Septic Services

An on-lot wastewater treatment system, or “septic system”, may be the most expensive single component of your new home. Therefore, it is important that you know its condition before you buy.

A Septic Inspection provides you with information about the septic system components and current operating conditions. Inspection results are based on the experience and expertise of a knowledgeable inspector, information provided by the current owner of the property and observable conditions at the time of the inspection. Each inspection results in a septic system report that states:
the type and condition of the system and its components, unsatisfactory conditions in the system and any need for additional testing, list of corrective measures or next steps, if any are needed.

Allied Inspection Services, Inc. is a member of the Pennsylvania Septage Management Association (PSMA). All of our septic inspections are performed in strict conformance to the PSMA’s Inspection Standards by PSMA-certified inspectors. These Standards have been described by Commonwealth Court as the “Industry Standard” for on-lot system inspection.

A Septic Inspection provides you with valuable information about the present condition of the system, however it is not a warranty or guarantee that the system will function properly for any period of time in the future.

The Inspection Process

In most Pennsylvania real estate transactions, it is the seller’s responsibility to locate the treatment tank(s) and absorption system, provide access to the manhole cover on the tank(s) and to empty the tank(s) at the time of the inspection. We can assist in making these arrangements if desired.

The current owner of the property will be asked to complete an Authorization and Information sheet before the inspection. This will provide us with information such as the age of the septic system, current usage and past service history.

The following steps describe the inspection of a typical gravity-distribution style treatment system. See “Types of On-lot Treatment Systems” for more information on other types of on-lot treatment systems.

During the inspection, the inspector will:

  1. Walk the property and note the location of all system components, any on-lot water wells present, and any lush vegetation, surfacing effluent or other indications of system malfunction.
  2. Inspect the treatment tank noting the condition of the visible interior portions and the operating level.
  3. Probe the absorption area to determine the amount of standing effluent.
  4. Verify that all fixtures in the house discharge into the treatment tank.
  5. Run water from fixtures in the house and observe any changes in the treatment tank level.
  6. Observe the tank as it is being emptied, noting any runback from the absorption system or the ground surrounding the tank.
  7. Inspect the interior of the treatment tank after it has been emptied, noting the condition of the inlet and outlet baffles and checking for any other cracks, holes or other defects which were previously concealed.

Septic System Types

All on-lot wastewater treatment systems consist of three basic components. They are:

  1. The treatment tank
  2. The distribution system
  3. The absorption system

The treatment tank is a watertight vessel which is buried in the ground and receives all waste from the house. Treatment tanks may be designed to function anaerobically (without oxygen) or aerobically (with oxygen). Most treatment tanks are anaerobic. The treatment tank is designed to retain all solids from the house. The solid material that is heavier than water will settle to the bottom of the tank and is called sludge. The solid material that is lighter than water will float to the top of the tank and is called scum. Between the layers of sludge and scum is relatively clear liquid called effluent, which is allowed to pass to the distribution system. Baffles at the inlet and outlet pipes prevent solids from leaving the treatment tank. Naturally-occurring bacteria will digest approximately 50% of the solids in the treatment tank. The remaining solids must be removed by periodically pumping the treatment tank. Multiple treatment tanks or multi-compartment treatment tanks have been used in systems since 1998. These systems have proven to be more effective at separating solids, and therefore producing a cleaner effluent, than single tank systems.

The distribution system is a series of pipes that carries the effluent from the treatment tank to the absorption system. The effluent flows by gravity to a distribution box or to a tank with a lift or dosing pump, or to a siphon chamber.

The absorption system is very important because it is the most expensive component of an on-lot wastewater treatment system. It is also the most difficult of the components to repair, should problems occur. Many different types of absorption systems are currently in use, including:

  1. subsurface seepage pits
  2. subsurface seepage trenches
  3. subsurface seepage beds
  4. at-grade beds
  5. elevated sand mounds
  6. drip irrigation
  7. spray irrigation

Special Conditions

Standard septic system inspections are designed to evaluate how well a system is performing at the time of the inspection. However, some conditions make it difficult or impossible to properly evaluate the performance of a septic system.

They include:

  1. Structures that have been vacant for more than 7 days (except new systems used for less than 30 days)
  2. New water sources being directed to the system within the last 30 days
  3. Soil fracturing activity within the last 30 days

There are also cases where the system performance is marginal and further testing is needed to reach a conclusion.

They include:

  1. Subsurface gravity absorption systems with less than 5 inches of dry aggregate but not flooded to the full depth of the aggregate.
  2. There is less than 24 hours volume capacity in a cesspool or seepage pit.

In all of these cases, it is necessary to perform a Hydraulic Load Test. The Hydraulic Load Test is designed to determine the volume of clear water an absorption system can absorb in a 24 hour period. This is done by introducing an amount of water equal to the PA-DEP specified daily volume for the house into the absorption system on two consecutive days. During this test, no wastewater from the house may enter the absorption area. For more information on Hydraulic Load Tests, see “Hydraulic Load Test FAQ”.

The results of the Hydraulic Load Test will enable the inspector to estimate how well the system is likely to perform in normal usage. It may also be useful to perform a Hydraulic Load Test in situations where the anticipated occupancy of the house is significantly greater that the current occupancy (for example, five people moving into a house currently occupied by only one person).

The Dye Test Myth

“dye proves a connection between two points…
…nothing more, nothing less”

If you’re buying or selling a home with an onlot wastewater treatment system (septic system), you need to find out what type of system is buried in the yard before you sign on the dotted line. More and more home buyers are finding that financial institutions routinely ask for a “dye test” in order to reach some conclusion about the health, operation, condition or mere presence of an onlot wastewater treatment system. Most frequently, a system inspection is sought prior to a land sale. And just as frequently, the service request is received only a few days before settlement – when the pressure is on to close the deal. If you’re the buyer, you want to make informed decisions without last minute pressures. If you’re the seller, you want to make a full disclosure of ALL you know about the system. Two simple steps will make these things possible, but more on that later.

There are two basic techniques used to evaluate onlot wastewater treatment systems. In the dye test method, a non-toxic colorant is introduced to the system. Then, the evaluator walks the property looking for signs of the dye. The other method is a comprehensive onlot wastewater treatment system inspection done in accordance with the Inspection Standards developed by the Pennsylvania Septage Management Association.

Misplaced Confidence

Relying on a dye test to evaluate an onlot wastewater treatment system’s condition is like relying on the drips on the garage floor to evaluate the mileage performance of the car that usually parks over the drips. Intuition tells you the drips came from the vehicle. You are clueless about what part of the vehicle originated the drips or if that part is working properly. You can only assume there is a connection between the vehicle and the drips. That’s about all a dye test proves . . . that there is a connection between the point where the dye is introduced and the location where it is visible. No more, no less.

Relying on a dye test to determine the size and condition of the treatment tank (or even if there is one), the size and type of the absorption area (if any), or its location or condition yields no valid conclusions if all you do is introduce dye and look for its appearance. Since the typical retention time in a 1,000 gallon treatment tank is about three days, you better not base any conclusion on what you don’t see the same day you introduce the dye. But, you better look, for if there is a surface discharge, it may not linger three days. Likewise, if you don’t look in the right places, you may never see the dye even though it has surfaced.

An onlot wastewater treatment system inspection performed by a PSMA/NOF-certified inspector will include a thorough examination and evaluation of every component of the system. The size, type and condition of the treatment tank will be documented. The system’s maintenance history will be researched and the location of all major components will be discovered and documented. Most importantly, the Inspector’s report will indicate Unsatisfactory conditions which may signal problems before they reach the stage of a “regulatory” malfunction. Unsatisfactory conditions which indicate the system or a component is not performing as intended will be noted and reported.

A regulatory malfunction occurs when the system discharges untreated or partially treated sewage to the surface of the ground or the waters (above or below ground). The municipal regulatory official (in PA,it’s the Sewage Enforcement Officer or SEO) should be contacted if a malfunction is detected. Remedial measures consistent with a government-issued permit must be taken. In this situation, it is the landowner’s responsibility to contact the regulatory official. A conclusion that a system is unsatisfactory may not immediately require intervention by the regulatory official.

An Unsatisfactory system or component may continue to “work” for some time. It may also fail in a few days if the volume of waste it is expected to handle changes drastically. If, for example, a middle-aged couple has successfully used the system and the property is about to be purchased by a similarly situated couple, it may continue to perform satisfactorily. On the other hand, if a young couple with four children will be moving in, the system’s successful days may be fewer than the number of new occupants!

In this situation a dye test would very likely reveal “no problem,” yet a regulatory malfunction could develop after the new owners move in. Were the dye test’s results right or wrong? In the absence of a surface discharge or subsurface linkage to a well, seeing no dye and concluding that the system was working was a correct assumption. Unfortunately, there was no system inspection, and the soil masked all indications of a potential problem.

Select the Proper Tool

What went wrong in this example? It’s simple, the tool selected (dye test) was not the right tool for the job. If a pipe was suspected of discharging sewage to the road ditch, or a pipe to a stream or even a wet spot in the yard, a dye test could be the right tool to prove or disprove your suspicions. The right tool in this example, however, is a PSMA/NOF onlot wastewater treatment system inspection which would have revealed the hidden problems of the failing system.

Lenders and buyers get squeamish when they hear “failing system.” Buyers must make decisions that are difficult at best. The buyer and lender want an assurance that the system will work. The system evaluator cannot give one, only a professional judgment of the system’s current condition and, at best, an indication of the likely outcome of continued use. The SEO, by law and regulation, cannot evaluate systems in his or her jurisdiction as part of a land sales transaction for the buyer or seller, and he is not able to change or undo the inspector’s conclusion.

Is the lender truly being duly diligent in demanding a dye test, or merely searching for a dye test report to hide behind and a warm-blooded scapegoat in case the onlot system fails? What is the benefit to the new owner if the system passes the dye test and fails the test of everyday use? And if the system fails, is the lender really in a better position than if no test had been done? Indeed, Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court has already described the PSMA/NOF Inspection Standards as “the industry standard.”

Be sure to select the right tool to evaluate an onlot wastewater treatment system. Clearly, you do not want to be forced to answer this question: “Why did you select a dye test when you knew a more accurate testing tool was available?”

Further Reading

PADEP Homeowner’s Guide
Pennsylvania Septage Management Association (PSMA)
PSMA On-lot Wastewater Treatment Inspection vs. A Regulatory Inspection (PDF)
EPA: A homeowner’s guide to septic systems