Most of us here in the Matanuska Valley use septic systems. Except for a small minority of people in the Cities of Palmer and Wasilla, the rest of us have to take care of our own sewage. Those lucky people on sewer systems can flush and forget. But if we forget, we will be reminded in a way that we will likely remember the rest of our lives.
There is a lot to say about septic systems, and I could tell a lot of gross stories, but there are really only two things to remember.
1. The clause in the contract.
The clause about the septic system needs to allow you to back out of the transaction with no consequences if you decide not to approve the inspection. I have seen septic systems pass an engineers test because they do meet the minimum requirements set by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, (DEC), but were obviously ready to fail soon. It would be nice to be able to think about that issue without being locked into a contract.
Basically, the DEC needs to see that the septic system can take 150 gallons of water per bedroom into the system and then leach it back out in a 24 hour period. If the engineer finds that the system is mostly full of standing water but can still take the 450 gallons for a three bedroom system at the very top of the leach field, and then barely leach that out in 24 hours…it passes. But it will likely fail in a short time and when it fails, it isn’t pretty.
Many listing licensees will balk at the clause about the buyers personal approval of the septic system. They feel that a buyer should accept any system that passes an engineer’s test. I disagree, a buyer has the right to understand what is happening with the septic system even if an engineer passes the system. It is the same as any other disclosure. The buyer has the right to know and make their decision after they know. A septic test is a new disclosure to a buyer who has three days to change their mind about a transaction after that new disclosure. Often these tests are given to a buyer just before closing which raises the stakes on each side of the transaction.
2. Pump the tank.
I often go on listing appointments where the owner tells me they have a great septic system. I ask them how they know they have a great system and they tell me that it has worked great for years with no maintenance whatsoever. I usually cringe and warn them to get ready for a $5000–$10,000 repair as part of the sale. A septic system that has gone a long time without pumping has a good chance to fail an engineers test.
Septic systems are designed to turn solid human waste into liquid that can be leached out into the ground water. They do this work through biological action in the septic tank. The little microbes in the septic tank break down the solids so that it can be dissolved into the water and then drained out into the leach field. These little bugs work better down south where things are warmer. They don’t work as well in Alaska and that is why your tank should be pumped on a regular basis. You aren’t concerned about the liquid in the tank…it’s supposed to be full all the time. You need to pump the solids out so they don’t get into your leach field and plug it up.
An off topic but thought provoking factoid: I recently read a book about composting toilets that said the waste from an average person for a year could be packed into a 1 cubic foot box when totally composted and dried. To get rid of this amount of waste, the average American flushes down the drain over 10,000 gallons of pure drinking water a year, turning that pure water into a hazardous substance. Something to think about while many parts of the world worry about water shortages.