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Septic Tanks

Don’t pooh-pooh septic tank regs as deadline approaches


Anyone using a septic tank to discharge sewage from the home or business premises in England and Wales, needs to be aware that the final deadline for regulation introduced in 2015 is coming into force at the end of the year. Dominic Kilburn gets to grips with the new regs.

As from 1st January 2020 septic tanks will not be allowed to discharge into a watercourse unless the Environment Agency grants a permit in “exceptional circumstances”.

As from 1st January 2020, just 5 months away, all septic tank operations need to comply with the Environment Agency’s GBR ‘General Binding Rules’, which were first introduced in 2015 for new installations from that date. In simple terms it means that any existing septic tank that currently discharges directly to surface water, however long it has been in situ, must cease from doing so by that date, and an alternative system sought. The Environment Agency stresses that it will only grant a permit for a discharge from a septic tank directly to a watercourse in exceptional circumstances.

It’s also worth noting that even where properties with tanks that discharge directly to surface water are sold prior to that date, responsibility for the replacement or upgrade of the existing treatment system should be addressed between the buyer and seller as a condition of sale.

According to an Environment Agency spokesperson answering questions put by Farmers Guide, January 2020 is the target date for compliance with GBR as five years (2015–2020) was considered a reasonable timescale for operators to meet the requirements and make the necessary improvements or changes to their discharge arrangements.

And while the Agency says that it will give people and businesses sufficient time to comply with any changes that are required, it will take enforcement action if absolutely necessary where advice and guidance has failed.

What are the options?

Clearly, if you are an operator of a septic tank that discharges direct into surface water you are going to have to act very quickly if nothing has been done to date. The easiest solution would be to connect direct to the mains sewer, although this is unlikely to be an option for remotely located farmhouses and businesses and the reason why a septic tank was installed in the first place.

A second option is to replace the septic tank with a small sewage treatment plant – a more sophisticated unit than a septic tank which usually does both primary and secondary treatment, and which requires an electricity supply used to artificially introduce air to the treatment plant. It is this oxygen transfer through the sewage that enables the growth of aerobic bacteria which are more effective in the breakdown of sewage than the bacteria present in a septic tank.

Install this kind of operation and discharge can continue to be direct to surface water (providing it meets the required Standard BS EN 12566), or it can drain to a field drainage system (see below).

In addition, the Agency points out that if you’re discharging more than 5m3 (5,000 litres) per day into surface water using a treatment plant, a permit must be applied for.

The third option is to keep the existing septic tank (provided it is in working order) and discharge into a drainage field consisting of a network of perforated or slotted pipes which provide secondary treatment of waste. Again, there are limitations and for a field drainage system there is a 2,000-litre daily discharge capacity before a permit is required. This treatment system must be to BS 6297:2007.

It should be said that, if a septic tank that currently discharges to ground is operating correctly and is compliant with GBR, there is no requirement to upgrade or replace it solely owing to the age of the system.

However, if you are located in or near designated sensitive areas where a higher level of protection is needed, small sewage discharges will continue to require permits as necessary.

Constructed wetlands or reed beds, or other systems are not able to operate under GBRs and their operators should apply for a permit or consider if they need or wish to amend their drainage arrangements.

This ‘E-range’ sewage treatment plant supplied by JDP is a more sophisticated unit than a septic tank which usually does both primary and secondary treatment, and is an option for those needing to upgrade their septic tank in light of fast-approaching regulation changes.

Professional advice

Having started out in agriculture 45 years ago, Carlisle based JDP Ltd is a company offering expertise in civils and drainage on a nationwide basis.

Technical support supervisor, Tom House stresses that anyone with sewage discharge needing to comply with the General Binding Rules by 1st January 2020 should seek professional advice. “It’s very important to comply with the legislation but it’s not a straightforward case of simply selecting a sewage treatment plant and getting the work carried out,” he comments.

“Use of a drainage field for example is probably the easiest and least expensive option to ensure septic tanks that are currently discharging into water can comply, but there’s a lot of building regulations and issues with environmentally sensitive sites to consider before a system like that can be implemented.

“And a sewage treatment plant needs careful consideration too, if they are the preferred option for compliance. For example their cost to purchase and install, and then running costs per annum, can vary considerably,” says Mr House.

“Farmers should seek expert advice on the way forward for what is a complicated process to comply with the legislation, and JDP’s technical support department can provide free support for this,” he concludes.

Online calculator

On the Gov.UK website there is a calculator to help you work out how much sewage you discharge. You can use this calculator tool to work out the daily discharge volume from a septic tank or package treatment plant which is connected to one or more houses. This will help you decide whether you need to comply with the General Binding Rules or if you need to apply for a permit.

Whichever treatment system selected, they must meet the relevant British Standard: BS EN 12566 for small sewage treatment plants and BS 6297:2007 for drainage fields.

Septic tank conversion 2020


For homeowners with septic tanks that discharge into ditches, streams and other watercourses, the Mantair septic tank conversion unit provides an economical alternative to the complete replacement of existing tanks and ensures regulatory compliance. 

The Mantair conversion unit is a sewage treatment system specifically designed to fit within an existing septic tank or cesspool, effectively converting the existing tank into a small sewage treatment plant, producing a treated effluent suitable for discharge direct to a natural watercourse. 

For every conversion unit installation it is necessary to obtain a Permit to Discharge from the Environment Agency, and once issued, the system is fully compliant with the 2020 General Binding Rules. 

As the Mantair conversion unit fits within the existing tank structure this reduces the cost and inconvenience normally associated with sewage treatment plant installations, while upgrading the existing tank into a full functioning sewage treatment system.

Although every conversion unit works in the same way they are all custom built to suit the existing tank dimensions. It is therefore necessary for a site visit to determine the dimensions of the existing tank and suitability for conversion.

The Mantair conversion unit is available for installation throughout most of England and Wales.

  • Written by: Farmers Guide
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