What you need to know about septic systems vs. sewers

    When looking at homes for sale in Billings, you may see in the listing description that a home isn’t on “city services.” What this means is that the home has its own “sewer,” known as a septic system and, often, a well for water.

    We get a lot of questions about septic systems in Billings, so today I thought I’d tackle just the basics you need to know before putting in an offer to purchase a home that isn’t on city services.

    The anatomy of the septic system

    You know how when someone tells you their kid has headlice your scalp tingles and you have an overwhelming urge to scratch your head? Or, when you see a lemon, your mouth does all kinds of weird things?

    It’s sort of like that when we think about poop. At least for me. But we can’t talk about septic systems without also thinking about certain bodily functions, so, let’s “dive” right in.

    The first thing to know about the system is that whatever goes down the drains — whether it’s the sink, washing machine, shower or toilet — goes into the septic tank.

    The tank itself is watertight and treats the stuff it receives by trapping the “solids” (See? I told you) and then releases the “wastewater”  (it’s getting rather icky here) into the drain field (also known as the leach fields).

    This is a very rudimentary description of a septic system. If you want a more detailed explanation, visit Montana State University Extension Service online.

    care of septic system

    Maintenance of your Billings septic system

    Unlike a home on the city sewer lines, the owner of a home with a septic system bears the responsibility for maintaining that system. Don’t maintain it and, like your car, you may end up with a hefty repair bill.

    In fact, the national hourly average  for septic system repair is $162.50 plus the cost of materials.

    Basic maintenance of a septic system involves inspecting the system annually and having it pumped out every three to five years.

    We always suggest hiring a professional to do the inspection. For instance, do you know the difference between scum and sludge? Do you even want to go there?

    Anyway, the pro will look for leaks and inspect the layers of scum and sludge to ensure that they remain where they are supposed to be in relation to the outlet tee. Yeah, it sounds nasty and technical because it is. The scum and sludge levels will determine whether or not the tank currently needs to be pumped.

    If the system also contains mechanical and electrical components (float switches, alarms, etc.) those need to be inspected every year as well. Effluent screen? Another important annual inspection.

    This is why we strongly urge homeowners with septic systems to hire a professional for both the annual inspection and the pumping. The cost of pumping and cleaning a 1,000-gallon septic tank in Billings is between $255 and nearly $300, according to ProMatcher.com. Yeah, it sounds pricey, but refer back to the average cost for septic repairs. No brainer, right?


    What might happen if you don’t maintain the system

    If the tank leaks or somehow causes the leach field to become saturated with too much liquid, the field may flood and sewage will end up on the surface or, worse, end up coming back into the home via the bathtub or some other plumbing fixture.

    Mom — why is there poop in the bathtub?!

    Another concern is that if you don’t have the system inspected, you won’t know if the sewage is being treated adequately and, thus, contaminating groundwater. This means your well water may be contaminated. Not an attractive thought.

    If you already own a home with a septic system and need to know more about how to care for or have it repaired, contact us and we’ll point you in the right direction.

    Photo: By Tilley, E., Ulrich, L., Lüthi, C., Reymond, Ph., Zurbrügg, C./CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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