Ask the Builder: “How Do Wells & Septic Systems Work?”

Written by Andy Stauffer

July 28

andy stauffer home builder

Wells and septic systems are installed within the same time frame: before framing or foundation work begins. (What we call “site-prep”). Here’s a little info about each of them:

How Wells Work:

Wells today are essentially the same as they’ve been for thousands of years. In old movies, you’d see a little girl with a small bucket in her hand, skipping down to the family well to fetch water. Today is basically the same, only today we use pumps, drill bits and pipes. To begin, a hole several inches wide is drilled into the ground (usually several hundred feet) by a well driller who uses a large truck with a very long diamond-impregnated drill bit. This process can take hours, or even days, depending on the soil composition. Once the hole has been drilled, a pump is installed at the very bottom of the well which is connected to a pressure tank at the surface, which creates negative pressure to suck water out of the ground and push it into the home.

After this process, the County Health Department will test the water for simple potability (drinkability). If a more detailed analysis of the water is desired, a water sample is then taken to an environmental health laboratory. A cheap, quick way to test your water is to look in your dishwasher: is your water discoloring your plastic dishes? If so, you may have heavy minerals. Once a well is installed, there is no regular maintenance necessary. Occasionally, a well pump will need to be replaced, but they’re built to last for decades.

How Septic Systems Work:

Waste water from toilets (called “black water”) and runoff from showers, washing machines, sinks and dishwashers (called “grey water”) is collected and drained downhill into a two-chambered tank (called a “septic tank”). The first chamber catches and holds solid waste, while the liquid waste will spill over a specially designed wall (called a “baffle”), and into the second chamber, then out of the tank into a leach field. A leach field is a network of perforated pipes buried in gravel. This disseminates all liquid waste into the ground, responsibly, legally and hygienically.

Septic systems require more maintenance and care than wells. They also cannot be abused like sewer systems can. Unlike living in a city with a sewer system where you can flush anything and everything down the toilet or use a garbage disposal to discard items never meant for a sink in the first place, septic systems need special attention. Fats and oils, as well as bones and other solid matter should never be disposed of in a septic tank. Garbage disposals are also not recommended for septic systems as they will clog up the lines faster than anything.

All septic tanks should be pumped every few year or so, depending on how many people are living in the home. Septic tanks can also be probed with a scope to visually inspect for damage. Occasionally, complications arise, particularly with leach fields. We’ve had some clients with older homes with a leach field that had become completely saturated. In this situation, a new (secondary) leach field must be dug, or disastrous results can follow: a flooded basement, toilets backing up, etc.

When Stauffer & Sons Construction builds a home, we like to set the septic tank lower than the slab (bottom of the basement) whenever possible. This avoids needing a special pump to force waste uphill—which is problematic and not recommended.


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