Thursday, June 20, 2019

What to Know When Buying a Home with a Well and Septic System

Virginia Tech in conjunction with the Virginia Department of Health have just put out a new video "What to Know When Buying a Home with a Well and Septic System." The video was written and narrated by Erin Ling of the Virginia Household Water Quality Program at Virginia Tech. It is the U-tube video link above, and is worth while just to get some well information and background. It has some really useful information about owning a well. 

About 21% of homes in Virginia get their drinking water from a private well, and homes with wells have septic systems. Wells in Virginia are the owner's responsibility. Regulations from the Virginia Department of Health only address the constructions of wells; and  those regulations date only to 1992. There are no regulations for the maintenance or testing of wells. Though there are no Virginia regulations to test well water before a sale,  typically mortgage lender require testing for bacteria for a mortgage to be approved. Testing a well for coliform bacteria and E. coli are not enough to make sure that you have a good source of drinking water for a home. Quite frankly, it is fairly easy to cheat the bacteria test.

Virginia is a "buyer beware" state. Any well,  groundwater or septic problems not detected by the buyer during the sale process become the  home buyer's problem upon closing the sale. There is no legal recourse back to the seller. Virginia Tech recommends that buyers should engage a licensed well contractor to assess the well and a licensed septic installer/service company to assess the septic system. As part of the assessment, the home buyer should obtain a copy of the "Water Well Completion Report" and the septic system (or AOSS) repair/permit history and the history of septic tank pump-outs. This information is on file at the local health department. 

In addition, the home buyer should also asses any water treatment systems in the home to understand what the treatment equipment does, the condition of the equipment and the underlying water problems that the equipment was purchased to solve. At the very least, the buyer should test the well water for Total coliform, E. coli, nitrate, lead, iron, pH, hardness, and residual chlorine (to see if the well was recently chlorine shocked to eliminate chloroform bacteria). Virginia accredits water testing laboratories, and there are also EPA accredited laboratories. Also, smell and taste the water. If it doesn't smell or taste good you may not want to buy the house. It is important to test the water both before any treatment equipment and after. While most contaminates can be addressed using water treatment systems, there are trade offs that you might not want to make. For a set of rules for what properties may not be worth buying see "10 Rules for Buying a Home with a Well and Septic System."

A professional septic system inspection should include reviewing :
  • Pumping and maintenance records (now available online for registered inspectors from the Virginia Health Department system, VDH); 
  • The age of the septic system and general condition of the system and soils. (They typical life of a system is 15-40 years and you want to know how close you might be to needing to replace the system); 
  • Sludge levels and scum thickness in the tank; 
  • Signs of leakage, such as low water levels in the tank; 
  • Signs of backup, such as staining in the tank above the outlet pipe or dark sediment in household toilets; 
  • Integrity of the tank, inlet, and outlet pipes; 
  • The drainfield, for signs of system failure like standing water or surfacing sewage; (Note that in Fairfax and some other localities it is common to have two drainfields that are rotated every 6 months. Check them both.) 
  • The distribution box should be checked to make sure drain lines are receiving equal flow; nd 
  • Available records at the VDH district office should be checked, to make sure the system complies with local regulations regarding function and location and was certified. 

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