Wootten Home Inspections

About Well and Septic Systems

   by R. Lee Wootten


The Lower Eastern Shore has many homes that depend on well, water conditioner and septic systems. It is important that you, the home buyer, have a basic understanding of these systems.

First, I will address the well. The well consists of a pipe, metal or more commonly for newer wells, plastic which is driven or power washed vertically into the ground. The depth can vary depending on the area.. The lower few feet of the pipe has opening to permit water to enter.

The well pipe, typically two inch or four inch, will be located in your yard. It most commonly will be protruding approximately one foot above the ground. It is extremely important that this pipe is protected from damage. Should this pipe on a two inch system be damaged, i.e., fractured, thus allowing air to enter the pipe, ALL water to the system will be stopped since this type of water system must be air free to operate properly.

An important part of the water supply system is the pump. One type is the submersible pump. This pump is located at the bottom of typically a four inch well pipe. This unit pushes water to the house holding tank and pipes within the house when required. The holding tank will commonly be located in the crawl space or attached garage.

The other type of pump used is the suction pump. This pump is typically located within or under the house i.e. the crawl space or attached garage. The pump in fact draws the water from the well by creating a vacuum. The vacuum created by the pump allows the water to flow to the pump and to the holding tank and house hold system.

The power, electricity, to the pump in both systems is controlled by a pressure switch. This switch is preset to a value by the plumber based on the house requirements. Typically a range of 25 to 55 psi, pound per square inch. The pressure switch has a small water line which senses the available water pressure in the system. When the pressure drops to low, say 25 psi, the switch will turn the pump on. When the system pressure comes up to the preset value, say 55 psi, the switch turns the pump off.

Many times I am asked, How deep is my well?. The only person that knows the depth of your well in the installer. The only sure way to determine the accurate depth of a well would be to remove the top, lower a weight on a string to the bottom and measure the length of the string. Yes, the installer must register the well with the Health Department following the installation, but has he given the accurate depth?

All wells, at least those within the last twenty years, are registered with the county Health Department. When the well is installed the county requires the well to be tested for nitrates and bacteria. This is done for your safety. Many minerals may be present in your well water that can affect taste, smell, cooking and clothes washing. Some minerals can stain toilets, tubs and sinks.. A water conditioner may be required to remove many of the unwanted minerals and smells, thus improving the water quality.


The septic system consists of the sewer line, septic tank, distribution tank and drain field. The system works on gravity. First let me describe these components. The main sewer line running to the tank is generally a three or four inch line that slopes, allowing flow by gravity of the waste from the house to the septic tank. Smaller lines, typically one and one half inch for sinks, two inch for showers and three inch for toilets would feed into the main line. The pipe, on systems installed within the past thirty years, is Polyvinyl Chloride, commonly called PVC. This pipe typically requires little or no maintenance.

Modern septic tanks are made of concrete. There are two hatches, square opening, in the top of the tank used for clean out. The size of the tank required is determined by the number of bedrooms in the house. The local Health Department dictates the requirements, size, location and depth. Older systems, thirty years or older, may have steel tanks which will require replacement when they rust out.


The liquid rises to the top and overflows through a pipe near the top of the septic tank and flows to the distribution tank. The distribution tank has several ports which the drain field pipes are connected. The liquid waste water then flows, again by gravity, out into the drain field pipes.

The drain field consists of a number, generally two to four, pipes three inches in diameter. These pipes have holes in the side along their length to allow the waste liquid to escape. A stated earlier, the requirements, i.e. the size, location, length and depth of the system is determined by the local Health Department. The Health Department conducts a perk test on the property. This determines the soils ability to absorb the waste water. The waste water must be absorbed and go down into the ground. Being allowed to come to the surface of the ground would result in a health hazard.

Let me to a moment to describe the installation of the field drain. A trench is dug, perhaps three feet deep, two feet wide and thirty feet long. The trench will be partially filled with coarse gravel. The field drain pipe is installed and the trench and pipe are covered with additional coarse gravel to a level approximately eight inches below grade. The gravel is covered with a material to prevent dirt from leaching into the gravel from rain water. The remaining eight inches is filled with dirt. As the waste water enters the drain field runs out through the holes, into the gravel and down into the ground. This a simplified description of the septic system.

Some homes require one additional component in the septic system. As stated earlier, the Health Department dictates the location of the septic system including the drain field. In some cases the location of the drain field will be higher then the pipe from the septic tank. The septic system described above stated that the system relies on gravity.

Many people advocate using liquid laundry detergents when connected to a septic system. Theoricallyl the liquid detergent is more environmentally friendly then many powder detergents. I personally cannot confirm this as fact. Both have been using on my system for years with no apparent problems.


How far is the well from the septic system?

The distance is dictated by the Health Department, usually one hundred feet is the minimum.

Is my well water safe?

The Health Department requires ALL new wells to be tested for nitrates and bacteria. The levels must be below the level specified by the Health Department. The well depth can vary from around seventy feet to hundreds of feet.

Why does my water smell and taste different then water on public water systems?

Depending on your location and the depth of your well the minerals in the ground could effect the smell and taste of your water. There are many companies in this area that can test for these minerals and recommend a water treatment system to improve these condition.

Can waste water get into my well water?

There should be no problem with waste water entering your well in a system properly installed and approved by the local Health Department.

The Health Department tests the soil conditions for each building lot and determines the location and type of septic system required.

Do I need to have any service performed on the septic system?

Occasionally the septic system will require pumping. Some people advocate pumping the system every three to four years. However, many systems if properly maintained will not require pumping for years.

How often should my septic system be pumped out?

A properly used and operating system should in theory operate for years without requiring pumping. Most companies that pump septic systems recommend servicing the system every three years. I have had a septic system for over twenty five years. It has been my experience that the system can function properly for several years without requiring pumping.