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Hawaii

What is a Cesspool vs a Septic System in Hawaii?

Many of our buyer and seller clients have asked me to help explain what the differences are between two of the most common waste management systems in Hawaii, which are cesspools and septic systems. Simply put, I hate cesspools and they have cost me a lot of money in my real estate career and as the owner of various Hawaii properties throughout the last 30 years.

The Benefits of a Septic System

A septic system is multipart, with a tank that usually has a capacity between 1,000 to 1,500 gallons, a baffle and distribution box, and then a drain field that has manifold for liquid distribution. The septic system is aerobic, and breaks down the waste water quickly and percolates it back into the water table.

septic system

A Septic System

Cesspools do a terrible job of processing the water in general, but in high drainage areas just pass the water into the water table untreated and thus commonly create pollution in ground water sources. In 2016, the Hawaii State Legislature approved a tax credit to retrofit cesspools to septic systems in certain critical areas. You may qualify.

Since 1992, it has been illegal to construct a home in Maui using a cesspool, except in the Ulupalakua area. Septic systems were required starting in 1992. Most rural areas in Hawaii are not served by sewer and therefore either have a cesspool or septic system.

How to Find a Cesspool in Your Yard

A cesspool is just a big hole, generally with no lining at all from 12 to 20 feet deep, with a concrete cap on top with a pumping port. The system is anaerobic, by nature, and waste decomposes very slowly.

Some basics:

1. First of all, make sure the house was built pre-1993. If it was, it probably does have a cesspool, not a septic system.

2. Locate which side of the house it’s on. Cesspools, by code, have to be located at least 10 feet from the wall of the house. If the house is post and pier, you can look under the house and see the direction that the big 3 or 4-inch final drain goes. The cesspool is on that side of the house. (I’ve heard of a collapsed cesspool located right next to a house. It almost ate the house.)

If you have a slab house, it’s tougher. Look for a clean out around the outside perimeter of the house that a plumber might use to clean out the line. Usually, that main clean out goes to the cesspool.

3. Finally, ask the present owner or tenant if they have seen a brown circle in the yard when it was not raining very much. The soil on top of a cesspool usually dries out quicker than the surrounding yard. If they have a general idea of where the cesspool is, take a hollow tile block (a big heavy one), lift it high, and drop it. If you are over the cesspool, the ground vibrates a lot. If you are over dirt, it just goes “thud.” Generally, the pumping port, or “cork” as I call it, is in the center of the concrete.

plantationhouse

Locating a cesspool can be challenging, but there are some signs to look for…

Still Can’t Find It?

Generally, plumbers can find cesspools like this, or the pumping companies can do it. I do it a lot of the time when I take the listings on rural houses that I sell. When I can’t find the cesspool or the pumping port, I ask the owner to pay for a camera inspection by a plumber. They run a camera down the clean out with a radio locater showing where the camera is. When they find the cesspool, at least you know where to start digging. If the camera shows the water levels very low, then this is good news, and shows that the cesspool is at least functioning.

Diagnosing & Troubleshooting Cesspools

Once you have found the cesspool, find the cork in the cap, pull the cap, and see how high the water is. If it is within 4 feet of the top, you have a problem. You can treat a high cesspool with Sodium Hydroxide that you can buy in barrels at Brewer Environmental in Wailuku, or at other fertilizer stores in Hawaii, and the water generally will drop, but you really have to stay on top of them.

Remember, if you have a house and cottage hooked up to a single cesspool, the owner is in violation of Federal “large capacity cesspool” laws. This is a very expensive problem to deal with.

Once you have to pump a cesspool more than 2 times a year, it is considered a failed cesspool by the State Department of Health in Hawaii and they will want you to replace the system with a modern septic system. On very small lots and ones that are difficult to navigate with large equipment, this can be difficult, if not impossible.

Read about a few worst-case scenario cesspool issues.

Bottom Line

In summary, if you are purchasing a home in Hawaii, built pre-1993, that does not receive a sewer bill, you better be very careful. You could literally have a $15,000 bill two weeks after closing to replace a failed cesspool with a new septic system. I know. I have been there.

Aloha from the guy who has seen just about it all in Hawaii real estate,

Tracy Stice, R(B)
Tracy@HawaiiLife.com
808.281.5411

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Shane Ripley

July 31, 2014

Having lived in the high desert area of southern California for 13 years and owning two other southern California properties I have personal dealt with 5 cesspool systems. Experience shows lack of regular pumping is what often kills these systems. It seems that if everything is working why would you need to mess with it, right? That is what many home owners do how ever solids and minerals build up in the tank over the years so that these solids end up going directly in to the cesspool and clog it up. Regular pumping is recommended every 3 to 5 years depending on usage. And the other enemy is the tree roots. Products are sold to reduce tree root growth and may help some what however some trees are very aggressive and will greatly reduce the life of the system. Tracy you have done a great job of explaining the septic system and your years of personally dealing with these issues truly makes you the go to real estate professional for the up country Maui real estate market. Thank you for educating me on the up country area of Maui.

Shane Ripley

July 31, 2014

Having lived in the high desert area of southern California for 13 years and owning two other southern California properties I have personal dealt with 5 cesspool systems. Experience shows lack of regular pumping is what often kills these systems. It seems that if everything is working why would you need to mess with it, right? That is what many home owners do how ever solids and minerals build up in the tank over the years so that these solids end up going directly in to the cesspool and clog it up. Regular pumping is recommended every 3 to 5 years depending on usage. And the other enemy is the tree roots. Products are sold to reduce tree root growth and may help some what however some trees are very aggressive and will greatly reduce the life of the system. Tracy you have done a great job of explaining the septic system and your years of personally dealing with these issues truly makes you the go to real estate professional for the up country Maui real estate market. Thank you for educating me on the up country area of Maui.

Kirsten Carlson, R(S)

July 31, 2014

A good idea during the Inspection period for the Buyer to hire a professional Septic/Cesspool Inspector. We’ve had a couple issues come up when the inspections are done that the cesspool was failing and needed to be fixed/replaced by the Seller.

Maria

December 3, 2015

Kirsten.. do you know of any inspectors in Hawaii?

Kirsten Carlson, R(S)

July 31, 2014

A good idea during the Inspection period for the Buyer to hire a professional Septic/Cesspool Inspector. We’ve had a couple issues come up when the inspections are done that the cesspool was failing and needed to be fixed/replaced by the Seller.

Maria

December 3, 2015

Kirsten.. do you know of any inspectors in Hawaii?

Sharly Ward

July 31, 2014

Very good information, Tracy, For the life of me I cannot figure out why our county did not require septic systems after our rules went into effect. I would explain to purchasers of vacant lots that they would be required to install septic and they would so proudly let me know that they got away with a cesspool.
We know where that goes and it is not a pleasant thought. Water world wide is an important issue along with the environment. I have envy that your son joined your business. I also have been licensed since 1979 and hoped my daughter would join me. Cesspools are going to just become a bigger issue each year. Thanks for the info.

Sharly Ward

July 31, 2014

Very good information, Tracy, For the life of me I cannot figure out why our county did not require septic systems after our rules went into effect. I would explain to purchasers of vacant lots that they would be required to install septic and they would so proudly let me know that they got away with a cesspool.
We know where that goes and it is not a pleasant thought. Water world wide is an important issue along with the environment. I have envy that your son joined your business. I also have been licensed since 1979 and hoped my daughter would join me. Cesspools are going to just become a bigger issue each year. Thanks for the info.

Jeremy Stice

August 1, 2014

Dad,

This is a very informative blog post, thank you for sharing it. I used it extensively yesterday when I was helping one of my buyer clients in Wailuku to help locate the cesspool on the property that they are in the process of purchasing.

Jeremy Stice

August 1, 2014

Dad,

This is a very informative blog post, thank you for sharing it. I used it extensively yesterday when I was helping one of my buyer clients in Wailuku to help locate the cesspool on the property that they are in the process of purchasing.

India Paige, R(B)

August 2, 2014

Tracy,
Mahalo for the outline/answer for buyers to this commonly asked question. I mainly service the Big Island and Oahu/rural. All of Hawaii also uses mapping to determine CWDA’s (Critical Waste Water Disposal Areas). There are so many factors which determine if a property can use Cesspool, Septic, Aerobic Septic, Municipal Sewer, or Underground Injection System. Long gone are the days on the Big Island when we could ask by rule of thumb; “Bigger or smaller than 1 acre?”. The good news for our buyers is that Hawaii Dept of Health does want to be certain our drinking waters and swimming waters are safe! Coastal Property owners of SFR’s in lower density areas may then be required to install or maintain an aerobic system, where Muni sewers havent yet been built. As a Realtor I cant tell you how many times I’ve been asked exactly,”whats the difference between Septic and Cesspool?” Thanks for your septic diagram. For all of the involved parameters in my area’s; although I have Big Island reference Maps for CWDA’s; I also refer my clients for Wastewater info.at health.hawaii.gov/cwb the Clean Water Branch. I think on Maui some residents have been curious about Underwater Injection Systems in condo laden community’s? I see some FAQs on the county web, yet nothing as straight forward as your post here. Well done.

Tracy Stice

August 5, 2014

India,

Perhaps you could write a blog explaining the aerobic vs. anaerobic septic systems for critical water shed areas. I understand that the State Department of Health is going to soon implement a policy that will require that any new septic systems constructed near ( how near ?) registered wells, will have to be aerobic systems. Presently, I think the distance is 1500 liner feet from the actual well. You seem to have a broad knowledge of this especially with your diverse geographical coverage between Hawaii and Oahu, two very different geological types of islands. All of this impacts any agent who does business in the country, even rural Oahu. All you Waimanalo agents, wake up !

India Paige, R(B)

August 2, 2014

Tracy,
Mahalo for the outline/answer for buyers to this commonly asked question. I mainly service the Big Island and Oahu/rural. All of Hawaii also uses mapping to determine CWDA’s (Critical Waste Water Disposal Areas). There are so many factors which determine if a property can use Cesspool, Septic, Aerobic Septic, Municipal Sewer, or Underground Injection System. Long gone are the days on the Big Island when we could ask by rule of thumb; “Bigger or smaller than 1 acre?”. The good news for our buyers is that Hawaii Dept of Health does want to be certain our drinking waters and swimming waters are safe! Coastal Property owners of SFR’s in lower density areas may then be required to install or maintain an aerobic system, where Muni sewers havent yet been built. As a Realtor I cant tell you how many times I’ve been asked exactly,”whats the difference between Septic and Cesspool?” Thanks for your septic diagram. For all of the involved parameters in my area’s; although I have Big Island reference Maps for CWDA’s; I also refer my clients for Wastewater info.at health.hawaii.gov/cwb the Clean Water Branch. I think on Maui some residents have been curious about Underwater Injection Systems in condo laden community’s? I see some FAQs on the county web, yet nothing as straight forward as your post here. Well done.

Tracy Stice

August 5, 2014

India,

Perhaps you could write a blog explaining the aerobic vs. anaerobic septic systems for critical water shed areas. I understand that the State Department of Health is going to soon implement a policy that will require that any new septic systems constructed near ( how near ?) registered wells, will have to be aerobic systems. Presently, I think the distance is 1500 liner feet from the actual well. You seem to have a broad knowledge of this especially with your diverse geographical coverage between Hawaii and Oahu, two very different geological types of islands. All of this impacts any agent who does business in the country, even rural Oahu. All you Waimanalo agents, wake up !

Pat Strausse

August 4, 2014

Thanks Tracy for this helpful information on cesspools and septic systems. Here on the Big Island, sewers are only found in Hilo, Kona, condos and subdivisions with lots too small for individual waster systems. This means most residential homes here will be on either a cesspool or a septic system – this often comes as a bit of a shock to mainland buyers. Thanks again for this blog – very helpful to have a brief explanation for buyers.

Pat Strausse

August 4, 2014

Thanks Tracy for this helpful information on cesspools and septic systems. Here on the Big Island, sewers are only found in Hilo, Kona, condos and subdivisions with lots too small for individual waster systems. This means most residential homes here will be on either a cesspool or a septic system – this often comes as a bit of a shock to mainland buyers. Thanks again for this blog – very helpful to have a brief explanation for buyers.

Julie Keller, RS

August 4, 2014

Thank you Tracy, this is valuable information and very informative for Big Island real estate as well! On the Big Island we require that the Cesspool/Septic certification is acquired from the wastewater dept as part of the new listing paperwork so we have the information we need to proceed with Sellers upon listing their property to prevent issues once we have an accepted offer.

Julie Keller, RS

August 4, 2014

Thank you Tracy, this is valuable information and very informative for Big Island real estate as well! On the Big Island we require that the Cesspool/Septic certification is acquired from the wastewater dept as part of the new listing paperwork so we have the information we need to proceed with Sellers upon listing their property to prevent issues once we have an accepted offer.

George Walter

August 4, 2014

Thank you for the information, Tracy. I personally experienced a year long ordeal in California after purchasing a home with a faulty system. It was a nightmare I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

George Walter

August 4, 2014

Thank you for the information, Tracy. I personally experienced a year long ordeal in California after purchasing a home with a faulty system. It was a nightmare I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

Edward Greenlee

August 12, 2014

Very informative thanks for writing this. Here’s a somewhat related question. Is it possible to buy an acre of land and build 6-8 vacation units? If yes, what type of septic system would be required?

Tracy Stice

August 14, 2014

Edward, please behave! If you could put this many vacation units on an acre, why would you even come to Hawaii? No zoning that I know of any place in the state would allow this density unless you are in the hotel zone running a hotel and that seems like what you want to do.

Edward Greenlee

August 15, 2014

Some friends of ours stayed at a place on Kauai that had a family retreat with three small separate units. I’d like to eventually design a place with 6-8 small units for large family or corporate based retreats. From the sounds of it, it may not be possible. I won’t learn if I don’t ask. Thanks for responding. I do appreciate it.

Edward Greenlee

August 12, 2014

Very informative thanks for writing this. Here’s a somewhat related question. Is it possible to buy an acre of land and build 6-8 vacation units? If yes, what type of septic system would be required?

Tracy Stice

August 14, 2014

Edward, please behave! If you could put this many vacation units on an acre, why would you even come to Hawaii? No zoning that I know of any place in the state would allow this density unless you are in the hotel zone running a hotel and that seems like what you want to do.

Edward Greenlee

August 15, 2014

Some friends of ours stayed at a place on Kauai that had a family retreat with three small separate units. I’d like to eventually design a place with 6-8 small units for large family or corporate based retreats. From the sounds of it, it may not be possible. I won’t learn if I don’t ask. Thanks for responding. I do appreciate it.

Jeff Onderko

August 28, 2014

Hi Tracy: awesome info, thanks a lot for sharing. All of a sudden, I know 3X as much as I did yesterday. Very much appreciated!

Jeff Onderko

August 28, 2014

Hi Tracy: awesome info, thanks a lot for sharing. All of a sudden, I know 3X as much as I did yesterday. Very much appreciated!

Tasha

February 6, 2015

My husband is digging holes all over yard trying to find cesspool cover. Would the county (kauai) have information, like a plot plan, as to where it is and could I get this online? Mahalo

Tasha

February 6, 2015

My husband is digging holes all over yard trying to find cesspool cover. Would the county (kauai) have information, like a plot plan, as to where it is and could I get this online? Mahalo

Tracy Stice

February 9, 2015

Tasha, I really don’t know the building code on Kauai and what your county office has. Cesspools are approved by the state department of health, so I would start there, not at the county. It really depends on when your house was built. If it is 1992 or older, probably does have a cesspool.

On Maui, I look for an external sewer clean out on the outside of the house near the wall. If I find it, I usually go 10 feet directly away from the house and start dropping a hollow tile 30 pound concrete block. You can feel the difference if you are over the cesspool because it vibrates instead of thunks.

Hopefully this will give you a start.

Tracy Stice

February 9, 2015

Tasha, I really don’t know the building code on Kauai and what your county office has. Cesspools are approved by the state department of health, so I would start there, not at the county. It really depends on when your house was built. If it is 1992 or older, probably does have a cesspool.

On Maui, I look for an external sewer clean out on the outside of the house near the wall. If I find it, I usually go 10 feet directly away from the house and start dropping a hollow tile 30 pound concrete block. You can feel the difference if you are over the cesspool because it vibrates instead of thunks.

Hopefully this will give you a start.

Maria

December 3, 2015

Any Septic/Cesspool Inspector on the Big Island of Hawaii? I’m about to purchase a home and twice while walking in the surrounding areas of the cesspool, I smelled something funny.. Any insight would be greatly appreciated…

Maria

December 3, 2015

Any Septic/Cesspool Inspector on the Big Island of Hawaii? I’m about to purchase a home and twice while walking in the surrounding areas of the cesspool, I smelled something funny.. Any insight would be greatly appreciated…

Tracy Stice

December 4, 2015

Maria,

If you have a realtor, ask them to help you. I don’t have any connections on the Big Island. If I was going to buy the property, I would pay to have it pumped because they generally can’t do an inspection anyway if the hole is full. If it is full now, that is really a red flag. It is has a history of pumping with the county, they will consider it a ” failed ” cess pool and require a change to a septic system.

I know a lot of the Big Island agents so if they need some tips either you could call me or they could at my number below.

read my followup blog ” cesspool horror stories ” too

Tracy Stice

December 4, 2015

Maria,

If you have a realtor, ask them to help you. I don’t have any connections on the Big Island. If I was going to buy the property, I would pay to have it pumped because they generally can’t do an inspection anyway if the hole is full. If it is full now, that is really a red flag. It is has a history of pumping with the county, they will consider it a ” failed ” cess pool and require a change to a septic system.

I know a lot of the Big Island agents so if they need some tips either you could call me or they could at my number below.

read my followup blog ” cesspool horror stories ” too

Pulelehua Bauer

July 14, 2016

If you did buy land, and absolutely have to install your own sewer system, say, for a single family house you plan on building, What kind of costs are you looking at? I keep seeing places for sale with no sewer yet but want to figure it into the price if I’m gonna have to drag some guys down a dirt road to install one. I love your informative page! Lots of good info for someone who has never owned their own home…yet.

Pulelehua Bauer

July 14, 2016

If you did buy land, and absolutely have to install your own sewer system, say, for a single family house you plan on building, What kind of costs are you looking at? I keep seeing places for sale with no sewer yet but want to figure it into the price if I’m gonna have to drag some guys down a dirt road to install one. I love your informative page! Lots of good info for someone who has never owned their own home…yet.

Tracy Stice

July 14, 2016

Pululehua,

A septic system on Maui costs between $10,000 to $15,000 generally. It can cost a lot more if there is a lot of lava or blue rock. Talk to some contractors on your island and they can generally give you a ballpark price or talk to some engineers that do the design work. They work directly with the contractors and have worked under a lot of different circumstances and locations.

Tracy Stice

July 14, 2016

Pululehua,

A septic system on Maui costs between $10,000 to $15,000 generally. It can cost a lot more if there is a lot of lava or blue rock. Talk to some contractors on your island and they can generally give you a ballpark price or talk to some engineers that do the design work. They work directly with the contractors and have worked under a lot of different circumstances and locations.

John Corrado

September 17, 2016

After reading Tracy’s blogs on cesspools and septic systems I had several questions regarding real estate transactions and required disclosures in Hawaii. I called Stacy and he provided me with a wealth of detail regarding real estate issues when shopping for a home in Hawaii. Stacy has years of experience transacting real estate property in the islands and has encountered almost everything possible through his 2000+ transactions. I would highly recommend Stacy to anyone who may be thinking of making their home in Hawaii.

raymond brasher

November 25, 2016

Im selling our home on the big island as is, does this mean that i have to repair or replace as long as i notifify the buyer in writting of all of the problems.
(like plumbing, roofing,flooring and pest control)
Thank you;

Tracy Stice

November 27, 2016

Raymond,

If a buyer is going to get a loan, the lenders may not lend if you have a leaky roof, overflowing cesspool or other structural issues. You do have to disclose all of the problems, including ones you have fixed, in writing to a buyer. If you find a cash buyer and disclose all of the problems in writing, then you may be able to sell the property.

Dr Richard Bennett

January 12, 2018

Actually Tracy, a septic tank does not break things down. Some things like nitrogen and phosphorus in human urine cannot be broken down. They are elements and all elements cannot be created or destroyed, only changed in form. The components of concern are N and P and pathogens. The later is actually not that common unless someone is sick. In the case of Norovirus aka Cruise ship flu, sick people excrete hundreds of trillions virus. It takes less than ten to cause illness once ingested. Septic leach fields will NOT filter out the virus as they move with the black water downward toward groundwater and the sea. Thus a $20K new septic system will NOT solve the problems. The State needs to do its homework first!!

Anthony Enright

May 14, 2018

Whether you have a Cesspool or a Leaching field the liquid waste still goes into the groundwater so the septic tank is the key and treating the liquid leaving the tank it would solve most of the problems.I have been working in cesspools and septic systems for thirty years .I own a Company that sells a Cesspool and Septic tank treatment.There are also other measures that I strongly believe in that work also.Long story short Nature can cure the problem you just have to help nature do its job.

Nicole

June 9, 2018

Hi all, I have a question about cesspools, unpermitted structures and buying land….We are looking at a piece of land we really love. It has two unpermitted structures and a cesspool on it. I know we cannot get financing. But if we buy it and build a new (permitted) small home on it
1. Do I need to tear down the unpermitted structures in order to build the permitted one?
2. Do I need to convert the (apparently permitted) cesspool to a septic? The land is about 3/4 miles from the ocean

Thanks!

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