Featuring America's Home Inspector: Nationally Syndicated Columnist, Barry Stone

How to Maintain Your Septic System

Dear Barry:  We just moved from the big city to the country. So for the first time ever, we have a septic system and have to think about what goes down the drain. The contractor who inspected the septic tank advised us to flush an additive down the toilet once a month to maintain the bacteria level in the tank. Our new next-door neighbor says he’s never used the stuff and insists that it’s a waste of money. What’s your advice for the care and maintenance of a septic system?  Jeffrey

Dear Jeffrey:   Bacterial additives are often advised by septic contractors, but the need for this is debatable because micro-organisms are added to the tank every time solid waste is flushed down the toilet.  In fact, more attention should be given to things that should not be flushed than things that should be.

Several studies have been conducted to determine the effectiveness of septic additives, including one that was published in the Journal of Environmental Health in 2008 and another that was conducted at the University of Ottawa in 2012. In each case, the additives did not significantly increase the bacterial level in the septic systems that were tested. Many septic contractors will no doubt disagree with these findings.

Rather than adding bacteria to your septic system, it is important to protect the bacterial environment that is already present. Here are some do’s and don’ts for maintaining the effectiveness of your septic system:

1) Avoid putting insoluble solids such as grease, fats, and oils down the drain because these can clog the leach lines that convey water from the septic tank into the ground. Keep this in mind when washing pots and pans.

2) Don’t put chemicals such as paint, paint thinner, bleach, etc. down the drain. People sometimes clean their paint brushes in sinks and toilets. This is definitely a no-no.

3) Minimize the use of your garbage disposal to avoid the accumulation of undigested organic solids in the tank. These can take a long time to decompose.

4) Do not let the salt brine from a water softener drain into your septic system. Instead, the discharge pipe from the softener should terminate in a ground sump or leach field designated for this purpose.

5) Minimize the amount of extra water that goes into the septic system. For example, rain gutters from the roof and yard drains should not drain to the septic tank or the leach field.

6) Do not park vehicles on ground surfaces above the leach field, as this can compact the subsurface absorption system.

7) Have your tank pumped and inspected in a timely manner, usually about every five years.

Laundry drains are often diverted to a ground sump or garden area to prevent detergents and other laundry additives from damaging the bacteria in the septic tank. The need for this precaution is often unwarranted because newer types of detergents and bleaches do not adversely affect the microbial environment in a septic tank when used in moderation. I can attest that my own septic system has consumed detergents for the past 10 years with no apparent ill-affects. This particular advice, however, is likely to draw active debate from some septic contractors.

Repairing Leaky Pipes With Epoxy

The House Detective: by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry:   Our home is only 20 years old, and we just had a pinhole leak in a copper pipe above our dining room. Our insurance will pay to repair all of the damage, but we’re worried about this happening again. Next time the damage could be worse. We’ve heard that leaky pipes can be repaired by coating the insides with epoxy. Is this a good idea, or would you recommend installing brand new pipes throughout the house?  Camille

Dear Camille:  Coating leaky pipes with epoxy is a repair method that has been gaining popularity in the United States since the 1990s. Its use is still subject to debate among plumbing professionals, but many plumbing systems where epoxy coating has been used have withstood the test of time.

Most people have probably never heard of this method for repairing leaking pipes, so here are the basics. The procedure for lining water pipes with epoxy involves the following four steps:

1)  Preparation: All valves, stops, fixtures, and water heaters must be disconnected to prevent them from being damaged by the epoxy and to enable the entire piping system to be drained of water. Hot air is then blown through the pipes to dry them completely. The pipes must be totally dry to enable the epoxy to adhere.

2)  Cleaning: The interior surfaces of the pipes are then scoured of corrosion and scale by means of sandblasting. This is done by forcefully blowing abrasives through the pipes.

3)  Coating: Epoxy is blown through the pipes to coat the entire system. This seals all joints and prevents further corrosion of the metal. Excess epoxy is then blown out of the pipes and steam is injected to cure the new synthetic coating.

4)  Reconnection: All of the valves, stops, fixtures, and the water heater are reinstalled.

The total cost for this process is approximately 80 to 85 percent of the cost to replace all of the pipes in the building. On the positive side, the epoxy method is much less intrusive than repiping because no holes are cut into walls and floors, as would be done if new pipes were installed.

Expected longevity is also an important consideration. Epoxy coatings are usually guaranteed for approximately 10 years, which is much less than the life expectancy for new pipes. If you plan to stay in your home for many years, this would be a significant consideration. If you go with epoxy, be sure to research the companies you may hire. Find a contractor who has been doing this for many years and who has a reputation for high quality work.

Undisclosed Septic Problem

The House Detective: by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry:  Two days after we moved into our home, the septic system backed up into the tub and toilet. This was a big surprise because the septic had been inspected and approved by a septic contractor before the close of escrow. We called a different septic contractor, and he said the leach field needs to be replaced for thousands of dollars. We called two other contractors for additional quotes. One of them told us that he had inspected the system a few months ago and had told the previous owners about the failed leach field, but the sellers never disclosed this to us. Another contractor told us that the Realtor was liable for recommending a septic contractor who is not licensed. The sellers have moved out of state, so we can’t hold them liable. What can we do to recoup this unexpected expense?  Jason

Dear Jason:  Sellers who conceal known defects from buyers are worthy of public disgrace. Unfortunately, your sellers seem to be out of harm’s way, having moved out of state, which leaves their agent and the agent’s septic contractor as the potentially liable parties. The agent is at fault for recommending an unqualified contractor. The contractor is culpable for issuing false findings, especially if this was done without a license.

To verify whether the septic contractor was, in fact, operating without a license, you should contact the state agency that issues licenses to contractors. Even if the contractor is licensed, there is the issue of the false septic report.

The agent, broker, and septic inspector should be notified by certified mail of the current situation. If no one is willing to pay for a new leach field, you probably have a strong case for small claims court. In any event, you should get some advice from a real estate attorney regarding your available remedies under law.

Plumber Disagrees With Home Inspector

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry:  I am a real estate broker and am trying to resolve a difference of opinion between my plumber and my favorite home inspector. The inspector routinely cites water heaters that are installed without a drain pan, especially when the water heater is on a raised platform in a garage. He says a pan will prevent water damage if there is a leak. The plumber says there is no code requirement for a pan. Who is right, the home inspector or the plumber?  Leila 

Dear Leila:  Your question raises two separate issues. The first involves the plumbing code – whether or not the code actually requires a drain pan under a water heater. The second issue is the wording in the home inspection report. Did the inspector say that a drain pan is required by code or merely that a pan is advised to prevent water damage?

First, let’s look at the Uniform Plumbing Code (UPC). According to UPC Section #510.7: “When a water heater is located in an attic or a furred space where damage may result from a leaking water heater, a watertight pan of corrosion resistant materials shall be installed beneath the water heater with a minimum three-quarter inch diameter drain to an approved location.”

This requirement names two situations where a drain pan is required under a water heater. The first in when the fixture is installed in an attic. Why a person would install a heavy water heater in an attic is a challenge to common sense, but that is not relevant to this discussion. The second and more pertinent situation is when a water heater is installed in “a furred space where damage may result from a leaking water heater.”

A “furred space” is a wall, ceiling, or floor surface that has been extended with additional construction material. An example of a furred space is a raised platform in a garage, on which a water heater is installed. When a water heater leaks onto the wood and drywall of the platform, moisture damage is likely to occur. To prevent such damage, a drain pan with a ¾-inch drainpipe is required by code.

Most home inspectors do not specifically cite building codes in their reports. Instead, they disclose conditions that are defective, unsafe, or that pose potential problems. Regardless of whether your home inspector mentioned the plumbing code, the recommendation for a drain pan under the water heater was valid, and the plumber should be made aware of section #510.7 of the code.

Aside from code requirements, it is hard to understand why a plumber who is installing a water heater would choose not to include a ten-dollar pan under the fixture. Sooner or later, nearly every water heater ends up leaking. A drain pan, known in the trade as a “smitty pan,” is very cheap insurance when you consider the costs of repairing and replacing damaged building materials, not to mention the potential consequences of mold infection. Instead of debating what is or isn’t required by code, plumbers should recommend smitty pans to all of their water heater customers and should agree with home inspectors who recommend drain pans.

What To Do About Drain Flies

Dear Barry: We have a major problem with drain flies under our house. We’ve called a plumber and an exterminator, but both say they’ve never seen this kind of problem before. We’ve also had the septic system pumped and inspected, but this doesn’t seem to be the source of the flies. What should we do?  Tracy

Dear Tracy: Your exterminator should know about drain flies. These pests breed in the soft, organic matter that coats the insides of drainpipes. To get rid of them, you must thoroughly remove the slimy residue in the pipes. This cannot be done with common drain cleaners, boiling water, or bleach. Instead, there are special products called “drain gels” that are specifically made for this type of drain cleaning. But before using drain gel, solid residues such as hair should be purged from the drains. For this, you should hire a plumber to snake out the lines.

Keep in mind, however, that drain flies can be breeding in other locations where there is rotting organic matter, such as moldy drywall or discarded food waste. In some cases, spillage from an open waste line under a home can provide the environment needed by drain flies.

To determine if the flies are originating in your drains, there is a tape test that you can do. For several consecutive nights, place a piece of duct tape across each of your drain openings, with the sticky side down. Do not cover the entire opening with the tape. Just run a strip of tape across the center of the orifice and leave the sides open. If the flies are breeding in the drains, some of them should be stuck to the tape in the morning. Hopefully, the drain is the source. Otherwise, you’ll have the job of searching for other places where breeding might be taking place.