Friday, May 15, 2009

Testing an Alternative Septic System When You Purchase a Home

With alternative septic system assessing functionality is relatively simple for a qualified inspector (or engineer with an interest in septic systems). Alternative systems are the British racing car of the septic universe, when they are running well, they are superb. The systems require constant maintenance to keep functioning so the systems are designed to be easily accessed. Alternative systems have access ports and alarms everywhere and the components are labeled with the manufacturer’s name. The diagram above is of a three chamber tank for an alternative system. Often three separate tanks are used. This diagram was from the American Ground Water Trust Consumer Awareness Information Pamphlet #4
  1. First identify the manufacturer and find a septic maintenance firm certified by the manufacturer. E-mail or call the customer service department to get a list of names. Not all state health departments keep lists of certified maintenance companies. A note of caution, companies that are certified to install may not have the skills to inspect or maintain.
  2. Have the system inspected and tested.
There are certain things to note when testing an alternative septic system, which have more than one tank or at least a multi compartment tank.
  1. First, the air compressor for the aerobic tank should be running constantly and making a nice humming sound. The condition of the pump(s) and compressor should be assessed.
  2. The alarm test buttons should work. (Make sure that the alarm switch is in the sound mode, a bulb can burn out if the alarm is silenced and the system is left with the alarm light on for months.) The alarms should be tested. Trip the alarm by lifting the water level gauge in the second or third tank which is much less disgusting than opening the first tank, but for a full test of the system all the alarms should be tripped.
  3. The condition of the tanks should be assessed.
  4. The absorption field should be inspected and the valves should be tested one at a time by over riding the timer on the zoner. Tufts of lush green grass around the valves during dry weather could indicate a broken valve or other system leak.
  5. Finally, to truly test the system remove some water from the zoner/diverter valve by loosening the top to the valve and letting water flow out for a few seconds and place in a jar and test for bacteria and nitrogen. (Make sure the gasket is properly seated when reattaching the top.) An alternative system should have removed at least 90% of the nitrogen and bacterial load at that point.
It is to be noted that the system takes a period of time to establish the appropriate bacteria levels and achieve operational equilibrium. A house that has been vacant with the water and power turned off can not be properly tested for effectiveness of treatment. It takes a few weeks of use to the system to reach equilibrium. The properly operating effectiveness of the tank treatment system and the ability to track the functioning of the system is the beauty of alternative systems. However, the systems need to be maintained and monitored constantly.

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