The Emergency Alternative Onsite Sewage System (AOSS) Regulations were published September 28, 2009 by the Virginia Department of Health and the comment period is open until October 28, 2009.
The single family homeowner who has an AOSS will not have and easy time complying with the requirements of the regulations. The Virginia code and the Emergency regulations require the owner of an AOSS, have that system operated by a licensed operator, as defined in § 32.1-163, and visited by the operator as specified in the operation permit. Very few homeowners have seen the operating permit for their septic system and most are unaware of its requirements. In addition, it is possible to have an AOSS and not know it.
Effective July 1, 2009, oversight of soil scientists and septic construction and repair companies was transferred from the Department of Health to the Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation (DPOR). Virginia law now requires that soil evaluators, installers, and operators of onsite sewage systems to be licensed by the Board for Waterworks and Wastewater Works Operators and Onsite Sewage System Professionals at the DPOR. Any individual who was previously certified by the Department of Health for construction and/or repair of septic systems can get an interim license.
Prior to July 1, 2009, Virginia law did not require a license to practice as an onsite sewage system installer or operator. To make the transition smoother, any individual that was practicing as installers or operators could obtain an interim license from DPOR. As I understand it, anyone operating in any aspect of septic can obtain a license to perform any of the tasks, qualified or not. It appears as if the license is merely evidence of currently involvement in the septic business, not ability to operate an AOSS. Because the program is new, DPOR does not have any complaint history or even a list of licensed contractors available in your area.
Previously, county Department of Health qualified individuals to perform these tasks and to a limited extent could remove their permit if their work was unsatisfactory. Single family homeowners have any easily accessible tools at their disposal to determine who should be the operator of their AOSS, merely having a license is not evidence of competence. Supposedly, Virginia is requiring licensed operators to operate and maintain all AOSSs to protect public health and the environment, because homeowners cannot operate these systems themselves.
This is very much an example of let the homeowner beware. Verifying a license is not a substitute for checking references with both other homeowners and the Department of Health and local engineers. Many county offices of the Department of Health used to maintain a list of qualified contractors to install AOSSs. Some of these lists are still on line or can be obtained from the county office. That is the basic list to start with or start with the contractor who installed your system. That information is available from the Department of Health. Next call each contractor and ask if they operate and maintain your type of system. If you do not know what type of system you have, go outside and write down the name from the power boxes and lids you can piece the information together from the component names.
Find two or three contractors who state that they are familiar with and licensed to operate and maintain your system. Get copies of their maintenance contracts and read them. Are the required visits included? How many emergency calls are included under the contract? What about minor adjustments and repairs, pumping the tanks every few years, etc. Understand what is included. Ask for references and call them and find out if customers are happy with the contractor. Ask about the training and experience of the person who will actually make the site visit. Next, call the local Department of Health office to determine how many and what type of complaints are listed against the contractor in the files still available. Additional information you might ask about is the contractor familiar with regulations, are they proactive and easy for the Department of Health to work with. Talk to them, they are your best source of information. Finally, it is important to verify that the contractor is familiar with your specific system, knows how to determine that the system is actually operating properly and knows how to repair the system if there are problems. Call the manufacturer of the system and ask about certification and training that an operator should have. Then make sure that your operator is properly trained.
As you are faced with the work to find a qualified operator, the possibility of a Department of Health managed option looks attractive. The local county Departments could engage a qualified and licensed individual or firm to operate and maintain various types of AOSSs. Any single family homeowner could choose to have the contract managed by the Department of Health and pay the monthly fee of $25-$40 to the Department of Health to operate their system. For those home owners who felt unsure at how to select a “good” contractor, the Department could manage the process. The benefits of this approach would be that the Department of Health could serve as quality control for the process. The Department by being the customer could ensure that public health and the environment were protected, but would not be on site to observe systems alarms and ensure they were responded to in a timely fashion or even responded to at all. The downside is that the Department of Health has only dealt with contractors in a limited environment during the approval process for installation and really has no experience with contractors as operators. Nor does the Department have any demonstrated expertise in contract negation and management. Finally, the contractor would first serve the department of health not the customer, and this approach would hinder the development of a healthy marketplace and could be influenced by criteria not in the homeowners best interests. So I am afraid that the best course is to get to work in finding a qualified operator for your system.
A final note. I have negotiated a 25% discount on the annual contract for a group within my HOA. You might band together with your neighbors if there are a number of AOSSs in your neighborhood. Also, you could divide up the work of checking references, reviewing contracts, and verifying training and license.