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This article explains what to do if you are buying a home or other building and no one seems to know if it is connected to a private septic tank and drainfield (or similar onsite waste disposal system) or connected to a public sewer line. 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.
What To Do If No One Knows Whether a Building Is Connected to the Public Sewer Line or Not
If an owner or realtor tells you that a sewer system is installed but the house is older than the sewer and no one knows for sure if the house was ever connected to the sewer, some investigation is needed.
Even if we see that there is a sewer line in the street on which the house is located, how do we know if the home is connected to it?
We can do several things to find out whether a home or other building is connected to a public sewer system or to a private septic tank system:
Find out if a public sewer line is even available for the property or building in which you're interested. there are lots of ways to find out if a sewer main is present. We outline them in the next chapter of this article at Clues Indicating a Sewer System is Present. Obviously if no public sewer is available you'll need to begin a septic tank and drainfield investigation. But it's also worth asking local building authorities if there is a plan to add a public sewer in the neighborhood. Knowing that a public sewer line is coming, and when, can inform your plans for septic system maintenance, repair, and replacement options.
If a local sewer main is right at the property you'll still need to find out if the building is connected to it. See Clues Indicating a Building is Connected to Sewer and don't assume that just because a sewer main is nearby that your building has been connected to it.
Ask local plumbers or septic contractors if they’ve done work on the house or on a septic system there, or if they have worked on sewer main or septic tank connections for other nearby buildings
Ask the town building department if a sewer main is present, and if so, ask if they have records of the property being connected to the sewer;
Look for visual evidence that a septic tank was or remains at the property such as depressions in the ground, stones marking tank or cleanout locations, even wet areas and odors (unfortunately indicating a problem) can indicate that a septic tank or cesspool is present. For older properties you should do this even if the building is presently connected to a public sewer.
Finally, as a last resort you can trace the piping underground to find if it heads to a sewer main passing near the property or conversely, to an onsite septic tank or cesspool. Tracing house waste piping to its destination, whether that destination is a septic tank or a sewer line, is a similar process.
See How to Find the Septic Tank – since these methods can also help you find and follow the course of a buried main drain that connects to a sewer. There are various methods of pipe tracing including simple plumbing snakes and probes and more sophisticated electronic pipe sensing systems
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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.