How To Get A Septic Tank Installed – My Septic Install: Costs, Advice, Details And More

septic tank installationIf you’re anything like me, a home in the mountains or in the countryside has been a dream for a very long time. Having lived in the city where municipal sewer was available, I didn’t have to worry about such things. After I bought my land in the mountains of NC, I knew getting a septic system installed would be a necessity. Having just finished up getting my septic tank installed, I wanted to share my experience, the cost and other info for those who are doing the same thing

The land I bought is going to serve two purposes for me. The first being wanted a place I could move my tiny house in the future if I ever needed to. Having a piece of land with power, a well and a septic system for my tiny house would make it easy to roll up and connect. The second reason is, while I love my tiny house, it’s not my forever house. At some point I’m going to build a small home and this land is the perfect place.

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What Is A Septic Tank?

what is a septic tank

Let’s start with the basics. A septic tank is a sealed reservoir that’s buried and collects waste water. The solids will settle out, grease will rise and filtered liquids will flow out into a leach field. This allows you to safely collect, filter and distribute your black and grey water from your home. Over time, solids will collect in the tank and it will need to be cleaned.

Do I Need Permission For A Septic Tank? Permits?

do i need a permit for a septic tank

Yes, septic tanks in many countries are regulated to ensure public safety. In the United States, most permits for septics are issued through the state Department of Health.

spetic tankSetting aside the debate of smaller vs. larger government, the aim of this is to make sure that the septic field is installed properly and to make sure the ground water isn’t contaminated. This is something I can get behind, considering I’d like to know if my neighbors unmitigated sewage is seeping directly into my ground water.

Septic systems are simple systems, but the devil is in the details and getting them right is really important. I see a permit as money well spent in order to have a third party verify the important details are done properly. In my area, permits are pretty affordable.

Another important note is that if you build a septic without a permit, you might not be able to sell your home as easily in the future. Some banks require proper permitting before they issue a loan. At the very least, having your paperwork in order will be one less thing a buyer could negotiate against. If you don’t get it permitted, know the county could condemn your house and issue a fine.

Can You Install A Septic At All?

can you install a septic system

Realize that in some places because of the soil or municipality, you may not be allowed to have a septic. Some cities require you to be on their sewer system and won’t grant septic permits without extenuating circumstances granted by a variance. In general, if there is a sewer line on your street, you’ll be required to tap into it and will not be allowed a septic at all.

Choosing A Certified Septic Installer

choosing a certified septic system installer

Most places, if not all, require you to have a certified installer who has been through training. It’s important to remember that just because someone has gone through the classes doesn’t mean they’re good at what they do or run their business in a reputable manner. At the very least, they were informed of the proper way to do things, so one could hope some of it stuck.

choosing a certified septic system installerWhat is nice about this process is the county maintains a list of active certified installers. You can contact them directly to get an updated list (sometimes found on their website). Whatever you do, don’t assume or take someone’s word that they are certified with the county, always check directly with the health department.

I’d start with people listed close to your area, then work your way out from there. Call each person and trust your gut. It’s important to realize that the good installers are busy installers, so they may have to call you back or often they’ll answer their phone while running a track hoe. My installer asked a few questions then had me call his wife to schedule a time for a site visit.

With that said, look for people who are responsive, polite, organized, and time efficient. Schedule a time to meet each of them at the location and be wary of people who give quotes sight unseen. Shoot to have three quotes from three different people who you feel good about. That means you’ll want to have 5+ estimates from different people because you’ll naturally weed out some due to being late, not showing or something else that leaves you uneasy.

How Much Does A Septic Tank Installation Cost?

how much does a septic system install cost

When I started looking into septic system installations, cost was my number one question, but answers were not easy to find. There is a lot of variability in the cost of a septic install, so I’ll share the price and details of my system. I also wanted to outline some of the factors that impact the price and then share examples from others I surveyed to get a complete picture.

Factors That Impact Cost Of A Septic System

factors that impact the cost of a septic system

There are several things that impact how much your system is going to cost. It’s important to remember that while a portion of the price will be impacted by materials (largely commoditized and pretty similar costs across all your quotes), labor will be the biggest swing here. Labor costs are variable and can change based on how busy the installers are, how much of a pain they expect you or the job to be, etc. Permit costs in your area are what they are, so that will be the same across the board.

Municipality / Location – Like all things in real estate: location, location, location. The best way to understand this is to think about how your property prices compare to other areas. If you live in a high cost of living area or a town where home prices are expensive, your septic will cost more. When comparing your location to others, look at the average cost of homes, figure out the percent difference and apply that to septic costs for a rough idea.
Soil Types and Perking Tests – Soil is another major factor of cost because if you have well-draining soils, your system will have an easier time filtering the waste water. If your soil is poor, you’ll have to extend your drain lines more and more to make up the reduced capacity for the soil to filter. Basically, you make up for poor soil filtering by extending the area you filter into until it handles it properly. In some cases, soil isn’t viable or you don’t have enough room. A larger drain field equals more materials and more labor.
State Of The Economy – Simply put, when housing is booming, you’re going to pay more. If you’re in a recession, you’ll find prices to be more competitive.
How Busy They Are – The truth is installers charge more when they are busy. Much like the state of the economy, this is a supply and demand scenario. If there are enough jobs to fill their time for the next 30-90 days, they’re going to start asking for more. The trick is the good installers are often never short of work and the bad installers will pretend like they’re busy.

Try to ask around and see if there is a slow season or ask the installer if there is a time that you could wait on for a reduced price. Sometimes just being flexible and willing to wait will provide an opportunity to save some money. The installer may finish another job early, the inspector may be slow on another job or there could be a cancellation.

How Much Of A Pain You’ll Be – If you seem like you’re going to be a pain to work with, the price just went up. Be friendly and punctual, but also don’t be a push over. Sketchy contractors will try to take advantage of someone’s good nature. Realize and plan for the process taking longer than you expected it to take.
Access To Site And Terrain – It’s easiest to install a system in a flat, cleared space with a wide driveway that leads right to the land. My installer wanted to visit my site to evaluate the difficulty of the terrain and ensure it was accessible. If your lot needs cleared, is difficult to access or steep, expect prices to rise pretty quickly. That said, take the time to install a good driveway and clear the spot well. It will need accomplished anyway and it can save you money in the long run.
Permit Fees And EngineeringPermit fees are what they are. In my county they charged $350 for a septic permit and there is no way around it. Some places have much higher fees. Also, you’ll pay more if your lot requires some sort of special engineering.
Pumps And Cesspools – You ideally want your septic tank to be down hill of your house and the drain lines to be down hill of your tank. In some cases, your house might not be up hill of them. If this occurs, you’ll need to install a cesspool to collect the waste that will be pumped up to the field. These two things (cesspool and pump) are additional units to your septic tank and add extra expenses. I’d suggest avoiding lots that require this because it adds cost and complexity. It’s just one more thing to break and it has moving parts which are prone to failure.
Aerobic Vs. Anaerobic Septic Systems – In some cases, a municipality will require you to have an aerobic system. The basic difference between aerobic and anaerobic septic systems is the presence of oxygen. Traditional anaerobic septic systems operated in the relative absence of oxygen; the broken-down sewage must be able to live without oxygen. Aerobic septic tanks are also located underground, they use an aerator to add oxygen into the tank. Because of the added complexity and equipment, Aerobic systems are more expensive.
Conventional Vs. Mound Septic Systems – I don’t know too much about these other than what my realtor explained to me. Basically, in certain circumstances where the soil isn’t ideal, the water table is too high or there is a lot of rock involved, a mound system is required. This system is a pile of gravel, sand and other fillers to make an elevated septic system. They typically cost more and require extra engineering costs.

The Cost To Install My Septic

cost to install my system

My septic was a 1000-gallon cement tank with 300 feet of drain line in a well-draining soil. My permit was $350 and I spent $300 for a guy to come out with a backhoe and dig pits for my perk test. I made sure to have this done before the purchase of the land, my offer was contingent upon successfully getting a well and septic permit.

cost of a septic tank installI had the system designed for 4 bedrooms because I don’t know exactly what I want to do. Most likely I’m going to have a Master bedroom and a guest bedroom, then space to put two more bedrooms in the future (I’d finish them if I sell to increase resale value). My land is located in the mountains of NC which is pretty rural and low cost of living.

I chose this place because it had minimal building codes, no HOA or restrictions, and the county was pretty inexpensive tax wise. I say this for you to know that my scenario was the cheaper end of the spectrum. The one thing working against me was I had no contacts in the area at all, so I did my best to get multiple quotes.
In the end I think I ended up spending more than I had to, but I got very close to what others were paying at the time. I was on a time crunch as my permit expired at the end of the year, so I couldn’t delay things. After three quotes I settled on a contractor that I liked for $7,500 all in.

Cost To Install Other Systems

cost to install other systems

I took some time to get a better picture of costs by talking with several other people. Here is a breakdown of what their systems cost when they installed their septic system.

Louisiana

$7,000

  • 1,000 Gallon Tank
  • 5 Bedrooms
  • 400 Feet
  • Installed in 2015

California

$30,000

  • 1,800-Gallon Tank
  • 4 Bedrooms
  • 350 Feet
  • Installed in 2020

Tennessee

$3,500

  • 1,000-Gallon Tank
  • 3 Bedrooms
  • 230 Feet
  • Installed in 2012

Ohio

$7,000

  • 2,000 Gallon Tank
  • 4 Bedrooms
  • 500 Feet
  • Installed in 2004

Texas

$5,000

  • 1,000-Gallon Tank
  • 4 Bedrooms
  • 300 Feet
  • Installed in 2013

Oklahoma

$3,600

  • 1,000-Gallon Tank
  • 3 Bedrooms
  • 400 Feet
  • Installed in 2007

Nevada

$7,500

  • 1,250 Gallon Tank
  • 3 Bedrooms
  • 500 Feet
  • Installed in 2005

California

$8,500

  • 1,500-Gallon Tank
  • 3 Bedrooms
  • 275 Feet
  • Installed in 2019

Washington

$5,000

  • 1,000-Gallon Tank
  • 2 Bedrooms
  • 300 Feet
  • Installed in 2018

Michigan

$8,000

  • 1,500 Gallon Tank
  • 4 Bedrooms
  • 3 900-Gallon Dry Wells
  • Installed in 2019

Your State

Your Cost

  • How Many Gallons?
  • How Many Bedrooms?
  • How Many Feet of Drain Line?
  • When Was It Installed?
Let us know in the comments if you’ve had a septic installed and the details.

How To Install A Septic Tank System + My Installation Process

how to install a septic system

Installing a septic tank is pretty straight forward, they’re fairly simple systems. However, there are a lot of little details to get right and it’s often not something someone wants to attempt on their own if they’ve never done it before. Assuming you’re hiring someone to install it for you, talk with your county first to understand their process and requirements.

Talk With Your Local Officials

talk with your local officials

The nice thing about building in the countryside is code officials are much easier to work with than in the city. I’d suggest calling them and asking for details about the process, what it entails, and the order in which to complete the steps. Usually it starts with a perk test to get a septic installation permit.

They’ll come out and perform a soil drainage test called a “perk test”. The results of the perk test will let you know what size and type of system you’ll need to install. They’ll include that info on the permit.

Get Your Permits

get your permits

You’ll need to get all your paperwork done and permit in hand before you even talk with contractors. They get a lot of calls so they often won’t work with someone until you have that permit. Getting a permit can take time: between wait times, scheduling a perk test and going rounds with officials, it took me about 60 days.

One word of caution I’d offer is don’t take anyone’s word that a permit has been issued, have the county provide you an official copy of the permit directly. I learned this the hard way, another story for another day.

Talk With Local Contractors

talk with local contractors

Follow my advice about choosing a certified septic installer (I talked about this above [hop link]). You want to get at least three quotes from people who seem like they’d be good to work with and have actually come to the location.

Get Clarity On The Process

get clarity on the process

Ask your installer these questions and then reach out to the health department and verify the process.

  • When do you plan to start work?
  • How long will the work take?
  • What things would cause a delay?
  • What things could you encounter that would increase the price? (rocks etc.)
  • When will the inspection happen?
  • How and who will trigger the county to schedule the inspection?
  • What happens if we fail the inspection?
  • What happens if we pass the inspection?
  • What do I need to get from the county after this is done?

Set Expectations Up Front With Contractor

set expectations up front with contractor

An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure, so getting crystal clear up front with your installer is important. Have a conversation about these items below so you know what will happen, when it will happen and what happens if it all goes wrong.

  • Can you provide copies of your profession licenses, copy of your insurance policy etc.?
  • Can you provide a basic contract/warranty info ahead of time?
  • What is the best way to communicate with you?
  • What’s a reasonable turnaround time to expect a call back?
  • How much notice will I get when you’ve finalized a date to start work?
  • Do you want to be present during the work or not? Make that clear
  • When and how will payments be made?
  • Who is paying for materials? Equipment Rentals?
TIP: Some counties have systems that you can search by contractor’s name or license number. Search theirs to see how many permits are in their name and look for any liens, fines or other red flags.

Septic System Layout

septic system layout

The day of the installation should go pretty smoothly. Most of these installers are busy and they have the process down pat. Usually they’ll start by laying out the runs with a laser level, it’s technically possible to do it without one, but any professional should be using a level like this.

laser level
marking drain field

The goal here is to run the lines along the contour line of the land, so that the lines are running 1/8th to 1/4th of an inch downward slope per foot. This is all going to be oriented and placed to where you want your future home to be, so make sure you are clear on that. You usually need to be 15 feet from the house, but it varies by local codes.

Digging The Septic Tank Pit

digging septic tank pit

Next, they’re going to start digging the hole to drop your tank into, this should be above the leach field unless you have a pump or more complicated system. This hole will depend on the size of your tank, but usually about 8-10 feet deep. You want to watch the installers to make sure they check that the pit bottom is level once they’ve removed the material. The goal here is to have a reasonably level tank when they drop in the concrete or plastic tank. I think if I could do it all again, I’d ask them to have some sand or gravel to put as a base at the bottom, but that might be overkill.

digging hole for septic tank
hole for septic tank

Digging The Leach Field Trenches

digging the leech field trenches

Depending on several factors, they will either drop the tank in right then or start digging the trenches. During my installation, the tank delivery truck wasn’t coming for a few more hours so they kept digging.

digging trernches for leech field
septic tank leech field trench

This is where my contractors really showed their skill. The little backhoe they ran was a decent sized machine and the guy running it was able to get that slope of ¼ inch per foot with impressive accuracy. The other guy used the laser level and a grade rod to check the trench the entire way.

He also picked out larger rocks to prevent damage to the drain lines and used a hand shovel to smooth the bottom of the trench to be a consistent down slope.

Repeat For Each Of Your Lines

repeat for each of your lines

Next, they created additional trenches to get the required length, all the while picking out rocks, smoothing the trench floor and checking for the slope all along the length.

Install The Septic Tank

install a septic tank

At that point the delivery truck showed up with the tank and the drain lines. The truck had a built-in trestle arm that extended off the back of the truck to lower the tank into place.

delivery truck
trestle arm

They lowered the septic tank into the ground and checked the level of each corner with the laser level again.

septic tank in hole
laser level check

Installing The Drain Lines

installing the drain lines

The drain lines were an EZ-Flow or EZ-Drain style line. Basically, a corrugated drain line with perforations in it, surrounded by packing peanuts and held tight with a netting cover. After talking with a lot of people, this style has a pretty good track record and makes for quick installation. I’ve heard some bad reviews of the EZ-Flow style lines, but they were pretty few and far between, often with some other mitigating circumstances.

ez flow lines
ez flow drain line

EZFLOW drain lines – Note: remove white cover before installing

It’s important to make sure your installers put the lines in the correct way. The little sausages have a filter fabric cover the top half of the line, you want that on top so it screens dirt from getting into the lines and clogging it. The bottom half is not covered to allow for better drainage. Make sure that filter fabric is on top!

The lines come in a bundle as a set of three: a center drain line and two buffers on either side of it. This helps keep the dirt from getting in too close, allowing for increased drainage once buried.

drain lines in place
drain line coupler

This process went really fast. The sections were very light and they connected easily with the drain line couplers. Only the middle line needs to be connected because the two outside tubes are just spacers.

One final note is the importance of not driving any heavy equipment over these lines. A smaller truck or a smaller bobcat is fine, but nothing bigger or you’ll crush the lines. Make sure you know where they are and have the area fenced off during construction.

Connecting The Tank And Drain Lines

Connecting The Tank And Drain Lines

Once everything was laid out, they moved on to connecting it all up. It was a mix of semi flexible lines and PVC pipes. They again ensured the lines had the right slope to make sure the liquids flowed correctly.

connecting drain line to tank
drain line connections for a septic tank

It’s important to note that at this point everything should be totally open because the inspection requires an open pit. The inspector showed up at this point for me, so some of the photos are after the inspection and partially buried.

septic line connections
septic tank drain lines

Install The Septic Filter

install the septic filter

Inside the tank there is a hard-plastic filter that screens out solids of a certain size from entering the drain lines. You’re aiming to only have liquids flow out of the system into the lines. This should be pulled out and cleaned off each time you have your tank cleaned, roughly every 3 years.

installing a septic filter
septic tank filter

Get Inspected

get install inspected

This process was pretty painless. The inspector showed up and used the laser level to check the slope, looked at the connections, reviewed the permit and plot map, then signed off on everything. My installer informed me that the inspector doesn’t rake them over the coals as much as he used to when they first started. Your inspection might be more involved, my inspector told me he never had any issues with the systems these guys installed, even years later.

Mark The Tank Inlet

mark the septic tank location

I hadn’t thought about this, but when I build my house, I’ll need to actually connect the tank. My installer used a board to cover the opening of the tank to block dirt from getting in and also to make it really easy to find the opening when it came time to connect. This simple thing saves a lot of digging in the future.

septic tank
marking septic tank install

Fill in the Holes

fill in the holes

Next was putting all the dirt back in, but only after your inspection is complete! This part is pretty simple, but as you do it, make sure you don’t have any large rocks sitting on the lines. My installer followed the bucket and picked out rocks as they went. I was glad to see their attention to these details.

filling in holes
backfilling septic line trenches

Smooth Out And Final Grading

final grading

You most likely will have some left-over dirt, so I had them just spread it out over the space. Figuring that the soil will settle a little bit over time, I figured adding a little on top would be just about right.

grading out area
smoothing leech field dirt

Get Your Documentation From The County

documentation

The last step is to make sure you get everything you need for the septic for future use. This usually takes a few days to a few weeks, but it’s really important to get the documents.

Septic System FAQs

septic system faqs

Concrete Vs. Plastic Septic Tanks

Plastic tanks may be used in some areas and are sometimes preferred because they’re lighter. This makes them easier to install. The downside is they can be more easily damaged during installation and have been known to sometimes “float” up. Concrete tanks are heavy and stay in place. The delivery truck used for mine came with an arm to lower the tank in, so installing my concrete tank wasn’t too difficult.

How Long Will A Septic Last?

Typically, septic tanks will last 40+ years if installed correctly and properly maintained. Your mileage may vary depending on a lot of circumstances.

How Much Is A Septic Permit?

Permits typically start at $300 and can go into the thousands. Areas with high cost of living, more environmental review and tricky soils will cost more.

Will A Septic Tank Work Without Power?

In general, yes unless you have a pump as part of the system. Most systems rely on gravity, so the draining is a passive process.

Can You Use Bleach In Your Septic Tank?

In moderation, it’s possible to use bleach, but not highly recommended. A Septic tank operates on live bacteria cultures breaking things down. Bleach can kill those cultures. A small amount of bleach diluted among thousands of gallons will not be a big deal, but it should be used sparingly. Try to space out the use of bleach and use alternatives, like baking soda mixed with bleach.

How Often Should I Get my Septic Tank Pumped/Cleaned?

In general, you should get your septic tank cleaned every 2-3 years based on use and assuming proper design. If your septic tank is under sized then you should consider doing this more frequently.

How Much Does It Cost To Clean A Septic Tank?

Typically, you can expect to pay between $300 and $500 to have your tank cleaned.

Can You Install Your Own Septic Tank – DIY Options

Yes! In some cases, municipalities allow for owners to install their own, but realize you’re still subject to inspections etc. Some places will not allow it unless you’re licensed/certified. Installing your own system shouldn’t be taken lightly and speaking frankly, unless you have done them before or do similar work, I wouldn’t suggest it. Running the equipment to dig, getting the slopes just right, connecting things up and using the right materials are all important.

Your Turn!

  • How much was your system? Include size, run length, location, bedrooms, and year installed.
  • What tips do you have for getting a septic system installed?
7 Comments
  1. Ryan, thank you for this hugely insightful article. Homeowners rarely want to get their “hands dirty” when it comes to the topic of human waste disposal but it can obviously be a critical component of any house using a traditional waste system (which still tends to be the majority of homes on permanent foundations). Happy to see someone less shy about getting into the septic trenches and drilling down on so much helpful info for the rest of us. Thanks again!

  2. This article was excellent! Very informative!! Thank you!

  3. Ryan, Good stuff! This was one of my big learning items, so i’m sure it will be hugely helpful to many folks. I, too, have found my land in the NC mtns (watauga co) after 5 years of searching. Sounds a lot like your place and plans: small cottage, big garden, orchard… The home site is on a kinda rocky hill, so that increased the costs. I heard horror stories about the County approval process, so opted to pay a little extra for a “session law” soil engineer / perc test that got the layout and County approval done smoothly. That ran $2k. $400 for digging perc holes, as they hit a lot of rock and had to dig 2x as many as they hoped. Boone Health Dept well and septic permits were $850, and the full site clearing and grading, 100 yard long gravel drive, fully installed septic system (3br) ran $22k. it’s about 80 yards from the cottage down to the end of the septic field.
    I would have much preferred a composting toilet and grey water system, but permitting on those is very difficult and pricey.

  4. So ironic that you posted this when you did. I bought land 3 years ago, had it perc’d for a 600 sq/ft home, the county gave me the go ahead. Had it cleared last summer. Now, I am at a complete stand still. The septic est. is 7500k since I need a lift station and I have no clue how to negotiate the cost of a well. I went out there today and just sat and tried to figure out where to go from here. Soooooo overwhelming.

  5. I am thinking of purchasing land for a tiny home and this was an eye opening to the other costs that will accrue when planing for my future tiny home ownership. Thank you so much for this insight. Good stuff.

  6. In addition, an unpermitted installation of a septic tank can make a home difficult to sell and insure. Working with a professional is the best way to ensure that the septic tank is permitted and safely installed.

  7. I had some experience designing septic systems back in the 80’s. Things have changed quite a bit since then. We bored holes with an auger to check soils, then poured water in a hole and timed the perc rate. Good times. One thing that needed to be considered was where the well is. Most counties have a minimum distance between the well and septic field. Something to consider that was not mentioned in the article.

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