Serious About Septic Tanks
Ninety five percent of homes in the UK are connected to the mains sewerage system. If you’re buying one of those properties – congratulations. You might wish to celebrate by not subjecting yourself to this post. We suggest you go and read something altogether less pungent such as Why Wills are for the Livingor Completions and the Friday Myth.
However, if you are considering making an offer on one of the 5% of UK properties that aren’t ‘hooked up’ – my, you’re going to be glad you read this.
What is a septic tank, and where might you find one?
Most homes in the UK are served by mains sewerage. This means that any time residents flush the toilet or let water out of the sink, bath or shower, everything rushes straight down a waste pipe and off their property, where it’s efficiently dealt with by someone who is absolutely not them.
In five percent of UK homes, this is not the case. These are generally rural homes that are not close enough to mains sewerage infrastructure to benefit from it. These properties need to have their own system set up to collect whatever comes down the waste pipe.
There are three types of system that might be in place:
- A Septic Tank
A septic tank is the most common type of waste tank. Modern tanks are generally made from glass reinforced plastic, but older tanks can be brick or concrete. Broadly speaking, each tank is made up of three chambers for waste to gradually work through. Sludge (yes, that’s a technical term) gathers at the bottom while dirty liquids stay in the middle chamber, where they filter out into the surrounding sub-soils (or ‘drainage field’) using a soakaway system. Solids, fats and oils remain in the top chamber and are referred to as the ‘crust’. (Apologies, but you’ll understand that us solicitors like to ensure we utilise the proper terminology).
- A sewage treatment plant
These are more up to date versions of septic tanks. They are powered by electricity and treat waste liquids so they’re clean enough to be released straight into a watercourse or ditch.
- A cesspit/cesspool
A cesspit (also called a cesspool) is simply a very large container for collecting waste. There are no separate chambers and nothing is cleaned or filtered out into the surrounding ground. This means they fill up a lot quicker.
Location, location, location
If you’re considering a purchase of a property with a septic tank or similar, one of the first questions you should ask about it is where it’s located.
It’s not uncommon for rural neighbours to share a septic tank… which you may find a little too close for comfort. In these cases, whose land the tank is located on will be important, as will whether there’s a proper legal agreement in place to cover access and responsibilities for maintenance.
Even if the property has its own septic tank, you may find that it’s located on a neighbour’s land. Again, you’ll need to talk to your solicitor about this so they can make sure everything is hunky-dory in terms of legal agreements for access.
It may sound obvious… but if you do own a property with a shared septic tank or individual tank located on neighbouring land, please please please do what you can to keep things civil. Managing your waste situation can be destressing enough without adding a neighbourly dispute to the proceedings.
What ongoing maintenance will be necessary?
A septic tank comes with a collection of necessary dirty jobs. Even if you have a sewage treatment plant or soakaway system, the rest of the tank will need to be emptied (or desludged – yes! Technical term!) regularly.
Most systems will need to be emptied by a drainage company approximately once per year, though this will be considerably more often for cesspits. Depending on where you are in the country, you can expect the cost for each desludging to be £150–250.
It’s also highly recommended that you have your tank professionally serviced once a year. This will probably cost around £150.
Though you will have to pay these maintenance costs, the good news is you won’t need to pay the sewerage portion of your water bill. Location depending, this is likely to be a saving of £400–500, which is certainly not to be poo-pooed.
Why it’s important to have adequate buildings insurance
Aside from regular desludging and the potential for waste-related neighbour disputes, the worst thing about having a septic tank is the chance that it might break down. If you were to need a whole new system, you’d likely be looking at a final bill of upwards of £10,000.
If you have a good buildings insurance policy in place, it should cover any major dysfunctions of your system.
Do you have any legal responsibilities?
You didn’t think your only responsibilities for your septic tank would be waste-related, did you?! Of course, if you’re the proud ‘operator’ (that’s the government’s word, not ours) of a tank, you’ll need to make sure you’re complying with septic tank regulation.
In most cases, you shouldn’t need a permit for your septic tank. However, you will need to apply for one if you’re releasing (or ‘discharging’) to a well or borehole, or in a groundwater protection zone.
You’ll also need a permit if you discharge more than two cubic metres per day. We can’t quite believe we’re writing this… but if you’re unsure how much you’re discharging, you can download a daily discharge calculator here.
If you need further guidance on non-standard septic tank use and whether you’ll require a permit, you should find everything you need to know here.
It has previously been legal for a septic tank to discharge under two cubic metres per day to standing water, but this legislation is changing as of January 2020. There are growing environmental concerns about the pollution risks of certain soakaway systems, so this is something you will need to look into. Most soakaway systems discharge into sub-soil, which will remain completely legal.
However, if your current or prospective property has a septic tank that discharges to an open water course, ditch or just as surface water, it will need to be replaced.
Whose responsibility is it to update the septic tank?
If you’re buying a property with a tank and have concerns about whether it will comply with the new law, your solicitor will be right by your side. We’ll help you work through all the murky details to ensure you’re fully informed and prepared before you take ownership of the property.
Should it emerge that the existing septic tank system does need to be replaced, we’ll manage negotiations with the seller about the replacement. Legally speaking, it’s the seller’s responsibility to update the system in line with new regulations before they sell.
Got more questions about the legality of your waste tank? As always, don’t hesitate to get in touch. We’ll try to keep the toilet humour to a minimum.