Private Foul Drainage Systems - Update

Three months into the General Binding Rules enforcement period, Surveyor Jeremy Cozens advises on how not to fall 'foul' of the regulations.

Private Foul Drainage Systems - Update

We are now nearly three months into the enforcement period from 1 January 2020 after the General Binding Rules (GBR) were brought in in 2015. These were part of the Environmental Permit Regulations 2014 where its intention is to control small sewage discharges with the effect of reducing pollution of watercourses.

After enquiry with the Environment Agency (EA), enforcement action is generally taken when a pollution incident occurs. Every event is investigated, and the merits/faults of the installation are considered.

The EA expect property owners to comply with the regulations by adopting the GBR for small sewage discharges. These are readily available on the DfE website and are quite specific. However, what is not really happening are householders fully understanding the type of system they have and what they should do to maintain it even if they knew there was a problem occurring.

There is no overt certification system (unless it is a new installation in which case compliance with the building regulation will be required) but septic tanks function perfectly well provided that the digesting medium is live, the pipe system installed in such a way that solids do not flow into a second chamber or the soakaway, the tank regularly emptied of undigested sludge and the outfall liquid percolates the into the sub soil.

Unfortunately, many areas of our countryside have heavy clay subsoil. In situations like this, it is difficult to achieve adequate percolation and the system will not function properly. As a result, some systems have been modified with an outfall direct into a ditch or river. This is never permissible from a septic tank and will create a pollution incident. If these are found, then the EA will take action.

If the system is not functioning as it should , it is possible to maintain and improve the inadequacy but there may be a need to replace it with a new septic tank and soakaway which is still permissible or install a treatment plant which provides the opportunity to dispose of the discharge liquid into a running water course subject to certain water purity criteria.

There is still the attitude of out of sight, out of mind and even if the system was not functioning as it should, a lot of owners ignore it unless it is causing a direct nuisance to them or their neighbours. In which case, something will have to be done. Unfortunately, systems don’t last forever and sooner than later overhaul and maintenance will be required.

The time when this will become a problem is when a property is offered for sale and a declaration made by the vendor as to the type of system and its location. Not all owners will know this, and the next level of advice is usually sought from a sewage waste removal contractor or septic tank installer. However, unless a full survey of the system is carried out, they may not know the condition of the underground pipework and soakaway efficiency.

Our advice would be to have the existing system inspected by an expert well before putting the property on the market so that inadequacies can be rectified and the GBR check list ticked off to show compliance with the permitting regulations. There are many variables to this such as the date when the tank was installed and its location relative to protected zones. Also new discharges will have to comply with different rules if it was started on or after 1 January 2015. Therefore, there is no one action fits all and every installation will have to be taken on its merits.

Symonds & Sampson's Building Survey department can offer advise on a wide range of property construction and development matters, contact them on 01202 639401.

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