Today, alternative onsite septic treatment systems are designed to be state of the art, meeting EPA's treatment standard one. This exceeds the standards for sewage treatment plants and replenishes existing groundwater systems. These alternative onsite systems can be more sustainable to the surrounding ecosystem than sewers and centralized waste treatment and are certainly less expensive for the homeowners in sparsely populated areas. However, the systems need to work properly and these newer alternative systems with multiple tanks, compressors and various parts require consistent maintenance to continue working properly.
According to data compiled by Loudoun and Fauquier Counties Virginia these systems fail at a rate significantly higher than traditional systems and the majority of their alternative systems are not functioning properly. Alternative systems can provide excellent onsite waste treatment; however, they need to be maintained. My experience with my alternative system has been that on going care and monitoring is necessary to keep my system humming (literally, the motor for the air compressor to the aerobic tank makes a humming sound when it working properly). It took a considerable amount of money and effort to ensure that the system that that came with the house I bought was and remains operational.
On April 8, 2009 the General Assembly of Virginia passed HB 1788/SB 1276. According to the Piedmont Environmental Council this legislation denies localities the ability to restrict use of alternative septic systems and require maintenance of such systems. However, the legislation contains enactment clauses and HB 1788/SB1276 will force the Virginia Board of Health to finally act on the issue. Uniform regulations throughout the Commonwealth might facilitate homeowner awareness and compliance. § 32.1-164 of the Code of Virginia requires Virginia Board of Health to begin an O&M program for alternative septic systems that is based on the manufacturer’s operation and maintenance instructions, local requirements, or state rules and policies whichever is most stringent. These requirements go into effect on July 9th 2009 and remain in effect until final regulations for O&M of alternative systems are in place. The Virginia Department of Health, VDH, is currently trying to decide if these requirements would apply to all alternative systems or only those installed after July 9, 2009.
The VDH has been working to promulgate these regulations under § 32.1-164 of the Code of Virginia, since the DEQ handed over authority at the beginning of this decade. So far there are no regulations and the VDH is considering whether all the alternative systems installed in the past decade should be regulated in the interim. Developing appropriate, fair and functional regulations that will serve homeowners, and protect all the waters of the state is a difficult task that certainly will take time. However, ignoring the existing inventory of alternative systems that require maintenance to function for the duration of time that it will take to develop and implement regulations would appear irresponsible and not protective of the homeowners. All too often homeowners are unaware they have a problem until sewage is backing up into their homes or surfacing in their yards. Simple consistent interim regulations could prevent that.
The US EPA has found that adequately managed decentralized waste water treatment systems are a cost effective long term option for meeting public health and water quality goals in less densely populated areas. So, let’s manage them correctly. While the VDH works to develop regulations, in order to protect health and local water resources, what’s left of our property value, and conservation of groundwater, they should create a default O&M schedule of once or twice a year for all alternative systems installed before July 9, 2009. The three manufacturers I checked with had almost identical maintenance recommendations for their systems. The VDH should pick one and apply it to every alternative system currently in operation.