Discourage Do-It-Yourself Inspections

When unprepared homeowners start poking around in the septic tank, bad things can happen. Tell them to call a professional.
Discourage Do-It-Yourself Inspections
Contact Jim with your comments, questions and opinions at editor@pumper.com

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I’m pretty handy around the house. I’ll swap out the sump pump in the basement. I have a table saw and use it to build birdhouses, simple furniture and the like. In the garage I perform minor maintenance on my vehicles, like oil changes, installing a new starter motor, etc.

But while I consider myself a handyman, I hope I’m smart enough to know when to leave a home improvement or maintenance project to the professionals. One of those jobs would be inspecting the septic system.

Like me, you probably scratch your head and wonder why in the world a homeowner would think to undertake a septic inspection or repair. We know it’s dirty and unpleasant work.

We know it can be dangerous duty working around electricity and water, as well as dealing with toxic fumes. We know it can take years of experience to effectively diagnose a failing septic system.


Despite the many impediments, we still hear about an occasional do-it-yourselfer who gets in over his head (literally) trying to repair a septic system and needs to be bailed out (again, literally) by his friendly neighborhood pumping professional.

At the same time, the home handyman is also being encouraged to take inspections into his own hands by folks who ought to know better, some state and county health department officials.

The trend from health departments for some time has been to combat the threat of groundwater pollution by requiring homeowners to adhere to mandatory periodic septic system inspections. This is wise and prudent. Every pumper I know can tell horror stories about encountering septic tanks that haven’t been maintained in 20, 30 or even more years. It’s high time that routine maintenance is required for septic systems in every corner of this great land.

But to temper the outrage some homeowners may feel over paying for septic pumping, some governments are choosing to let folks be in charge of inspecting their own systems and reporting the condition. Hmm, where can that plan go haywire?


Ripped from the headlines, let’s look at a recent story out of Plympton, Massachusetts, involving a man rescued from his septic tank after he fell in while attempting to make his own repair. According to several news accounts, the man was screaming for help while standing inside his tank, waist-deep in septage.

“He had been doing a small repair on his own. He was one of the people who lived in the residence,” said local fire chief, Warren Borsari, whose technical rescue team saved the man. “He was standing on a stepladder inside of the tank and the stepladder broke and he fell right into it.’’

The man suffered minor injuries, but it could have been worse, the chief said. As we know, even a qualified technician doesn’t climb into a septic tank without confined-space gear for fear of being overcome by hydrogen sulfide gas.

“He was scared, absolutely, and he could have been intoxicated also, but because he was in compromised atmosphere and a lack of oxygen, it could have been all of the above that was causing him problems,” Borsari told reporters.


With that story in mind, you tell me if empowering homeowners to do their own inspections seems like a good idea. I’ve written about Washington state homeowner septic service training courses in the past. Most recently, Clark County, Washington, is offering a $15, three-hour class to certify homeowners to inspect their own onsite systems. For many reasons, this doesn’t seem like the best idea.

In Licking County, Ohio, officials are going to require inspections every three years to identify neglected and failing systems with the potential to pollute groundwater and spread disease. Sounds like a good plan. But some folks are claiming the inspections could “undermine local control,” “negatively impact property rights,” and hurt senior citizens living on a fixed income.

To appease homeowners who don’t value the clean, safe water argument, officials hinted that, perhaps, inspections could be performed by homeowners who receive training.

If, like me, you are questioning the effectiveness of do-it-yourself inspections, consider an interesting provision in the Clark County program: Homeowners can only perform every other required three-year inspection. Presumably the next inspection will have to be done by a “more qualified” person, such as a septic service professional. That tells me officials don’t have confidence in the ability of homeowners to perform an adequate inspection or they cannot be trusted to report on the condition of their own systems.

From my perspective, those concerns are well founded.

First of all, homeowners taking a $15 course can’t be expected to have the same background and knowledge as a septic service professional with many years of field experience. We all know the vast majority of homeowners are not equipped to diagnose the effectiveness of their septic systems. They are not really interested in understanding their systems but are motivated by the idea of saving a few dollars. Why would officials entrusted to protect the water supply and the environment settle for inspections of questionable value?
Secondly, shouldn’t all inspections be performed by an impartial observer? Septic service professionals can be counted on to give a full and accurate appraisal of the condition of a

septic system. A homeowner with a mindset to spend as little as possible on wastewater treatment might choose not to mention a problem that could trigger extensive repairs or replacement. I’m not saying this will happen, but there’s room to believe it could in some cases.


As an industry, we must encourage homeowners to protect their systems and their health through routine septic system inspections performed by trained professionals. When you talk to customers or local government officials, explain why maintaining septic systems should not be a project for the weekend handyman. You’re looking out for the safety of homeowners and to protect the environment.

The last thing we want is to hear about another homeowner standing waist-deep in septage and calling for help.


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