Archive for September, 2013

What Every Realtor Should Know about Septic Systems

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What Every Realtor Should Know about

Septic Systems



If you are a real estate agent representing a buyer or seller of a property with a private septic system, also known as an Onsite Sewage Disposal System, (OSDS), you may have questions about how you can best inform your client about a septic inspection for a property transfer.


 Knowledge is Power


An educated buyer/seller that understands the importance of a properly functioning septic system is better able to make an informed decision about a property that relies on a septic system for waste disposal.


There are 4 types of OSDS used in Maryland – Traditional systems, Alternative and Innovative Systems, Best Available Technology for Nitrogen Removal (BAT) systems and Sand Mound Systems.  The majority of systems in Maryland are the traditional systems so the focus of this information is on the traditional type system.


Information about septic systems is available from many sources.  The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) regulates septic inspectors and the procedures used for septic inspections.  The MDE recommended procedure is outlined on the attached document.  County health departments in Maryland are responsible for issuing permits for septic system construction.  Do Your Part – Be Septic Smart – A Homeowners Guide to Septic Systems is available online at


Avoid Delays


Allowing sufficient time to schedule and conduct a septic inspection for a property can help to avoid delays at settlement.  If any problems are discovered during the inspection they can be corrected prior to settlement.  Conducting the file search, homeowner/occupant interview and the onsite pumping and inspection and preparation of the final report can take up to 2 weeks.  If a problem is found corrective action must be taken and can require additional time.


What inspection should be conducted?


A dye test alone is not considered acceptable by MDE.  In 1999 the State of Maryland passed a law (9-217.1) that states  “After July 1, 1999; every person engaged in the business of inspecting an on-site sewage disposal system for a transfer of property must certify to the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) that the person has completed a course of instruction, approved by the Department, in the proper inspection of on-site sewage disposal systems”.  The procedure mandated by MDE is a four step process outlined below.  Failure to abide by this law by utilizing a dye test not only deprives the buyer of valuable knowledge to which he is entitled but also subjects the seller and the real-estate agent to potentially costly litigation.

The standardized procedure that has been developed by MDE for properly inspecting a septic system is a four step process: 1) file search, 2) homeowner/occupant interview, 3) site investigation and 4) final report.



 The purpose of the file search is to determine what, if any, archival information is available about the septic system on the property. This information is often obtained at the county health department for the county in which the property is located. A waiting period may be required for research to be completed.  Archival information may not be available for all systems.  Useful information that can be taken from the file search may include age, type and location.  Other information that may be in the file would be historical info, soils or percolation test data, outstanding complaints or violations associated with the property.  This is a very important step, aiding the inspector in locating components of the system in the field, and showing where evidence of a system malfunction might be expected to be seen.



The homeowner or occupant may have information pertaining to the septic system’s current or past performance that may only be revealed by interviewing them or by having them complete a questionnaire.  Key information to gather is the current and past usage of the house.  It is very important to note how many occupants of the house there are, if the property is vacant, or if there is, or has been, a commercial use of the property that may influence wastewater strength.  It should also be noted if a system is under-utilized or is only seasonally used.  The performance of a system can only be assessed based on the existing occupancy of the property.  A system that is functioning adequately for two individuals may be inadequate for a fully occupied house consisting of multiple bedrooms.  Use of the property owner questionnaire conveys responsibility for revealing important information to the property owner.



To accomplish this inspection water must be introduced into the system from the house and the tank opened at the large access lid.  The size of the tank, the depth of material in the tank and the scum and sludge levels must be determined.  The tank must be pumped in order to facilitate this examination and to determine if the drain field is accepting the effluent.


The septic tank must be structurally sound and operational with required inlet and outlet baffles/tees and or necessary components.  Tanks and access riser connections should be watertight and not leak untreated sewage or allow infiltration of surface or groundwater.  Liquid levels in the tanks should reflect that the system is functioning according to design.  Toilets or drains on the lowest level of the house must flush or drain adequately.  There should be no discharge of effluent to the ground surface or to surface waters.  If there is ponding of water or effluent on the ground’s surface, or if there are discharge pipes on the property, it may be necessary to dye test the system.  However, dye tests used by themselves do not constitute an adequate septic inspection as at best they can only support a conclusion that a system is not functioning.  For questionable systems or underutilized properties, it may be necessary to charge the system with a hydraulic load to evaluate its performance.  Tanks should never be pumped before an inspection.  They should usually be pumped only after careful observation of the liquid levels in the tank(s).  Observations should be made of the tank during the pump out to see if effluent or groundwater flows back into the tank as it is evacuated.  Once emptied, certain components such as baffles and tees can be clearly observed and only then can the structural integrity of the tank properly evaluated.  Some excavation is usually necessary to perform a proper septic inspection as all components of a system may not have ready access.



The final report for a septic inspection should include the following minimum information:


The address of the property and date of the site inspection

The type, size, structural integrity and number of system components

Information from current/recent occupants of the house/facility about the system operation and usage

Information obtained from the local health department (or permitting agency) concerning the septic system.  It should be noted if no information was available or if the information was requested but not received as of the date of the final report.

A sketch of the septic system layout showing the location of all system components relative to the house and/or other prominent site features (eg., sheds, pools, etc)

A conclusion/comments section that specifies what was observed.  At times, it will be necessary to characterize the condition of the system.  Suggested terminology could include: system is acceptable, system is acceptable with concerns, further evaluation is needed, or system condition or performance is unacceptable.


Contact Fredericktowne Labs for information about other potential contaminants or specific concerns.


What Every Realtor Should Know About Private Drinking Water Wells

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What Every Realtor Should Know About Private Drinking Water Wells


If you are a real estate agent representing a buyer or seller of a property with a drinking water well you may have questions about how you can best inform your client about private well water issues during a property transaction.


Water, our most precious commodity, never wears out; but it can become contaminated.  The safety of the water we use – for drinking, cooking and bathing – cannot be taken for granted.  Water may look safe, taste good and smell fine – yet be unsafe to drink.


Water quality is based on guidelines established under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA).  Primary Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) are the maximum level of a contaminant in water that is considered safe for human consumption.  Any level of a contaminant that exceeds the MCL is considered unsafe for human consumption.  Municipal and Community supplied drinking water providers are required to test water they provide to the users to demonstrate that contaminants do not exceed the MCLs.  Private water well contaminant levels are not enforceable by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) but must meet MCLs for some parameters as required by state, county and lender specifications.


Knowledge is Power

An educated buyer/seller that understands the importance of well water quality is better able to make an informed decision about a property that replies on well water for the drinking water supply.

Information about well water quality is available from many sources.  The Maryland Department of Environment Water Supply Program oversees drinking water supplies in Maryland.  Their website address is:   A guide entitled Drinking Water from Household Wells is available from the EPA to help answer questions and provide links to additional information. The booklet can be viewed at pwells1.html.  Information is also available from local county health departments.  Another informative website for well owners is


Avoid Delays

Having the well water tested as soon as you have a ratified contract can ensure a smoother ride to the settlement table.  It can help to avoid delays in selling the home if there are water quality issues that need to be addressed and remedied.  The buyer’s lending institution will most likely require testing and the testing required will vary depending on the type of loan that is being obtained. Lenders will have a time limit on how long the results are valid, often they are only good for 30 days.  If the well has been tested and fails, appropriate treatment can be installed. A failed bacteria test may only require a chlorination treatment to the well or it may require the installation of a permanent disinfection system such as a UV light. Elevated nitrate levels may require the installation of an RO system, elevated turbidity may require installation of a sediment filter and an elevated lead may require the installation of an acid neutralizer and so on.  There truly is some sort of treatment available to remedy almost any water quality issue.


What tests should be conducted?

The buyer’s lending institution will most likely require that the well pass a water quality test prior to settlement. Most lenders require, at a minimum, testing for bacteria. Some lenders may require additional tests.  Checking the lender’s testing requirements for each loan can help to avoid delays at settlement.


Keep in mind that these tests are intended to ensure that the lender is not making a loan on a property with a faulty system in case they have to repossess the property. The testing is not necessarily required to protect the health of the residents.


What are the MCLs for drinking water?

Coliform bacteria/E.coli <1/100 ml or absent  (the < sign stands for less than and means not detected)

Coliform bacteria are present in soils and E.coli in human and animal feces.  The presence of these bacteria may indicate surface water intrusion contamination or contamination from a septic system.  EPA considers them to be the indicator organisms for “safe” drinking water.


Nitrate                           10 mg/L.

Nitrite                              1 mg/L

Major sources of nitrates or nitrites in drinking water include fertilizer, sewage and feedlots.  Infants who drink water containing nitrates in excess of MCL may develop shortness of breath and blue baby syndrome.


pH                    Recommended range for pH is 6.5 to 8.0; a pH of 7.0 is neutral

pH is a measure of how acid or alkaline the water is.  Low numbers indicate acidic water and can be associated with corrosion problems, pin hole plumbing leaks and can contribute to high lead and copper levels.


Lead                             0.015 mg/L

Lead enters drinking water primarily as a result of the corrosion of materials containing lead that are in the household plumbing such as lead based solder, brass and brass and chrome plated brass faucets.  High levels may cause delays in physical and mental development in children.  In adults it may contribute to kidney problems and high blood pressure.


Copper             1.3 mg/L

Water can be a significant source of copper intake depending on the pH of the water, the temperature of the water and the presence of copper pipes.  Copper has toxic effects at high dose levels and may cause kidney or liver damage but it is an essential element at lower levels.


Turbidity                       10 NTU


Turbidity refers to the degree of cloudiness in water due to suspended particles.  If turbidity increases after a rain, it can indicate that surface water intrusion is occurring in the well.  High turbidity levels are sometimes associated with disease-causing microorganisms such as viruses, parasites and bacteria.


Contact Fredericktowne Labs for information about other potential contaminants or specific concerns.