How to Find The Septic Tank
Step by step how to locate septic tanks for inspection or septic tank pumping
SEPTIC TANK, HOW TO FIND - CONTENTS: How to locate the septic tank, cesspool, or drywell at a property, a detailed, step by step procedure to find the septic tank, distribution box, and leach field. Safety Warnings for People Looking for the Septic Tank; Where to start by asking people who may know the septic tank location; septic search safety warnings; Where to look for the septic tanks, septic tank covers, or septic tank cleanout lids & how to walk the building site to see where a septic tank is likely or unlikely to be found & when & How to Dig or Excavate to Find the Septic Tank
POST a QUESTION or READ FAQs about all methods for locating a septic tank, drywell, or cesspool as well as other septic system components such as the D-box and septic soakaway bed, leaching field, or drainfield.
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Septic tank location guide:
This document provides suggestions and procedures for finding a septic tank. This very detailed article series (seelinks listed at the "More Reading" links at the bottom of this article or below) tells how to locate a septic tank or other buried site components such as the distribution box, drainfield, or a cesspool or drywell when it's placement is not already known or when the location of the septic tank is not visually obvious.
This guide explains the septic tank search process and lists sources of information about septic tank location. We describe who may know where buried components are located at the site, how to inspect the site, and what mistakes to watch for in assuming that the information you see, read, or are told is absolutely correct.
How to Find the Septic Tank, Cesspool, Drywell, D-box, or Drainfield
Beginning here and in a series of detailed procedures we explain various methods to locate buried onsite wastewater disposal system components: the sewer line or main drain, septic tank, septic tank cleanout openings, distribution box, septic drainfield, and related site components.
If you prefer to watch a video on how we figure out where a septic tank could or could not be located, see SEPTIC VIDEOS.
When the septic tank needs to be pumped, a regular
maintenance task, the cost of that service will be less if the property owner found the septic tank location and perhaps even uncovered the
septic tank pumping access cover.
Other reasons to find the septic tank include inspecting and testing septic systems
when buying a home or for safety, to assure that the septic tank cover is in good condition.
If you don't know whether your property even has a septic tank, your building could be connected to a municipal sewer main. To figure this out, see SEPTIC or SEWER CONNECTION?
Safety Warnings for People Looking for the Septic Tank
Septic System Warnings: Here are a few conditions that may be confusing or dangerous and which you should keep in mind:
Beware of old, collapsing septic systems: falling into a cesspool or septic tank is likely to be fatal. Watch out for evidence of
subsidence or sinking soil, rusted-through steel septic tank covers, home-made wooden or flimsy tank covers, or home made cesspools and
drywells which risk collapse.
Dig or probe with great care and do not work alone. More guidance about safety when working on or around
septic systems can be read at Septic & Cesspool Safety Procedures.
[Thanks to Donica Ben for reminding us that there are other potential hazards such as striking a buried electrical wire.
Multiple main drains?: At a large property or a property with plumbing fixtures at widely separated portions of a building, the builder may have constructed
more than one septic system, or waste lines could leave the building from more than one location even if they go to the
same septic system.
This would be uncommon in a modern home. But at a property which has been expanded, say to add an apartment
at a far end from where all of the other building plumbing exists, this is a possibility to keep in mind. Consider the age of
the building, the complexity of its layout, and the history of additions of baths or kitchens at widely separated areas
as a clue suggesting that more than one septic system or waste line may be present.
Separate drywells?: On properties which have septic drain fields (absorption systems) of limited capacity to absorb wastewater, or for
reasons of simple convenience in running drain lines, the building gray water from laundry or even sinks and showers
may be connected to a separate drywell which is not part of the main septic system.
In the photo above showing a washing machine
in the foreground and the main house waste line in the basement left corner in the background, you might wonder if the
washer is connected to a separate drywell. The washing machine in the photo is obviously below the level at which
the main drain leaves the house in the distance. What simplifies finding the septic tank in the case of this photo is
that there is only one large diameter waste drain leaving the house.
Main drains are bigger: The main house drain lines will be comparatively large in diameter, a minimum of 4" (obsolete) and possibly 6" in diameter.
Individual sink or shower drains may be 1.5" or 2" in diameter. So if you can see exposed plumbing, just find the area below
a building toilet and follow that drain. Toilets must be connected to a septic system, even if other building fixtures
connect to a separate drywell. Right now we're looking for the septic tank, not a drywell.
Ask Those Who May Already Know the Septic Tank Location
Ask the prior owner: the Building's Most Recent Owner May Know the Septic Tank Location
When the location of a septic tank is not visually obvious (see VISUAL CLUES LOCATE the SEPTIC TANK), ask the building's
most-recent owner the location of the septic tank. But beware, people can be mistaken, or may have forgotten, or may have never known where their septic tank is buried.
When a building owner does not know where the septic tank is located that is itself useful information. In that case, if we know how long the owner has been in the building, we know it has probably been been at least that long since the septic tank was last pumped. When a septic tank has not been pumped
on schedule (see SEPTIC TANK PUMPING SCHEDULE) then even before inspecting the system we must be more pessimistic about the condition of the system and in particular,
about the remaining life of the drainfield.
An building owner who has had the septic tank cleaned before is likely to know just where it is located.
In an older home an owner may have a drawing of the tank location or may have drawn measurements to the septic
tank on a garage or basement wall, perhaps near the main waste line outlet.
Watch out: sometimes the a building owner or prior owner does not really know the tank location, may have forgotten, or have become confused. We conducted a large excavation at the spot where a homeowner told us, with great conviction, where a buried component was located. Ultimately we discovered the component more than 50 feet away. When we confronted the owner with this confusing data he remembered and explained: "Yeah, I never actually saw it, that's where the previous owner told me he thought it was."
Ask local septic tank pumping companies for help: local septic servicers may know tank location
In addition to asking building owners, if the age of the home means that the septic system has been present for four years or more, it
is possible that even though a current owner may not know the septic tank location, a local septic pumping company might.
It's worth a call to each
local septic pumper to ask if they've serviced the property. WARNING: don't rush to let a service company or local excavator come out to dig up the yard - it may
not be necessary and it may involve unnecessary costs.
Look For Records of Septic Tank Location
Most often homeowners who have ever had a septic tank installed or serviced record a sketch showing measurements to the septic tank from some visible property feature such as a corner of the building.
Look in the building basement or crawl space for the point at which the main building drain exits the building. See FIND MAIN WASTE LINE EXIT - start finding the septic tank by finding where the waste line exits the building for details.
While a septic drain line can turn around on a property and the direction of the exit drain pipe is not a guarantee, often it points right to a septic tank that is close to the building.
Look in this same area in the building for a sketch, sometimes drawn right on the building wall or rim-joist, marking distances to the septic tank and its cleanout cover. See SEPTIC TANK LOCATION SKETCH - how to make a sketch showing a septic tank, D-box, or drainfield location
Check with local septic tank service companies. If the building is not new, it is possible (we wish we could say likely) that prior owners had the septic tank cleaned or repaired from time to time. If so the company may have notes on where the tank is located.
WHERE TO LOOK - Just Where to Look for The Septic Tank
Unknown septic tank location procedure: This article tells us how to locate a septic tank when it's placement is not already known or when the location of the septic tank is not visually obvious. We include example photographs from across the U.S. and from other countries illustrating visual clues for finding a septic tank when its location is unknown.
When a septic tank needs to be pumped, a regular
maintenance task, the cost of that service will be less if the property owner found the septic tank location and perhaps even uncovered the
septic tank pumping access cover. Other reasons to find the septic tank include inspecting and testing septic systems
when buying a home or for safety, to assure that the septic tank cover is in good condition.
Find the main building drain exit point. Often the septic tank is 10 feet away in a straight line from that point. (Not always). Our photo (left) shows a wall vent connected to the main building drain line (too close to a window too). We looked for the septic tank in a straight line away from the house starting in this location.
Start looking close to the house wall - perhaps 4 ft. away (which would be too close for modern standards) or at 10 feet away for a better location.
Septic tanks are often buried close to a building because of the convenience
of excavation during original construction, and to avoid unnecessary piping costs to a remote tank.
On occasion, particularly in an un-finished basement or crawl area, you may find a septic locating sketch on paper, folded and stuffed nearby, or a sketch drawn right on the building foundation wall or rim joist.
typically require that the tank be located 10' or more from the building so 4' is a bit close but at some old properties
we've found the septic tank right next to the foundation wall of the house.
At 12 feet from the home we found this flat stone in the lawn, marking the septic tank cleanout opening.
Watch out: the septic tank may nevertheless be located distant from a building if site conditions such as space, rock, proximity to a well or lake prevent its installation nearby.
Our photo (below left) shows where we spotted a septic system cover downhill from a hilltop restaurant in Molde, Norway. The city, Molde, is visible in the upper portion of the photo.
Look downhill from the building main drain if there is no septic pump system installed.
Look at the site itself for obstructions that might have forced the excavator to put the tank into a more remote location,
such as large rocks and boulders, streams, property boundaries, wells, similar site features.
Look for subsidence in a round or rectangular pattern that may mark the septic tank location.
Look for bald spots where there is no grass growth - marking a shallow-buried septic tank top
Look for green grass that may mark a septic tank that is backing up and leaking. See SEPTIC TANK GRASS
The location of this septic tank was downhill from a home located close to a lake in Grand Marais in northern Minnesota. If you are looking for septic system components at a building close to a lake or other waterway, the tank may be downhill from the building so that the building does not have to pump wastewater to the septic tank.
But expect to find a pumping chamber at the septic tank that sends effluent to a drainfield that will be located uphill and well away from the waterway.
That electrical box sticking up in the yard pointed out the pumping station for this septic tank, and the rectangular growth over the tank was a rather compelling clue as well.
A septic tank cleanout and pumping station access covers were located within that growth.
If there is snow-cover look for a round or rectangular area of thinner snow or melted snow; bacterial action and warm wastewater often mean a higher temperature at the septic tank. Details are at SEPTIC TANK SNOWMELT.
Our photo (above-left) illustrates melting of light snow cover above septic tank access covers at a property in northern Maine.
In the photo at page top we saw a very rocky hill with thin soil, making the probable septic tank location down in the distant, flat, lower yard.
The septic tank was found to the left of the garage just at the bottom of the hill. The small size of the available area also means that the owner chose to install a pair of high capacity drywells to absorb septic effluent instead of a more space-hungry conventional drainfield.
Look for a 6" or 8" septic cleanout or access pipe such as the one shown in our photo at left. This septic system is located in Marana, outside Tucson, Arizona.
The terrain is not only hot and arid, but also flat - not much worry about having to look "downhill" from the building.
OurSEPTIC VIDEOS show how you can walk a property to find areas that are likely or unlikely to contain the septic tank or drainfield. Locations such as dense mature trees close together, or right next to a drinking water well are not where we'd expect to find the septic tank.
Exploratory Digging to Find the Septic Tank
Our photograph shows a round steel septic tank cover right at ground level and just about 30 inches from the house foundation wall. You can see that if you were jamming a probe into the soil over a cover like this one, you'd easily puncture and ruin it.
(When this septic tank rusts through you may see sewage leaking into the building through the foundation wall.)
Dig or probe very gently in the area where you think the tank cover is located -
Watch out: beware of collapsing tank covers
and do not work alone - falling in is likely to be fatal - read my Safety Suggestions article above before beginning this work.
What to do if We Can't Find the Septic Tank?
What if there are no visual clues of tank location and we can't easily find it outside?
The last resort is a bigger digging project which
we describe next.
Cross Trenching: At the building wall where the waste line exits, dig a small trench across the suspected
pipe location going down until you find the pipe. Note its apparent direction.
Move out 3-4 ft. in that direction and dig again.
In other words, follow the pipe by excavating small test trenches across the suspected pipe direction until it leads you to the tank.
This is what an excavator does with a backhoe if they can't find the tank by other means.
Tanks may be distant: Beware, while the septic tank is often found close to the building (where it's easier to bury the tank and for other technical reasons),
site conditions can make it necessary to locate a tank at quite a distance away.
How to Use a Simple Plumbing Snake or Using Electronic Equipment to Find the Septic Tank
Special equipment using a plumbing snake and electronic sensors and other methods are available when needed.
By inserting the plumbing snake into the main building drain and pushing it until it stops dead, the snake end has usually hit the septic tank inlet baffle. From this procedure we know the maximum distance from the building drain to the septic tank. We say maximum distance because we don't know for sure that the drain line runs straight to the tank.
A combination of conductive metal snake in the plumbing drain and electronic equipment can trace the routing of a drain line precisely as well as locating the inlet to the septic tank. Details are
at SEPTIC TANK LOCATING EQUIPMENT - plumbing snakes, electronic pipe tracing equipment, etc.
Watch out: well not always precisely. Radio transmitter and similar electronic devices that are used to pinpoint buried pipes can be thrown off a bit if there are other metal pipes buried nearby, crossing or in parallel to the pipeline of interest.
Metal septic tanks can be found at their buried location using a metal detector.
When & How to Dig or Excavate to Find the Septic Tank
The photo shows excavation during septic system repairs - this is not the best way to find a septic tank.
Knowing the septic tank location can avoid tank damage during repair work, and it will save on septic tank pumping cost
since you won't be paying an excavator to find and expose the tank cover.
Avoid "finding" the septic tank by using a backhoe unless the operator is very skilled and careful. At our first
home with a septic tank the backhoe operator "found" the septic tank by driving over it and crushing it, leading to a costly repair.
If you have to excavate, or if you are excavating to confirm the septic tank location and to find its cleanout covers then heed this warning:
Watch out: for unsafe septic tank covers that can collapse - falling into a septic tank is usually fatal. Don't use a heavy iron wrecking bar to "probe" for the septic tank by jamming it aggressively into the soil.
That's a good way to punch a hole in a steel septic tank lid, cause a tank cover to collapse,or to burst a buried pipe or break a toe. See SEPTIC TANK COVERS - important safety concerns.
How We Walk the Site to Recognize Where a Septic Tank Could or Would Not be Located
If no record of the septic tank location is at hand, an experienced septic
pumper can generally guess where the tank is likely to be by inspection of the property,
or s/he can locate the tank by careful probing. Details are
at WHERE TO LOOK for the SEPTIC TANK - what are the reasonable locations where we could look for a septic tank
at VISUAL CLUES LOCATE the SEPTIC TANK - what can we see that tells us septic tank locatio. A summary is below:
We do not normally expect to find a septic tank located:
At a great distance from the building - such locations involve extra cost that people want to avoid
On top of visible solid rock or rock outcroppings or where soil is very thin over rock or shale
At or close to the edges of the property - see DISTANCE TO SEPTIC TANK - what are the clearance distances required between a septic tank and other things?
In the midst of a dense growth of mature trees - how would the backhoe have gotten in there to dig a hole for the septic tank
Downhill from the likely or apparent drainfield location - but a common exceptions include septic tanks that use an effluent pump system to lift effluent to a mound or raised bed septic system, or septic tanks that are located close to but down hill from a building close to a lake or stream.
Such installations may place the septic tank downhill from the building so that building drainage does not require a sewage pump; but in order to get the septic drainfield an acceptable distance from the lake or waterway the system may have included an effluent pumping station: so the tank is downhill but the drainfield may be uphill from the position of the building itself.
We often expect to find a septic tank located
Within 10-20 feet from the building. During building construction it is often convenient to excavate for both the foundation and the septic tank hole at the same time. And keeping the tank close (but not too close) to the structure saves on plumbing costs.
When the septic tank has been located, note if it is installed with improper clearances from other site features such
as a private well, and inform the owner accordingly.
The measurement procedure to record the septic tank cleanout cover location is at Recording Septic Tank Location.
Continue reading at:DISTANCE TO SEPTIC TANK if you are looking for its location, or select a topic from closely-related articles below, or see our complete INDEX to RELATED ARTICLES below.
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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.)
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.
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, 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.
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.
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The Illustrated Home illustrates construction details and building components, a reference for owners & inspectors. Special Offer: For a 5% discount on any number of copies of the Illustrated Home purchased as a single order Enter INSPECTAILL in the order payment page "Promo/Redemption" space.
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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.
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Special Offer: Carson Dunlop Associates offers InspectAPedia readers in the U.S.A. a 5% discount on these courses: Enter INSPECTAHITP in the order payment page "Promo/Redemption" space. InspectAPedia.com editor Daniel Friedman is a contributing author.
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