If you’re like most people, you probably don’t spend much time thinking about wastewater.
But when you’re buying a new home, it’s a good idea to understand the essential role that wastewater management plays in maintaining a healthy, sustainable, and efficient living space. In fact, when it boils down to it, wastewater management is one of the most important considerations you need to make during the homebuying process.
That’s because homes quietly churn out substantial amounts of wastewater every day. Believe it or not, the average household in the United States produces around 138 gallons of wastewater each day from places like the tap, shower, washing machine, toilet, and dishwasher. To put things in perspective, that’s roughly seven standard bathtubs full of water.
But where does it all go?
There are two primary methods of dealing with household wastewater: septic and sewer systems. Ultimately, your home’s wastewater management system will directly impact your daily life, maintenance routine, and long-term expenses.
With all this in mind, let’s plunge deeper into the topic of septic versus sewer systems and explore how they work, their main differences, and their financial impact.
What is a septic system?
A septic system is a decentralized or localized method of treating and removing wastewater. With this type of system, all wastewater management takes place independently on the property without connecting to a central or municipal sewer.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), more than one in five households in the U.S. depend on individual septic or small community cluster system for wastewater treatment.
Septic systems are common in suburban and rural areas that lack access to public sewer systems. Some cities allow homeowners to install private septic systems, although this isn’t very common.
How does a septic system work?
Septic systems funnel household waste into a single underground tank for treatment and removal.
Sewage enters the tank from the house through a pipe and flows into a general basin where it goes through a separation process. Solid waste — like toilet paper and organic matter — sinks to the bottom of the tank and forms a layer of sludge. Lighter materials like oils and fats float to the top of the tank and generate a layer of scum.
The partially treated liquid that remains in the middle layer exits through a separate outlet pipe. This liquid contains special microbes and natural bacteria that break down and digest the organic matter, further treating the wastewater.
After exiting the septic tank, the effluent flows into a drain field — or leach field — for absorption. At this point, the water moves through a network of surrounding pipes and gravel and eventually returns to the soil which acts as a filter by removing harmful pollutants and pathogens. Eventually, the water becomes compatible with the groundwater and the local environment.
The pros and cons of using a septic system
- When you have a septic system, you don’t have to pay monthly sewer fees, which could lead to potential savings.
- Septic systems tend to be more environmentally friendly than centralized sewer systems. This is mainly because they use natural biological processes to break down waste. They also require less energy.
- Septic systems operate independently from centralized sewage networks. This gives the homeowner more control over things like maintenance, repairs, and upgrades.
- Septic systems provide effective wastewater management in rural or remote areas where centralized sewers are not available.
- It can be cost-prohibitive to install or replace a septic system. By one estimate, the average cost of a septic tank installation is around $7,000 while a complete septic system can run anywhere from $10,000 to $25,000. That said, with proper maintenance, the lifespan of a septic system is generally around 20 to 40 years or longer.
- Septic tanks are prone to operational failure due to inadequate maintenance, excessive water usage, and improper installation. They can also clog from excessive solids.
- Septic tanks can potentially contaminate surface and groundwater without proper installation or maintenance. This can lead to significant health risks. In addition, septic systems can produce foul odors when they malfunction, and also when they’re cleaned.
- A poorly functioning system can negatively impact your property value. Buyers may be unwilling to purchase a property with an outdated or unreliable septic system that’s prone to backing up.
- You’ll need to find reliable and cost-effective plumbers and septic system companies to help with ongoing maintenance and inspections. Not all companies are reliable or trustworthy, and picking the wrong vendor can lead to costly mistakes.
What is a sewer system?
A sewer system is a network of pipes and infrastructure for collecting, moving, and treating wastewater. Public sewer systems serve homes, businesses, and public communities.
Unlike a decentralized septic tank, all sewer processing takes place off-property at a dedicated treatment facility.
Sewer systems mainly exist in urban and suburban areas where houses and properties are close together.
How does a sewer system work?
In a sewer system, all wastewater flows through pipes into a main drain pipe — or house sewer — which runs from the house to the municipal line. The municipal sewer line moves wastewater from multiple homes and buildings into a central treatment plant.
When water enters the wastewater treatment plant, it goes through a series of cleansing processes to remove pollutants, contaminants, and harmful materials. This includes physical, biological, and chemical methods. After the water is clean, it flows back into the environment.
The pros and cons of using a public sewer
- Public sewers offer a convenient and reliable way for homeowners to manage wastewater. Homeowners don’t have to worry about things like septic tank pumping, installation, or maintenance, which saves time and money.
- Homes that connect to a public sewer system may have a higher property value; there aren’t any septic system costs to consider. Buyers often view properties that have reliable and well-maintained systems more favorably.
- Sewer systems prevent the need to have on-site wastewater storage. This prevents foul odors and unsightly backups.
- By using a sewer system, homeowners can avoid navigating septic system regulations and permitting processes. When you connect your home to a city or municipal sewer system, you hand over the responsibility of wastewater management to the local municipality, sparing yourself from having to maintain a private septic system.
- Homeowners still need to maintain the sewer lateral — the piping that connects their property to a main sewer line. These sewer pipes can occasionally clog and lead to backups that require professional repairs.
- Homes that connect to city sewer systems become dependent on them for wastewater removal. If a system fails to work, it can impact the property and take time to resolve.
- Local governments are responsible for wastewater treatment. Homeowners do not have direct control over their effectiveness and environmental impact.
- Sewer systems traverse congested urban areas, making them more vulnerable to external disruptions like construction, accidents, and utility conflicts.
Septic tanks vs. city sewer: Maintenance costs
As a homeowner, you’re going to wind up paying for wastewater maintenance whether you purchase a property with a septic tank or one that’s plugged into the public sewer system. There’s no getting around it.
Even so, understanding the differences in maintenance costs and responsibilities can help you make a decision that best suits your preferences, needs, and budget.
With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at how maintenance costs differ between septic tanks and city sewers.
Septic tank maintenance costs
Septic tanks require routine pumping in order to eliminate scum and solid waste. Failure to remove waste can lead to clogs and overflow.
Septic tank pumping frequency depends on the size of your tank, water usage, and household size. So, if you opt for a smaller tank to save money, you may wind up paying more over time in pumping fees.
When buying a home, it helps to think about how long you intend to stay in the property. If you’re planning to move again in three to five years, you might be able to avoid having to pump your tank — particularly if you have a larger tank and only two people live in the house.
It’s critical to inspect your tank regularly for leaks, damage, and proper functionality. Inspection frequency depends on local regulations and the age of your system. Most homeowners inspect their tanks every one to three years.
Repairs and replacements
Septic systems require routine repairs or replacements due to issues like clogs, damage, and filters. Keeping up with routine maintenance can help avoid costly repairs.
Sewer system maintenance costs
Most municipalities charge taxpayers to use public sewer systems, and the average U.S. sewer bill is $66.80 per month. However, this can vary depending on water usage, the availability of local water supplies, and location.
If your property doesn’t have a connection to a sewer system, you’ll need to pay a hookup fee to access public lines. This fee covers the cost of extending the sewer from the property to the main network.
In most cases, local governments don’t directly charge for sewer abandonment or disconnecting from a network. However, you may wind up paying indirectly for disconnection permits, plumbing changes, and inspections. Disconnecting from a sewer may also negatively impact your property value.
Permit fees and inspections
Some municipalities charge homeowners to connect to local sewer systems or perform repairs or construction. You may also need to pay for local inspections to ensure compliance with building and safety codes.
Sewer lateral and service
While homeowners don’t need to maintain public sewer infrastructure, they are typically responsible for the sewer service line that connects their property to the main sewer line. This can require maintenance, repairs, or replacements.
Need some advice? Home Approach is here to help
As you can see, wastewater management is a big topic of concern for home buyers — and something that requires careful consideration. Both options have pros and cons, making it difficult to determine which is right for your specific needs.
Home Approach specializes in helping home buyers like you navigate the first-time purchasing process. Our experts specialize in breaking down complex real estate topics so they’re easy for you to understand. If you’re on the fence about whether to go with a home that has its own septic system or one that’s connected to a public sewer system, Home Approach can provide guidance and support.
Ready for a consultation? Sign up for Home Approach and speak with an expert today.