Septic tank regulations might not be at the forefront of your mind, but if you own or are considering buying a property with a septic tank, it might be something you need to think about soon.
According to new regulations passed in 2015, if your septic tank discharges to surface water such as a ditch, stream, canal or river, you will have to upgrade your system to a sewage treatment plant or install a soakaway system by 1 January 2020. Alternatively, if you plan to sell your property before that date, you must upgrade the tank before the sale can be completed.
Although this won’t impact everyone, those in rural areas especially should take a look at these regulations and take action to avoid being fined. With less than six months until they come into force, here’s how you should be preparing.
What’s new?
It used to be the case that homeowners in the East of England could ‘discharge’ the wastewater from within a septic tank in two ways. That was by either draining it to:
A drainage field or soakaway system – In this case, the water filters through holes or slots in the pipework and is effectively treated as it flows through the surrounding sub-soils. This allows the water to be removed without polluting the local environment.
A watercourse – The wastewater flows through a sealed pipe and straight to a local watercourse.
However, the new regulations released in 2015, called the General binding rules: small sewage discharge to a surface water, mean wastewater from a septic tank can no longer flow directly into a local watercourse.
What are septic tanks and sewage treatment plants?
If your house or business isn’t connected to the mains sewer then the sewage from your property will go into one of the following:
Septic tank – An underground tank consisting of a single chamber that retains the sewage from a property for a sufficient time to allow the solids to form a sludge at the bottom of the tank. The remaining liquid flows out through an outlet pipe and soaks through the ground.
Sewage treatment plant – A more sophisticated part-mechanical system that treats the liquid so it can be discharged directly into a stream, ditch or another watercourse, or to a soakaway for dispersal into the soil.
A cesspool – A cesspool or cesspit is a sealed tank that merely collects the sewage and must be emptied. Cesspools must be emptied frequently using tankers to prevent problems from overflowing.
Why did the regulations change?
The new regulations have been introduced to improve the quality of water that flows into local watercourses. Separate wastewater from within a septic tank used to be allowed to flow through a sealed pipe straight into the local watercourse such as a stream or river. However, this water is no longer considered clean enough to flow directly into the watercourse without causing pollution.
What does this mean for you?
This rule has been in place for some time now and prevents property owners in the East of England from installing a new septic tank that discharges to a watercourse. For properties that already have a septic tank discharging to a watercourse, their septic tanks are allowed to remain in place unless the Environment Agency has identified the particular tank as a cause of pollution.
But that will change from January 2020. From that point on, any property which has a septic tank that drains to a watercourse must be replaced or upgraded. This is particularly pertinent to those looking to buy or sell a property, as those selling the property must upgrade their systems before they do so. This is something the prospective buyers would be wise to check had been done.
Additional rules apply to property owners who:
Installed a small sewage treatment plant on or after 1 January 2015
Had a discharge to ground before 1 January 2015 but now want to discharge to a surface water (or vice versa)
Had a discharge to a surface water before 1 January 2015 and want to install a new drainage pipe that discharges more than 10 metres away from the existing one, or into a different surface water.
So what should you do?
There are two main ways you can comply with the new regulations. That includes:
Use a sewage treatment plant – Sewage treatment plants produce waste water which is considered much cleaner than the discharge from septic tanks.
Install a drainage field or soakaway system – As mentioned above, this allows the waste water from a septic tank to disperse safely into the ground without causing pollution.
You can only use a soakaway system if you apply for a permit from the Environment Agency. They will assess the risk to groundwater at your site and determine whether it’s safe to use one.
You must also apply for a permit if you release septic tank discharge:
To a well, borehole or other deep structure
More than 2 cubic metres (2,000 litres) per day
In a groundwater source protection zone (SPZ1)
To install a new system you must have planning permission and building regulations approval. You can apply retrospectively for both, although you do not need to do so if your system was installed before 1 January 2015.
A drainage field is a series of rigid pipes with holes which are placed in trenches and over drainage stones. The septic discharge trickles through the holes and into the ground where it is treated by the soil bacteria.
How can you maintain your septic tank?
To be compliant with the new regulations, you must also ensure your septic tank is regularly cleaned, maintained and emptied before it exceeds its maximum capacity. The tanker company you use to empty the tank must be a registered waste company. You should also check for and repair faults such as:
Cracked pipes
Blocked pipes
Drainage field problems such as soggy areas of ground or ‘pooling’ around the tank or soakaway