This is intended to be the start of a series of posts, which may evolve over time. Over the past years, certain questions always seem to arise with Buyer clients for country properties. It's truly fun to explain how a septic system works to someone who has never lived with one...and it's critically important. There is a story that goes with the Pointy Haired Boss in the Septic Tank photo captured at Permit Sonoma. I'll get to that story below.
Beyond the essential septic issue, I am looking forward to covering other questions which often arise; such as: What is involved in a well test? What happens if my well goes dry? Do I need a permit for what I want to do? What's it like to live adjacent to a vineyard? Post by post, I hope to cover some of the basics. Let's take that first question today and work through what I call:
"Septic Systems 101":
With some exceptions, if you live outside of city limits in one of our North Bay counties, you will most likely use a septic system for human waste. There are areas in Sonoma County served by municipal sewage systems, but they are only found where there is clustered development with community service district local waste systems. There are 10 such Sanitation Districts in Sonoma County: Geyserville, Larkfield-Wikiup, Russian River, Occidental, Penngrove, Graton, Sea Ranch, South Park, Sonoma Valley and Canon Manor. If the property is outside of the major cities and those clustered service areas, then the sanitation is handled by a private septic system.
Private septic systems fall into two basic categories, Standard Systems and Engineered Systems. Standard systems use no electricity and are wonderfully simple, almost magical in their design. Waste leaves the house through a solid waste pipe and enters the larger chamber of the septic tank at the inlet baffle. Once in the first chamber, bacteria breaks down the waste and separates it into three tiers: solids, liquids, and cap (aka scum). The liquid moves through another baffle into the smaller second chamber and the process continues. When the system functions properly, the liquid leaving the tank for the leach field should be relatively clear and ready to be broken down even more by microbes in the soil below the leach lines. Engineered systems do require electricity and are much more expensive to engineer and install, but they have refinement filters or pretreatment chambers which break down the waste more completely. The type and size of a leach field is dependent upon the native soil types and strata, which then determines the type of system and the maximum number of bedrooms in the house connected to it. There are complex engineering formulae which are based on how much water flows through the house to the septic system per person per day. Our County calculates that flow at an average of two people per bedroom taking showers, doing dishes, and running laundry, etc. That's why our regulators count bedrooms, not bathrooms.
If you are interested in more information, follow this link for the EPA's Homeowner's Guide to Septic Systems:
Okay, I promised you a story....
Clients of mine were in escrow to purchase a property outside of Sebastopol. We were given a septic inspection report that showed a hole at the top of the concrete wall between the two chambers of the septic tank and were told the tank needed to be replaced. We visited the Well & Septic Desk at Permit Sonoma to ask questions and find out timing for a replacement permit. The Technician at the desk reviewed the septic report, then brought out the model tank with the Pointy Haired Boss inside. Using the model, he explained that the concrete wall could be repaired and no permit would be required. Fortunately, one of our hard-working local septic contractors was able fit the job in shortly after escrow closed. The cost was less than half of a tank replacement and much, much faster. What a gift!