I live in the country. My septic field is under a hill in the yard. How does this type of system work?

This sounds to me to be a mound system. Most of the time our septic fields are placed in the ground but sometimes the ground in our yards is not suitable for draining away the water in our waste water system. Most of the time this is because the water table is too high or the soil is just not very good at absorbing the effluent. This is when a mound system is usually used. In the mound you have a series of pipes that become pressurized when the pump kicks in. The mound is comprised of sand and gravel what does the work of the normal absorption field. If you have a mound check the toe or the end of the mound for a breach on the earth by the water in the mound. Often if the mound is saturated it will begin to wash out the toe. Sand Mound

I am building a new home in the country. What design consideration must I be aware of for the septic system?

New rules in the past ten years or so have made designing an onsite waste water system a bit of a science. Here are some general things I would consider if designing a system for you. Using your house plans the number of bedrooms, bathrooms and people in the home would be considered. If you design the house with a future suite in the basement it would be considered as well. If you are installing a large soaker tub or a garborator they would need to be factored into the overall design. Generally you need to design the system based upon a maximum water usage sinario. This means you will need a system that can handle a worse case full load over a sustained period of time. Once you realize the added costs to having that large home with 8 bathrooms you may want to reconsider. The system must be designed for max peak even though the average flow is going to only be a small percentage of that. 

How do I know if my septic system is up to code?

The best way to check if the septic system is up to code is to call the local authority having jurisdiction. This person or body will inspect what you have and let you know. Having said that, this person is likely to force you to upgrade the system if it is deficient and not close to todays’ minimum standards. There are some systems that are grandfathered but no system must be grandfathered. The inspector has the power to make you replace the system so be aware of that fact. A rule of thumb in this area is, if the system has a pump out you must have a minimum of 10 acres. You system must have a proper tank, not an old car cavity buried in the ground. If the water table is too high you most likely will need an at-ground system or a mound system. There is so much more so call with your specific details and yes we inspect and design new and old systems. Unlike the municipal and public health inspectors, I have no authority to enforce changes. I merely suggest improvements.

I moved to an acreage and have had nothing but trouble with my septic tank pump out line freezing. How do I stop this?

Over the years I have had my fair share of this type of frustration myself. One problem I found was that my electrical ground fault was tripping when the pump in the tank started. Years ago the electrical code required that the electrical connections to the septic pump be on a ground fault circuit. This requirement was changed because of the very problems I just alluded to. A second problem I have experienced a few times is the lack of a weep hole in the discharge line. In both cases the discharge line gets water in it and freezes the line. It is critical that the discharge line drain back so it does not freeze. Please feel free to call for more information of this topic as it is not easy to cover all the possibilities in a small space as this. The picture is a poor example but it gives you the idea. The weep hole sometimes gets plugged and the water cannot drain back into the tank. In a pump out the water must not stay in the  discharge line as it is above the frost line and it will freeze. In an emergency you could place a trash pump in the lid of the tank and pump the effluent above ground to where it is normally pumped out to get you by for a few hours until you can get the line thawed. This will require a very long hose. I am not suggesting you do this for more then a day. You need to put ethanol in the pump out line which may clear the line. Secondly you need to check to see if the weep hole is clear. Finally hire a vac truck to drain the tank if you can’t free up the line within a few hours of discovering a full tank. You will then need to get a steamer to melt the ice. Once you get the line clear it is imperative to make sure the weep hole is spraying out water, thus draining back when the pump shuts down. septic tank pump out

Sometimes I smell sewer and it seems that the drains are slower. What might be causing this?

It is not often that you will smell sewer in your home in the city. I have however come across a couple situations where conventional thinking did not find the source of the smell. My normal procedure is to check the traps in the basement floors as it is likely they may have dried out. Next I would look for venting issues. If a vent is not properly designed it can cause a trap to syphon a trap dry and the sewer gases will travel up through the open trap. Finally I check the actual sewer line for breaks. If none of these things look to be the source I check the vent on the roof. In the winter season the vent stack can frost over and plug the vent off. If the pressure in the sewer system is great enough the sewer gases can apparently travel through the water in the traps causing the smell.

I hear a clicking noise near my pressure tank. It happens about every 2-3 minutes, what could this be?

My best guess is that the clicking you hear is the pressure switch. I assume your water pump is in the well or you would hear more than a clicking noise. Each click you hear is the starting and stopping of the pump. The fact that the clicks are close in time, 2 -3 minutes I will say the pump is losing pressure for some reason. There may be a leak in the line but more likely the check valve in the pump is likely not holding. If the water is not running anywhere the pump and pressure switch should not cycle more than once. If the pressure tank in the basement is working properly the pump should only cut in after running the water for about 5 minutes and should only run for a couple of minutes to build the pressure again. There are other possibilities as well. I recommend you call a plumber to have a look before your pump burns out. It is also possible that the switch settings are set too close together.

How often do I need to shock my well? Can you explain how I go about this?

I personally shock my well once a year to keep the bacteria count to a minimum but I have tested wells that have been ten years without a shock treatment and still had no health concerns. None the less I recommend a yearly treatment. The goal is to kill all the bacteria that will make you sick. Generally these bacteria include e-coli and coliform but there are several others. The shock should kill the bacteria but having the well tested a week after a shock treatment is a good idea just in case. I have written extensively on how to shock treat a well elsewhere on this blog so look around for that. Due to space constraints I recommend you go there to see the procedure I use.


Recently I decided to purchase a sewer camera and line locator. In all my years as a home inspector I have cautioned people on the risks of tree roots in the sewer line. After using the sewer camera I am learning that tree roots are only one possible issue with sewer related backups.

One of the most common problems I have come across since buying the camera  is sagging lines. In this situation the line drops in the trench and then comes back up again creating a sort of trap for the solids to slow down and block the line. In severe cases I have witnessed a line that was plugged only one week after the local plumber had augured it out. Another common problem is offsets in the pipe. I personally have not experienced this issue as yet but I am told it is a common problem.

Other less frequent issues include a collapsed pipe or a broken pipe where a rock has pushed through  the line . This week I came across a flapper valve which had been dislodged from a check valve. Last week I found an end cap from a piece of abs pipe which was partially blocking the pipe. So I guess the moral of this tale is that you can never be sure what may cause your sewer line to back up. The only way to be sure of the condition of the line is to have it scoped. At border Home inspections we have top of the line equipment to scope and locate the line issues if necessary. You will also receive a DVD copy of the scope at the end of the inspection.

If you are one of the many homeowners who experiences sewer back-ups on a recurring basis I recommend having the line scoped to see what and where the problems are. If the cause of the blockage is on the town or city portion of the line, you can provide the town/city with the DVD evidence of the problem and where they will need to dig it up.  Without this type of visual evidence the repair process can be long and drawn out and resolution of who must pay is often in dispute. Visit my website to view a 6 minute video of this process in action.

The Color camera is amazing



In previous issues I talked about well flow tests. This issue will deal with how to properly assess the well and its components such as the pressure switch and tank and the well pump itself.  I will also mention a bit about what types of samples I recommend the buyer take when assessing the quality of the well water.

Most wells in the Midwest are drilled wells consisting of a 5 -6” well casing that is usually 80 – 500’ in depth with the average depth about 200’ or less. The second type of well is a bored well that is usually dug with a bucket type of tool or an auger and is generally about 36” in diameter. Drilled wells almost always have a submersible pump in the well.  The bored wells can have the same set up or the pump may be in the home. Regardless of the style your acreage has you will want to check a few things to see if the system is working properly. First of all, there should be a pressure switch and possibly but not always, a starter switch inside the basement. The pressure switch should start the pump when the water pressure is  about 30psi and turn the pump off when the pressure reaches about 60psi. If the pressure tank is not working right or is full of water the pressure switch may cycle on and off every few seconds when the water is running eventually causing the pump to burn out.

If you have never experienced the intricacies of well water equipment it is likely best to hire an inspector, driller or water specialist to guide you through the process, as little problems can leave you without water and a large bill. The last item I want to discuss is the topic of testing well water quality. At Border Home Inspections we recommend the standard well potablity  test for e-coli, coliforms and nitrates. In addition I believe the well should have a full chemical analysis preformed to show the presence of other water contaminants that affect the water, more then your immediate health. The chemical analysis costs about $100 but it alerts you to the presence such chemicals as manganese, lead, iron, and many other unwanted minerals. If your wells has a high concentration of contaminants and or minerals you will likely be faced with adding a filtration system to make the water safe and aesthetically pleasing for drinking and bathing. Trust me when I say it is not nice to have a bath and feel that you were cleaner before you went in. If the water is terrible, its terrible and you may be forced to filter it. I believe it is best to know this going into the purchase rather then finding out the first week you move in.  Go tohttp://www1.agric.gov.ab.ca/$department/deptdocs.nsf/all/wwg408 to learn what the Alberta Government has to say on the topic.

Well Testing procedures

As an acreage owner I have had to haul water from the city and it is not fun, not by a long shot. Well water supply and water quality are more critical then you may think.  In order to help my clients reduce their risks of a well failure and to help them understand what it will take to have good water quality,  I recommend the following inspection procedures. The well is usually one of two main types, bored well with a 5” casing or a dug culvert style well of about 36” diameter. I will cover sand points in another article. The dug well is usually not as deep with about 100’ being about the deepest you find in this area. My current bored well is 468’ deep. Wells and well water can be hit and miss so its important to understand as much as possible about the well.

I recommend every well have a flow test.  Its one thing to have nice clean water but it is another thing when that water runs out after you run a bath and the dish washer. Yes this can happen. When buying a property it is very important to know how much water you can reliably count on from the well. A flow test can be done that will give you that information.  Without getting too detailed I will try to explain how this works. First of all the well is drawn down using two garden hoses running out onto the ground. The well will drop depending upon how fast the water runs back into the well. If the water drops really fast the test will end and a recovery portion of the test will begin. Usually the well draw down will last for about 1-2 hours (providing the well can sustain itself). Then a test is done to see how fast the well recovers back to the original position without using any water.  The test includes a tool which sends a pulse down to the surface of the water and back to the tool. The test results show the draw down and recovery rate and from that the flow rate can be estimated.

Generally speaking a flow rate of 1 – 2 gallons per minute would be considered on the low side for an average family. Over three gallons is usually enough water to sustain a family of four. Most bored wells in our area are about 120- 240’ and have limited amount of stored water. This means that a well that is known to produce two gallons per minute will run dry in a few hours if the garden hose which is can expel about five gallons per minute is left on. On the other hand a dug well may have storage of several hundred gallons of water and the same well production may not dry up for twenty hours of running the same garden hose.

The best thing about having a flow test is to learn the limitations of the well. If the well is a low producer you may decide to have a holding tank in the basement that provides a buffer when necessary. This approach requires times and floats but works very well.  I hoped to cover more on this topic but I will continue this in the next column as I believe it is critical information for the home owner.