When buying a home there are really no simple and sure method of determining if the traditional septic system and leach field are functioning properly. There are signs and indications that a septic system has problems and has failed, but there is not easy way to determine that a traditional septic system is functioning properly. The Septic System Loading and Dye Tests required for some types of mortgages, involves flushing a special florescent dye down a toilet or other drain combined with a known quantity of water sufficient to put a working load on the leach field. If waste water leaks to the ground surface there is a serious septic failure. Depending on various design features, soil conditions and system use, this test can take from 30 minutes to several days. A failed system that has just been pumped or a system that has not been used for a period of time may “pass” the dye test, while the septic system has already failed.
Many septic service companies will perform the service for free or at a minimal expense because it brings in a lot of business. This first thing is to obtain the as built diagram from the health department to identify the type of system, the age of the system and locate the leach/absorption field. The leach/absorption field has sometimes been located in some fairly surprising places.
Septic system failure is unpleasant, unsanitary, could be a source of serious disease and cost thousands to tens of thousands of dollars to resolve. Yet, most homeowners wait until a system fails to take action. The functional lifetime of a traditional septic system is limited. The system is designed so that with proper maintenance it will last 20 to 30 years, under the best conditions. Many other factors can cause early failure of a septic system. Pipes blocked by roots, soils saturated by storm water, compacting of the drain field by parking vehicles or heavy objects on the top of the field, improper location, poor original design or poor installation can all lead to major problems.
It is more likely that these systems fail because they are abused, improperly maintained or just old. Remember that the entire functioning of a traditional septic system is based on natural ecological cycles. It needs to be treated kindly and kept in balance. When a system is poorly maintained and not pumped out on a regular basis, sludge (solid material) builds up inside the septic tank, and then flows into the leach (absorption) field, clogging it beyond repair. Excessive load from toilets and garbage disposal, putting grease, coffee grinds, kitty litter down the drain will shorten the life of and potentially overload the system. Even with proper use and maintenance the system will wear out. Eventually, the soil around the leach field becomes clogged with organic material, forcing sewage upward into the yard or back into the house. Before that happens, however, there are warnings signs. It may be difficult to identify many of these signs without living or spending time in the house.
Signs that a Septic System is Failing:
1. Sewage backup in your drains or toilets. This is often seen as an unpleasant smelling black liquid.
2. Slow flushing of all or most of your toilets. Many of the drains in your house will drain much slower than usual, despite the use of plungers or drain cleaning products (which by the way should not be used with a septic system). Unfortunately, this is often gradual and goes unnoticed.
3. Liquid seeping along the surface of the ground in the back yard near the leach field. It may or may not have a noticeable odor associated with it. Lush green grass growing over the absorption field, even during dry weather or visual stripes in the grass texture and quality is often an indication that an excessive amount of liquid from your system is moving up through the soil, instead of downward, as it should. While some upward movement of liquid from the leach field is expected, too much could indicate major problems.
4. The presence of nitrates or bacteria in the drinking water well. This indicates that liquid from the system may be flowing into the well through the ground or over the surface. Water tests available from your local health department will indicate if you have this problem.