I have held a wastewater systems installer's license for years and have installed and repaired many Septic systems over the years. Some may wonder why, since I have the knowledge of Septic systems, would I make the statement that Home Inspectors should not inspect septic systems, and yes, I am including myself. I'll get right to the point.
The typical way that inspectors use to inspect a system is to flush a dye, run water into the system and look for the dye to surface in the lateral field. The only way to properly inspect a system is to pump out the tank and visually inspect it. The lateral lines should be located and inspected.
Each year, thousands of dollars are spent on dye tests. If you're told to get a dye test you need to understand what it can and can't do, and what it will and won't tell you. Read on, and when you're through, tell the person recommending that you get a test to read this as well. As mentioned the dye test method uses a non-toxic colorant or dye that is introduced into the system. Then, the evaluator walks the property looking for signs of the dye. Since the average retention time for a 1000 gallon tank is three days, basing what you see or don't see in one day is usually meaningless. To make trips back to the property over the next three days to see if there are any signs of the dye is a "shot in the dark" at best. If the dye does surface in the field you have to be able to spot it through the vegetation over about a 3000 square foot area. It is usually in a small isolated area if it appears. It will not tell you anything about your tank, or if you even have one, or the size and condition of the field. It is just simply impossible. Some of the many variables that will affect the outcome are: Was the system heavily used before the test or has it been sitting unused for an extended period of time? If a system has been sitting unused it can take days of use to saturate the field and still the chance of seeing the dye is slim. Has there been an extended dry weather period or has there been days of heavy rain? A lot of rain can tax an otherwise healthy system and dry weather can make a poor system work adequately. To illustrate I have heard it said that to determine if you have a good system or not based on a dye test is like looking under a car, that you want to purchase, for drips to determine if you are going to get a good car or not. What happens all to often is the dye test will be performed and months after the new home owners have moved in a dark smelly liquid starts appearing on the surface of the field. And by the way, unfortunately, that is the best way to tell that you have a system that needs work or not.
There are so many variables to consider. Are you an older couple purchasing a home from a family with three children? If they have had no problem with the system chances are good that you won't have problems. If the situation is reversed, you are a family of five, buying a house from a retired couple you should have your system thoroughly inspected.
Now, how about some encouraging words? Most counties that I am aware of in Northeast Kansas require the tank to be pumped and someone from the county will inspect the field. Many times the Health Department has a drawing of your system. To have a tank pumped, which should be done regularly anyway, can cost as little as $100.00 and is seldom over $300.00. The counties fee can run in the $150.00 range. The inspector uses a probe to locate the lines and will make a recommendation. Many times the system is fine. In some cases the recommendation may be to add another 100 feet of line or so which can be as little as $1000.00. A complete new system which is rarely needed may be $5000.00 - $7000.00. That is expensive on it's own but when you consider the cost of the property as a whole and the potential stress of a failing system it is money well spent to do it right. And just to repeat, it is seldom that work that extensive has to be done.
In conclusion, the dye test is a tool that in some cases can be useful. If the system is suspected of leaking into a stream or ditch through a pipe the dye is the right tool for the job. It will determine the connection between point A and point B. If your lender insists on the dye test and you are comfortable with it that is completely your decision. Most systems work fine. I can tell you that there are systems in the county I live in, that according to today's standards, are far from adequate but have been working fine for decades. I have worked on customer's systems that couldn't remember when the last time they had the system pumped or if they ever did, and it was still working. If the inspector tells you that you need to come up with some money to fix your system you may feel that you are throwing money away. However I can tell you if you are that person that starts noticing that black water come up in your field that you can smell over the entire property you will be looking for someone to give your money too. Just fix it!
Thanks, I welcome your comments.
My goal is to have a series of articles that deal with items that may be found on the home inspection report. There will also be articles on choosing a home inspector and a realtor. This information will be based on my experience in the construction industry as well as information I research. I welcome your comments. If you have a question or would like to see an article on a particular subject please ask.