The Scoop on the New Septic Rules

Dept Health

ACAR has received a few inquiries regarding the recently effective sewage treatment modernization rules. Some counties have had to amend their fee schedules associated with septic systems, while others saw little or no changes due to already having an extensive program in place. Below is an article from the Ohio Department of Health on the topic. More information, including a link to the ODH website and contact information, can be found at the end of this article.

Modernizing Ohio sewage treatment systems: Protecting homeowners’ investment

By Rebecca Fugitt, MS, RS; Program Manager, Residential Water & Sewage Program; Ohio Department of Health

How many times has a failing sewage system stopped the sale of a home? A 2012 survey conducted by the Ohio Department of Health (ODH) of local health district data and inspections shows that 31 percent of sewage systems in Ohio are failing based on nuisance criteria established in state law. Site and soil limitations, discharges to streams and ditches that exceed safe water quality standards and old system age were identified as the major reasons for system failures. The failure rate in Ohio has cost millions of dollars for communities and citizens to extend sewer lines to areas of failing systems.

Many homes in suburban and rural areas use household sewage treatment systems installed on the property to treat sewage. State minimum rules for home sewage treatment system construction and operation were adopted by ODH more than 35 years ago. Just like many other technologies, much has changed since 1977 regarding sewage treatment products, and the science of how waste is treated in the soil. Most of the systems that are failing today are of unknown construction or are discharging raw to partially treated sewage to streams and ditches. In addition, state minimum rules allowed local health districts to adopt their own rules, and, over time, nearly every local health district in Ohio adopted a local sewage code. This led to a wide diversity in system types and practices for sewage system design and installation across the state and a wide range in system costs. In 2005, increasing concerns about sewage system failures led to the passage of Ohio Revised Code (ORC) Chapter 3718, which established authority for state law and rules for both household and small flow (<1,000 gpd) systems.

ODH convened a rule advisory committee (RAC) in 2010 representing 43 organizations including local health districts, product manufacturers, system installers, servide providers, septage haulers, local and state government, homebuilders, REALTORS, townships, county commissioners, and engineers. The Ohio Association of REALTORS provided a representative to the RAC. The RAC met monthly from 2010 through 2012. Rule advisory committee meetings were open to all stakeholders and the public and meeting minutes and other items were posted on the ODH website. How proposed standards would impact the cost of various system types for different soils and geographic regions of the state was a primary focus of the rule discussions. The committee worked hard to find a balance between system costs and ensuring public safety from sewage. After four years of rule discussion and multiple comment periods, the new state sewage rules became effective on Jan. 1, 2015. These rules provide modern standards for designing and constructing sewage systems for new homes and businesses, replacing existing systems that have failed, and altering existing systems when necessary to improve their ability to treat sewage and prevent public health nuisances.

Setting the record straight: How this is a win for homeowners

There have been a lot of rumours circulated in brochures and news articles about the new sewage rules, some of which are partly true, most of which are inaccurate. Most importantly, the rules do not require that all sewage systems must be automatically upgraded or replaced. The rules establish new modern standards for system construction, alteration and maintenance when a system fails or breaks and must be altered or replaced, or when a new system is installed. State law specifically says that all existing systems are deemed approved until they fail and cannot be repaired. The process for repairing or replacing an existing system, or installing a new system (new home) remains exactly the same as it has in the past.

Some people ask why the old rules didn’t work. The old rules used a standard cookbook design for systems — one design for all soil types (and we know soils are very different across the state) with the system size based only on the size of the house. Systems were often oversized to make up for the one size fits all approach often costing people more money. The new rules focus on using the natural soils on the property as a mechanical and biological filter to treat the sewage from the home. Evaluation of the soil by a soil scientist is necessary to understand the structure and texture of the soil, and to make sure the soil is not seasonally wet — all important characteristics to guide the correct system design to ensure proper treatment in the soil occurs.

The rules address key public health goals and environmental protection requirements. The direct discharge of sewage to ground water and drinking water sources is prohibited. Direct discharge to surface water or the ground surface without treatment to prevent nuisance conditions is also prohibited. The design standards in the rules provide for reasonable treatment of effluent through the natural soil, and where insufficient soil is present, the use of tools like pretreatment components or sand media combined with the natural soil, or the use of even (pressure) distribution across the soil. It is also important to ensure movement of treated effluent away in the landscape without surfacing or discharge somewhere else before complete treatment occurs.

The rules provide a wide range of sewage system choices and technologies for new or replacement sewage systems that provide safe and sustainable treatment in the diverse soils and geology of the state. This promotes healthy communities and safe development in suburban and rural areas not served by public sewers.

The rules carefully balance the protection of public health and safety from sewage related diseases with system cost using basic, proven designs in addition to new, innovative technologies. Good design options for systems help protect the financial investment of the homeowner and proper system maintenance ensures systems are sustainable for many years adding value to a home. Lower cost, low maintenance systems, such as septic tanks to leaching trenches that use the natural soils for treatment are the preferred design and will continue to be the primary system installed in Ohio. New technologies are available for use where the soils present greater challenges for sewage treatment, where there are other site challenges like steep slopes, or where lot sizes are smaller.

Because the soils and geography vary across the state, the rules combine state baseline standards with a range of systems options for local flexibility based on conditions in the soils. For example, local health districts can establish a local vertical separation distance (thickness of useable soil) between six and 18 inches to the seasonal water table, which is the most common limiting condition for soils in the state. This approach will help lower system costs where local conditions can allow more basic system designs.

Keeping Costs Down

Another misconception is that sewage system costs will double or triple under the new rules. Cost data provided to ODH since 2007 by the local health districts shows the state average cost of a new sewage system is $8,200. Depending on the complexity and components required of the system to work on the soils and lot conditions, costs may be more or less. ODH does not anticipate large increases in systems costs because many systems will continue to use the basic designs used now on many lots — with design adjustments to address specific limiting conditions in the soil.

ODH recognizes the cost to replace or repair a sewage treatment systems is significant for many homeowners. The rules provide an opportunity for the incremental repair and replacement of a failing system — this spreads system replacement/repair costs out over time and allows the owner to try common sense solutions like installing water saving fixtures, reducing water usage or fixing leaks to reduce flow to the system. ODH has also worked with other federal and state agencies to identify other funding sources for sewage system repair/replacement and increase awareness and use of these resources. Information on funding sources can be found at: http://www.odh.ohio.gov/odhprograms/eh/sewage/Financialinfo/fundswg.aspx

The costs for operation and maintenance of sewage systems have been cited as a concern in the new rules. Just like any other part of a home, such as a roof or furnace, sewage systems require maintenance and this is recognized in state law which says a homeowner is responsible for maintaining their sewage system. State law also says that local health districts are responsible for developing a program to ensure maintenance.

The rules do not propose new permit fees for system owners. Fees for the installation, alteration and operation of systems have been in place since 1977. Every county in Ohio already has a fee schedule established for new system installation/replacement or alteration. Operation permits are one way a local health district ensures that a homeowner is doing the necessary maintenance to prevent the occurrence of nuisance conditions (i.e. sewage in yards, ditches and streams) that affect not only the homeowner but the neighbor and possibly everyone on the same street. Operation permit fee costs will be set by the local health district and no portion of this fee is returned to ODH. These permit fees are to simply cover the costs for the local health district to track maintenance and provide reminders or education on system maintenance.

Some counties already have extensive operation permit programs in place, some have programs for only mechanical systems and some have no programs at all. The proposed rules will allow counties that have never charged an operational fee to phase it in slowly with the least impact possible. No time period is specified and the implementation is locally determined. The goal is to ensure systems are being correctly maintained. A sewage treatment system that is not maintained could cost a significant investment down the road. For example, a system that has the potential to last for 30 years could fail after only 10 years if it is not being maintained. Installation and alteration fees support both the local health district program and also the state sewage inspection program, which will help ensure that local health jurisdictions are doing honest and accurate inspections.

State law protects the homeowner from unwarranted inspections by allowing a homeowner to provide proof of maintenance (i.e. pumping receipts/service contracts) in lieu of an inspection. An inspection is only authorized under specific conditions listed in state law — nuisance, imminent threat or danger to public health, etc, or when the homeowner does not provide proof of system maintenance.

Learning More

In summary, the new rules update and modernize the state’s sewage system construction standards.

More information on sewage systems in Ohio

Questions? Please contact the Residential Water and Sewage Program, Bureau of Environmental Health at (614)644-7551 or at BEH@odh.ohio.gov.

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Originally published by the Ohio Association of Realtors, April 1, 2015

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