Buying a House with no sewer connection

For people unfamiliar with rural methods of wastewater treatment, a house with no connection to the town sewer system could seem antiquated. But when understood, a good septic system is as progressive as recycling.

It is recycling. A good septic system (or on-site wastewater treatment system) returns everything that goes down the drains in a home into reusable water and soil.

buyers tips - house with a septic system and a nice back yard

A typical system includes a tank where solids and sludge are separated from reusable material. These are what is removed when a septic system is periodically pumped. The reusable stuff goes into a field or mechanism that allows natural bacteria to break down any harmful material, and it is then absorbed or leached into the soil where it is further filtered and broken down.

In Colorado, all on-site systems must be inspected before a property can be sold. Usually the current property owner agrees to pump the system as well. The inspection will determine whether or not the system is functioning property, was adequately designed for the size of the home and placed within guidelines to protect the water system of the home and its neighbors.

Instead of calling it a septic system, the state and county uses the term on-site wastewater treatment system to more clearly explain what’s going on. Instead of sending everything that goes down the drain to a central wastewater plant like the one at Farmers’ Korner, an on-site system handles the reclamation with less chemicals, smaller tanks, and far less transportation by doing the job on-site.

On-site treatment is great when the property is large enough to handle the job. And, particularly efficient when the property is far away from the municipal sewer plant.  The county’s department of environmental health has information on their website to familiarize a potential home buyer with the rules for these systems put in place to protect everyone. If the property has a good system that stays within all the rules, there is no reason to put ‘septic system’ in the negative column when deciding whether or not to buy the house.  But like any house, a sewer problem is not something a new homeowner wants, so on-site or not, this is something a buyer should always check out before signing.

OWS Use Permit Required

In 2017, Colorado passed a law that requires all new systems to be designed according to established minimum standards for the location, design, construction, installation and alteration of septic systems. Compliance with this law, Regulation #43, was already required in Summit County by the 1980s. So today, nearly every on-site system has been built to current standards or repaired to attain them. Every home should have a permit and a drawing of the installed system on file with the county department of environmental health.

Since January 1, 2009, the Summit County Board of Health has required sellers to obtain an OWS Use Permit ($75) and give it to buyers prior to or at closing.  Boulder, Jefferson and several other Colorado counties do the same. A homeowner doing major remodeling may also need a Use Permit. This Use Permit helps the Summit County Environmental Health Department to correct any malfunctioning systems and protect the ground water supply. Requiring the permit protects both sellers ( by documenting the condition of the system) and buyers (who can be assured that their new system has been inspected and is in proper working order). 

Explanation of a Septic System:

The main components, buried in the ground, usually consist of a septic tank and an absorption field, also called a leach field. Septic tanks are normally constructed of precast or cast concrete, or fiberglass. Metal tanks have never been allowed in Summit County.

The function of the tank is to filter solids and to serve as an environment for anaerobic bacteria, which decompose the solids in a process similar to composting. Fluid material is processed through the absorption field, comprised of a series of narrow trenches or a bed partially filled with washed gravel surrounding perforated pipes. The field purifies the liquid by breaking down its biodegradable components, and by filtering out micro-organisms, and further filtering continues through the soil, and if designed properly, is completely compatible with the well water systems also common in rural areas.

Soils tests, site inspection and a septic permit from the Summit County Environmental Health Department are required before installing a Septic System and using good design and construction pays off in the long run with a low-to no-maintenance system with no monthly fees.

You Buy the House. Now What?

The Summit County Environmental Health Department recommends that you conduct annual inspections on your Septic System - open the tank, look around the leachfield, or call a county authorized inspector. But most importantly, your should periodically pump your tank. For this you call a licensed contractor. You can find both inspectors and maintenance contractors on the Environmental Health department's website. To decrease solids accumulation and prolong the time between pumping, avoid use of garbage disposal units as they can nearly double the solids accumulation in the tank. To protect and prolong the life of the absorption field, homeowners should take the following precautions:

    * Do not drive over the absorption field with cars, trucks or heavy equipment.

    * Do not plant trees or shrubbery in the absorption field area.

    * Do not cover the absorption field with a hard surface such as concrete or asphalt. Grass is the best cover for the field.

    * Divert surface runoff water from roofs, downspouts, patios, driveways and other areas away from the absorption field.

    * Plowed snow should be kept away from the absorption field.

    * Repair dripping faucets and leaky toilets quickly.

    * New green, low-water-use appliances will increase the efficiency of your system and are a good choice when possible, just on the principle of saving water.

    * Never dump household hazardous substances down the sink or toilet as they can kill the beneficial bacteria as well as pollute the groundwater.

    * Empty hot tubs directly onto the ground rather than running it through the drain system and through the absorption field.

The confined space within the tank contains hydrogen sulfide and methane gases, which are toxic when the fumes are inhaled. Never enter or lean into a septic tank or use flames or electrical devices near the opening of a septic tank. The Summit County Environmental Health Department does not recommend septic tank additives claiming to eliminate the need to clean out or enhance operation of a Septic System.