Defra and EA reinforce existing and introduce new rules for septic tanks and package sewage treatment plants in England

28th Jul 2015

Defra and the Environment Agency have been campaigning in England since the beginning of 2015 to raise the awareness of owners whose properties are not connected to mains sewers about how to look after their on-site wastewater treatment systems in order to stay within the law by not polluting the environment or causing a public health risk.

The last government decided to "make less burdensome" (their words, not ours) the way in which septic tanks and small package sewage treatment plants are regulated in England which resulted in the scrapping of the registration scheme for exemptions for small sewage discharges at the end of 2014. The long-standing but little-promoted General Binding Rules are now being placed centre-stage to tell off-mains property owners very clearly what their current responsibilities are and, in fact, always have been. This is because the General Binding Rules apply regardless of how long ago an off-mains sewage treatment system, such as a septic tank, package sewage treatment plant, reed bed, cesspool or "Klargester", was installed. In-keeping with a more risk-based approach to evaluating the impact of small sewage discharges, additional new rules were introduced in January 2015 to provide extra protection in areas designated as environmentally sensitive.

You can read the existing General Binding Rules and the additional new rules for evaluating the impact of new small sewage discharges made after 1 January 2015 here. The existing rules apply to all small sewage discharges no matter how long they've existed so, for example, if you have a Victorian house with a Victorian septic tank they still apply to you. The additional new rules apply to discharges made after 1 January 2015 - and apply just as much to a new position for an existing discharge, e.g. a new drainage field for an existing septic tank, as they do to an entirely new discharge.

You might be wondering what constitutes a "small sewage discharge" for which you don't need a permit (or what used to be called a "consent"): it's up to 2000 litres per day from either a septic tank or packaged sewage treatment plant in to a drainage field (or soakaway) and up to 5000 litres per day from a package sewage treatment plant to surface waters, generally a stream or river which contains flowing water all year round - provided, of course, that you meet the requirements of the General Binding Rules. 2000 litres equates to about 13 people's wastewater production in a day in a domestic setting and 5000 litres to about 33 people's wastewater production.

Be careful how you apply those indicative "Population Equivalent" ("PE" or "P") figures to your own situation: for further information look at British Water Loads and Flows 4 Code of Practice for sizing package sewage treatment plants up to 50 PE and Building Regulations 2010 Approved Document Part H Drainage and Waste Disposal (H2 Wastewater Treatment and Cesspools) for sizing septic tanks.

The website on Septic tanks and treatment plants: permits and general binding rules also contains some useful information.

You can download the brand new Defra/EA leaflet Your sewage -Your environment: Important information for households and businesses with septic tanks and small sewage treatment plants here.

It might all look very onerous and not in any way “less burdensome” but what Defra and the EA are asking is that off-mains sewage treatment is done properly in the first place and then looked after correctly thereafter in order not to pollute the environment or cause a public health risk or nuisance.

Looking after a septic tank correctly means two things: firstly, desludging it regularly so that it can continue to collect and retain solids effectively, which in turn will extend the effectiveness and life of the downstream drainage field (and regularly doesn’t mean often – once a year for a family of four is average); secondly, being a bit careful about what you flush down the loo and wash down the kitchen sink especially. Bulky items like disposable nappies will probably block the drains before they get to the septic tank but “disposable” wipes will get there and, when they do, they often stick together to form clumps and ropes that block the outlet. You can imagine – but probably don’t really want to – the results. A bottle full of bleach won’t help, either – it will just kill any useful bacteria and make the tank smell. Fats, oils and greases will make it smell worse because they go rancid very quickly. British Water’s Guide for Users of Small Wastewater Treatment Systems and Guide to the Desludging of Small Wastewater Treatment Systems will give you all the information you need to look after your septic tank properly so that it (and its drainage field) give you long, trouble-free service.

Package sewage treatment plants need to be treated in the same way as septic tanks, but with one addition. Most need regular desludging according to the number of people living in the property they serve, and you should avoid flushing anything but the three Ps (you work it out…). In particular keep fats, oil and grease out of a package treatment plant (they smother the very bacteria you need to treat the sewage). The additional item is a regular maintenance visit to make sure that the mechanical and electrical components of the plant are working correctly in order to ensure that the sewage treatment processes themselves – the whole point of the plant, after all – are working as they should. Again, have a look at British Water's Codes of Practice, above. British Water also manage a training and accreditation scheme for package sewage treatment plant engineers; we put all our engineers through this scheme in order to provide our customers with the best technical service and back up.

If you'd like us to explain the ins and outs of the regulationsand would appreciate an objective and pragmatic view on your current situation please do call and talk with us. Off-mains wastewater and sewage treatment and pumping is all we do and have done for over 40 years as an independent company so, even though we say it ourselves, we are pretty good at it. Our advice will cost you nothing; our customers tell us it's worth a lot.

Call us on 01434 220508 and ask for either Paul Usher (for Cumbria, Lancashire, West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, East Yorkshire and North Yorkshire) or Peter Stedman (for Northumberland, County Durham, Tyne and Wear, Darlington, Cleveland, Redcar, Stockton, Hartlepool and Middlesbrough) for a sensible, friendly, no-obligation conversation, or just drop a line with your contact details to paul at and tell us how you'd like us tohelp.

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