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.

Construction of a Tennis Court Destroyed the Septic System

Our staff attended a site for a property owner after the building department had issued a stop-work order on a project.  We confirmed that the construction of a tennis court had destroyed the septic system, and a new one needed to be designed and installed.

If the property owner had applied for a permit to construct the tennis court, they likely would have been required to have a compliance inspection of the septic system. This inspection would have identified that the proposed location of the tennis court would not be acceptable, allowing the plans to be changed before damage was done.

Not all municipalities consistently require compliance inspections so you may need to be pro-active to avoid damage to your septic system if you want to construct a swimming pool, garage, landscaping, extending driveways or creating a new parking area, installing in-ground irrigation, and many other changes that have resulted in damage to systems around the province.

Without the compliance inspection of the septic system, the construction company did not identify the septic system components they were pulling out of the ground and the property owner is now facing a septic system replacement cost of about $40,000.

Through the construction process, large rock material had been dropped on the plastic lids of the tanks and chambers leaving dangerous holes, and the dispersal mound pipes had been ripped apart, pieces buried and others left strewn around. 

Construction of a Tennis Court had Destroyed the Septic System 2
A piece of one of the pressurized dispersal mound pipes found beside the new tennis court. Where do you think the effluent from the septic system is going now?

For more information about septic system compliance inspections, check out Info & Help under the category Inspection.