If you live in the countryside, then there’s a good chance you’ll have a septic tank.
Septic tanks are very common in rural properties and most homeowners find them a relatively easy solution to the problem of dealing with waste water and sewage where no mains drainage is available – so long as they are regularly emptied and maintained.
However, new rules were introduced in 2015 which mean that some property owners will be required to upgrade their systems, if they haven’t already, over the next two years.
The Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2014 came into force on 1 January 2015 and created General Binding Rules (GBRs) for septic tanks or small sewage treatment plants for domestic use.
The rules are basically designed to reduce the level of pollution from sewage in the nation’s watercourses.
As such, the government is seeking to end the practice of septic tanks discharging directly to a local watercourse, such as a river or stream.
Under the GBRs, anyone with a septic tank discharging into a watercourse must replace it or upgrade it by 1 January 2020, or sooner if the property is sold before this date, or if the Environment Agency (EA) finds that it is causing pollution.
Systems can be replaced by:
- Connecting to a mains sewer (where available),
- Installing a drainage field (infiltration system) so that the septic tank discharges into the ground or,
- Replacing with a small sewage treatment plant.
- In exceptional circumstances, a permit can be applied for to allow discharge to surface water.
- Septic tank conversion units can be used to upgrade an existing surface water discharging septic tank, but a permit is required for this and evidence must be provided that it will treat to the equivalent standard as a sewage treatment plant.
It is the operators of septic tanks and small sewage treatment plants that are responsible for GBR compliance. The operator may either be the owner of the property/land where the septic tank/sewage treatment plant is located/used, the user (even if the system is located on a neighbour’s land) or the tenant/leaseholder where there is written agreement with the owner of the system explaining what maintenance must be carried out in order to comply with the GBRs.
It is also recommended that all treatment systems are checked to ensure that they:
- Met the relevant British Standard when installed or have a CE mark. If installed pre-1983, this requirement does not need to be met
- Have sufficient capacity
- Were installed in line with the manufacturer’s specifications
- Are maintained at least once a year/in line with the manufacturer’s specifications
- The sewage release is below the ‘mean low water spring mark’ if in a tidal area
- Are repaired or replaced if not in good working order by a competent person.
There are additional rules for new discharges from a treatment system installed on or after 1 January 2015.
These apply if there was a discharge to surface before 1 January 2015 which you wish to change to discharge to ground water (or vice versa) or if there was a discharge to ground before 1 January 2015 and you wish to install a new drainage pipe which discharges more than 10m away from the existing one.
In these cases the following steps must be taken:
- If any part of the building your treatment plant serves is within 30m of a public sewer, the EA will not allow a new discharge from a sewage treatment plant. This is multiplied by the number of properties e.g. 90m for three properties
- If there is a good reason that you cannot access this sewer e.g. river/hill or if the discharge is within 500m of a designated sensitive area e.g. Special Area of Conservation or Ramsar site, 200m of an aquatic local nature reserve of 50m from a chalk river or aquatic local wildlife site, apply for a permit
- Apply for planning permission and Building Regulations approval to install a new sewage treatment plant
- New discharges to a ditches or surface water are only allowed if there is sufficient all-year round flow. The Environment Agency will advise.