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Top 5 Red Flag Warnings about Septic System Design Engineers

Saturday, February 5th, 2011

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Here are the Top 5 warnings why you should not hire an engineer to design your septic system:

#1. He will beat any other engineer’s price by $100.00!

#2. He has a contractor that will give you a combined price for the  engineering and construction and furthermore, that contractor will beat anybody’s price!

#3. He can do the job cheaper than any other engineer because he has worked in your neighborhood before!

#4. He gives you a very simple keyword outline fee proposal that does not actually describe the engineering services to be performed!

#5. His fee proposal is only for the septic system design and does not include the fees for work that he has to perform during construction!

Your septic system is having problems or it has failed. You have been told that you need to hire an engineer to design a new septic system.

international-symbol-label-sym6-a-smIf during this hiring process you hear any of these Top 5 reasons, consider it to be a Red Flag Warning!

You are about to be fooled into spending more money than necessary and adding a considerable amount of aggravation to an already stressful problem.

Red Flag Warnings?

#1. He will beat any other engineer’s price by $100.00!

Isn’t that great? You do not have to do any further searching for an engineer. You don’t need to know about his qualifications or what services are to be performed by him, because this guy is saving you money (well at least $100.00). Engineering design services are not like buying a bag of cement at Home Depot. The fee for engineering design services is based on the amount of time being used and the staff that is performing these services. How can he guarantee that his fee will be lower? What is he not doing? Maybe he is not doing a design that is best suited for your property? Maybe he is using his standard design regardless of the construction cost?

#2. He has a contractor that will give you a combined price for the  engineering and construction and furthermore, that contractor will beat anybody’s price!

They must be psychic! The size of the leaching system is based on the results of the percolation test and the number of bedrooms in the house. The amount of excavation depends on the depth of the “good” soil (determined by the deep hole soil evaluation) and how much sand (if any) needs to be brought in to construct the system. The groundwater also causes an impact on the elevation of the system and the high groundwater could add a pump chamber to the system design.  How can a contractor know how much the construction will cost without actually having the holes dug and the design plan prepared? As for beating everybody’s price, what corners are being cut to do this?

Also, when its the contractor who hires the engineer, who does the engineer really work for? Not you! When it comes time during the construction of the system and the engineer has to go out to the site to observe the contractor’s work to confirm that it is properly built, does he represent you if something is wrong? If he is teamed up with the contractor, he is not going to mess-up his deal for future work with the contractor. Can you say, “Conflict of interest”?

#3. He can do the job cheaper than any other engineer because he has worked in your neighborhood before!

Knowing where you live does not really change the amount of work that the engineer needs to do in order to design the septic system. Does this sound like the gypsy work crews sealing driveways who are in your neighborhood and happen to have extra materials that they can sell you cheap, since the neighbor already paid for it? If he has records for your property lines, then this information will assist him in doing his work. He may have worked in your neighborhood, but did his previous plan have any problems with its approval? Check him out at the local Board of Health office and take a look at his work. Ask the neighbor about their experience with him and did he ask for extra fees once the project started.

#4. He gives you a very simple keyword outline fee proposal that does not actually describe the engineering services to be performed!

We don’t need no stinking paperwork!  You have to give him credit for trying, when the scope of his services just states, “Design septic system”! Well? This is what you want him to do, right? Will that design include the soil evaluation & percolation testing, existing conditions topographic survey and determination if wetlands issues will require other permits, location of your existing system and elevation of the pipe leaving your house, determination of the best technology to use at your property and possible local upgrade approvals to minimize impacts and construction costs? How about the testing fee and plan review fee that is typically paid to the Town? What about the cost of the excavating contractor to dig the percolation test hole and the deep holes for the soil evaluation?

If you hire this engineer, you can be assured one thing, that you will be told, “Oh, that was not part of my scope of work and it is an extra fee.”

#5. His fee proposal is only for the septic system design and does not include the fees for work that he has to perform during construction!

If you do get a defined scope of work, be sure it includes construction phase services. During the installation of the septic system the engineer (in Massachusetts) is required by the State Sanitary Code to make multiple site visits to view several stages of construction and to make measurements necessary to prepare a plan of the constructed system (this is called an “As-built” plan). When the system is elevated above the natural grade or additional filling is needed for Sanitary Code compliance, a topographic survey is performed after the system is back-filled /covered. This is called a “topographic  as-built” plan. The final as-built plan is submitted by the engineer to the Board of Health with a document that states his opinion that the system was constructed in accordance with the design plan and the permit issued by the Board of Health. This step is needed so you can get your Certificate of Compliance. There is a cost / fee associated with these construction phase services. If you do not have these construction phase items as part of your agreement, then you know you are going to pay more, especially if he cut his fee for the design phase.

international-symbol-label-sym18-a-sm But I need to hire a civil engineer to design my septic system.

What should I do?

The best advice to follow is to spend a little time and understand exactly what services your are buying and what costs are associated with those services. It is only human nature to want to follow the easier path (have someone else do the work for you). When it come to a septic system repair project, you could end up spending much more that was necessary. A little time spent now could mean larger savings for you in the future.

  • Be sure that the engineer has a good reputation and the quality of his work is also good. The local Board of Health is a good source of information, especially about engineers whose plans are always being returned for corrections and revisions before being approved.
  • The internet is a good research tool. If the engineer has a web page, review the information on septic system design.
  • When you call the engineer, do you get to speak with him and if you leave a message, does he promptly return your call?
  • Be sure to talk with the engineer to discuss your needs and project completion requirements. Ask him to send you a complete proposal. Don’t be intimidated if it takes several pages to describe the services. Take the time to read it and call the engineer back to ask your questions. Even visit his office to go over the scope of services and fees. This visit will also give you the opportunity to see the office.
  • Ask the engineer about other septic system projects that he has designed in your town.
  • Ask the engineer about his design approach. Does he design each system based on the individual property conditions or does he limit his designs to a few types of systems.

It you have any reservations about hiring a particular engineer, then don’t hire that engineer!

Before making calls and talking with an engineer about your project, you may want to get a better understanding about the process of replacing a failed septic system.

A straight forward description of this process is available free to download and it is called, “Valuable Information on Title 5 Septic System Perc. Testing, Soil Evaluation & Design Engineering.”

Do you have any other Red Flag Warnings to add to this Top 5 list?

You can comment and add them to this blog for all to see.

 

How to design a Septic System – Understand the Sanitary Code

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010

Since the late 1970′s, as a Civil Engineer, I have been involved with the design of Septic Systems, including the training of other young engineers.

If I was limited to only one piece of advice, it would be:

Understand the Sanitary Code!

In Massachusetts, the Sanitary Code was issued in 1978 under 310CMR15.00 and commonly called “Title 5″. A major revision took place in the mid 1990′s with further revisions during the last few years. In addition to the Code changes, the State has been issuing “policies” that clarify the Code and allow for the use of various “innovative and alternative” systems and components.

I have never subscribed to the “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” mentality. As each Code revision is published, I and my staff of civil engineers become familiar with the changes and new requirements. As new technologies are approved (for both remedial and general use) we get technical data from these companies, including in-house demonstration seminars.

I can’t understand how a designer will insist on using a conventional pipe and stone leaching system when there are so many choices available that would reduce the cost of the system. Well, maybe I do understand, they either don’t want to change, or, they are cutting their costs & fee and limiting the time spent on preparing the design plan. Some people like vanilla, but there are other flavors available and while you might pay a little more, there are added benefits in the long term.

Think of this as a round peg in a square hole. Depending on the size of the peg, you might be able to make it fit. But one size does not always fit all!

Do you remember Mission Impossible? At the beginning of the program, the team is selected from the stack of available members. While the design of a septic system is not an impossible task, having the right “team” of system components should be the ultimate goal.

In order to select the “team”, you need to understand the Code!

“Do-it-yourself” Septic System Design

Wednesday, January 6th, 2010

Having trouble with your Septic System? Can’t take a shower and run the washing machine at the same time without having to clean-up a system back-up? You have a nice wet green area in your yard when the rest of the lawn is brown? Do you think it is time to replace the old Septic System?

Why not “do it yourself”?

While some of the following information could apply to other States, the focus of this Blog is to address residential septic systems in Massachusetts.

The first step is to understand what is a Septic System, which is also known as an on-site sanitary wastewater disposal system. The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MA DEP) maintains a website with lots of information. The trick is navigating through the site (link to the main DEP Septic System page)  to find the answers you need. In Massachusetts, the design of septic systems is controlled by the State Sanitary Code (310 CMR 15.00) which is also known as Title 5 which can be obtained at this MA DEP Septic Systems/Title 5 link . Each community can also establish local regulations that have to be followed. You should check with the local Board of Health office.

Before you get started using the Code to do the design, let’s become familiar with the basic septic system components.

Septic Tank & Pump Chamber

Septic Tank & Pump Chamber

Sanitary wastewater leaves the house through the building sewer and flows by gravity into the Septic Tank. In some instances, the design requires a pump to move the septic tank effluent to the leaching system (also know as the soil absorption system or SAS)

The effluent leaving the septic tank and/or pump chamber has to be piped to a Distribution Box (“D” Box) before entering the SAS. The Distribution Box  is designed to allow the effluent to be distributed evenly into the leaching system by gravity (there are pressure dosed systems that do not use a “D” box).

Gravity Distribution Box with a force main inlet pipe

Distribution Box with force main inlet pipe

Distribution boxes are typically made of concrete and are available with multiple pipe openings and sizes.

The SAS or “leaching area” allows the distributed effluent to pass into the ground.

There are multiple types of systems and components that have been approved for general use in the design of this system component. The decision to use a pipe and stone leaching field, pipe and stone leaching trench, chamber system or other type of system should be based on the specific site conditions and property constraints.

No Aggregate Chamber Field

No Aggregate Chamber Field

The MA DEP web site also published a series of technical design documents that are available at this Guidance and Policy link.

Now that you are more familiar with the systems components and have copies of the regulations, there are a few more steps that need to be accomplished before you can work on the design. You will need to prepare a plan of your property to show the existing house as well as the site features, such as the driveway, trees, swimming pool, etc. This plan needs to show your property line (your deed will describe your property and may even reference a plan that shows your lot lines). This plan also needs to show topography (your town may require the topography to be based on a national datum and not an assumed elevation) and spot elevations at certain locations.  It is also helpful to know the location and invert elevation of the building sewer pipe at foundation as well as the location of your water service and other utilities (gas, electric, CATV). If you or your neighbors have a well (drinking water and or irrigation well), then they (all the wells) also need to be located and shown on the plan.

Topographic / Existing Conditions Plan

Topographic / Existing Conditions Plan

Do you have wetlands within 100 feet of your property or where the new septic system would be installed? Then you will need to have the edge of the wetlands determined, located and shown on the plan. Some towns have local Wetlands By-laws & Regulations which are more stringent that the State Regulations, so it may be best to contact your local Conservation Commission office.

Now that you have your worksheet plan, you can determine what area is available to locate the new septic system. The Code has a list of set-back distances that need to be followed, such as 10 ft. off the property line, etc.

The next step will require the services of a MA licensed Soil Evaluator to perform the official soil evaluation and percolation testing. This testing is witnessed by the local Board of Health and typically involves submitting an application along with a fee payment. The testing will involve the excavation of several deep (10 ft. plus) holes in the proposed system location, so you will need a larger backhoe.  You (or your excavating contractor) will need to obtain a “dig-safe” number and a Trench Permit (issued by the town).

Soil Evaluation

Soil Evaluation

The soil evaluation will determine the depth and suitability of the soil, the elevation of the estimated seasonal high groundwater and the percolation rate. These items are all used in determining the elevation of the system components as well as the size of the SAS.

If you have a property that has high groundwater and the good soils are saturated (can’t perform the percolation test), then a soil sample can be taken to a State Certified Soils Lab to perform an analysis to determine the classification for establishing a percolation rate. This is only allowed for system replacement when no increase in flow is proposed.

Speaking of flow, the Code requires you to use a design flow based on the total number of bedrooms. If you have a house with more than 10 rooms, you are required to do a mathematical calculation to arrive at the bedroom count. The Code uses 110 gallons per day per bedroom with a three bedroom minimum design. Some towns require a higher design flow amount.

Now you can take all of this information and do the design for your septic system! The Code has a listing of all the items that must be presented on the design plan and some towns have additional content requirements.

In Massachusetts, the final design plans that are submitted to the Board of Health for approval must be prepared by a Registered Sanitarian or a Registered Professional Engineer.

Maybe the “do-it-yourself” method is not a good idea.

However, by knowing what is involved with this process and the multiple options for replacing a failed septic system, you can use this knowledge in hiring the Sanitarian or Professional Engineer who will work closely with you in preparing a final plan that is best suited for your property.

Municipal Consulting – Construction Observation Services

Saturday, September 5th, 2009

Municipal consulting services for Planning Boards are not limited to peer reviews. Some projects that are approved do require oversight during construction. The extent of the involvement of the Town on a private project is typically established in the project’s approval conditions. For example, the proper installation of the drainage system would be critical to the protection of the public, including down gradient abutters. In this instance, the Board would impose a condition that would require the developer / applicant to contact the Planning Board Consultant to view the drainage system installation.

In-ground stormwater system

In-ground stormwater system in Abington, MA

By having the Board’s Consultant observe the installation, both the developer and the public will benefit. The developer has another professional viewing the construction to confirm that the developer is getting a properly installed system. The public has an independent paid professional confirming that the system is being properly installed.

Not every Town imposes these requirements.

Follow this link for more information regarding our Municipal Consulting Services.