When you need to dispose of solid waste in your home, the answer is simple: Toss it in the trash or compost. But what about liquid waste? All homes produce their share of wastewater, and when it comes to getting rid of it, there are generally two options: a public sewer line or a septic system.
It’s not uncommon to see a house with a septic system, especially if you’re looking to buy property on a larger piece of land. In fact, if you’re buying a home with well water, you should plan on having a septic system. But is buying a home that uses a septic system a good idea? Or is it a decision you’re more likely than not to regret, whether you’re purchasing that property for yourself or an investment?
What is a septic system?
With a sewer system, wastewater exits your home and is funneled through a sewer line to a treatment facility. That facility then removes contaminants from that water so that it's safe enough to be used as drinking water and sends it back into the local water supply that feeds into your home and neighborhood.
With a conventional septic system, the wastewater that needs to be cleared out of your home goes from a drainage pipe into an underground septic tank. You may have a concrete septic tank, a fiberglass tank, or a tank made of another material.
Once that waste reaches the tank, solids are allowed to settle to the bottom to form a sludge layer, while things like oil and grease float to the top of the tank to form a scum layer. Any liquid waste water, known as effluent, then exits the tank into your septic system's drain field or absorption field.
From there, wastewater is discharged through pipes so it can filter through soil. The soil treats that water, removing harmful bacteria.
With a sewer system, you’ll generally have numerous homes feeding into the same system. A septic system, on the other hand, is not to be shared; each home generally has its own septic setup.
Types of septic systems
If you're new to septic tank installation, there are different options to choose from:
- A conventional septic system consists of a septic tank and drain field, as described above.
- A chamber system is a good choice for an area with poor drainage. With a chamber system, a series of pipes and chambers are surrounded by soil. Microbes in that soil treat wastewater before it's drained away. Chamber systems may require additional maintenance compared to conventional septic systems.
- An aerobic system infuses oxygen into the septic tank, which helps add nutrients to the water, and that’s helpful once it starts draining. Again, the maintenance here may be more substantial than with a conventional system.
- A drip distribution system involves placing pipes in shallow ground soil to move treated water away instead of having a drain field. This eliminates the need for extensive digging -- a requirement when a drain field is involved. However, drip distribution systems can be costlier to install and may require added maintenance.
- A sand filter system is essentially a large box filled with sand that water gets filtered through. Like chamber systems, sand systems are appropriate in areas where the water level is naturally high and drainage is poor, and the maintenance involved can also be more extensive.
Benefits of a septic system
When you own a septic system, you're the one tasked with maintaining it. That can be a good thing, aside from the cost, because it means you can avoid problems by staying current on your upkeep. With a municipal sewer system, a sewer pipe can leak or back up, and if the issue is not addressed, you could have a serious problem on your hands, even though you didn't cause the issue yourself.
Furthermore, there's generally a cost to using a public sewer system; usually you pay a monthly or quarterly fee. Other than maintenance, there's no recurring charge to use your septic system.
Additionally, if you're building a home from scratch, it generally costs less to install a septic system than to pay to have sewer lines installed -- especially if your home sits on a large plot of land and would therefore require a lot of infrastructure to set up a sewer connection.
Not only that, but some feel that a septic system is more eco-friendly than a sewer system. The way septic tanks release water into the nearby soil can lead to plant growth, which helps the environment.
Finally, septic systems can last a really long time, provided they're constructed well and undergo proper maintenance. The average lifespan for a septic system is 25 to 30 years under the right circumstances.
Drawbacks of a septic system
On the other hand, there are some disadvantages and costs you might encounter with a septic system. For one thing, septic systems require maintenance. You'll need to pump out your septic tank every three years (sometimes more often) to avoid too much sludge buildup. The exact timing will depend on your tank size. You should also get a septic system inspection every year or two to ensure that your system is running properly.
Furthermore, you'll need to be very careful about what you flush down your pipes to avoid having your septic system back up. For the most part, that means you're limited to flushing human waste and toilet paper. You'll specifically need to avoid flushing things like:
- Thick paper products, like paper towels.
- Feminine products.
- Cooking oil or grease.
- Baby wipes.
- Household chemicals.
Also, if you have a septic system, it generally means you can't install a garbage disposal under your kitchen sink, because even though that disposal will grind up items to avoid clogged pipes, you don't want to take the risk that those items make their way into your septic system and cause unhealthy buildup.
Additionally, there are some landscaping considerations to account for when you have a septic system. Specifically, you must avoid planting trees right near your septic system's drain field; otherwise, roots could grow into your septic system and cause it to stop working properly. If you're installing a new septic system -- say, to replace a failed septic system or because you're building a new home on the property -- it pays to consult a septic contractor who can advise on where to put the system and where to put other landscaping around it.
The bottom line on septic systems
A septic system generally gives you the option to buy property with more land and to enjoy the benefits that go along with it. If you’re purchasing a home as an investment, added acreage can be a huge selling point. Just make sure you understand what maintenance will be needed to keep your septic system running. The last thing you want is a costly problem on your hands that’s painful to fix.
Get the 'Dirt on the real estate market
Are you looking for the next hot real estate market? Want to know how new rules and regulations could impact your next home purchase or real estate investment? Would you like to find out which improvements to your property will get you the most bang for your buck? We cover all these things and more in our newsletter, Paydirt.
Sign up here to get our best insights delivered to you.