Septic Inspections

The following article was written by Mary L. Miller, Ph.D., Laboratory Director, Fredericktown Labs Inc and subsequently published in the Frederick County Association of Realtors Newsletter.

Septic Inspections: Why have septic inspections become so complicated? What is the minimum requirement and when should more than that be done? Is it really necessary to pump the tank?

For many years, the standard septic inspection that was performed for real estate transfer purposes consisted of a “visual” inspection of the ground surrounding a residence. Water was sometimes introduced into the system, sometimes not, and the inspector walked around the yard looking for any indications of “septic outbreak” such as unexplained wet spots, or telltale odor. If water from the house was introduced into the septic tank, sometimes a fluorescent dye was introduced at the same time, and the inspection was then called a “septic dye test.” Due to some large lawsuits and other pressure, the Maryland Legislature in 1999 passed a Law: 9-217.1 that states “After July 1,1999, every person engaged in the business of inspecting an on-site sewage disposal system for a transfer of property must certify to the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) that the person has completed a course of instruction, approved by the Department,. In the proper inspection of on-site sewage disposal systems” This means that anyone who has not taken an approved course can not legally perform a septic inspection for real estate transfer purposes. The material presented in the course outlines very specifically, what MDE considers to be the proper approach to conducting a septic inspection. It consists of four parts.

  1.  A file search of governmental records to determine if the system was put in under permit, if there have been any modifications or repairs to the system, or if any problem s with the system have been documented.
  2. An owner/tenant interview to find out and document what the residents know about the system and what their experience with the system has been (e.g., Is the system currently in use or, if not, how long has the residence been vacant? How many people are using it? Have they had any problems? Have they had the system pumped? Have they had any repairs performed? Were they done under permit?)
  3. An onsite field inspection of the system to include introducing water and fluorescent dye into the system, opening the tank, pumping out the contents, examining the tank for design, contents (scum, sludge, depth, etc.), integrity, and presence of baffles. The drainfield is evaluated for its ability to accept effluent properly (i.e., does not cause the tank to overfill and does not outbreak to the surface of the ground).
  4. Preparation of a report off findings that discusses and documents all of the above.

The type of inspection detailed above is much more time consuming and costly to perform than the traditional inspection done in the past. Many people are resistant to the idea of performing such a complex and costly inspection, however, the existence of the Maryland law makes it difficult to rationalize doing anything less. Should a problem arise with the system after the property transfers hands, the buyers would be within their right to question why an inspection that did not meet MDE recommendations had been performed when; by law, the inspector had been instructed in the “proper” inspection of septic systems. Should the problem result in a lawsuit, the inspector, the seller, and the real estate agent would all be vulnerable during litigation. Some inspectors will perform a traditional visual or dye test if the buyer is willing to sign a paper stating that they understand the limitations of the test they have requested. This can make sense when the property has an old antiquated system and the buyers recognize that they will probably have to put in a new system and do not went to pay to hear what they already know. It can also make sense if the property is brand new with a new system that has just been installed under permit. In all other cases, it is highly recommended that the MDE protocol be followed.

A Message from Inspections by Bob:  Inspections by Bob does not believe that doing less than the suggested approach is wise, and in fact in the processes of having his own system inspected discovered that his baffles were damaged. A dye test or any other test that did not involve opening, pumping, and examining the tank would have resulted in contamination of his field and early and expensive field repairs. Inspections by Bob does not make recommendations as to contractors, but if you ask, he will tell you who maintains his septic system.
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