Property owners urged to act over septic tank changes

Property owners are being urged by land agents and chartered surveyors Vickers & Barrass to keep close tabs on changes to septic tank regulations to avoid breaking the law.

Many rural properties including houses rely on septic tanks for their sewage discharge, which are designed to provide an effective solution for dealing with foul drainage and wastewater where there is no mains drainage.

Homeowners with septic tanks that discharge directly into ditches, streams, canals, rivers, surface water, drains or any other type of water course will need to replace or upgrade their drainage either when they sell their property or before 1 January 2020 whichever is sooner. 

They are responsible for their choice, installation and maintenance of their wastewater system under a new code of practice introduced by the Environment Agency.

They have a legal responsibility to minimise the impact of their sewage waste if they manage it within the bounds of their property e.g. with a septic tank or sewage treatment plant (Binding Rules – England, DEFRA, January 2015).

All septic tanks that currently ultimately discharge into watercourses will have to be either replaced using a sewage treatment plant with full BS EN 12566-3 Certification instead, or the discharge to the watercourse stopped and diverted to a drain field, designed and constructed to the current British Standard BS6297 2007.

With less than six months to go until the new regulations come into force, it is estimated that there are thousands of septic tank installations that could be affected by the changes.

The move is aimed at addressing concerns that wastewater could be polluting local watercourses, says David Coulson, senior surveyor with the County Durham-based practice, who is advising people with a septic tank that they will be legally required to upgrade their systems.

He added that anyone planning to sell their property before the deadline must also ensure that the current system has been replaced before moving, or that they have an agreement in place with the new buyers. Failure to act now could result in a sale being delayed and possibly losing the purchaser.

The new legislation covers discharging septic tank waste into a watercourse ad it may be possible for people to retain their existing tank and discharge the waste into a drainage field instead.

David Coulson said:

“If someone opts to install a new drainage field, it must be a minimum of 10m from a watercourse, 50m from a water abstraction point, and 15m from a building. Furthermore, if it is going to be in or near a designated sensitive area, a permit from the Environment Agency will be required. Soil porosity tests may also be required.”

It’s estimated that 60% of people will need to change their sewage system to comply with the new regulations, while those planning to sell their property must change the tank earlier, says David Coulson.

“For some buyers, purchasing property might involve an obstacle they hadn’t considered, if the septic tank is not compliant with the new rules. The same applies to sellers,” said David Coulson.

The further down the line the property transaction process has gone before the issue is addressed, the more expensive, and disruptive, fixing it is likely to be.

“It’s understandable why the Environment Agency is keen to make sure septic tanks work effectively.  Now, you can no longer discharge to a watercourse directly.

“However, there are situations where people are ready to exchange contracts, only to discover that the whole septic tank issue will mean farm property or land cannot be sold.”

People can opt to replace their septic tank with a small low maintenance sewage treatment plant if installing a drainage field isn’t feasible. This installation produces non-polluting effluent, so the system can still be discharged into a watercourse, even under the new rules.

The key to is to act now, said David Coulson:

“It’s better to be prepared, and to have peace-of-mind that your system isn’t going to disrupt any current or future plans you have.”