Easy-to-Find Visual Evidence of Septic System Failure
SEPTIC FAILURE EVIDENCE, VISUAL - CONTENTS: Visual evidence of septic failure can be observed in some cases with no septic loading or dye test required. What observations or conditions define septic system failure?
POST a QUESTION or READ FAQs about how to recognize evidence of septic system failures, impossible designs, unsafe conditions, and even septic test cheating by a direct visual inspection of the building site.
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Visual evidence of septic system failures: this document describes how to look for visual evidence of septic failure without or before testing a septic system and also difficult site conditions that may require special measures to install a working septic system.
The observations described here can be performed regardless of whether or not a septic test is planned at a property, and this procedure can often find evidence of unsafe or failed septic systems and on occasion, evidence of downright skulduggery.
Immediately Detectable Evidence of Septic System Failure - before testing
A later article in this septic system inspection series, FAILURE SPOTS,
which is part of our STEP BY STEP SEPTIC TEST procedure, describes where you're likely to see actual evidence of septic failure during a loading and dye test.
Looking for these conditions can give key information about the condition of the septic system before (and perhaps without) performing a septic loading and dye test
and also before (and perhaps without) invasive septic system inspection measures such as excavation.
[Click to enlarge any image]
There are often visual clues, such as the ones described here, which can be strong indicators of a history of
septic system problems or of a building site which will involve special difficulties in installing an effective
onsite wastewater disposal system.
These site observations can increase the property owner, seller, or buyer's
understanding of the chances that significant costs are likely to be faced in providing or repairing the
Septic effluent at the property surface: Before starting a septic dye test some in building and outside site inspection are very important.
For example, in the photo shown here, the soapy water on the ground surface by this pool combined with the knowledge
(from inspection and via owner) that the pool was constructed partly atop the leach field, was such clear evidence of a failure that no dye test was required.
So perhaps the first question should be is there already evidence of a septic system failure or of a site with special problems or unsafe conditions?
Visible septic system components: tank cover, tank pumping access ports, marker stones, D-boxes, vents are obvious indicators that should be observed and recorded before,
during, and after the septic test.
In the photo shown here, the septic tank was obviously home-made, and was about 4 ft. by 4 ft.,
abutting the home, and (we were told) about 4 ft. deep - this tank is too small to be functional by any modern standard.
was a strong suggestion that other "home made" septic components would be at the property. This system sent dyed septic
effluent to the surface of the yard on a single toilet flush.
Do you see that pump in the center of the photo foreground?
The owner had used it to pump effluent from his septic tank across the yard surface (pipes exposed to freezing)
to his leach field. An agent who stood insisting that the system was "perfectly fine" had the bad luck to be sprayed
with dyed septic effluent as soon as the pump began to run.
Existing septic tank access ports: if the tank location is known, is there a readily accessible and reasonably easily opened septic tank inspection or pumping port?
Septic Sites that have little or soil over bedrock are highly suspect as special septic system installation measures would have been needed; look for effluent breakout such as shown at the top of this page
Septic effluent or graywater discharged to the surface of the ground, or to a nearby lake or stream
Septic sites that have no physical space for a septic tank and drainfield
Septic sites that show subsidence (very dangerous) in the soil near septic tanks, cesspools, etc.
Septic systems sited too close to lakes or streams
Septic system sites that show wet smelly areas - further investigation may be needed to be sure the odors and wetness are from the septic
Sewage Odors may or may not show a septic system failure or (usually less costly) need for septic or plumbing repairs. See SEWER GAS ODORS for details.
These pages are part of our SEPTIC DYE TEST PROCEDURE for testing septic system function.
Technical review by industry experts has been performed and is ongoing - reviewers are listed at REFERENCES. Comments and suggestions for content are welcome.
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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.
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
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.