Tell me about wells and septic systems

My fiance and I are in the market for a house. The first round of candidates is a list of ten houses in roughly the same neighborhood, provided by our Realtor. We haven’t seen them in person yet, but fiance and I already agree as to which one is the top contender - at least as far as aesthetics and features go. The issue is that it’s on well water and a septic system.

I have zero experience with well or septic, so I have no opinion. As long as I turn on the faucet and get water, and I flush the toilet and the poop goes bye-bye, I’m good. Fiance, however, was initially dead-set against them, as a blanket policy. He does seem to have an open mind with regard to this particular house, and my feeling is that it would be a shame to pass it up, especially if well and septic are more or less indistinguishable from community water and sewer.

So what’s the deal? I know they require a certain amount of care and maintenance. Are they worth it, or are they too problematic and risky? What should I expect, and what do I need to know?

A huge number of people live with them in rural areas, so it is certainly workable.

I expect you need to get them inspected to see what kind of shape they are in.

I can answer half your question. We have a septic tank.

We’ve been in our house since 2000 and have had no problems. There a few things to consider with a septic tank (from my dad, who works for a company that installs and repairs them)

  1. No trees, no shrubbery, nothing but grass over the tank. I’ve seen pictures of roots growing through pipes. As my dad says, “Do you want to hug your tree or flush your toilet?”

  2. Nothing down the drain except soap and food products. No paint, no paint thinner, leftover medicine, etc. The bacteria in the tank can be killed by that stuff.

  3. Get it pumped every five years. It costs us about $300-400 to do this. Funny story, the first time we got it pumped the guy said, “You know you’re missing the filter?” We called the guy who built the house, who called the contractor. It appears he had one filter that he would put in for the inspection, then pull it out again to use for the inspection on the next house. The contractor said in all the years he’d been putting in tanks he’d never been caught, since no one pumped their tanks.

Probably need some details as to where this property is.

I have well and septic, have had it for over 10 years.

Well, once a year i dump some liquid pool chlorine down it.
I run a water softener on it that i cycle once a week for my use.

Other than that, just check your pressure tank, when it stops maintaining air pressure and you have to keep topping it back up, replace it.

Eventually the pump needs replaced, not actually a terrible job, you could pay a well service, they pop out and do the job in a couple hours, or with a few tools you can do it.

Where i live the septics are above ground, raised mound type, not that it matters much.
So i have a pump for it (lift station) because the tanks are higher than the house plumbing.
The pump is a cast iron grinder pump, they last a very very long time.
And they are user replaceable easily (If you can work in a box of shit water that is)

Most people do not have lift stations so house just feeds into the septic.

Have it pumped out and filter cleaned at least every 2 years, solid waste does not magically go away.
Only water soluble goes away, solid sinks to the bottom, fatty stuff floats to the top.
Pumping it out takes away the stuff that isnt going to go away.

I do not put any kind of stuff they advertise into the septic tank, i have been told they tend to do more harm than good.

Build your septic leach field bigger than you need, a field that is always saturated is not good, it tends to grow slime which clogs the leach tubes.
I’d recommend you keep a good layer of earth over the access hatches on the tank.
The tanks breath, when yucky water goes in, yucky air comes out, no dirt to act as filter and you get a nice aroma.
(No it isnt as terrible as it sounds, but sometimes people keep all the dirt off the top to find the caps easier, and then the thing farts into the open air all the time)

Be mindful of what you stick down the septic, since it does not magically go away
Yea i know people flush that stuff on city sewer systems, DO NOT put it in your septic!
No cigarette butts either.
Dont use acid toilet cleaner, dont use drano, they tend to be unfriendly to the bacteria breaking down the stuff the septic system can make go away.

Poo Pee shower sink etc water.
Dont user a garbage disposal on the sink, it’s too much temptation to overload the septic with solid waste it does not need.

Consider using a grey water recycling system for laundry and bath water, It’s free lawn watering and reduces the load on the leach field a ton.

If you are buying a pre existing set up, have it inspected by someone YOU paid, not someone the seller paid.

Buying a house with a bad septic is not exactly a NO, but it is a hey you reduce this price by $28,000 or no sale type thing, cause you will spend that redoing it.
If you area is prone to power outages, consider a small little generator so you can run the well pump if you have an extended power outage, the well does not need much.

Have been living with well and septic for nearly 20 years now.

Most of the important stuff has been said.

Nothing down the drains/toilet except pee, poop, etc. No tampons or kotex. No “flushable” wipes - sure, they’ll flush, but they’ll hang out in the tank until you get it pumped and could potentially clog the pipes.

Make sure you know where the drainfield is - we once had some utility guys who wanted to roll their multi-ton truck over it as a short-cut, and that can do some damage. Protect the underground parts of the system - don’t park on it, no trees on it (I do plant vegetables above it), and so forth.

Because of the mineral load in the well water we use a water filter for cooking and drinking water. This is not always needed, your mileage likely does vary.

Examine cleaning products for the words “safe for septic systems” before using them/putting them down the drain.

If someone in your household is on chemotherapy you’ll need to get the tank pumped out when they’re done because the chemo-contaminated bodily waste they generate will kill the bacteria in the tank dead. This sort of thing is also why you don’t want to flush, say, unused anti-biotics down the toilet either with such a system. You need that bacteria as part of the system.

Get your well water tested periodically to a make sure the water is still wholesome. If your well gets contaminated that is, of course, a BIG problem but at least if you know about it you won’t be drinking something you shouldn’t. It’s a rare problem, but check anyway.

Sure, you don’t have a monthly utility fee with these systems, but when something goes wrong you will need money to fix them, and that can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars depending on what’s wrong. Keep up with maintenance and maintain a “rainy day” fund for household maintenance and you should be fine.

Just get the septic system flow tested.

A septic system type of pump truck comes over and lets a lot of water into your septic system, and then times how long it takes to get back to normal.

Then you know the flow rate and can build your system around that.

Thanks, ivylass and Weisshund. So far it sounds like more trouble than it’s worth.

The property is in Ocala, Florida, if that means anything. Don’t know yet why this house is on well and septic when the rest of the neighborhood isn’t. No idea whether the tank is above ground. I’ll probably know more after I tour the houses with my Realtor tomorrow.

You dump chlorine in your well? Is the water potable?

Not being able to use a garbage disposal (if the house has one) or Drano sounds like a hassle.

Can a septic tank seriously accommodate 2-5 years’ worth of waste?

On the plus side, no danger of diapers or feminine hygiene products here. :wink:

Whether or not you can use a garbage disposal depends on the system set up. It’s not exactly encouraged, but some systems can handle it.

Drano isn’t really good for any plumbing system, or so I’ve been told.

Depends on the size of the tank and how many/how often people are using it but yes, that’s not a really unusual length of time.

Keep in mind that bacteria break down the solids, by design, and the liquids go out into the leach field and sink into the ground. Most of the volume is water, which exits the system.

Ocala is near my neck of the woods. Horse country. And really, other than being smart about what you flush and what you plant above it and having it pumped regularly, it’s no big trouble at all. We have a garbage disposal but only use it for food items. Our tank is below ground.

Not really. I’ve lived in houses with and without public services and it’s really a trade-off. While it sounds inconvenient, remember you are not paying a monthly bill for water and sewer, which probably saves you at least a thousand dollars a year (probably a lot more).

This may or may not be necessary or desirable. You should have the well water tested by a lab. If it’s clean and pure, fine. If not, there are various types of filters to purify the water, and also remove unwanted odors and tastes.

Yeah, that is a drawback, but I’ve heard of people using garbage disposals if the septic system is oversized. You need to get it pumped more often than if you didn’t have a disposal.

Easily. From what I know, most systems are designed for at least five years use. If you have two people, it should go even longer. But you have to be aware of local municipal regulations, too. I recently found out from friends that they have to have their septic systems pumped every three years, due to township regulations, even if they are nowhere near full. If I lived where there was such a regulation, I wouldn’t hesitate to use a garbage disposal.

One thing that has not been mentioned yet is to avoid putting grease and oils into the septic system. Fats will smother and kill the bacteria necessary for a healthy septic system. Other items of advice have already been mentioned. The basic rule is "if you didn’t eat it first, don’t flush it (TP ok). I’ve lived with a septic for 20 years without issue. Also, you can talk with “septic guys”. They love to help educate the customer :slight_smile:

Full disclosure: Fiance is not a fan of septic systems because he grew up with one in the sticks of West Virginia. It backed up into the yard at least a couple of times, and it was an absolute nightmare. Admittedly, his family was poor, so the maintenance and the inherent quality of the system were probably not great. Still, if that’s a possibility, I want no part of it. If there’s even a chance of a noticeable odor under the best of circumstances, I’d be mortified to have friends over.

Further disclosure - he’d kill me if he knew I was telling you this - fiance has Crohn’s. So the system will get a workout. If pumping is that inexpensive, I’d be fine with doing it as often as needed.

That said, I’m diligent about not putting grease, oil, or anything non-water/non-food down the drain, so I’m used to that.

Speaking as a Realtor and a homeowner with a well and septic in an area where EVERYONE has a well and septic, you absolutely need to get both checked by experts before finalizing the house purchase. Both can be expensive to fix or re-install.

There also may be local regulations you need to follow, and the experts should know all about these. In my area, the state regulates wells and the county, sanitary systems. Sanitary systems must be inspected every 2 years and the county can force you to fix or abandon a system that is not working or up to code.

So don’t wait until you own the property to check on these items.

Just a couple of comments otherwise I agree with everything stated above:

17] I’ve had good luck with flushable bacteria cultures, they seem to extend the time between pumping …

45] Know where the leech field is … protect the area form compaction from cars/trucks or even horses and other heavy livestock …

89] Washing machines are particularly hard on septic tanks … best to dig a French Drain {Wikiarticle} for that appliance as to divert that waste water someplace other than your septic tank …

91] Septic systems can be considerably cheaper to maintain than paying sewer service charges … of course depending on your location … pumping the tank every six to eight years costs me about $500, compared to close to $2,000 in sewer service charges over the same time span …

My parents own two houses, both with well and septic systems.

One house they bought in 1987. Me and my brother grew up there, and has had at least two people living in it ever since we moved out. The septic tank has been pumped exactly once that I know of. Certainly hasn’t been done in the last 10 years. Whether that’s due to being oversized or not, I don’t know. I know that they have (and use daily) a garbage disposal.

The well on the other hand, has given them all sorts of trouble. The pump (which is on the end of the pipe in the bottom of the well) failed at one point and they had to pull the intake pipe up. The well is only about 25 feet deep so it wasn’t a huge task, but it wasn’t easy. Any longer and I’m not sure they could have done it by themselves. The other pump that’s inside the garage has failed on them, and the pressure tank has needed replacing a couple times. All of this has been costly, but not exorbitant. All the bits and pieces were available at Home Depot.

The other house… that’s interesting. They’ve owned it since 1997 or 1998. It is used as a rental. It has two bathrooms and a garbage disposal. In the entire time they’ve owned it they have never pumped the septic tank… in fact my father confesses he doesn’t even know exactly where it is. One thing he does know is it’s under a deck attached to the house and the drainfield exits through a small grove of trees and into the lawn. How he’s managed to not have problems I’ll never know. Before they bought the house an elderly couple lived in it. Then it was rented by an elderly widow, now a couple live in it. So my best guess is it simply doesn’t get enough use to cause problems.

As with the other house, it’s been the well that’s needed attention. Pump replacements, new pressure tank… when it goes it’s a pain in the ass unless you’re really handy and have a Home Depot / Lowes open nearby (which when it goes it’ll be 6am on a Sunday and you’ll have no water till Monday, when you have to take that early shower cuz you have an 8am meeting with a client… yeah. Been there).

Septic repairs are exorbitant, so take care of it like others have said. Pumping them is relatively cheap, usually $300-400.

And yeah, no water or septic bill is also really nice. Around here that’s a couple thousand a year in savings, for people with big gardens or have a house full of teenagers or the some other need for lots of water the bills can be bad. And I’ve lived in houses with water problems from the city, which can be a real pain in the ass. If a septic system or well has a problem, a homeowner can (even if it’s expensive) have it fixed. If a city water system has problems (like a crack in the line feeding the neighborhood that caused the water volume/pressure to drop to a trickle and the city refused to acknowledge the problem…) you’re at their mercy.

So for me, it’s a trade off. If I was in your shoes I’d have both systems checked, asking the septic guy in particular how big the tank is and if it would fit your fiancé’s uh… increased needs. If it’s just you and your fiancé ask the guy who checks it if it would be adequate for a family of four, see what he says. Also ask the realtor if the homeowner has receipts for septic service, pump or pressure tank repair / replacement, etc. Might give you a good idea of its maintenance history

It’s a comparative issue when buying a house. If I had to select between two house otherwise the same I’d take the one with sewers and town water. If I could get a much better deal with septic and a well I’d take it. Septic is more of a potential problem. If your well runs dry or the water tastes awful you can get bottled water. You can a big tank and a truck will bring water to your house. If a septic system has a problem it’s going to cost more and generally be a more unpleasant problem to deal with. Despite the possible problems plenty of people do just fine with wells and septic.

I’m going to say get it thoroughly inspected and if it comes up good, don’t worry.

I live where there is no other option.

I’m not disagreeing with the very good advice above, but I have done none of that, and am going on 16 years of no maintenance.

I built my house 16 years ago. I had a well installed. 300 feet, $10,000. I installed the septic system myself. Maybe $600 of pipe, rock, and wrap. 3 bathrooms but only 2 people (usually) with a 1000 gallon tank.

The only thing I have had to repair/ replace is the hot water tank.
I have never pumped the tank (I’m meaning to :D). I occasionally have put drain cleaner in the shower.

The benefit of these systems is almost no routine costs besides very slight use of electricity. The downside is YOU are responsible for maintenance and repair.
The only downside for me is no water when there is no electricity, most people aren’t used to that.

Edited to add I have never had any odors.

Ugh - y’all are NOT selling me on well and septic. We aren’t the least bit handy, and it sounds to me like the potential for inconvenient and expensive problems is too great. I’ve been on community water and sewer for all of the 46 years of my life, and I’ve never even had to call a plumber.

There are plenty of other houses on the list that are perfectly cromulent, so I’m thinking we’ll go with one of those. We do love that house, though. Who knows - nothing is a done deal until the ink is dry, right? I’ll update after the tour tomorrow.

Thanks for the input. I knew I could count on my Straight Dope peeps to give me the straight dope!

If the house you want is in a rural area, you may not have a choice.

There are thousands of houses in my county on septic & well systems. These are typically not poor families; hundreds in my neighborhood alone (except mine) are luxury homes. If you can afford to buy one of these, the cost of a septic system is the least of your expenses or your worries. Your roof will cost more than your well, and your entertainment system with sunken bar and live band will cost more than anything else.

It’s really not that bad. You don’t really need to be “handy” or do any maintenance yourself. The one thing I’d recommend is that you know exactly where the septic cleanout is and exactly where the well is. At my parents’ house, we had to dig around to find both of them. (We’ve since made diagrams that will allow us to locate them without too much trouble.)

The one thing is that the well and the septic system need to be separated by a certain distance. I believe that’s why many homes in Connecticut and elsewhere are on an acre or more.