SALEM, Ohio — The state of Ohio has revised its septic system rules, as of Jan. 1, and the changes — the first in 30 years — may surprise homeowners. The new rules, which went into effect Jan. 1, will impact what types of systems can be constructed, depending on soil types, and how wastewater is to be handled onsite.
While septic system rules at the county level may have been updated, the Ohio Department of Health hasn’t updated its regulations since 1977. The new rules now cover wastewater treatment as well as septic systems.
Dr. Karen Mancl, an Ohio State University professor in the Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering and president of the Ohio Onsite Wastewater Association, said the rules are a “step in the right direction.”
Mancl said that prior to the changes, each county had its own set of rules, which made regulation statewide difficult.
“Now, we have uniformity, which makes it easier to design effective systems,” said Mancl.
The revised rules establish modern standards for system construction when a new system is installed, and for maintenance when a system fails or breaks and must be altered or replaced. Basically, the difference is that wastewater and pollutants have to be removed from the water coming out of the house before it can be returned to the groundwater.
The Ohio Department of Health reports that nearly 31 percent of all septic systems in Ohio are failing. A failing system could indicate a number of problems, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the homeowner will have to replace the entire system to meet the standards in the new rules or the existing state laws. It could mean just replacing missing or broken parts or adding treatment.
“These rules offer great flexibility in the way systems are repaired or replaced,” Mancl said.
Mancl said some sites will be more challenging than others. For example, in areas of very shallow and wet soil, the wastewater will have to be completely treated before it hits the saturated soil, to reduce pollution. Systems that need replaced or repaired in these areas will likely be the most expensive.
When the rules were first enacted, it was rumored that leach fields were no longer an option, however the state health department said that is not true. Septic tank and leach field systems are still allowed under the new rules and are the preferred system where soil conditions are good. New technologies will have to be used for areas where the soils present more challenges for sewage treatment.
Mancl said if there is no public nuisance, a system upgrade will not be needed, although the health department reminds all landowners that every septic system is different and is on different soil types, so there is no one general rule for the new standards.
An operation permit will now be required for all homeowners (but it could take years before the operation permit requirement comes into fruition depending on the local health district).
The rumor flying around is that any system installed before 1974 will need to be replaced, or that no septic systems will be grandfathered in under the revisions, but according to the ODH, all systems can be kept as-is as long as there is no sewage on the top of the ground, missing parts/pieces or backup in the home.
Local health districts will still work directly with homeowners on system permitting, installation, education and monitoring of system maintenance. System owners can request a timeline for the incremental repair and or replacement of a failing system, which spreads system replacement costs out over time and also 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.
The new regulations now also require permit fees. The state and local department of health will charge up to $75 for a permit to install a new system, and $34 to alter a system.
An operation permit will now be required for all homeowners. However, it could take years before the operation permit requirement comes into fruition depending on the local health district. Local health districts will set the amount and length of the operation permit, which can vary between one and 10 years. There is no specified time frame yet for local health districts to begin requiring an operation permit. The local districts have to begin the process, which will include developing an inventory of who has a septic system and developing a plan of how many years they will issue an operation permit.
It might not cost property owners anything additional to get an operation permit beyond what they are paying for regular maintenance of a system or it may be a nominal fee for the local health district to maintain the records.
The ODH said the operation permit is to track maintenance on septic systems. For example, some systems have mechanical motors and it requires a company to service them regularly. Under the operation permit, if a landowner has the maintenance performed, they can submit a receipt and that will serve as the cost for the operation permit.
Getting an operation permit could also be as simple as taking a receipt to the local health department that shows a homeowner hired a registered company to pump your septic tank.
Before you build
Mancl has one piece of advice for anyone starting to consider building a home: Before you build (or even before you buy), know the soil type at the building site, and get a soil professional to evaluate the site before making any other moves. Then base the entire septic and wastewater disposal system on the soil type.
She said once the soil type is determined, a potential builder will know how much the system will cost — and that could be a deciding factor in building at that location.
Mancl said a soil evaluation will tell a potential builder whether they will need a leach field system, mount system or an irrigation system.
Not everyone happy
One group expressing discontent with the revised regulations is the Ohio Wastewater Alliance. The group, comprised mainly of septic pumpers, is upset over how the regulations will impact them and their customers.
When a homeowner calls a pumper out to their property, the company now has to fill out additional paperwork about the septic system and return it to the county department of health where the property is located.
The paperwork includes not only information about the pump out, but any observations of septage on the ground. They also have to complete continuing education credits every year to stay on top of technology.
Meanwhile, Mancl reminds property owners that it is their responsibility to ensure their system is working properly and that means regular pump outs and ensuring sewage is not coming out of the ground or onto a neighboring property.
She said the Ohio Onsite Wastewater Association is providing opportunities for everyone who works with septic systems to get their continuing education credits, which will help to keep costs down.
Mancl said the new regulations give Ohio a chance to use the latest technology in the field of wastewater treatment, technology that wasn’t being used in Ohio because of the outdated state laws.
“Ohio has been way behind protecting our environment and public health. Now, we have rules that will help us remove pollutants from waste water and protect our families and environment,” Mancl said.
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