Guide to Levels of Septic System Inspections & Tests
SEPTIC INSPECTION LEVELS - CONTENTS: Guide to types of septic system inspection & testing by level of depth & detail. Guide to levels of septic inspections: visual inspections, loading & dye test septic inspections, & Level 0, 1, & 2 Septic System Inspections
POST a QUESTION or READ FAQs about levels of septic system inspection and testing - what are the different approaches to septic system inspection and testing and how far should you go in testing?
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This article describes the parameters of different types and levels of septic system inspections, including pre purchase home inspections of a septic system that rely on visual inspection alone, septic loading and dye tests, and more thorough septic system level 0, 1, and 2 inspections.
We give in-depth information about conventional septic tanks, drain fields, septic pipes, and septic waste handling.
This septic system inspection article provides additional links to complete details about septic system inspection, test, repair, and design articles,
including our online septic systems book.
Watch out: Anyone inspecting septic systems MUST be familiar with the hazards and safety concerns discussed at SEPTIC SYSTEM SAFETY WARNINGS [Above photograph
shows the start of a septic dye test.]
Our term "septic system inspection level" refers to the thoroughness of the septic system inspection ranging from level 0: very basic to level 3: about as much inspecting and testing as can be achieved without compeltely digging up the entire system.
Each higher septic system inspection / testing level adds information about the condition of the septic system and increases the confidence in its assessment.
The septic inspection level system is cumulative: that is, each septic system inspection or test level presumes that the steps in the lower level(s) have also been performed.
LEVEL-0 Septic Inspections - Basic Visual, Loading & Dye Test - Home Inspection Procedures
This level of inspection is typically provided during a "home inspection" for real estate transactions.
A VISUAL ONLY Septic System Inspection Includes: 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.) Notice that the photo demonstrates that an astute septic system inspector can detect evidence of failure from site conditions alone in some instances.
VISUAL PLUS LOADING DYE TEST Septic System Inspection Includes: - 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).
Additional visual inspection steps to open accessible covers & inspect equipment.
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.
Septic Tank Pumping: In some states such as Pennsylvania, a Level-1 Septic Inspection may include requiring tank pump out and
A level 1 Septic Inspection can be performed by a 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.
If septic tank pumping is required, such as in PA, the inspector should be present before, during, and after tank pumping in order to observe important indications of septic system condition such as damaged or missing baffles, baffle overrun, abnormal septic tank levels, or backflow into the septic tank during pumpout.
Septic Tank and D-boxes: The following additional steps to:
Inspect the septic tank: locate, excavate if needed, open, inspect the septic tank
Determine the septic system capacity & tank conditions, scum thickness, baffle condition, etc.
Pump and inspect the emptied septic tank and septic tank baffles
Distribution Boxes: locate, excavated if needed, and inspect the distribution boxes
A level-2 septic inspection is performed by
septic pumping contractor since tank pumping is needed, or another septic expert may order the tank pumping and should be on-site to inspect the conditions described above
Some municipalities require this
test be performed only by specifically licensed septic contractors or
Because a Level-2 septic inspection requires septic tank pumping, the inspector should be present before, during, and after tank pumping in order to observe important indications of septic system condition such as damaged or missing baffles, baffle overrun, abnormal septic tank levels, or backflow into the septic tank during pumpout.
Drainfield or Leachfield Evaluation & Soil Conditions: 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.
by septic pumping contractor, engineer, or other expert.
require this test be performed only by specifically licensed septic contractors
This article series answers just about any question you might have about buying or owning a house with a septic system. Septic system inspectors should also see the septic inspection and testing details found
at SEPTIC DYE TEST PROCEDURE. Septic testing class presentations, photos, sketches, tables, links to products and consultants are provided.
Question: industry standard for home inspection - septic tests
(July 7, 2011) Joe said:
What is the industry standard for home inspection tests of septic systems, and who determines that? In PA, how many gallons of water should a test run?
Reply: Septic testing standards:
Good question, Joe.
Most home inspection standards and state laws do not require that a septic system be inspected nor tested at all as part of a home inspection, but many home inspectors do provide that service, as do some septic repair companies.
20 years ago we found that as there was no universal standard, along with help from other experts we set out to write a guideline for septic testing - which is described in detail at this website. We found that testing with too small a volume of water was a "fake" test that gave no chance of showing a problem while using an excessive amount could damage some systems and would in any case exceed system design paramaters, arguable therefore also invalid.
We calculated the volume of typical drainfield trenches that use gravel and perforated pipe and we calculated the volume of water that would be less than half that amount - to set an upper limit; the consensus at the time was that
a minimum septic loading test test was 50 gallons of water per bedroom or 200 gallons minimum (some associations use 150 gallons);
some inspectors run less water (questionable) and afew home inspectors ran 500 gallons or more (also questionable).
Watch out: because running a reasonable test volume of water into the septic system is going to take some time, the home inspector can provide this service economically by overlapping the water running time with other building inspection chores. But beware of a septic "test company" who will only be on-site for that task alone. If that test company is in a rush to leave it is unlikely that an adequate inspection and test can possibly be performed.
(July 7, 2011) Joe said:
I appreciate your quick and considerate response. This website is very helpful and quite informative. Much appreciated.
Thanks Joe; from your question I have added a link to the article SEPTIC TEST VOLUMES & DYE AMOUNTS
where we discuss the amounts of water we recommend for dye testing. Most home inspection associations that have adopted any standard at all use numbers close to these.
Question: review of EZ Flow Septic System
(Aug 14, 2011) william webb said:
what do you think of the ez flow system ? by the way, this site is so informative & helpfull to me. thank you so much
The EzFlow septic system is a media filter approach. Properly installed the system has the appeal of simpler, lower installed cost. I expect that to handle the same effluent volume as a conventional gravel trench you may need more linear feet of filter media, installed either in parallel in the same trench or end to end in a longer trench; but then the installation is still simpler.
Does a media-wrapped drain pipe in a gravelless system last as long as a gravel-filled trench in a conventional drainfield, given all other factors being the same? I don't know.
I have not seen data on system longevity comparisons among most of the alternative septic system designs, but my field and research experience leave me convinced that in any system the success or failure of the system depends largely on how properly it's installed.
Question: earthquake damage to septic system, then hurrican Irene flooding. Septic odors.
(Sept 4, 2011) Amanda Foser said:
We recently experienced an earthquake, which is rare for our area, and then got hit by hurricane Irene. The day after the hurricane we smelled a strong odor, which we thought one of the kids had stepped in dog waste, on our back porch. After a couple more days the odor was still there, and just as strong. It has been a little over a week now and the odor has disipated, but we still catch it once and a while.
We have a concrete septic system and are worried that it may have a crack which is releasing the odor. We do not have any other problems with it, so far. Can you please tell me if there is a way we can test to see if there is a crack and where it is located, or do we need to call the company that pumps it to do an inspection?
If the septic tank has cracked, on opening and inspecting it you'd usually see that the level of wastewater is abnormally low (leaking out) whereas usually the tank stays full to the level of the outlet pipe.
Keep in mind that an earthquake could also have disturbed sewer drain piping or even vent piping.
(Sept 4, 2011) Amanda Foser said:
Thank you. If we find that the water level is normal and still smell the odor should we have it inspected?
Checking the wastewater level in the septic tank IS an inspection. Lets do that first. If normal, next is a more careful effort to track odor to it's source - else we may be wasting effort and money shooting in the dark. Careful sniffing is in order.
Question: how often should the septic tank be pumped?
9/8/2014 Lisa said:
How often should a tank be pumped? I'm buying a property and the contract states the septic tank was installed in 2003 but has never been pumped. Should I be concerned? Thanks.
Septic tank pumping schedules are given at SEPTIC TANK PUMPING SCHEDULE where you'll see that general rules of thumb depend on the level of septic system usage (wastewater volume or number of occupants plus a few other factors) and septic tank size and type.
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Questions & answers or comments about levels of septic system inspection and testing - what are the different approaches to septic system inspection and testing and how far should you go in testing?
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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.
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
The Home Reference Book - the Encyclopedia of Homes, Carson Dunlop & Associates, Toronto, Ontario, 25th Ed., 2012, is a bound volume of more than 450 illustrated pages that assist home inspectors and home owners in the inspection and detection of problems on buildings. The text is intended as a reference guide to help building owners operate and maintain their home effectively. Field inspection worksheets are included at the back of the volume. Special Offer: For a 10% discount on any number of copies of the Home Reference Book purchased as a single order. Enter INSPECTAHRB in the order payment page "Promo/Redemption" space. InspectAPedia.com editor Daniel Friedman is a contributing author.
Or choose the The Home Reference eBook for PCs, Macs, Kindle, iPad, iPhone, or Android Smart Phones. Special Offer: For a 5% discount on any number of copies of the Home Reference eBook purchased as a single order. Enter INSPECTAEHRB in the order payment page "Promo/Redemption" space.
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)
"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
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.
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.