Properties served by septic tanks are in the minority.  As such, the changes to the regulations for septic tanks that were introduced in 2015 have largely gone unnoticed but if you own or are buying a property with a septic tank they are vitally important.

Traditionally septic tanks would be built so as to `discharge’ the separated waste water from within the septic tank either:

  1. To a drainage field or soakaway system – here, the waste water percolates into the surrounding sub-soils through pipework leading away from the tank.  This allows the waste water to disperse safely without causing pollution.

  2. To a watercourse – the waste water would flow through a pipe straight to a local watercourse such as a stream or a river.

In order to reduce the impact of septic tanks on the environment, there is a plethora of rules and regulations surrounding septic tanks – from where they can be sited, to where the water that leaves the tank can go.  Whilst some are guidelines, others are statutory and breaching them can carry heavy penalties.

For some time now, it has been against the law to install a new septic tank that discharges waste water to a watercourse but pre-existing septic tanks could continue to do so provided the Environment Agency had not identified it as causing pollution.

What is changing?

The ‘General Binding Rules: small sewage discharge to a surface water’ came into force on 1st January 2015 and as of 1st January 2020 septic tanks will no longer be allowed to discharge waste water into watercourses, no matter when they were built as the Environment Agency no longer considers waste water from septic tanks to be clean enough to flow straight into local watercourses without causing pollution.  As such, if your property’s septic tank discharges to a watercourse (not a soakaway or drainage field) you must make changes to your existing system to ensure compliance with the new regulations from 1st January 2020.

There are two main options for complying with the new regulations:

  1. Replace the septic tank with a sewage treatment plant – sewage treatment plants produce a cleaner form of water that is considered clean enough to discharge straight to a watercourse

  2. Convert the septic tank to discharge to a drainage field or soakaway system – this will take the waste water from the septic tank, and disperse it safely into the ground rather than into a watercourse.

What if you ignore the new rules?

The Environment Agency aims to make sure their enforcement response is proportionate and appropriate to each situation; as such their first response is usually to give advice and guidance or issue a warning to bring an offender into compliance where possible.  If this is ignored, they have a range of civil and criminal sanctions available.  Our advice however would always be to ensure you are compliant with the relevant regulations rather than waiting for the Environment Agency to identify you as being in breach of them.

For advice and guidance on selling or buying a property with a septic tank, speak to Farleys’ property experts on 0845 287 0939 or submit your enquiry online.