Well and Septic

Well and Septic Problems

Well and septic problems are pretty common in this country. This is particularly true of shallow wells. There are many homes around the country that have shallow wells and bad septic systems, where you can flush a dye down the drain and 20 minutes later it will be coming out in the kitchen sink. It won't smell and you can't see it is contaminated but it is. Well and septic problems are also very common in lake communities. The people that get really sick from it are the young (because their immune systems are not fully developed), the old (because their immune systems are getting weak) and people that are already sick from other things (because their immune systems are already weak). Healthy adults will build immunities to many of these bugs. Often visitors will get the stomach flu because they do not have these immunities built up. It's the same thing in Mexico. The first few months you are their you will get sick...but after a while you will build immunities and then you can tolerate it.

Shallow wells are 25' or less. Deep wells are usually cased down to 45' as a standard then the well keeps going down past that. The drainfield should be at least 50' away from a (cased) deep well and 100' from a shallow well. Of course, it is also extremely important to properly maintain your septic system, which very few people do. Septic systems are designed to catch the large solids in the tank, then the wastewater or effluent is treated by the soil before it passes through, i.e. to ground water or you well. However, if the soil in the drain field is failing and not adequately treating the effluent, you could have problems.

As you may know from researching this topic, failing septic systems are a major financial and environmental problem in this country. Expensive septic repairs can often run from $5,000 to $20,000 or more and a large number of systems are failing throughout the country. For news stories related to failing septic systems and tightening regulations you can go to: http://www.laundry-alternative.com/Septic_Systems/failingseptic.htm

You also can't sell your home if it has a failing system. For more information on how to properly maintain your septic system, go to:
http://www.laundry-alternative.com/septic_system_maintenance.htm


What are Septic Systems and how do they work?

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We are independent, licensed professionals working for you, the buyer. We adhere to the industry's highest standard of practice and code of ethics so that you are assured the home inspection will be done properly.

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Getting a Pre-Sale Home Inspection is a smart way to sell a home. The Home Inspector will call attention to problems with the home before potential buyers see them. Sellers can then consult repair professionals before marketing their home to get estimates for repairs. Sellers will be able to market the home, disclosing needed work, along with repair estimates. Or, they can have the repair work done before the house is listed for sale.

Buyers who are aware of a problem up-front can process this information before making an offer. They can factor the cost into their bid, or ask the sellers to take care of the problem. Buyers often have mixed feelings of excitement and trepidation when they enter into an agreement to buy a home. The impact of an unexpected "bad" report can destroy their excitement and enhance their fear to the point that they want nothing to do with the property.

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Requesting that buyers and/or sellers get a Pre-Sale Home Inspection or get a home inspection before buying a home makes your job a lot easier. It keeps all parties informed of potential problems and helps the sale of your homes happen more efficiently.

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Components of a Septic System

What are the Components of a Private Septic System?

The things that are most obvious are the things seen every day - the sinks, toilets, and pipes in a normal house. What are not visible are the things that are underground; the things that are underground, and the ground itself, greatly impact how a septic system works.

The individual parts of the system are the septic tank, a distribution box, and a leach field. Bacterial action takes place in the septic tank where the end products are mainly water, gases, and undigested material, called sludge that sinks to the bottom of the tank and scum that floats to the top of the tank. The septic tank contains baffles that prevent any scum that floats to the surface and sludge that settles to the bottom from passing out of the tank. The gases that are generated vent to the atmosphere via the plumbing vent system. From the septic tank, the segregated and relatively clear liquid flows into a small distribution box where it is then metered out to several perforated pipes. These perforated pipes then deliver the liquid to a large soil surface area, called a leach field, or absorption field, for absorption. The soil also acts as a filter to remove any small amounts of solids that may be carried along with the liquid. The sludge in the bottom of the tank must be periodically pumped out and properly disposed of.

There are other kinds of systems for special situations, but the septic tank and leach field is the most widely used system in our area. The following discussion concentrates on this type of system.

SEPTIC COMPONENT LOCATION - Where are The Septic System Components Located?

The concrete, or sometimes steel, septic tank is buried in the ground, usually a minimum of 10 feet from the house. The top of the tank is usually about one foot below the soil surface so it can be periodically opened for inspection and pumping. If you do not know for sure where the tank is located, the first step is to locate where the house sewer pipe leaves the house. In a house with a basement, this is where the pipe passes through the wall. Locating the exit point may be more difficult for a house with no basement. If the pipe exit can be found, the tank normally begins about 10 feet from the house outside wall and in line with the house sewer pipe. If the soil is not frozen, you can usually find the tank by pushing a slender metal rod into the ground until it hits the buried tank. You can buy a metal rod about 1/8 inch in diameter for a few dollars at most hardware stores. Be careful when probing for the tank and avoid hammering the metal rod into the ground - you could break a sewer pipe.

The distribution box is much smaller than the septic tank and is usual found about 20 feet from the house. It too is usually only about one foot below the ground. Again, you can probe the soil carefully to locate the distribution box with a slender metal rod.

From the distribution box, several pipes direct liquid to a series of pipes in trenches called laterals. The pipes in the trenches have holes in them to allow the liquid to be evenly distributed within the trench. To keep the pipes from being blocked with soil and to provide a space for water to be stored while it is being absorbed by the soil, the pipes are laid in a bed of crushed stone. Above the stone is a soil filter (usually one or two layers of what is called untreated building paper). Above the soil filter is top soil in which grass is planted.

Equally important is WHERE THE COMPONENTS SHOULD NOT BE. If there are wells, either yours or a neighbor's, the leach field must be a minimum of 100 feet from the location of the well. In some areas, the well is not allowed to be down-slope from the leach field. If there is a stream or pond, the leach field must also be a minimum of 100 feet from the mean high water mark. Normally, no part of the system should be within 10 feet of a property line. In some areas and in unusual conditions, minimum distances may be greater than those noted here. In addition, no part of the system should be under a porch or driveway and you should not drive heavy vehicles (including automobiles) over the system lest the system be damaged.


Septic System Maintenance

Conventional septic systems are not entirely care free. The undigested solids (sludge) in the bottom of the septic tank should be pumped out every two to four years, depending on usage and tank size. If the sludge is not removed periodically, it will eventually carry over into the leach field and cause the field to fail.

A well designed system can handle a reasonable amount of normal household chemicals such as drain cleaners, laundry detergent and bleach; excessive usage can be detrimental. You should avoid putting in chemicals that are toxic to the bacteria, such as paint thinner, solvents, insecticides, etc. Cooking fats and grease should also be avoided. If a garbage disposal is used, more frequent tank pumping may be needed.

Depending on the size of the tank and your location, plan on a cost of about $200 each time the tank is pumped. When the tank is pumped, your service person should also check the tank baffles for possible damage; ask them to do this inspection before you contract with them. While the tank is open, the service technician can also run some water from a hose into the distribution box to get an indication that the leach field is also still functioning; ask if the company offers this service

HOW TO INSTALL OR REPAIR SEPTICS - If I Plan on Repairing, Installing, or Replacing A Septic System, What should I expect?

There are two major factors involved in adding a new system or repairing or replacing an existing one. The first is the cost; the second is the inconvenience of possibly not being able to use the existing system while a replacement is being installed. For new construction, the second factor is not usually a major consideration.

Repair or replacement cost will obviously depend on what has to be repaired and/or replaced. If the repair does not involve the leach field, the cost may be high, but it will probably not be exorbitant. The least expensive repair will be associated with a broken pipe between the distribution box and the house. The cost for this type of repair is in the order of several hundred dollars. If only a septic tank needs to be replaced - and the leach field is still undamaged - the cost will be in the order of about $1500 to $2500. If a new leach field is needed, and there is room for such an installation, you should plan on spending an additional $2000 to $3000 for a typical home. If there is not sufficient room for a new leach field, the existing field, including the clogged soil, must be removed and a completely new system must be installed. Such an effort can easily exceed $10,000.


Detecting a failing Septic System

How Long Should a Septic System Last?

You can expect a conventional septic system, such as that being described here, to last about 30 years. Some systems last much longer and some systems can fail earlier for reasons like those noted above. Other things can also affect the life of a septic system. For example, a system may have been providing satisfactory service for a previous owner for many years, only to fail shortly after you have bought the house. If the previous owners were a working couple with no children, the system was probably not heavily used; if yours is a family of six, the added load could push a marginal system over the edge and into failure.

What are the Signs of a Failing Septic System?

Sewage backup into the home is one possible sign of a failing system. However, backup can also be simply the result of a blockage somewhere between the house and the septic tank (this is relatively easy to fix).

Another possible sign of failure is a smell of sewage outside the house. If this smell is more noticeable after a lot of water has been put into the system - multiple showers or several loads of laundry (if the laundry waste discharges into the septic system), for example - this may be an indication that the leach field is failing. The smell may also be accompanied by a "spongy" feeling in some areas of the leach field, near the distribution box, or near the septic tank.

The "spongy" feel may be caused by water and waste being pushed to or near ground level. If ponding water is also seen, this is called "breakthrough" and is an almost positive indication of failure of one or more parts of the system. This smell, however, can also originate at the plumbing vent. In either case, further investigation is warranted.

Dye Testing: If you see such signs, a dye test may confirm your suspicions. For this test, a special strong dye is put in the system - usually by flushing it down the toilet. A significant amount of water is then washed into the system.

If there is "breakthrough", the dye will become visible on the ground surface. If the dye is seen on the surface, this would be a very strong indication that the system has failed. Your Home Inspector, a licensed professional engineer, or a septic system contractor can usually perform this test for you if it is needed.