I know what you’re thinking. You bought a tract of land out in the country. You cleared a nice flat spot for a house foundation, a spot with a terrific view, and you just finished pouring the pad. The sewer and water lines are in place in the concrete, and you’re ready to install a septic system. You’re thinking: “Hey, I cleared this pad with my tractor, and I set these pipes and poured this concrete. It wouldn’t be too hard to put in a septic tank. I could rent a backhoe, get the pipe and gravel from a supply yard….it’d be easy!”
Just wait a minute. Stop. This moment where you’re at now is where a lot of do-it-yourselfers start down a path to lot of expensive, terrible mistakes. This is the moment to think very carefully about what you’re planning to do. What you may not realize, and what I’m going to tell you now, is that the proper installation of a septic system is a technical and complicated undertaking. To do it right, and to do it legal, means avoiding hundreds of way of doing it wrong. And I’m in a position to know.
I’m an inspector. My job is to make sure that septic systems are installed according to law and that they do not pollute the environment. In my line of work, I’ve come across many homeowners who had the best of intentions in installing their own septic systems. They wanted to save money. They wanted to do the work themselves. They think that out away from the town, they can do whatever they please on their own land. All admirable intentions, to be sure. But admirable intentions will not make it easier to correct a messed up septic system, or lessen the fine you might receive for creating pollution. Let’s go over the top three reasons you probably shouldn’t install your own septic system:
You may waste a lot of time and money:
A properly designed and installed septic system is a complex structure. There are many, many ways that a system can be designed or constructed incorrectly. First of all, consider the square footage or acreage available for a septic system. The property must be big enough to accommodate the system with all of the necessary separation distances between portions of the system and between the system and other things (buildings, property lines, water wells, etc.) Obstacles like rock outcroppings, surface water, heavy tree growth, outbuildings, and water wells will reduce the area available for a septic system even further.
Secondly, does the property have the right type of soil for the type of septic system you’re wanting to install? Have you had a soil test performed at the site? Is the soil deep enough to properly treat effluent from a septic system? An absorption field may work fine in sandy loam, but will hardly work at all in hard packed clay.
Next, is there enough slope from the house to the septic system? The fall from the house to the tank, and from the tank to the absorption field must be correct…if it’s too steep, solids will hang up in the pipe, causing blockages. If it’s too shallow, flat, or running uphill, it won’t work at all. You-know-what may roll downhill, but I guarantee you it will not roll up one.
You also need to consider the materials you plan to use for your installation. The pipe, septic tank, and absorption media all have to meet a minimum specification to work correctly. Pipe that is the wrong size will stop up. Pipe that is too thin will collapse or be crushed. And did you remember to include a cleanout between the house and the tank in your plans? A two-way sweeping cleanout? Without a two-way cleanout, you may have to dig up and cut into the pipe to clean any blockages that may occur. Did you remember to include baffles on the inlet and outlet of the septic tank? And is the tank the right size? Missing baffles and a too-small tank will cut short the life of any absorption field.
I could go on and on, pointing out common mistakes that do-it-yourselfers make when putting in their own septic system. And my list would still not be all-inclusive. There is seemingly no end to the mistakes that can be made by amateurs when installing their own system. If you haven’t ever worked as a professional septic system installer, what you need to ask yourself before you begin is “How many times am I willing to install the same septic system for this house?” Because that is exactly what you may be doing if you attempt to put a septic system in without training or experience. If you install something that doesn’t work, you’ll have to repair it or abandon it and install something else. If you install something that is contrary to regulation, you’ll have to correct it, and if it’s uncorrectable, you’ll have to abandon the illegal system and try again. You could, literally, being installing the same septic system two, three, maybe four times before you get it right.
You may pollute the environment:
If you don’t understand how a properly installed septic system treats and disperses effluent, the odds are high that you may install a system that creates pollution. This isn’t the tree-hugging, oh-golly-poor-mother-earth-isn’t-this ugly-to-look-at kind of pollution. This is the type of pollution that can make you, your family, and your pets sick. An improperly installed system can foul your land, the ponds or streams on your property, or the ground water table beneath your feet. Sewage is loaded with pathogenic organisms that can be tracked into your house on feet and pets, and if the water table is polluted with sewage, there is a strong chance your well may become unsafe to drink.
To make things worse, a screwed-up septic system on your property could pollute your neighbor’s property, giving them an excellent reason to sue you. Have you priced an environmental clean up project recently? Would your homeowner’s insurance cover such a catastrophe?
Most worrisome of all, if your property is near a stream, river, or lake, a malfunctioning septic system on your property could pollute these waters, known as “waters of the state”. Polluting these waters with sewage will get you fined by the government at the very least, and in some instances may be a criminal offense.
You may be fined or face other enforcement action:
I’ve already mentioned that if you incorrectly install a septic system and that system pollutes waters of the state, you will be fined. That, however, is not the only septic system mistake that can get you in trouble with local authorities. Most regulatory agencies will also fine you for surfacing sewage, meaning any untreated or partially treated effluent that comes up to the surface of the ground. And it doesn’t matter if all the effluent stays on your property; you’re still going to be cited.
Also, most if not all jurisdictions require that you obtain a soil test (sometimes called a percolation test or a soil profile) and an authorization/permit before installing a system. This makes good sense – the soil test will tell you what type and size of septic system will work for your property and the authorization/permit requirement gives the regulating agency a chance to review your proposed installation and give you guidance about avoiding any truly boneheaded mistakes. It would be foolish to install a system without completing these two requirements, and you can trust that the regulators will cite you if you do.
Finally, regulating agencies often have a requirement that you notify them when you are obtain to begin installation of your septic system, and that you contact them for a final inspection when installation is complete and before you bury the system and put it into use. This requirement allows the inspectors to know when you will be installing the system and gives them the opportunity to inspect your work. The purpose of the inspection is to see if your installation meets code; If there are problems, the inspector will point them out for you to correct. If you fail the system inspected, however, you can plan on having to uncover some or all of the system, having to correct any problems found, and on being cited or fined.
Still planning on installing your own septic system?
Having said all this, it is still possible for a do-it-yourselfer to install their own legal and correctly working septic system. But to do this, you need to plan, prepare, and do your research. You need to locate the agency that regulates the installation of septic systems in your area and obtain a copy of the code for septic system installations. Study the code, and when you feel like you understand it, sit down and study it again. Find out who the inspector is for your area; call them and discuss your plans and ask for any helpful advice they might be willing to share. Plan out your installation before you begin digging and make sure your planned system will fit where you want it to go, and that there are no buried utilities, pipelines, or other surprises at the site. Make absolutely sure that what you install matches the specifications in the code. And if you are attempting to install a septic system for the first time, expect to make corrections, possibly several.
If you have any doubts about doing this kind of work yourself, I strongly recommend having it professionally done. Find out if the regulatory agency has a licensing program for septic system installers, and get a list of who is licensed in your area. Request a list from the agency of all installers who are under enforcement by the agency and a list of those who have had multiple complaints filed against them; eliminate these from your list. Odds are that those who remain are knowledgeable, honest, and will do the job right. Start contacting these installers to get bids, making sure that they are bonded and insured. That should allow you to create a short list of installers to choose from for your new septic system. And you can rest assured that you’ve made an informed decision about who to hire and that a professional who knows what they’re doing will be putting your system in.
Source: Personal Experience