Septic System Failure Spots
Where Septic System Trouble is Likely to Show Up Regardless of Dye Testing
SEPTIC FAILURE WET SPOTS - CONTENTS: Where to look for evidence of septic field failure - wet spots, dye breakout, odors, smells, soft or soggy areas, green growth etc. Where to look for mound septic system failures. Where to look for evidence of other septic system failures or problems
How to Perform a Septic Loading & Dye Test: Septic Testing Procedure Details - a chapter of "Inspecting, Testing, & Maintaining Residential Septic Systems"
POST a QUESTION or READ FAQs about trouble spots in septic systems, how to find where the dye may appear, how to recognize signs of a septic system in failure
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Where to look for septic test dye breakouts: this septic system diagnostics article describes where trouble tends to show up at properties with septic systems - if the system is
failing, here's where you're likely to see evidence.
A visual inspection of these locations before and after a septic dye test, or a mere inspection
of these locations even if no dye test is going to be performed are steps that give key information about the
condition of the septic system. OUTSIDE INSPECTION described
other indicators of a site where septic difficulties may be expected, even if there is not any current evidence of
At page top we show the dramatic result of a septic loading and dye test conducted on a septic tank and soakbed located under a driveway and parking area just a short distance from a stream. In wet weather sewage effluent collected in the red-dyed area and flowed into the home's basement - through a doorway in the shadows of our photo.
FAILURE SPOTS - Where Septic System Trouble is Likely to Show Up
Besides making the obvious site inspection for sewage odors or breakout at ground surface, simply paying attention to a building site's shape and other visual clues can give
critically important information leading to the discovery of a septic system failure, as we will illustrate here.
[Click to enlarge any image]
In our above-left photo we knew that a neighbor's septic drainfield was at the top of the embankment shown. In the photo the most-likely leach field location was
on the flat filled area above the landscaped bank shown, we were concerned about effluent breakout under the dense shrubs (where it would be hard to spot).
But we suspected (age, size of fields, etc) that
septic problems might be present. In what was reported to be a drain system installed to remove water from the driveway a simple lift of the driveway drain cover on a concrete box found at the bottom of the bank and edge of the drive (photo above right) showed our septic dye running happily along. The "driveway drain" had actually been installed to carry effluent from the failed leach field across the drive to a nearby storm drain.
The neighbor's septic drainfield was simply sending its effluent next-door.
Understanding the Site Can Point to Areas of Risk of Septic System Failure
Arlene Puentes has pointed out that a septic inspection for failure spots starts with an examination of the whole building site, considering its size, terrain, neighbors, rocks, streams, etc.
Based on property size alone, a very tiny building site should raise an alarm about what septic components could possibly fit and work in the available space. Add considerations of property age and soil conditions and the septic system story may become yet more clear.
At left we show red septic dye in a pre-existing wet area that was down-slope from the septic drainfield area.
By observing that this area was soggy and wet before ever starting the septic loading and dye test, then observing the appearance of our Pylam fluorescent septic dye, we avoided any argument that our test had over-loaded the septic system in the course of detecting this failure.
Puentes reports inspecting a property with a tiny lot, a deck built over the entire back yard, and not much space for a septic tank and drainfield. Starting a normal septic loading and dye test (septic dye placed into the system through a toilet) she soon found water, but not dyed effluent, running out from under the deck.
Placing some dye tablets into a bathtub drain she discovered that all building graywater was directed not into the septic tank but onto the ground surface under the deck. Puentes continued to test the septic tank and drainfield by simply forcing the building toilet to run continuously to place water into that system. In minutes a sewer odor dominated the deck area.
Signs of Trouble in the Septic Leach Field or Drainfield Area: Look in the area where you think the leach field is or is most likely to be. Look over the edges of mound systems, steep banks, and nearby culverts.
Mound septic system failures: Look over the edges of mound systems, banks, and nearby hills, slopes, or culverts. In this photo our client is pointing to a mound system which
was installed across a natural drainage area.
Surface runoff water from nearby properties, and originally this property, used to run along a natural drainage pathway between the road and the lots. When the builder placed this mound
system in the front yard he set it atop that drainage pathway - which means that underground water was running a foot or less below the level of the leach field trenches.
The system delivered its effluent right into the
surface runoff and together they appeared as dyed effluent at the down slope end of the mound.
Common but illegal effluent discharge pipes: Some "repairs" to a failed septic system are made by simply running a hidden pipe to
a nearby pond, stream, or public storm drain. If there is a nearby common improper pipe target or an unexplained pipe sticking out of a bank, have someone watch this area from the moment dye is placed in the system since if there is a direct
drain carrying effluent to such an improper (and illegal) destination, the dyed effluent may pass by quickly.
Streams, ponds, storm drains: These are common illegal septic effluent discharge targets, especially at sites with limited space, remote country properties, wet areas, and old properties.
Look at near by streams, ponds, wet areas that were present before the test. Warning: If you're looking in a nearby stream or storm drain, watch
or have someone watch this area from the moment dye is placed in the system.
Some "repairs" to a failed septic system are made by simply running a hidden pipe to
a nearby pond, stream, or public storm drain. If there is a free-running pipe carrying effluent to an illegal destination it may flow so easily and quickly that your dye may pass by in just a few minutes, so watch suspect areas closely early in the test as well as throughout.
Examine low areas near the septic drainfield, soggy areas, areas of dense or lush vegetation, edges of mound systems, and any nearby pond, stream, storm drain, or other surface drainage systems for signs of leakage or dye. Leaf and brush piles or grass clippings are often piled atop "trouble spots" where there has been a history of septic problems and breakout.
If the ground surface around the septic system is frozen solid at the time of a septic test (which is not usually the case over an in use drain field, the system is stressed in a different
manner, as the leach field does not have the option to relieve its failed absorption area by sending effluent to the surface.
In this condition we have produced backups in the building or at the septic tank during
the loading and dye test, so be sure to watch lower floor drains for backups if your test water is being run at upper floors of a building.
(Warn clients about the help but also the hindrance provided by snow cover in this regard.)
Look more than once: Do this visual check before starting the test, during the test, after the test, and up to five days after the site inspection (an added service or an admonition to
the client) since it is possible in odd cases for effluent to appear on a property days after the initial test. Fortunately, in cases of a failed or marginal system this procedure often shows breakout in 20-30 minutes.
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Mark Cramer Inspection Services Mark Cramer, Tampa Florida, Mr. Cramer is a past president of ASHI, the American Society of Home Inspectors and is a Florida home inspector and home inspection educator. Mr. Cramer serves on the ASHI Home Inspection Standards. Contact Mark Cramer at: 727-595-4211 mark@BestTampaInspector.com
John Cranor is an ASHI member and a home inspector (The House Whisperer) is located in Glen Allen, VA 23060. He is also a contributor to InspectApedia.com in several technical areas such as plumbing and appliances (dryer vents). Contact Mr. Cranor at 804-747-7747 or by Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Home Inspection Education Home Study Courses - ASHI@Home Training 10-course program. 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.
The Home Reference Book, a reference & inspection report product for building owners & inspectors. 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.
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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.
The Horizon Software System manages business operations,scheduling, & inspection report writing using Carson Dunlop's knowledge base & color images. The Horizon system runs on always-available cloud-based software for office computers, laptops, tablets, iPad, Android, & other smartphones.
Thanks to Arlene Puentes for technical contribution to this article. Arlene Puentes is a licensed home inspector, past chapter president of the Hudson Valley chapter of the American Society of Home Inspectors, an educator, and building failures researcher in Kingston, NY who can be reached at email@example.com or at 845-339-7984. 04/27/2009
Percolation Testing Manual, CNMI Division of Environmental Quality, Gualo Rai, Saipan provides an excellent English Language manual guide for soil percolation testing. Original source: www.deq.gov.mp/artdoc/Sec6art108ID255.pdf
Soil Test Pit Preparation, fact sheet, Oregon DEQ Department of Environmental Quality, original source www.deq.state.or.us/wq/pubs/factsheets/onsite/testpitprep.pdf The Oregon DEQ onsite water quality program can be contacted at 811 South Ave, Portland OR 97204, 800-452-4011 or see http://www.oregon.gov/DEQ/
Thanks to reader Michael Roth for technical link editing 6/29/09.
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.
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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.