topic from the More Reading links shown below.
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SEPTIC SAFETY FOR HOME OWNERS at InspectApedia.com - online encyclopedia of building & environmental inspection, testing, diagnosis, repair, & problem prevention advice.
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Technical Reviewers & References
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- New York State Department of Health, "Appendix 75-A Wastewater Treatment Standards - Individual Household Systems", [PDF] New York State Department of Health, 3 February 2010, retrieved 3/1/2010, original source: https://www.health.ny.gov/regulations/nycrr/title_10/part_75/appendix_75-a.htm
- Septic Safety: (this document) Septic System, Septic Tank, & Cesspool Safety Warnings for Septic Inspectors, Septic Pumpers, and Homeowners
- Cesspool Safety - Specific Warnings about Cesspool Collapse Hazards
- SEWER GAS ODORS: diagnosing, finding, and curing septic tank and sewer line odors
- Biomat Formation in the Septic System Drainfield Absorption System - what leads to drain field clogging and expensive drainfield repairs Cesspoolsfor onsite wastewater disposal
- Drywells for onsite wastewater or graywater disposal
Don't Flush these things into a septic system: a list of what's ok and what's not ok to put into septic tanks and building drains
- Tank Location - How to Find the Septic Tank, how deep will the cover be, how to document its location - these methods also apply to locating a cesspool or drywell at a property.
- Inspecting & Testing Septic Systems: Online Book, Inspection, Test, Diagnosis, Repair, & Maintenance: Our Online Septic Book: Septic Testing, Loading & Dye Tests, Septic Tank Pumping, Clearances, details of onsite waste disposal system inspection, testing, repair procedures.
- Dye Tests: how to perform a Septic Loading and Dye Test - septic dye testing procedures in complete detail, a septic function test - a chapter in the above book.
- When Not to Pump a Septic Tank to avoid damage, unsafe conditions, or wasting money
- Mark Cramer Inspection Services Mark Cramer, Tampa Florida, Mr. Cramer is a past president of ASHI, the American Society of Home Inspectors and is a Florida home inspector and home inspection educator. Mr. Cramer serves on the ASHI Home Inspection Standards. Contact Mark Cramer at: 727-595-4211 mark@BestTampaInspector.com
- John Cranor is an ASHI member and a home inspector (The House Whisperer) is located in Glen Allen, VA 23060. He is also a contributor to InspectApedia.com in several technical areas such as plumbing and appliances (dryer vents). Contact Mr. Cranor at 804-747-7747 or by Email: email@example.com
- Mark Cramer Inspection Services Mark Cramer, Tampa Florida, Mr. Cramer is a past president of ASHI, the American Society of Home Inspectors and is a Florida home inspector and home inspection educator. (727) 595-4211 mark@BestTampaInspector.com 11/06
- Hankey and Brown home inspectors, Eden Prairie, MN, technical review by Roger Hankey, prior chairman, Standards Committee, American Society of Home Inspectors - ASHI. 952 829-0044 - hankeyandbrown.com 11/06
- Arlene Puentes, a licensed home inspector, educator, and building failures researcher in Kingston, NY. 11/29/06
- John Francis, Bioworks, Inc., marketing and technical services - editing/proof reading 4/07. "BioWorks provides environmentally responsible, safe and cost-effective solutions to the agriculture industry"
- InspectAPedia.com® - Daniel Friedman - Publisher & Editor.
- Thanks to Denise Cermola for permission to use the photo above, showing a dump truck collapsed into a seepage pit. (email 11/16/06 to 12/10/06). The contractor drove over this seepage pit connected to septic tank and caused total destruction of the system.
- Thanks to George Fielder who points out that methane gas is not toxic, but rather (we add) the hazards of methane gas produced by septic systems include possible explosions or the asphyxiation of someone who enters or even just leans over a septic tank opening. (email 10/20/2007)
- Thanks to Donica Ben who points out the danger of digging into buried electrical wires (11/11/07)
- The Septic System Information Website home page for this topic
- Septic Systems Inspection, Testing, & Maintenance - online textbook. Detailed how to inspect, maintain, repair information
- The Home Buyer's Guide to Septic Systems
- Septic Tank Pumping Guide: When, Why, How to pump the septic tank
- Home & Outdoor Living Water Requirements
- Septic Tank Capacity vs Usage in Daily Gallons of Wastewater Flow, calculating required septic tank size, calculating septic tank volume from size measurements
- Septic Tank/Soil-Absorption Systems: How to Operate & Maintain [ copy on file as /septic/Septic_Operation_USDA.pdf ] - , Equipment Tips, U.S. Department of Agriculture, 8271 1302, 7100 Engineering, 2300 Recreation, September 1982, web search 08/28/2010, original source: http://www.fs.fed.us/t-d/pubs/pdfimage/82711302.pdf.
- How Big Should the Leach Field Be? - table of soil percolation rate vs. field size
- Septic System Drainfield Absorption System Biomat Formation - what leads to drain field clogging and expensive drainfield repairs
- Table of Required Septic & Well Clearances: Distances Between Septic System & Wells, Streams, Trees, etc.
- Ten Steps to Keeping a Septic System Working, suggestions from the U.S. EPA, edits and additions by DJF
- Pennsylvania State Fact Sheets relating to domestic wastewater treatment systems include
- Pennsylvania State Wastewater Treatment Fact Sheet SW-161, Septic System Failure: Diagnosis and Treatment
- Pennsylvania State Wastewater Treatment Fact Sheet SW-162, The Soil Media and the Percolation Test
- Pennsylvania State Wastewater Treatment Fact Sheet SW-l64, Mound Systems for Wastewater Treatment
- Pennsylvania State Wastewater Treatment Fact Sheet SW-165, Septic Tank-Soil Absorption Systems
- Document Sources used for this web page include but are not limited to: Agricultural Fact Sheet #SW-161 "Septic Tank Pumping," by Paul D. Robillard and
Kelli S. Martin. Penn State College of Agriculture - Cooperative Extension, edited and annotated by
Dan Friedman (Thanks: to Bob Mackey for proofreading the original source material.)
Books & Articles on Building & Environmental Inspection, Testing, Diagnosis, & Repair
- Inspecting Septic Systems: Online Book, Inspection, Test, Diagnosis, Repair, & Maintenance: our Online Septic Book: Septic Testing, Loading & Dye Tests, Septic Tank Pumping, Clearances, details of onsite waste disposal system inspection, testing, repair procedures.
- Advanced Onsite Wastewater Systems Technologies, Anish R. Jantrania, Mark A. Gross. Anish Jantrania, Ph.D., P.E., M.B.A., is a Consulting Engineer, in Mechanicsville VA, 804-550-0389 (2006). Outstanding technical reference especially on alternative septic system design alternatives. Written for designers and engineers, this book is not at all easy going for homeowners but is a text I recommend for professionals--DF.
- Builder's Guide to Wells and Septic Systems, Woodson, R. Dodge: $ 24.95; MCGRAW HILL B; TP;
Quoting from Amazon's description: For the homebuilder, one mistake in estimating or installing wells and septic systems can cost thousands of dollars. This comprehensive guide filled with case studies can prevent that. Master plumber R. Dodge Woodson packs this reader-friendly guide with guidance and information, including details on new techniques and materials that can economize and expedite jobs and advice on how to avoid mistakes in both estimating and construction. Chapters cover virtually every aspect of wells and septic systems, including on-site evaluations; site limitations; bidding; soil studies, septic designs, and code-related issues; drilled and dug wells, gravel and pipe, chamber-type, and gravity septic systems; pump stations; common problems with well installation; and remedies for poor septic situations. Woodson also discusses ways to increase profits by avoiding cost overruns.
- Country Plumbing: Living with a Septic System, Hartigan, Gerry: $ 9.95; ALAN C HOOD & TP;
Quoting an Amazon reviewer's comment, with which we agree--DF:This book is informative as far as it goes and might be most useful for someone with an older system. But it was written in the early 1980s. A lot has changed since then. In particular, the book doesn't cover any of the newer systems that are used more and more nowadays in some parts of the country -- sand mounds, aeration systems, lagoons, etc.
Design Manuals for Septic Systems
US EPA Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems Manual [online copy, free] Top Reference: US EPA's Design Manual for Onsite Wastewater Treatment and Disposal, 1980, available from the US EPA, the US GPO Superintendent of Documents (Pueblo CO), and from the National Small Flows Clearinghouse. Original source http://www.epa.gov/ORD/NRMRL/Pubs/625R00008/625R00008.htm Onsite wastewater treatment and disposal systems,
Richard J Otis, published by the US EPA. Although it's more than 20 years old, this book remains a useful reference for septic system designers.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Water Program Operations; Office of Research and Development, Municipal Environmental Research Laboratory; (1980)
- Eco John® Innovative Toilet Solutions, Global Inventive Industries, Fountain Valley CA, PDF, product brochure
- "International Private Sewage Disposal Code," 1995, BOCA-708-799-2300, ICBO-310-699-0541, SBCCI 205-591-1853, available from those code associations.
- "Manual of Policy, Procedures, and Guidelines for Onsite Sewage Systems," Ontario Reg. 374/81, Part VII of the Environmental
Protection Act (Canada), ISBN 0-7743-7303-2, Ministry of the Environment,135 St. Clair Ave. West, Toronto Ontario M4V 1P5 Canada $24. CDN.
- Manual of Septic Tank Practice, US Public Health Service's 1959.
Onsite Wastewater Disposal Books
- Onsite Wastewater Disposal, R. J. Perkins;
Quoting from Amazon: This practical book, co-published with the National Environmental Health Association,
describes the step-by-step procedures needed to avoid common pitfalls in septic system technology.
Valuable in matching the septic system to the site-specific conditions, this useful book will help you install a reliable system in
both suitable and difficult environments. Septic tank installers, planners, state and local regulators, civil and sanitary engineers,
consulting engineers, architects, homeowners, academics, and land developers will find this publication valuable.
- Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems, Bennette D. Burks, Mary Margaret Minnis, Hogarth House 1994 - one of the best septic system books around, suffering a bit from small fonts and a weak index. While it contains some material more technical than needed by homeowners, Burks/Minnis book on onsite wastewater treatment systems a very useful reference for both property owners and septic system designers.
- Septic Tank/Soil-Absorption Systems: How to Operate & Maintain [ copy on file as /septic/Septic_Operation_USDA.pdf ] - , Equipment Tips, U.S. Department of Agriculture, 8271 1302, 7100 Engineering, 2300 Recreation, September 1982, web search 08/28/2010, original source: http://www.fs.fed.us/t-d/pubs/pdfimage/82711302.pdf
- Soil Percolation Tests soil perc testing guide and instructions
- Percolation Testing Manual, CNMI Division of Environmental Quality, PO Box 501304, Saipan, MP 96950
- Planting Over Septic System Component", Daniel Friedman (author/editor, InspectAPedia.com), The Innovator, Winter/Spring 2008, BCOSSA, British Columbia OnSite Sewage Association, 201-3542 Blansard St., Victoria BC V8X 1W3 Canada
- Save the Septic System - Do Not Flush These Items Down the Toilet, Daniel Friedman, InspectAPedia.com - PDF document, printable
- SEPTIC STANDARDS
- SEPTIC MAGAZINES
- Septic System Owner's Manual, Lloyd Kahn, Blair Allen, Julie Jones, Shelter Publications, 2000 $14.95 U.S. - easy to understand, well illustrated, one of the best practical references around on septic design basics including some advanced systems; a little short on safety and maintenance. Both new and used (low priced copies are available, and we think the authors are working on an updated edition--DF.
Quoting from one of several Amazon reviews: The basics of septic systems, from underground systems and failures to what the owner can do to promote and maintain a healthy system, is revealed in an excellent guide essential for any who reside on a septic system. Rural residents receive a primer on not only the basics; but how to conduct period inspections and what to do when things go wrong. History also figures into the fine coverage.
- Test Pit Preparation for Onsite Sewage Evaluations, State of Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, Portland OR, 800 452-4011. PDF document. We recommend this excellent document that offers detail about soil perc tests, deep hole tests, safety, and septic design. Readers should also see Soil Percolation Tests and for testing an existing septic system, also see Dye Tests
- Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank, Bombeck, Erma: $ 5.99; FAWCETT; MM;
This septic system classic whose title helps avoid intimidating readers new to septic systems, is available new or used at very low prices.
It's more entertainment than a serious "how to" book on septic systems design, maintenance, or repair. Not recommended -- DF.
- US EPA Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems Manual Top Reference: US EPA's Design Manual for Onsite Wastewater Treatment and Disposal, 1980, available from the US EPA, the US GPO Superintendent of Documents (Pueblo CO), and from the National Small Flows Clearinghouse. Original source http://www.epa.gov/ORD/NRMRL/Pubs/625R00008/625R00008.htm
- Water Wells and Septic Systems Handbook, R. Dodge Woodson. This book is in the upper price range, but is worth the cost for serious septic installers and designers.
Quoting Amazon: Each year, thousands upon thousands of Americans install water wells and septic systems on their properties. But with a maze of codes governing their use along with a host of design requirements that ensure their functionality where can someone turn for comprehensive, one-stop guidance? Enter the Water Wells and Septic Systems Handbook from McGraw-Hill.
Written in language any property owner can understand yet detailed enough for professionals and technical students this easy-to-use volume delivers the latest techniques and code requirements for designing, building, rehabilitating, and maintaining private water wells and septic systems. Bolstered by a wealth of informative charts, tables, and illustrations, this book delivers:
* Current construction, maintenance, and repair methods
* New International Private Sewage Disposal Code
* Up-to-date standards from the American Water Works Association
- Wells and Septic Systems, Alth, Max and Charlet, Rev. by S. Blackwell Duncan, $ 18.95; Tab Books 1992. We have found this text very useful for conventional well and septic systems design and maintenance --DF.
Quoting an Amazon description:Here's all the information you need to build a well or septic system yourself - and save a lot of time, money, and frustration. S. Blackwell Duncan has thoroughly revised and updated this second edition of Wells and Septic Systems to conform to current codes and requirements. He also has expanded this national bestseller to include new material on well and septic installation, water storage and distribution, water treatment, ecological considerations, and septic systems for problem building sites.
- The NSFC Products List has an excellent list of design manuals/modules available from their website or by telephone 800-624-8301
- Submissions welcome. send us a suggested document link or request an exchange of website links