Sewage system mahole cover Guide to Finding Out if a Building is Connected to a Septic Tank or to a Municipal Sewer System
     


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This article discusses what a property buyer can do to determine whether a home or other building she is buying is connected to a public sewer line or to a private septic system. A reader asked, " >How do I know if the house I am purchasing has a septic tank?" Often the answer to this question is well known, documented, and everyone is confident of the facts. But in older communities, especially if the age of a building is greater than the age of the community sewer system, even if a sewer is installed right in the street in front of a building, that building may never have been connected to the sewer line.

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How to Determine If a Building Is Connected to a Private Septic Tank or a Public Community Sewer System

Steel septic tank by a homeFailure to connect an older building to a sewer line can lead to some ugly surprises, including unanticipated expense to repair an old septic system, expense to connect the building to the new sewer line, and even serious life safety hazards if an old septic tank is at risk of collapse.

Our friend Steve Vermilye, an inspector and contractor in New Paltz, New York, discovered that an office building that everyone thought had been connected to the New Paltz sewer system for decades was in fact connected to an old cesspool in the back yard of the property. That condition was discovered during new construction, happily before someone fell into the cesspool.

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 reviewers are welcome and are listed at "References." This is a chapter of Inspecting, Testing, & Maintaining Residential Septic Systems an online book on septic systems.

Septic tanks or other private onsite waste disposal systems are used to handle sewage and wastewater in neighborhoods that are not served by a municipal or community sewer system.

Sewer systems include large sewer main drains that are routed through neighborhoods they serve, often in the street but sometimes through an easement across multiple properties. These drains carry sewage and wastewater to a community or municipal sewage treatment plant, sometimes by way of one or more pumping stations if the terrain is hilly.

What Questions to Ask About Public Sewers or Private Septic Systems When Buying a Home, Building, or Property

The realtor or seller of a home or other property should be able to tell a buyer answers to the following questions, but if s/he cannot, we have lots of advice on how to find these important answers anyway:

  1. Is there a municipal sewer system in the neighborhood and on your particular street?  We discuss how to find the answer to this question at Clues Indicating a Sewer System is Present

  2. Is the building connected to the public sewer or does it use a private septic system? Don't assume that every home on a street is connected to the public sewer main that runs nearby. We discuss how to find the answer to this question at Clues Indicating a Building is Connected to Sewer.

There are five possible outcomes to these questions about sinks, toilets, sewers, and septic tanks:

  1. If no one seems to know if the building is connected to a public sewer or a private septic tank and drainfield system, don't give up, we can still find out what you need to know. We discuss this case atWhat if Nobody Knows if its Sewer or Septic?

  2. If the building is connected to a private septic system, lots of other important detailed questions need to be asked. See our detailed advice at SEPTIC SYSTEM, HOME BUYERS GUIDE which discusses the inspections and tests that should be performed, introduces the need for septic system maintenance, and describes how to find septic tanks, distribution boxes, and drainfields.

  3. If you are told that the building is for sure connected to a public sewer system, there are still a few questions to ask, and if the home is an older one that could have been built before the sewer system was put in place, there are some important questions to resolve about safety, older septic systems that may still be in place, and more. We discuss these at Guide for buildings Connected to a Public Sewer where we handle the cases of both newer homes and older homes which have different concerns about connecting to a public sewer.

  4. A building may be connected to both public sewer and private onsite septic systems. It sounds odd but some older buildings that have been connected to a public sewer may still have old laundry sinks running to a drywell or even a bathroom still connected to a septic tank or cesspool. We tell you how to figure this out at Guide for buildings Pre-Dating Sewer Installation.

  5. A building may have no waste piping, or almost no waste piping system whatsoever. If we exclude buildings that are immediately obvious as having no plumbing whatsoever, there remain a smaller number of cases in which a building has self-contained or waterless systems for washing or toilets. You'll probably notice this as soon as someone needs to use a toilet or even wash a dish. But it's not as odd as you may imagine. Some buildings may use self-contained very limited-capacity waterless or low-water toilets, for example, and some may use graywater systems that recycle and re-use much of their wastewater. We discuss these systems at SEPTIC DESIGN ALTERNATIVES.

What Does It Mean If No Public Sewer Line is Available at a Property?

Pumping out of a septic tank in winter

If there is no sewer system present the home cannot be attached to one and a local septic system is or should be present.

But don't worry, it's possible to treat building sewage and wastewater onsite safely and with good sanitation.

Millions of private homes in the U.S. and in many other countries are served by private onsite septic and wastewater treatment systems.

See some basic comments about buying a home with a septic tank at


Guide for buildings Connected to a Private Septic

then see the critical advice on how to proceed which we describe at

SEPTIC SYSTEM, HOME BUYERS GUIDE
which discusses the inspections and tests that should be performed, introduces the need for septic system maintenance, and describes how to find septic tanks, distribution boxes, and drainfields.

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