Thirteen tasks to check a well and septic system


Reader  Question: We are home buyers who want to check a well and septic system. We know nothing about them. We have city sewer and water now, so we have no responsibility beyond using them. Are there different methods for due diligence, plus care and maintenance after the purchase? Can you help us get up to speed?

Monty’s Answer: The well and septic system are two separate and unique systems.The connection between these systems is that water from the earth comes to the home via the well, and returns to the earth via the septic system. There must be a certain distance between them to avoid the possibility of contaminating the well.

Due diligence on a private well

  1. Whether it is a drilled, sand point, or shared well, they each have unique characteristics of which to be aware.
  2. Read and understand pertinent local health department regulations.
  3. Use a professional independent testing company to test for bacteria, nitrates and possibly other chemicals or conditions based on the local environment. Learn the testing company protocols, such as the identity of the person gathering the sample, the chain of custody, and other testing information.
  4. Test the well pump, gauges, and pressure tank for proper operation. This review may require a licensed plumber or a well drilling company.
  5. Determine the source of the water and the capacity of the source to provide water. Learn the flow rate of the water per hour. The equipment, such as the pressure tank, will often reveal the service company contact information.
  6. Be mindful of potential sources of contamination in the area for the future such as  farms that utilize pesticides and fertilizers, or produce manure. Manufacturing facilities and power plants that generate unhealthy by-products can also contaminate the water supply. Also, do an internet search for “number of Superfund sites in the USA” to see the locations of the 1322 properties on the list.   

Care and maintenance of a private well

Accessories are often optional and include water softeners for hard water and other types of filter systems such as iron or sulfur filters. In some instances chlorination, following proper procedures, is prescribed by local well experts to eliminate certain bacteria. Test the well water regularly with the frequency depending on the environment around you. Testing annually to once every five years is a common range, but some homeowners rarely if ever test their well.

Due diligence for a private septic system

  1. There are three different types of septic systems called conventional, mound, or holding tanks. Determine which type of system is in operation. Here is a link to an article at that demonstrates the differences.
  2. Read and understand the pertinent local health department regulations.
  3. The septic tank (including the baffles) should be examined directly after pumping to determine if the tank is working properly and is watertight.  
  4. The leach field should be examined to determine if it operates properly and can be expected to perform into the future. There are several types of tests for leach fields including camera, dye, and open field inspections. Ask the potential testers and inspectors about any conflicts of interest due to relationships with the seller.
  5. Check for proper maintenance by reviewing the log maintained by the current septic pumping company.
  6. Check to see that the drain field is contained entirely on the seller’s property which may necessitate the discovery of the survey stakes.
  7. Check the size of the tank and length of the leach field to determine if it is sufficient for your family. The bedroom count or square footage is often used when calculating the  necessary capacity of the components. The county or the health department may have a physical map locating the tank and the leach field.

Care and maintenance of a private septic system

Today there are garbage disposals designed specifically for septic systems. Anecdotal evidence suggests that septic systems can function with garbage disposals for many years. The material fed into the disposal and the leach field soil conditions likely affect the lifespan of the system. Consider establishing a compost station to create a rich mulch instead of utilizing the garbage disposal. Some municipalities require periodic pumping. Do not park cars or drive across the lawn over the leach field to avoid unnecessary soil compaction. Do not plant shrubs over the leach field. Like municipal systems, paint, toxic chemicals, pesticides, grease, or anything except toilet tissue is hard on the system.