Septic Tank Maintenance – What You Need to Know

As a property owner, you’ll be aware of a few maintenance responsibilities that require attention every now and then, from refreshing the décor to clearing out the drains. The same goes for your septic tank, should you have one, and yet many people forget or are unaware of exactly what they need to do to keep their tank in optimal working order.

Given the health risks and environmental issues that a malfunctioning septic tank can cause, the government places strict regulations on their proper upkeep, so it’s vital that all property owners make themselves aware of their legal responsibilities, and the steps they can take to keep on top of these duties before any problems can arise.

Basic septic tank responsibilities

The most important thing for homeowners to understand when they have a septic tank on their property is that the responsibility is theirs to make sure it is properly maintained. If the tank becomes a problem for other members of the public, your local council or authority can and will get involved, insisting that it be properly cleaned.

To remain on the right side of the law, it’s therefore essential to:

  • empty/desludge septic tanks regularly to ensure they do not cause pollution
  • repair any faults or problems immediately
  • limit the system’s discharge to a maximum of 2,000 litres of sewage per day into the ground, or 5,000 litres of treated sewage per day into flowing water – any more and a permit is required. You can find out how much your system discharges here
  • make sure you inspect the area where your tank releases sewage on a monthly basis for any signs of potential problems
  • have the septic tank emptied at least once a year by a registered waste carrier

To check if a permit is required for your tank, you can call the Environment Agency on 03708 506 506; the agency also has a dedicated incident hotline at 0800 80 70 60 if you are concerned that your septic tank may be causing pollution.

Recent changes in the law

If you’ve had your tank for a while, it’s also worth bearing in mind that the laws governing the way septic tanks are regulated in England changed in January 2015, so make sure your understanding of how the rules work is up to date.

The revamped Environment Agency general binding rules can be found here, and come as part of ongoing efforts to improve water quality and reduce pollution across the country. Introduced in January 2015, the new laws mean that septic tanks and small sewage treatment plants no longer need to be registered in order for a property to be sold, while upholding the responsibility for property owners to ensure their systems are maintained properly and do not cause pollution.

Under these rules:

  • compliance is no longer automatically the responsibility of the occupier of a property, or the person who occupies the land where the actual discharge takes place; instead it places responsibility on the owner of the property or land where the septic tank or is located or being used
  • the owner must either operate and maintain the system themselves, or have a written agreement with another person to handle this responsibility, including specific guidance on what maintenance must be carried out in order to comply with the rules
  • property sellers must inform buyers in writing if a property has a septic tank or small sewage treatment plant, including its location, maintenance requirements and any relevant defects
  • properties in areas designated as environmentally sensitive may require a permit to run their septic tank, in order to help protect precious habitats
  • property owners will need to install a small sewage treatment plant if their septic tank discharges to surface water, allowing the liquid to be cleaned before it reaches the river or stream. This has to be completed before January 1st 2020, or when the property is sold – whichever is sooner

Additional government guidance on this subject can be found here.

How to keep on top of maintaining your septic tank

The broad-ranging nature of the legislation in this area demonstrates that septic tank safety is a matter that needs to be taken seriously. Fortunately, there is a number of checks you can perform and tips you can follow to keep on top of any practical problems before they arise, while also making sure you remain in compliance with the current legislation:

  • Make sure you inspect the area where your tank releases sewage on a monthly basis.
  • Look for any signs of something in the system not working correctly around the area of your septic tank. This can include any unusual smells or water that’s not usually there.
  • If your sewage flows into water, keep an eye out for telltale signs of problems such as sludge that’s overflowing, or scum on the water.
  • Carefully read your permit, as this will detail the list of requirements you need to meet. It’s also a good idea to double-check how you’re expected to meet these criteria at the time of organising your permit.
  • Speak to the Environment Agency before installing a new system to check if a permit is required; also ensure any new systems meet British Standard BS EN 12566, and check with local councils that they adhere to regional planning requirements and Building Regulations.
  • When selling a property, inform the buyer in writing if there is a septic tank or small sewage treatment plant, including details of its location, condition and maintenance requirements.
  • Keep a detailed record of everything you’ve had to get done to your septic tank system, including any issues you’ve come across and any documents you might have to offer evidence of your proactive maintenance approach.

Finally, it’s essential to appoint a registered waste carrier to empty your septic tank for you on an annual basis, and this is where Lanes can help you out. Our emptying and cleaning services for septic tanks will help to ensure your system remains safe, efficient and fit for essential everyday use; you can also download a copy of our septic tank best practice leaflet for more information on how to keep your tank in optimal condition.