Old Doesn’t Mean Bad

Engineer failed to supervise

Old doesn’t mean bad and new doesn’t mean good

Many people assume that an old septic systems is more likely to be in a poor condition while newer septic systems should be in good condition.  In theory something that is new shouldn’t be experiencing wear-and-tear.   There are many other variables that can make an older septic system a safer bet than you might imagine.

Unlike the simple septic tank and gravity dispersal fields of the past, new styles, especially complex systems designed by Professional Engineers, are more sensitive and maintenance intensive.  Installing them precisely and correctly is also much more critical.

These newer systems can include:

  • package treatment plants
  • air compressors
  • disinfection devices
  • pump chambers
  • programmable control panels
  • various other components

To ensure proper operation, these systems require care during installation and on-going maintenance.  Unfortunately we are seeing an unusually high number of malfunctioning newer systems due to improper installation of components.  Often during installation, the actual work is carried out by a unlicensed subcontractor with little or no supervision.

We would like to say that Registered Onsite Wastewater Practitioner – Installers always take care with their work and there are some excellent professionals in our industry.  However, we see patterns in the quality of work done by others.  It is clear that some are more interested in slamming as many systems into the ground as possible with little regard for quality.

Old doesn't mean bad
Close-up of the seam between a soft plastic septic tank and a hard plastic riser. It is not properly attached so groundwater is entering, bringing in sand and potentially overloading the system with excess water.

Some of the problems we frequently see:

  • Groundwater entering tanks and chambers due to the lack of sealant required to make these vessels water-tight. This can overload the system and dramatically shorten its lifespan.
  • Electrical works do not meet the electrical code often because no licensed electrician was used for the work.  High-voltage ballasts, clearly labelled for indoor use only, being placed in a plastic box that floods with water. The same with air compressors or blowers installed where water pools. This puts passers-by or service providers at risk of electrocution.
  • Electrical conduits were not sealed, allowing moisture or sewage, explosive and inflammable gases to potentially travel into pump and alarm control panels. Corrosion of electrical parts, odours in the home, and arcing causing a fire in the component can result.
  • Alarm sensors, intended to warn the homeowner a component is malfunctioning and sewage is backing up in the system, are not connected to an alarm panel so they can’t possibly work.
  • Components were installed incorrectly, preventing them from functioning properly. Imagine a septic tank installed in reverse, so pipe grades are wrong and sewage becomes hung up inside  instead of freely traveling through from one component to the next.
  • Vent pipes from treatment plants located near patios, windows or doorways causing sewage odours to be a nuisance.

There is a simple way to avoid these problems:

Have an inspection done prior to purchasing a home with a septic system or have an inspection within 6 to 9 months after the system was installed to allow the installer an opportunity to  fix their problems.  If the installer is reputable, they will be more than willing to come back.

The Authorized Person on record with the Health Authority to construct and commission the system is legally responsible for the system being properly constructed. They also have to answer to their professional association, so some solution can often be found. In one case, we documented the deficiencies and the property owner presented our report and photographs to the Professional Engineer. The Engineer wrote a cheque to the property owner to cover the full cost of the system that day, in an effort to avoid legal and disciplinary action. In another case, a homeowner used our report to win a Small Claims action against a Registered Onsite Wastewater Practitioner (ROWP) who planned and installed a system well below provincial standards.

If you are selling or buying a property with an older septic system, remember, old doesn’t mean bad and new doesn’t mean good. We have seen septic systems over 90 years old that were still in functional condition while systems less than 2 years old were already struggling as they were poorly designed and or installed.

If you have questions about the quality of an installation, you can contact us for advice.

Choosing a Septic Inspector in BC

Tank cameras are required equipment when choosing a septic inspector

Choosing a Septic Inspector in British Columbia can be a confusing process. While an individual must demonstrate competency through training and experience to be registered as a septic system Planner, Installer or Maintenance Provider to comply with the BC Sewerage System Regulation, there is no requirement to be registered to offer inspection services. This means anyone can claim to do inspections and there is no assurance of even the most basic standards being met unless they are a Private Inspector registered through the Applied Science Technologists & Technicians of BC (ASTTBC).

Tank Cleaners  –  Some tank cleaning services offer what they claim are “inspections”, but these tend to be little more than a quick look inside the septic tank after they pump it out, then a walk around the suspected field. Simple, quick, for a minor fee, with no report, photos or other documentation, and typically use disclaimers that they are not liable for what they tell you. They are also not regulated under a professional association with a Code of Ethics to hold them accountable. They make money pumping tanks and this is a quick way to get a homeowner to use them for many years to come. If they can also charge for an “inspection” or selling enzyme products, even better.

Home Inspectors  –  There are also a few home inspectors offering to inspect septic systems, but the vast majority keep clear and focus on what they know best – homes and buildings. Taking a short on-line course from the U.S.A. covering generic concepts of septic systems has already made one home inspector in the Lower Mainland look a little foolish. Regulations in B.C. have been in place since 1917 and not knowing the different standards and requirements over the years puts anyone offering such services at risk of missing many, many problems that can occur in these systems. Besides current and past standards, a solid understanding of soils, planning, installation and maintenance is needed as a foundation for doing this work.

The photograph above is from a tank video camera used to examine the interior of tanks, chambers and similar components in a safe, thorough and efficient way. Pipe, tank, thermal imaging, high-definition and other types of cameras are just some of the equipment used by experienced registered Private Inspectors. Combined with ultrasonic flow monitoring equipment, state-of-the-art electronic locating equipment (active and passive), and a host of many other special technical devices are what sets the ROWP Private Inspector apart from the backhoe/contractor/tank cleaner and other dabblers in this industry.

It takes more than a shovel to do the job and if they don’t use the proper tools, they will miss significant problems that can develop in different ways for different types, styles and ages of systems, with variations unique to different regions of the province. It also takes more than 20 minutes as well. In fact, expect 3 to 6 hours to locate, safely expose, examine, test, document and restore the site. Then another hour or two to write a report with photos. Just putting “all good” or “working great” onto the invoice is not a report.

Technical Specialists  –  The Applied Science Technologists & Technicians of BC (ASTTBC) is a professional association responsible for registering technical specialists known as Registered Onsite Wastewater Practitioners, or ROWPs for short. These people work as septic system Planners, Installers, Maintenance Providers and Private Inspectors. In fact, they separate the inspectors into categories for either residential type sewage systems (PIR designation) and another for the more complex commercial/institutional systems (PIC designation).

Since 2006, ASTTBC also set out the practice standards and Guidelines for Inspection which are the most thorough found anywhere in North America. Truly created with consumer protection in mind. They also restrict the practice of inspecting to those ROWPs who hold the Private Inspector designation because of the unique, advanced knowledge and skills associated to this work.

If you are not sure that the person offering to do an inspection is truly qualified to do the work, go to the ASTTBC website link above and check if the name and designation is listed.  If they are a member of this professional association, and do hold the PIR or PIC designation, you are a step closer to finding capable people to do the inspection.

Questions to Ask When Choosing a Septic Inspector in BC

While we would like to suggest that all registered Private Inspectors follow ASTTBC standards, we are aware that is not always the case. Use the following list to help you chose between them.

  1. Confirm the ROWP Private Inspector is registered in good standing with ASTTBC.  If they are not on the website list, they are not a member.
  2. Ask how long it typically takes to complete an inspection and how long before the report is ready. Be suspicious if it is very quick.
  3. Ask if they are familiar with and will be using the current version of the ASTTBC Inspection Guideline.
  4. Ask if they have, and will use electronic pipe locating equipment, pipe and tank video camera equipment.
  5. Some Private Inspectors do not include pipe camera or other basic equipment use in their quoted prices, then charge “extra” as if it was a surprise.  Ask for a list of any extras, because this equipment is necessary for a proper inspection.
  6. Ask them to describe the report you will be given at the conclusion of the inspection.  It should be more than a few pages in length and must have their Private Inspector stamp and signature affixed to it.
  7. Ask if they will include photographs taken during the inspection in their report. Confirm they will be large enough to be properly visible rather than thumbnails.
  8. Ask if you are allowed to observe the inspection. The Inspector should be happy to allow this since transparency in the process is expected.
  9. Ask if they have and will refer to a copy of the provincial regulations going back to 1917.  Many systems are older, and they must be inspected against the regulation in place at the time they were constructed. If they don’t have a copy of these regulations, they can’t do the job properly.
  10. When phoning around, ask if the business has a ROWP Private Inspector or do they subcontract to another party.  Some ROWPs operate their business like general contractors but sub out the work to others without telling you.

For more information regarding choosing a septic inspector, such as red flags  in their responses to your questions, check out this post.