Did you know that the San Lorenzo Valley Watershed has the highest density of septic systems of any comparable area in the State? This means, if you are buying or selling property in the San Lorenzo Valley (Ben Lomond, Felton, Brookdale or Boulder Creek), you’ll likely have to understand what it means to own and what can go wrong with a septic system.


The following are typical questions that buyers and/or sellers will ask when dealing with septic systems:

  • What is a septic system and how do I take care of it?
  • What are the benefits and downfalls of the different types of septic systems on the market?
  • What red flags do I need to look out for when purchasing or selling a home with a septic system?

We’ll go over the answers to these questions and more so that you can make informed decisions when buying or selling a property with a septic system.



Septic Systems: The Basics


This section covers how standard septic systems work, and the difference between standard and engineered systems.


What is a Septic System?


Here is a simple explanation of how a traditional septic system works:

  • All waste water runs out of your house from one main drainage pipe into a septic tank.
  • The septic tank is a buried, water-tight container usually made of concrete, fiberglass, or polyethylene (some older tanks in the San Lorenzo Valley are made out of redwood). The tank’s job is to hold the wastewater long enough to allow solids to settle down to the bottom, forming sludge, while the oil and grease floats to the top as scum. Compartments and a T-shaped outlet prevent the sludge and scum from leaving the tank and traveling into the drain-field area which is often referred to as a leach field.
  • Pretreated wastewater moves out of the septic tank and through pipes, eventually making its way to the porous soil of the leach field. The leach field is a shallow, covered, excavation made in unsaturated soil. As the wastewater percolates downwards throughout the leach field, the soil naturally removes harmful coliform bacteria, viruses and nutrients. Ultimately, this water is discharged into the groundwater beneath the leach field.





Types of Septic Systems


In the San Lorenzo Valley, regulations differ if your septic system is Standard vs Nonstandard.


A Standard Septic System is a conventional onsite sewage disposal system consisting of a septic tank and leach field which meet the current standards for tank size, leach field size, groundwater separation, setbacks from streams, cut banks, etc. Sometimes a property cannot facilitate a standard septic system, in which case an engineered system may be necessary.


Common reasons why a standard septic system cannot be installed:

  • The groundwater table is too high (more about this below).
  • Conventional systems and leach fields use the force of gravity to work properly. Some properties do not have the required layout, sloping or space for this kind of installation.
  • Local health ordinances may prevent a conventional system from being installed in certain areas, possibly due to water contamination concerns.

A Nonstandard System or Engineered system is a recently permitted septic system which either uses alternative technology or does not meet critical requirements for a standard conventional septic system, such as groundwater separation, leach field size, or availability of expansion area.


With an engineered system, you’re adding an extra component to the septic system to make process of treating effluent more efficient. Often times, this means the property owner will not need as large of a leach field. The process of installing an engineered system is usually more expensive: you end up paying for a consultant, additional testing, and inspections. The difference in cost between a standard and engineered septic, including installation, can come out to thousands of dollars.


Additionally, because these systems often require special operation conditions, Santa Cruz County staff may require an annual inspect and charge a fee for these inspections.



Septic System Maintenance, Ownership and Inspections


If you own a property with a septic system, there are certain things that you will have to be mindful of to ensure its longevity. The San Lorenzo Valley Women’s Club encourages septic system owners to:

  • Inspect your system every 1 to 3 years, and pump your tank every 3 to 5 years.
  • Don’t park, drive, or build on any part of your septic system. Compacting the soil can damage pipes and the tank.
  • Use water efficiently.
  • Landscape with wood chips, gravel, or shallow-root plants over septic system area. Tree and shrub roots can damage and clog the drainfield.
  • Never dispose of hazardous or non-biodegradable waste in sinks or toilets.
  • Be aware that certain types of cleaners may harm your septic system.

Take a look at this handout for more information on septic system ownership and maintenance.

When buying a home, you’ll most likely request a Septic System Inspection or can obtain one from the seller if he or she has performed one recently. Typically the inspection will include recommendations. You can use these findings to collect bids and better understand the cost and time required to repair or replace the septic system.



What Can Go Wrong with Septic Systems?


Truthfully, this post would be unacceptably long if we were to provide a comprehensive list of everything that could possibly go wrong with a septic system (not because they are notriously bad systems, rather #Murphyslaw!). However, the are some common issues that are more likely to come up in the San Lorenzo Valley and we’ve listed them below:


Failing Leach Field

A number of issues can cause a leach field to fail. The short-story is, if your leach field fails, it will likely need to be treated or replaced. If the latter, then your property will need to have enough space to accommodate a new leach field, or you may have to switch to an engineered system.


High Water Tables

Remember how we described the process in which wastewater slowly percolates through the ground before reaching the water table? If the water table has risen to the level of the leach field, you have a problem: when the water table is too high, there is no room for the wastewater to percolate down. As a result, wastewater coming from the house cannot move through the septic system easily and water may actually flow from the leach field back into the septic tank. Water tables can move upwards in times of high precipitation — i.e. when there is a lot of rain — which is why this may be an issue during the wet winters of the San Lorenzo Valley.


Cracked or Broken Tanks

Depending on the materials they are made of and other environmental factors, septic tanks and drainage pipes can get damaged in a number of ways. Here are some signs that your septic tank is cracked or damaged:

  • Foul Odor
  • Lush vegetation above the leach field or tank
  • Soggy spots in the yard
  • Standing water
  • Toilet or sinks backing up

The cost to repair depends on the severity of the damage, and can range from a few hundred to thousands of dollars.



Recourses for Current and Future Homeowners in the San Lorenzo Valley:


If you’re considering buying a home with a septic system in Santa Cruz County, you may find this Q&A provided by the County Environmental Health department answers some of your questions.


As an experienced team of Real Estate professionals in Santa Cruz County, we can help you to navigate the process of buying or selling a home with a septic system. Fill out the form below if you’d like more information and to start looking at homes in Santa Cruz County today!


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