Angie’s List member Jo Ann Willis moved to her current Brooksville, Fla., home 17 years ago and received a rude awakening from its septic system five years later. “I had been spoiled coming from Lutz, where I never had to bother with a tank,” she says.
“My family kept going for five years without emptying the tank or having it inspected, and one day it backed up through my drain. It was a nightmare, with all that sewage coming up through the bathtub and showers.”
She hired highly rated Cliff’s Septic Tank Service in Brooksville to clear the backup. The work cost $140 at the time, but Willis still faced many hours of cleanup. She now calls Cliff’s back for regular inspections. “I’ve learned my lesson,” she says.
Experts say Willis escaped the worst of the possible consequences. A septic tank blowout can destroy the system and spew sludge into the nearby environment, contaminating the area and costing thousands of dollars to clean up. “The last thing you want is to find out something’s wrong via fetid wastewater in your lawn,” says Eric Casey, executive director of the National Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association, a trade group representing septic contractors.
Greg Mayfield, president of Southern Water & Soil in Zephyrhills, recommends homeowners have a professional inspect and empty the septic system at least once every five years. “If you have six or more people in the house, you probably want to have it done every two or three years,” he says.
In Florida, septic tanks serve about one-third of the households in the state, according to the Florida Department of Health, accounting for 2.6 million systems in all. Hillsborough County contains more than 120,000 such systems and Pinellas County contains 20,000, according to the county health departments. However, despite a recent legislative effort to require regular septic tank inspections statewide, most counties only require inspections when a tank is installed or repaired.
Kitina Bloom, operations manager for Quality Septic in Plant City, says most septic inspections and cleanouts cost between $200 and $250. This regular maintenance protects against much more expensive prospects, she says. “If it gets so full that it pushes solids into the drain field, we have to replace the field,” she says, referring to the area of underground pipes that distribute the waste collected in the septic system into the earth. “You’re looking at anywhere between $2,500 and $10,000 to do that work, depending on the size of the house.”
According to Mayfield, state regulations require residential systems to support a flow of at least 100 gallons per day, per bedroom, which he says works out to a drain field of about 125 square feet per bedroom. “However, that’s a bare minimum,” he says. “I tell people that they really need to be looking at about 125 square feet per person, not per bedroom.”
Bloom says both plumbers and septic contractors can work on septic systems. Plumbers obtain their licenses from county contracting boards and the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation, while septic tank contractors receive their licenses from the Department of Health. In either case, she says, the workers must comply with health department permitting and inspections.
Member Robert Backlund of Brandon, Fla., says he learned the importance of experienced contractors when he hired various companies to work on his septic tank over the years. “I had one try to tell me to spend $8,000 to completely replace the system,” he says. He eventually found the contractor to stick with when he called Southern Water & Soil. “They recommended I expand the size of my drain field, because I live alone and if I want to sell the house, it would help to have a field big enough to accommodate a family,” he says. He paid $4,200 for the expansion, and says he feels at ease knowing it improved the home’s resale value.
Septic tank inspections moved to the forefront of Florida politics in 2010, when the state legislature passed a bill mandating inspections every five years. The legislature repealed the bill in 2012. “The bill went too far and would have cost people too much, which is why they repealed it,” Mayfield says.
Casey says Florida’s bygone law represents the first statewide effort he’s heard of. “For the most part, state rules regarding inspections tend to be at the point of sale or transfer,” he says.
Regardless, Casey and other septic experts say the potential consequences, both financial and aesthetic, provide strong incentive for regular inspections.
“You have to think of your septic system as an appliance,” Casey says. “You get your air conditioner, furnace and other appliances serviced and inspected on a regular basis. You should approach your septic system the same way.”