Tell me about wells and septic systems

Last year, we bought 20 acres in Northern Minnesota. We are just on the other side of a gravel road from the city limits so we now we’re off of the grid for water and sewer. We are waiting for the ground to completely thaw so we can do the perc test. That brings me to my question: Are there ever issues with the septic system (or well) when it gets too cold out?

I’ve never heard of such problems. I assume that the septic system is below the frost line and of course the well is.

One year we had our line from the building to the septic tank freeze solid. It was during the Groundhog Day Blizzard of 2011 (actually, 1/31 to 2/2). The outlet pipe had some issues already and was due for rodding, and the water flow was slowed sufficiently that, combined with the blizzard conditions, it froze.

That was not fun. When that happens you not only can’t flush the toilet, you can’t pour anything down the drain because there’s nowhere for it to go. We rigged up an emergency toilet, took only “bucket baths” for the duration, and stored waste water in a couple of buckets until the storm broke.

When the storm broke my landlord came out, got his 4 wheel drive SUV stuck in a snowdrift in the driveway, and he removed the toilet from the bathroom to access the outlet pipe. He proceeded to use a pipe snake on it.

Then the snake broke.

So we then went out and dug 6-7 feet of snow off the tank, because of course a big drift had formed over it, then jackhammered through frozen soil to get to the tank, and attacked the problem from that end. During all this one of the parrots escaped and managed to lodge himself in a snowdrift. He started screaming which 1) started attracting various predatory birds and 2) allowed me to locate him and rescue his stupid ass. The bird was installed in a cage under a heat lamp to warm up (he recovered completely and now won’t go anywhere near the door to the outside). After removing the broken snake from the pipe we managed to get a very, very tiny flow through the outlet pipe again, which allowed us to pour small quantities down the drain until it finally thawed out completely about 3-4 days later. When the last of the ice broke loose and rattled down into the tank the suction caused every toilet in the building to flush simultaneously. This startled everyone and led to several minutes of shrieking parrots.

After which everything functioned just fine.

So, yeah, things can go wrong.

But, I will point out that if the outlet pipe was buried just a little bit deeper, and had been maintained a little bit better, none of that would have happened. Which is why you really need to get a system inspected prior to purchasing.

The septic system for this building is at least 50 years old and that probably the worst thing to ever happen to it, despite tenants abusing it by doing things like flushing dishtowels and socks down the toilet. Admittedly, the culprit for that was a 4 year old, but the system here has suffered some abuse. There was also the tenant that flushed many condoms that were probably filled with illicit substances (no way was anyone going to fish one out of the tank and open it). We weren’t sure if that was due to worries about a knock on the door being the police, or intended as a “fuck you” to a roommate, or what. We also found various menstrual products in the tank and a lot of other things that didn’t belong there. Not all of that stuff had made it all the way through the plumbing, which is why the water flow had slowed down enough to freeze. Cleaning all that out was a pain in the ass, let me tell you.

So yeah, get it inspected and don’t flush dishtowels and rubber-wrapped drugs and other non-shit things down the toilet and you’ll avoid some of the problems we’ve had here. Much of these problems are preventable.

On the other hand, we never had a municipality decided to obtain our water from a contaminated river and give us all a dose of lead, like in Flint, Michigan. We don’t get “boil water” orders due to municipal water treatment having problems. All systems have potential problems.

Yes. All septic construction and re-construction halts around January to March in the northern midwest.

Tanks can still be used, pumped, and inspected. But with the ground frozen, they cannot easily be dug up or have drain fields installed. I suppose it might be possible if you really needed to, but our local installers vacation in Florida for the winter, so don’t ask.

If the system was properly installed below the frost line, daily operation should be just fine. The top of my tank is below the basement drain, and never has any freezing problems. Similarly, my well feeds into the house about 4 feet from the surface, and never freezes.

Conversely, my neighbor’s system is much more shallow, and freezes up in the coldest parts of the winter. No problem for him, as it’s only a seasonal house anyway.

I am afraid that is a critical issue. Maintaining your own well and septic system requires some work by the homeowner. If no more than remaining aware of the systems and calling at the first sign of trouble.

Water and septic systems are active-they have moving parts. So they break. And the house isn’t habitable without them. They are too important to not maintain.

There are always stories from people that installed their systems 10-20 years ago and haven’t had an trouble or done any maintenance. Yeah, but how lucky do you feel?

Given your situation, I would recommend that you consider other houses.

Even in a house with city water and sewage service, there are plenty of other systems in the house you need to be aware of and ready to call at the first sign of trouble. That’s just inherent in owning a home. Even in my rental apartment, I need to be aware of certain systems, and ready to call in the event of trouble.

The people who service wells, septic tanks, furnaces, air conditioners, water heaters and whatever other systems are in houses are familiar with clueless homeowners and will educate you on what you need to worry about and what you don’t. And they won’t laugh at you. At least not in front of you.

Heavy weed/grass growth over the septic leach field. Damn near the only thing that grows around here, except for this year.

Have that tank sucked out ever 7-10 years. Good fun. Plan an event around it.

If this is a real deal-breaker for you, but you otherwise like the house, ask if it can be connected to the city water/sewer, and how much that will cost.

If the rest of the neighborhood is on city water/sewer, then the pipes probably run right by this house, so it’s only a couple of connections to make. (In many areas, when the city first extended city utilities, homeowners got to choose if they wanted to connect or not. Some houses that didn’t still are not connected, decades later.)

But in considering the cost of this, add in the cost of monthly water/sewer bills from the city. Your realtor or neighbors can tell you what they are likely to be.

But to me, it sounds like you are allowing yourself to become hysterically panicked by what is just normal maintenance. Remember that about 20% of the US population lives on wells/septic systems. It’s not any different from any normal home maintenance. You can even hire companies to take care of it for you. And ‘garbage disposals’ – does any decent person use such things any more, in 2017? Ever heard of compost?

This is my take as well. We have both well water and a septic tank. The well pump gave out once and we called the well people. We’ve had the septic tank cleaned out twice in ten years. A nice man comes and does it, no muss, no fuss, no smell, nada.

All houses take upkeep. At least with a well and a septic tank, assuming you get them inspected before you buy, you know what you’ve got.

What everyone else said concerning the septic system. One thing I would point out concerns the well, since this house is in Florida, there is a good chance of sulfur water. Smells like bad eggs and doesn’t taste much better. Most of the odor is removed with some extra equipment that doesn’t quite get it all.

All else being equal, my vote goes to the city water and sewage. You should have better water pressure and volume, better tasting water, and less upkeep because of less equipment.

Here are our experiences with well and septic, for what they’re worth:

10 years ago buying the house we were in now was almost a dealbreaker because it had well and septic. But we decided to go for it. So far we’ve had very little trouble.

Well:

On the plus side, free water! Ok, not entirely free-- we did have the well pump fail a few years ago and getting it replaced was around $1200, but compared to what we would have paid for city water for the last 10 years we’ve still saved quite a bit. The plumber who replaced the pump said we’d probably be good for the next 15 years or so.

On the negative side, other than the mentioned pump replacement, if the power goes out the water stops with no power to the pump. But we have a generator for that problem. As mentioned upthread, depending on the quality/taste of the water, you’ll probably need to get filters. Our house came with whole-house filters plus a reverse osmosis system installed. The reverse osmosis filter at the kitchen sink is great for drinking water- practically pure H2O. But whether you need RO filtering depends on the taste of the well water. Ours is perfectly safe to drink unfiltered, but has a fairly strong iron/sulfury taste.

Septic:

No real upside over city sewer except for the city sewer fees we don’t pay. We have ours pumped every two years, but that might be more often than we need. Other than that, so far, it’s been trouble-free…flush and forget, just like city sewer. We do have to keep in mind what gets flushed as mentioned, but you get used to that.

EDIT: I noticed Tom Terrific’s post-- I respectfully disagree: reverse osmosis filtering gets out ALL the bad taste of well water for us, and I think it’s actually superior to city water now-- whenever I drink city water out of the tap now, it smells and tastes like I’m drinking swimming pool water with all the chlorine, ugh.

We’ve been in our house for 13 years. We bought it from the original owners who built it in '75. I don’t think they ever had the septic pumped, but we had it done after being here 8 years, and again 2 years ago on the recommendation of the pumping guy - around $200 each time.

We had to have the well replaced 5 or 6 years ago, and that was $8000 we weren’t planning to spend, but around here, if you want good water, you go deep - I think ours is over 400’ down. Public water isn’t an option here in the boonies. Still, remembering what we’ve paid for water and sewage in the past, I’m pretty sure both systems have paid for themselves already, and we intend to be here at least 10 more years.

My only issue with having a well - if we lose power, we lose water. In our time here, that came up only once - power was out for about 48 hours after a hurricane, but we knew it was coming, so we filled the bathtubs and some pitchers for drinking. We were able to flush and sorta wash up. Since then, we’ve gotten a generator, so we’ll never lose power again.

We’ve been on a well and traditional septic system for 17 years.

I’m not sure if I can add much to what’s already been said.

The septic system was installed in 1989, and I am wondering if it has reached its end-of-life. There’s a lot of clay in our soil here in Ohio, and the water from the pipes goes up instead of down (resulting in fast-growing grass above the pipes). And when we get heavy rains, water flows in the opposite direction, i.e. from the pipes to the tank.

I suspect it will need to be replaced soon. Some of my neighbors have a different system that employs motors. I’m not sure how those work, or what the cost would be to rip out our old system and install this new type of system.

A septic system won’t last forever, but the tank will last longer than the drain field, which eventually gets clogged up and stops working. When this happens, you can rebuild the drain field (as I did, but illegally) or move the outflow to another spot and create another drain field. This assumes you have enough land to do this, and the geology allows it. Consult an expert on this.

Steel tanks will fail, 100%, in about 20 years’ time (15-25 years is the range), which is why they are no longer used. Concrete tanks have, theoretically, an infinite lifetime, and fiberglass, which is the current favorite, should last a long time, but no one knows how long.

If your system has a pump, it’s because the geology won’t allow a gravity feed and the effluent has to be pumped to a higher outflow than the inflow. Perfectly safe, but adds extra complexity, cost, and risk (what if the power fails, the backflow checkvalve doesn’t work, and your insurance doesn’t cover a basement full of sewage?)

If you are buying a house in a rural area, city water/sewer may not be an option. Which is why I advise all my clients to write tests & inspections into any purchase offer they make unless they really enjoy nasty financial surprises.

Thanks for taking the time to respond, everyone!

Upon seeing the house in person, my Realtor pointed out some other negatives, and said-without-saying that it would behoove me to pass on it.

It’s not rural; it’s a typical suburban neighborhood except that it’s an odd hodgepodge of well/septic and community water/sewer. One house could have well/septic, and the one across the street could be on community.

Just going by the listings, I had considered several of these places serious contenders, but most of them underwhelmed or disappointed in real life. The good news is, the one that was in competition for the top spot turned out to be everything I thought it was - it’s perfect and I love it. Plus, it’s community water and sewer, so that issue is moot.

I still need to discuss it with my fiance (he’s currently residing in Virginia, and plans to come down and join me here next month). He might want to keep looking, rather than jump on the first house we like. But he’s also said that he trusts me to make a good decision if I really want to go ahead and make an offer on something.

Thanks again for the info and insight!

On the septic tank.

Isnt there always the proverbial “greenest” part of the lawn there?

That’s the common quote, but it’s wrong – it’s over the drain field where the grass is greenest.

(And that usually means a drain field that is too shallow. It ought to be buried deep enough that a shallow-rooted plant like lawn grass won’t benefit from it, because it drains downward. Deeper-rooted plants (like weeds) do better, and trees love it. But you don’t want trees above a drain field – their roots will grow right into the drain pipe and eventually choke it.)

Nm messed up this post, will try again later

My house was built about 35 years ago and I bought it about 33 years ago. It has a well and a septic system.

In preparation for having our wedding at the house 29 years ago, I got the septic tank pumped, though it had been working fine. I mean well, I really do, but I haven’t gotten around to doing anything at all for it since. It keeps working without a trace.

I had to replace my well pump about 6 years ago, which cost about $700. I dumped Clorox down the well at that time, according to instructions I found online, and ran a garden hose until the smell disappeared. Other than that, the well has just worked.

Of course, when we lose electricity, we would lose water. So I bought a gasoline powered generator big enough to handle it.

If I were buying a house again, I wouldn’t be bothered at all about the thought of a well and/or septic tank, unless perhaps there were some clue that there was a persistent problem for some reason.