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Understanding private septic systems and wells

Often home buyers have questions about buying a house that has a private well or septic system. These systems are very common in this area, and are quite easy to maintain. Here’s a basic snapshot of how these systems work and how to maintain them.

Private wells
Many homes in Boston suburbs such as Carlisle, Dover, Holliston, Hopkinton, Lincoln, and Sherborn use private well water as opposed to obtaining water from a publicly run system.

How they work
In these systems, water is pumped up from an aquifer in the ground through a well pipe to fill a tank in the basement of the house. When the water drops below a certain level in the tank, the well pump fills it back up. The pump shuts off automatically when the pressure is reestablished.

What to know before buying
If you’re buying a home that has a private well, be sure to ask your home inspector to test the water quantity and water quality. The water quantity test ensures there is a sufficient amount of water available in the well and checks that there is sufficient water pressure. The water quality test is for safety to see ensure that there aren’t harmful contaminants in the water.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends that you test well water for arsenic, chloride, copper, fluoride, hardness, iron, lead, manganese, pH, and sodium, but your home inspector may recommend additional tests, such as:
•    Pesticides if the home is very close to a working farm
•    Radon, particularly in bedrock wells
•    Lead if the home has lead pipes

It’s a good idea to test your well water annually to be sure there have been no significant changes to water quality.

Well maintenance
To keep your well in good working order, have the well system, including the pump, storage tank, pipes, and valves inspected every 10 years by a qualified well driller or pump installer. If you notice cracks or damage to the well casing or well cap, contact your well maintenance company to have it repaired before more damage occurs. Also, be sure to keep hazardous materials, such as fertilizer and pesticides away from your well. In addition, be careful when mowing around the well so you don’t damage the well cover.

For more information, get a free copy of the Department of Environmental Protection’s “Guide to Water Quality Testing for Private Wells”.


Private septic systems
Private septic systems are common in many Boston suburbs, such as Carlisle, Dover, Holliston, Hopkinton, Lincoln, Sherborn, Southborough, Sudbury, Wayland, and Weston.

How they work
A septic system is essentially a small-scale sewage treatment system designed to safely dispose of waste. Instead of being connected to the city or town sewage system, a private septic system is contained underground at a homeowner’s property. A septic system typically includes a septic tank, distribution box, and soil absorption system. The septic tank separates the solid and liquid wastes and the soil absorption system provides additional treatment before distributing the wastewater to the ground.

What to know before buying
If you’re buying a home that has a private septic system, the person selling you the home is required to provide you with a Title V certificate validating that the septic system is in working order.

Professionals estimate that a typical septic system may be expected to last approximately between 20-40 years, but this may vary depending on a number of factors, such as the material used for the septic tank. For example, a steel tank may corrode faster than a concrete or fiberglass tank.

Septic system maintenance
Conventional septic systems can function well with minimal care. However, it’s important to have a septic company come to the house to inspect and pump out the septic system periodically. This may be done every 2-5 years, depending on various factors, such as the size of the home and number of residents. Pumping the system is usually only a few hundred dollars.

There are a few things to keep in mind to protect the system. For example, don't dump non-biodegradable materials such as cigarette butts or grease into the sink or toilet. Also, pesticides and other strong chemicals can disrupt the system so don’t dump them down the drain.

In addition, it’s beneficial to plant grasses or small shrubs near the system, but if you’re planting trees or large shrubs, be sure to plant them at least 30 feet away from the septic system, as the roots may damage the system. Lastly, most communities restrict you from using a garbage disposal if your home has a private septic system.

For more information, read the EPA’s “Homeowner’s Guide to Septic Systems”.