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Locating our septic drain field: more questions than answers

Always expect the worst and you’ll never be disappointed.

We had someone– let’s call him a consultant– come out last week to determine the location of our septic drain field (filter bed).  And it looks like the worst case scenario.  After poking around with a probe, he thinks he has located the lines for the leach field. If he is correct, we have a very expensive project ahead of us.

septic locate
X marks the spot. The orange flag marks what we believe is one of the septic drainage lines.

Waiting for confirmation.

The gentleman did not have time to do a full locate. He had just come from another job that was more of an emergency than ours.  We are talking about septic systems here, so you do the math.  However, he did promise to return sometime in the next week or so to do the complete job.

According to code, the leach field has to be at least 5 meters (about 16 and a half feet) away from any structure.  The closest drain line is only 12 feet from the house.  This wouldn’t be a problem as long as we don’t make any changes to the house– our current system would be grandfathered.    However, because we are adding bedrooms, chances are we would have to upgrade the system anyway. Therefore we would have to make sure the entire system– the tank and the drain field– complies with current code.

More questions than answers

Can we abandon one or more of the drainage lines in our leach field and add new ones so that it is far enough away for us to build our addition?

Answer:  Maybe.  Maybe not.  We are on a water shed, so we need to consult with the conservation authority to determine the 100 year level of the flood plain.  We may not be able to modify our current system and relocating to the front yard might be our only option.

Can we install a new septic system in our front yard and abandon the old one?

Answer:  Probably.  But because of the size of our yard, we may be forced to install a tertiary system.  What this means for us is a more expensive system to install AND higher maintenance costs.  A double whammy!

What is the absolute worst case scenario?

The worst case scenario has nothing to do with money.  If we cannot put the septic system in front and we cannot upgrade our existing system, we may not be able to go ahead with our renovation.  But wait, that’s not all.  We already have an illegal addition containing what could be classified as fourth bedroom. It might not have been allowed to be built in the first place, because of the limitations of the septic.  If that’s the case, the municipality could force us to tear down the addition and not put anything up in its place.  

The circular argument

I put in a call to a drainage contractor to find out if we can install the septic in our front yard.  He spoke with me on the phone and seemed more focused on the estimate side of things. But I wasn’t looking for “how much.”  I was only looking for “how.”  He insisted that he can’t do anything for me until he has the plans and measurements and square footage.

But we don’t know the measurements yet because we are still in the design stage. We need to know one thing before we can know the other. Right now we know neither.

I have emailed our architect to see if she has information regarding the flood plain. She will also have the accurate square footage of the house since she has the measured drawings. We’ll need to know this to properly size the septic system.

We will need to know the exact location and size of our current system. Maybe the tank is big enough. Maybe we will just have to do some modification to the drain field.  That would save us some money.  But somehow, knowing our luck with this house, that would be too easy so it’s unlikely that will be the case.

Best take-away advice from our experience

If you are buying a house with a septic system, make sure that you have it inspected as a condition of the sale.  Be absolutely certain of its location and whether it complies with current code, because that could limit your options for renovating in the future.


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