The City Council meeting held on Thursday, Sept. 12, included a discussion of a proposed change to the City’s septic ordinance that would add a point-of-sale clause. Approximately 80 residents attended the meeting, many of them interested in the topic and concerned about the possible effects such a change would have on their individual septic systems. Some residents directed questions to the City’s Sanitary Inspector, Brian Humpal, who gave answers based on his experience inspecting septic systems over the past 5 years for the City.

In the interest in continuing the discussion and clarifying some of the points made at that meeting, what follows are some truths and fictions relating to septic systems.


“My septic system gets pumped every two years, as mandated by the City, so that means my septic system is in compliance.”

That’s not how compliance works. “Compliance” is a technical term used by the sanitation profession and means that a system meets the state’s subsurface sewage treatment standards and criteria. A licensed inspector performs the inspection resulting in a certificate. The system may be deemed compliant—that is the outcome everyone wants! If a system fails the inspection, it will result in a notice of noncompliance or an imminent health risk. An imminent health risk means you will have to fix your system as soon as possible. Noncompliance means you have two years in which to upgrade or replace your system and get a compliance certificate. Certificates are good for three years (a newly installed system’s compliance certificate is good for 5 years), and a second opinion on findings can be requested.


“If the point-of-sale ordinance passes in North Oaks, I will have trouble selling my house because my septic system is old.”

If the point-of-sale ordinance passes, you will be required to have a compliance inspection of your system. If your system is found compliant, that would be an attractive selling point to potential buyers. If your system fails compliance, either you or the buyer will have to take responsibility for upgrading/replacing the system within two years. As the seller, 

you can take on 100% of this cost upfront and before your home is listed. Or you could have the buyer agree to replace the system, adjusting the list price of your home accordingly. Or you and the buyer can work out an agreement of something in between. The point-of-sale ordinance is designed to get failing systems fixed; it doesn’t matter to the City of North Oaks whether it is the current or future homeowner who takes care of this.


“My system is a cesspool. I’m doomed!”

If your septic system is classified as a cesspool, drywell or seepage tank, it means it was designed and installed in the 1950s–1970s. Your system is therefore 44 to 64 years old. When you factor in that the average lifespan of a septic system is 30 years, you do indeed have a very old system that has gone well beyond what it was intended to when it was first installed. If a compliance test is done on a cesspool, it will be found noncompliant. 


“I put in a new septic system 8 years ago. My system is compliant!”

Well, no. Again, it is the compliance certificate that deems your system compliant, and a new system’s compliance certificate is only good for 5 years. If you wanted to sell your house tomorrow, you would need to have the inspection for compliance again. You should pass, but care and maintenance of a system are crucial to its health: do you use a garbage disposal? Wash harsh chemicals, solvents and cooking grease down the drain? Do eight loads of laundry a day? These questions represent septic “no-no’s” that can shorten the life of a septic system (see below for more “do’s and don’ts for septic systems).


“The cost of a new septic system is expensive. The point-of-sale ordinance will depress home sales and property values in North Oaks.”

Any home has maintenance and upkeep costs associated with it, and a septic system is certainly a major component of your house that requires a financial responsibility on your end. Anyone who bought a home with a septic system should understand how it works, is best maintained, and what the potential costs will be to fix it. Not requiring a point of sale does not stop the march of time: all septic systems will age and need replacement at some point. Pretending this is not the case, or passing the responsibility on to the next owner, does not responsibly address the situation. The point-of-sale contingency to the City’s ordinance would bring failing systems to the homeowner’s and City’s attention; it will not change the intrinsic costs related to septic systems that apply regardless of whether or not a home is for sale.  


“I’m not sure what kind of septic system I have or how old it is.”

The City offices at 100 Village Center Dr., Suite 230, have files on all the septic systems in North Oaks, including yours. Come in and take a look at your home’s folder and learn about your system. The City staff will make you copies of any documents you’d like, and you can also take photos of the paperwork on your phone. All these records are open to the public. You can also call the office at 651-792-7750 and someone will be happy to “talk septic” with you. 


—Gretchen Needham, City of North Oaks

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