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Research Waste Water Treatment Systems Before You Buy Land

Research Soil Composition & Waste Water Treatment Systems Before You Buy Rural Land

First United Realty Spring 2017


Owning land in a quiet rural setting is the goal of many, but understanding ahead of time some of the practical challenges that must be faced, will help you avoid costly mistakes. How to dispose of your wastewater is one of those challenges. Knowing ahead of time what the cost will be to install a county approved waste water system is critical to deciding what land to buy. A wide range of soil conditions determine which systems can be used and which ones can’t.  Modern highly engineered systems, which can be mandated by local health departments, can cost in excess of $20,000 to install, while traditional septic tanks average under $8,000 for a two bedroom two bath home.


Start by Getting a Percolation Test

County health departments require proof of soil absorption rates as a condition of receiving a waste water disposal certificate. If the property that you a planning to buy has heavy clay soils or is extremely rocky, you may not be able to use a conventional septic tank and leach field system which is by far the least expensive method. A percolation test will be required by your local authorities to demonstrate the absorption rate of the soil. This test is performed by digging three holes on the property. Two in the area of the proposed disposal field and one in the proposed reserve disposal field. Each test hole is dug to the County required depth. Once the holes are completed, a county representative will visit the property for a site and soils evaluation. During this inspection, an engineer will use a variety of testing methods to determine the rate at which the soil is able to absorb water that is introduced. The result will be used to help design the complexity of the disposal field that will be required to receive the effluent water from the waste water system once it is installed. Once the final plans for the system are approved by the County, an approval to construct will be issued. Installation may now proceed.

Standard Septic Tank and Leach Field System

This is by far the most simple as well as least expensive method to dispose of wastewater. The concept and installation is simple and time proven to be effective at eliminating wastewater. Septic tanks are large underground chambers designed to receive the wastewater. The heavier solids settle to the bottom of the chamber and are eventually eliminated by natural bacteria and bacteria introduced by products specifically formulated for that purpose. The lighter water based liquids are channeled out of the main chamber by a series of perforated pipes that transmit the liquids directly into the soil where they are leached into the ground. This area is known as the leach field. A leach field contains a series of pipes (usually 20 to 40 feet long) that extend out from the main tank.  Septic tanks require that a prescribed amount of area be dedicated for both the tank and leach field, so understanding the limitations of the lot size that you are considering buying is critical to your buying decision. If the lot is too small to handle both the home and the septic system, step away and look for another more suitable property.

Aerobic Treatment System

An aerobic treatment system or ATS is a small scale sewage system similar to a septic tank system, but which uses an aerobic process for digestion rather than just the anaerobic process used in septic systems. These systems are commonly found in rural areas where public sewers are not available, and may be used for a single residence or for a small group of homes.

Unlike the traditional septic system, the aerobic treatment system produces a high quality secondary effluent, which can be sterilized and used for surface irrigation. This allows much greater flexibility in the placement of the leach field, as well as cutting the required size of the leach field by as much as half.

Engineered Systems

If the land will not percolate at the required rate and qualify for a standard septic tank installation, then a much more costly engineered system will have to be specifically designed to do the job. The cost of the various engineered systems varies and can easily exceed $20,000. In addition to the high expense and ongoing maintenance requirements, engineered systems typically require the land owner to set aside a large portion of his property to build the system on. Not only will the taking of land limit the usability of the property (for nothing can be constructed upon it), it can also require the removal of precious trees and native plants that inspired the purchase of the land in the first place. Here are two of the most widely used engineered waste water systems:

A mound system is an alternative to the traditional rural septic system drain field. The mound system is an engineered drain field used in areas where septic systems are more prone to failure due to having extremely permeable or impermeable soils, soil with shallow cover over porous bedrock, and soils that have a high seasonal water table.

The primary waste liquids cleaning and purification action in a drain field is performed by a biofilm in the loose fill surrounding the perforated drain tile. If the soil permeability is too low, liquid is not absorbed fast enough, resulting in surface ponding of unsanitary liquids. If the soil permeability is too high, or is exposed to fractured bedrock, the wastewater quickly penetrates down to the water table before the biofilm has time to purify the water leading to contamination of the aquifer. In either situation, the mound system provides an ideal habitat for the biofilm and has the correct permeability to assure slow absorption of effluent into the mound before exiting as purified water into the surrounding environment.

EcocyclET systems

Most plants use photosynthesis and evapotranspiration (ET). EcocyclET is a closed-loop operation that employs lined beds of sand, crushed stone and gravels and specified plantings. Effluent from tanks, greywater, composting toilets leachate or urine from separating toilets, is recirculated through the bed. There, naturally occurring micro-organisms convert the chemical constituents of the wastewater into nutrients for plants growth. The impervious bed liner ensures that no effluent can enter the subsurface environment or nearby receiving waters. All the wastewater will be ultimately transpirated as un-transpirated effluent is drained back into a recycle tank, stored and pumped back to the bed when the conditions for evapotranspiration are optimal. The system can also be used as a greywater reuse planter to be installed where soils are too poor to be considered for a soil absorption system.

Buyer’s Guide to Purchasing Raw Land

The ownership of land means different things to different people. Some want to own property for its immediate use, others for use in later years, while still others prefer land ownership for its historic appreciation. Either way, deciding why you want to own land ahead time will make your land shopping experience more enjoyable and more successful.

If you’re someone who prefers lots of space between you and the nearest neighbor and are willing to invest the time and money to develop your land at your own pace, then you should strongly consider purchasing raw land. Raw land means just what it sounds like; it’s in its raw state without connections to power service, municipal water, telephone or sewer.  One of the prime advantages of buying raw acreage is its lower cost per acre. Typically unimproved land is sold at three to four times less than the cost of improved land. Buying raw land allows you to enjoy all of the benefits of large parcel ownership in secluded pristine environments at an affordable price.

Raw land is usually found in more remote or rural settings well away from major shopping, services and importantly, utility connections You don’t have to give up your power, phone and water though in order to live off of the grid out in the country.  Be sure to thoroughly investigate the following elements of an informed land purchase before buying and the acquisition should go smoothly for you.

Understanding the historic weather conditions for your region of interest is essential to your future enjoyment of the property. It’s easy to research with today’s wealth of statistical weather data available on the internet. If you plan on being self-sufficient, take the time to find land in a climate zone that is the most suitable for year round outdoor activities, the raising of livestock and for growing orchards and gardens. Although it’s rare to find the perfect year round climate, knowing what a given area’s annual weather conditions are will prepare you for each season’s rewards and challenges.

Check with the local county authority as to the property’s zoning to determine what you can and can’t do with the land. Obtain a written copy the county’s zoning ordinances and confirm that the property’s zoning conforms to your intended use. Although variances can be granted to allow non-compliant zoning uses, it’s far better to buy land with the zoning in place for your intended uses than to depend upon the county officials granting you a variance.

Access to clean potable groundwater should be your primary requirement before buying any land. Make sure that the land you buy has the water rights to pure water and that the water table is at an affordable drilling depth. If so, you can enjoy the benefits of owning your own private water supply which can sustain your family’s domestic and irrigation water needs for generations to come.  Many states require the developers of large rural tracts of land to provide prospective buyers with a state issued water quality and depth report. Make sure to ask for one before you buy raw land. Review it thoroughly and seek independent corroboration from local drillers.

Although raw land is typically situated in remote rural settings far away from city utility connections, you don’t have to give up your power, phone, water and sewer in order to live off of the grid out in the country. Power generation from modern solar panels, wind generators and gas/propane powered generators are not only highly efficient, they are also very affordable. Today’s cell tower & dish satellite services take care of all common communication needs including phone, internet and television. Waste water disposal is easily handled by the installation of traditional septic tanks or modern self-composting commodes.

It’s not enough to simply have a road to the land that you buy. It must be built along a title insured county recorded easement that will guarantee you legal access to your property without fear of being landlocked. Most rural properties are accessed by dirt surfaced roads which may not receive tax funded maintenance. Dirt roads that do not receive annual maintenance over time become eroded by rain, snow and usage making them impassable. This could mean serious consequences not only for your personal access but for that of delivery trucks and emergency vehicles. Be prepared to maintain the road to your property if no authority has that responsibility. A joint road maintenance agreement with your surrounding neighbors or owning land where a home owners association maintains your access are two practical solutions.

All corners of the land that you buy should be clearly monumented by licensed surveyors and a record of the survey should be recorded with the local county recorder’s office. Ask for a copy of the recorded map and walk the entire perimeter of the land before buying. Doing so will reveal any fencing or building encroachments from neighboring properties as well as any physical defects such as uncrossable washes or ravines.

Almost all property has had multiple ownerships over time. Confirming that past owners have transferred the title forward legally in a title insurable manner is an essential component to your decision buy or step away. Use the services of a registered title insurance company chartered to perform title searches and thoroughly review the preliminary title report they prepare in order to understand the condition of the title to the property. Doing so will prevent you inheriting liens, back taxes or pending judicial actions that could severely impact your use and enjoyment of the property.

Richard Peagler is the Senior Vice President of First United Realty with over 40 years of experience in the development and marketing of Arizona land.