Opinion

Septic pitfalls and resolutions

In the words of humorist Erma Bombeck, “The grass is always greener over the septic tank.” Having issues with your septic system is no laughing matter. It is important that your system be maintained so that it will function as intended because repair or replacement can be very costly. If a malfunctioning system is discovered, the system must be corrected or its use discontinued. 

The Maine Plumbing Code requires that before a building permit is issued, the municipality must verify that the structure has a proper method of wastewater disposal. Caribou’s ordinance requires that properties within the public sewer system service area must connect to the Caribou Utilities District (CUD). Many homes in Caribou are in rural areas and have a private subsurface wastewater disposal system. 

According to local site evaluator Dana Chapman, the system design is $400 unless a backhoe is used to dig test pits 48 inches deep, which adds an additional $100-$200.  Mr. Chapman said, “Only after the HHE-200 septic plan is done can a contractor give a price quote. Many things can vary, for example if a pump is needed, the amount and type of fill, soil conditions present and if the system is in-ground or above ground.”  

The HHE-200 is then reviewed and approved by the local plumbing inspector, a permit number is assigned and fees collected. If work is started before the permit is issued, state law dictates that fees are doubled. It is important that the owner or contractor call for the required inspections during construction. 

The most commonly installed system is a “stone and pipe” septic field with a 1,000-gallon concrete septic tank. Installation will range from $8,500 to $10,000. If you have a small lot or unsuitable soils, the site evaluator might suggest a septic field constructed a proprietary product, which will raise the installation costs of the system by an additional $3,000 to $4,000. 

Note: site evaluators and system installers are private contractors and prices will differ. After a system is designed, the installer has 24 months after it is permitted to start work on the system to the inspector’s satisfaction. If this doesn’t happen, the permit will expire, and the site evaluator must revisit the property. When a building permit application is submitted which would require an expansion of the existing system — such as adding additional bedrooms — septic system information is required. The plumbing code will allow the owner to use the existing system if there is adequate room on the lot to construct a properly sized system. 

Prior to building permit issuance, the owner must have a replacement system designed then reviewed and approved by the inspector. No permit is issued, and no fees collected. Instead, this new design is recorded at the Registry of Deeds and abutting landowners are notified by certified mail so that a new well is not installed that would interfere with installation at a later date. State site evaluator Brent Lawson wrote in a recent email, “When a septic system is recorded with the Registry of Deeds, all time stops for that design and as long as it is recorded, it is still permittable whenever it is taken out providing all, if any, variances are approved by the proper departments before it is recorded and installed even if it is 10 years from the design date. No revision has to be done.” 

Minimum fees for plumbing permits are set by the state. The fees for external plumbing depend on the components installed. A complete non-engineered disposal system (most common) is $250 and if a variance is required, there is an additional $20 fee. Every municipality must account for permits issued and fees collected to the state along with 25 percent of plumbing fees and 100 percent of DEP surcharge fees ($15 for full septic system) collected.

When a property is listed for sale, the state-required disclosure requires septic system information. If the home is purchased with a federally guaranteed loan (FHA or USDA/RH), the appraiser may need to provide a statement that the septic tank and disposal field are within the required setback distances from the well and property lines. With a copy of the permitted design, the appraiser can report information to the lender. If no information is known, a licensed site evaluator can be hired to complete a Septic System Inspection Report (HHE-240). The cost is typically $150-$250 if non-invasive, and if a backhoe is required to excavate the leach field, that cost rises to $300-$800. 

To search for Maine permits, visit https://www1.maine.gov/cgi-bin/online/mecdc/septicplans/index.pl.

If you have any questions about tax assessment, plumbing or other permits, please call me at 493 – 5961 or send me an e-mail: pthompson@cariboumaine.org. I am grateful every day to be in your service.

Penny Thompson is Caribou’s tax assessor and building official. She can be reached at 493-5961 or pthompson@cariboumaine.org.

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