Does a home inspector check the septic tank system?
Tuesday, August 20, 2019
The Standards of Practice of the both of the national home inspector associations (ASHI and InterNACHI) and the State of Florida specifically exclude inspection of private septic systems. This is because all of the septic system components are concealed, and a home inspection is essentially a visual inspection of the property.
A home inspector is required, however, to confirm that the plumbing fixtures drain properly, and will note any slow drains or backups—an indicator of a potential septic system problem. Also, if the tank and drainfield location can be determined, a scan of the area for soggy spots or standing water as part of the site inspection could lead to a recommendation for a septic system inspection by a licensed professional.
Some home inspectors offer a test of the septic system using a fluorescent dye that is flushed down a toilet, followed by a couple of hundred gallons of water flow into the tank, checking for traces of the dye in the ground above the drainfield as evidence of drainfield failure. Unfortunately, this is not an accurate or complete test of the system and should not be relied upon to verify that a septic system is healthy and functional. The inspectors in Florida that offer this test call it various names, such as “septic loading dye test,” but cannot call it a septic system inspection because it does not meet the state’s standard for an inspection of an existing septic system.
A septic system inspection can only be done by a Florida-licensed plumber or septic contractor and, because part of the inspection is pumping the tank to verify its capacity and condition, a septic pump truck is necessary. You can expect to pay $300 to $500 for the inspection and, of course, you get a pumpout of the tank as part of the deal. The report itself is fairly simple and usually only one page. Here’s the relevant section of the Florida Administrative Code at 64E-6.001(5):
The inspection is designed to assess the condition of a system at a particular moment in time. The inspection will identify obviously substandard systems, for example systems without drainfields. The inspection is not designed to determine precise code compliance, nor provide information to demonstrate that the system will adequately serve the use to be placed upon it by this or any subsequent owner. Nothing in this section shall be construed to limit the amount of detail an inspector may provide at their professional discretion. Persons allowed to perform work under this section shall be master septic tank contractors, registered septic tank contractors, state-licensed plumbers, and persons certified under Section 381.0101, F.S. Department employees are excluded from performing these evaluations. Aerobic treatment units and performance-based treatment systems shall not be evaluated using this criteria, but shall be evaluated by the approved maintenance entity which maintains the unit or system. Nothing in this section restricts the person having ownership of, control of, or use of an onsite sewage treatment and disposal system from requesting a partial inspection. The inspector shall provide the person requesting the inspection a copy of the department Procedure for Voluntary Inspection and Assessment of Existing Systems and written notice of their right to request an inspection based on part or all of the standards.
And here’s the state-mandated “Procedure for Volutary Inspection and Assessment of Existing Systems” that a licensed pro must follow to do a septic system inspection:
Procedure for Voluntary Inspection and Assessment of Existing Systems May, 2000
These inspection procedures are intended to be used as a minimum standard when these types of inspections are performed.
This procedure shall be used if a person having ownership of, control of, or use of an onsite sewage treatment and disposal system requests to have the system inspected due to a reason that is not related to an increase in sewage flow or change in sewage characteristics, or failure of the system.
(1) Inspection Procedures: All inspection procedures used by the inspector shall be documented. Unless the person requesting the inspection specifies in writing that parts of theinspection be omitted, the inspection shall include a tank inspection, a drainfield inspection, anda written assessment of the condition of the system. At any time where the inspector finds that the system is in failure, or has been in failure, the inspector may choose to terminate the inspection and inform the owner of the findings.
(2) Tank Inspection (when not omitted at the written instruction of the person requesting the inspection): The tank must be pumped to determine its capacity. Where proof of a tank pumping, permitted new installation or permitted repair or permitted modification can be documented within the previous three years, and where the document states the capacity of the tank and that the condition of the tank does not constitute a sanitary nuisance, the inspector may waive the pumping requirement. Visual inspection of the tank must be made when the tank is empty to detect cracks, leaks, or other defects. Check baffles or tees to ensure they are intact and secure. Note the presence and condition of outlet device, effluent filters and compartment walls. Note any structural defects in the tank. Note the condition and fit of the tank lid, including manholes. If the tank, in the professional opinion of the inspector, is in danger of being damaged by leaving the tank empty after inspection, the tank will be refilled with water prior to concluding the inspection.
(3) Drainfield Inspection (when not omitted at the written instruction of the person requesting theinspection): The drainfield area should be probed to determine its location and approximate size. Note whether the drainfield is a trench or bed configuration and whether it is made of mineral aggregate, non-mineral aggregate, or plastic chambers. In addition, note any indications of previous failure, the condition of surface vegetation, for example, is there any seepage visible or excessively lush vegetation? If so, the inspector should note if there is ponding water within the drainfield and if there is even distribution of effluent in the field. The inspection should note any downspouts or drains that encroach or drain into the drainfield area. Auger and examine soils to estimate the seasonal high water table in the area of the drainfield.
(4) Where the system contains pumps, siphons, alarms, the following minimum information is required when not omitted at the written instruction of the person requesting the inspection:
(a) Dosing tank integrity, approximate volume and material used in construction (i.e., concrete,fiberglass, plastic)
(b) Pump elevated off the bottom of the chamber?
(c) Pump operational status
(d) If there is a check valve, is a purge hole present?
(e) Is there a high water alarm present?
(f) Type of alarm (audio/ visual/both) and the location
(g) Does the alarm work?
(h) Do electrical connections appear satisfactory?
(i) Can surface water infiltrate into the tank?
(j) Indicate whether the pump tank was pumped out.
(5) Assessment: The inspector shall provide a copy of a written signed inspection report to the person requesting the assessment and the owner of the system. The front cover of the report shall indicate whether the system is or is not, in the professional opinion of the inspector:
(a) a sanitary nuisance through:
1. allowing the discharge of untreated or improperly treated human waste.
2. the improperly built or maintained sewage treatment tank.
3. the creation, maintenance or causing of any condition capable of breeding flies, mosquitoes or any other arthropods capable of transmitting diseases directly or indirectly to humans.
(b) The report will indicate any maintenance that needs to be performed on the system.
The following conditions, when determined during the course of an inspection, shall be disclosed using the appropriate disclosure statement(s) below. When the person requesting the inspection has made written specification that portions of the inspection be omitted, the inspector's written report shall indicate any of the of the following conditions that could not be assessed because of the limited scope of the inspection.
1. When the inspector detects cracks, leaks, improper fit or other defects in the tank, manholes or lid, the report shall state that the damaged or defective item or tank be properly corrected.
2. When the inspector detects any missing or damaged component of the system, the report shall state that the missing or damaged component be replaced or an approvable replacement reinstalled in the system.
3. When the inspector detects previous failure indicators, these should be documented in the report.
4. When the inspector detects ponding of the drainfield or uneven distribution of effluent, documentation of the extent of such ponding or uneven distribution shall be included in thereport.
5. When the inspector detects downspouts or other stormwater or other source of water directed toward the system, the report shall state that these sources be re-directed away fromthe system.
6. When the inspector detects the seasonal high water table at or above the elevation of the drainfield, the report shall state that there is an increased probability of system malfunction due to the presence of groundwater at these levels.
7. Any condition or situation existing on the site at the time of the inspection that, in the opinion of the inspector, would possibly interfere with or restrict any future repair or modificationto the existing system shall be included in the report.
Because of the groundwater pollution and algae bloom problems caused by failed private septic systems, Florida passed a law in 2010 that required inspections every 5 years and repair or replacement of septic systems as necessary. Numerous complaints about the cost to homeowners for compliance followed, and it was repealed before going into effect. But groundwater quality in Florida has continued to deteriorate, and a similar law was proposed in the 2019 legislature that is awaiting passage.
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To learn more about septic tank systems, see these other blog posts:
How To Look At A House
McGarry and Madsen's home inspection blog for buyers of
site-built, mobile/manfuactured and modular homes
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