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Septic System Design and Repair 101: An Interview with Brad Korth of Korth Engineering, LLC

By Brad Korth

Please tell us a little bit about your company and the services you offer.

Korth Engineering, LLC is an environmental consultant. With respect to septic systems, services offered are design and inspections. This includes specialization in designing systems for difficult lots, repairs and rejuvenation of old systems. Although we work extensively with licensed septic installers, to prevent conflicts of interest we do not provide installation services.

Other services include environmental compliance, planning and permitting, conducting both environmental and property condition assessments for primarily commercial properties, evaluating pollution prevention and recycling opportunities, monitoring removal of underground storage tanks, and performing project management and oversight activities. Additionally for these types of services performed Korth Engineering, LLC offers attendance at local town board hearings, expert witness testimony and litigation support.

What is one of the most important considerations when you're designing a new residential septic system?

First, consultation with the applicable regulations and regulatory agency. In Connecticut the initial regulatory agency is the town health department; several towns have coordinated efforts termed health districts. Although there are a few exceptions, for residential systems the applicable state agency is the Connecticut Department of Public Health (CT DPH). Bottom line if the regulatory agency won't approve the installation or modification of a septic system, how good the design is doesn't matter.

Conduct a proper site inspection prior to system design! This should be done by a properly trained professional and consists of evaluating the overall site, including obstructions and soil conditions. Select the design based on the lot conditions. System costs can vary dramatically for the same lot depending upon the specific type of leaching trenches installed.

Can you briefly talk about some of the main options that homeowners have for their septic system, depending on the site?

Major components of a septic system are the sewer lines, septic tank and leaching trenches. Leaching trenches are the materials installed in the ground which distribute the wastewater. Although all components are important, of these the leaching trenches are the most significant. Reasoning is that leaching trenches are both by far the most costly portion of the system and require an adequate amount of land to construct. Even on large lots an adequate amount of acceptable land may not be present.

Within the last few years technology has vastly improved including types of available leaching trenches; options not available only a few years ago are now practical. Advancements have also often resulted in lowering costs.

Presently approximately 60 different types of leaching trenches are available for use in Connecticut. What is the best type of system? The answer, in terms of both operation and costs, is that it depends upon the specific site conditions. Consider a combination of overall costs which include both design and installation expenses. Often some additional design costs can result in significantly reduced installation costs. This is particularly true due to recent technology advancements. Don't simply accept a method simply because that is the typical way an engineer or installer has historically performed their designs.

Is there anything that homeowners usually don't know about septic system design or repair that they should be aware of?

Definition of a new system versus a repair is important. In terms of residential designs a new system means that a house has not been present on the property for the intended use; this includes both new construction and conversions from seasonal to year round use. A septic repair includes everything from minor repairs to installation of a complete replacement system on an existing lot. The difference is that for a new system no exemptions to the regulations are possible, compared to a repair allows for exceptions to be approved by the regulatory agencies on a specific case-by-case basis.

The term "code compliant" system simply remains it meets all the regulatory requirements which are a combination of both operational and practical requirements. Hence just because a system is code compliant doesn't mean it is a good fit for the site conditions and will function adequately. Exemptions should not be assumed to result in negative system performance. For example, an exemption to reduce the required distance to a property line does not by itself result in reduced system performance.

Septic system repair and replacement can be extremely costly! What a new or complete replacement system costs varies dramatically based on site specifics. It is commonplace in Connecticut for a complete system to cost in the range of $15,000 - $30,000, and it can cost more for difficult lots. What defines a difficult lot? This includes wet conditions, rock ledge and small lots. How do I know if the lot is potentially difficult? Look around for a combination of factors such as lot size, streams, wet conditions and exposed rock surfaces. Small lots are typically more expensive to repair than large lots because engineering methods need to be employed to perform tasks that otherwise Mother Nature is capable of.

How is an engineered septic system different than other septic systems? An engineered system simply means that it is designed by a licensed professional engineer. What is of extreme importance is that engineering principles are incorporated into the septic system investigation and design. However an advantage of an engineered designed system is minimizing potential conflicts of interest and that the exact same design can be competitively bid. Particularly in older homes, be aware that engineering principles may or may not have been incorporated into the design.

There are potential options for repairing systems without replacing leaching fields. First make sure that the problem is not something simple like a clogged or broken pipe. Be aware that options such as simply dumping a chemical into the leaching field rarely result in providing an adequate solution and potentially can result in long-term damage Examples of potential long-term solutions include pumping of oxygen into the leaching trenches. Much like a compost pile which needs to be turned to add oxygen to stimulate decomposition, microbes in a leaching field also need oxygen for proper performance. Hence don't assume just because the leaching fields have failed that replacement is the only option.

How long do septic system leaching fields last? The soil does not go bad, a properly designed and installed system is limited by the life of the components.

Can you describe some signs that a homeowner has a septic problem he or she should consult a licensed contractor about?

Plumbing fixtures may exhibit difficulty in releasing their contents (slow draining, bubbling, backups, etc.). These could just indicate a clog in the interior piping or sewer line. Hence have the interior piping checked before proceeding with an investigation of the sewage disposal system. Large volume discharges, such as washing machines, dishwashers and bathtubs, cause a backup or an overflow of sewage above the septic tank or leaching field. These conditions often are most noticeable during and/or directly following a heavy rain events.

Foul septic odors in storm drainage piping, catch basins, footing drain piping or curtain drain discharges may indicate that sewage from your or an adjacent property is entering these groundwater systems.

Are there any things that homeowners can take to help avoid unnecessary septic repairs?

Pump your septic tank on a routine basis. The question of how often to pump your septic tank is based on a combination of the type of use, amount of wastewater disposed and size of the septic tank. A rule of thumb often used is to pump a tank every three years. However this may not be often enough or may be unnecessary. Easy-to-use charts detailing how often to pump a septic tank are readily available on the Internet.

Leaching fields commonly fail due to a lack of oxygen. Hence to the extent it's practical, avoid disposing of items which utilize significant amounts of oxygen to decompose, such as food scraps, chemicals and medicines.

Do you have any tips for people who are considering purchasing a house in Connecticut with a septic system?

Review the property files by simply going to the town health department and requesting to see the available information. Additionally town sanitarians can provide valuable information and insight. Ask the property owner for any available historical and maintenance information such as repairs and septic tank pumping records. Also ask about how the system has historically performed and typically how many people have been present in the household. For example, a septic system utilized by two people may work just fine, but fail when used by four people due to additional wastewater generation. Consult your local health department and the CT DPH Subsurface Sewage websites for information. These sources provide valuable homeowner guidance.

Information is critical to the quality any evaluation performed. Particularly with older houses, there may be a lack of historical information for an inspector to utilize to draw effective conclusions. Understand what a real estate septic system inspection is and is not. Inquire regarding the qualifications of a prospective inspector and how the inspection is to be performed. Connecticut has no licensing requirements for inspectors and there is no required procedure, however the CT DPH has a recommended inspection report format. Inspections are often simply a snapshot in time that details if the system is working properly at the time of evaluation. More in-depth details typically require additional studies and costs, depending upon the specifics these may or may not be needed.

What's the best way for people to contact your company?

Visit our website , email us at enveng@kortheng.com or call (860) 295-9458.

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