Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Final Alternative Septic Regulation in Virginia

The Emergency Alternative Onsite Sewage System (AOSS) Regulations went into effect April 7, 2010 and expired on October 6th 2011. It was anticipated that the final regulation would replace them without a gap in regulation; but Governor McDonnell did not sign the final regulations until October 20th 2011. The Board of Health will publish the regulations on November 7th 2011 and they will go into effect 30 days later, so there will be a 60 day gap in regulation which in the end is meaningless. Homeowners had only recently received letters informing them of the now expired emergency regulations, but the requirements under the final regulations are almost the same as outlined by the Board of Health Letters sent to homeowners this past spring. So as a homeowner with an alternative septic system in Virginia you will need to be in compliance with the regulations.

The final regulations list the homeowner responsibilities as section 140 of the regulations.12VAC5-613-140. Owner responsibilities.
It is the owner's responsibility to do the following:
1. Have the AOSS operated and maintained by an operator;
2. Have an operator visit the AOSS at the frequency required by this chapter;
3. Have an operator collect any samples required by this chapter;
4. Keep a copy of the log provided by the operator on the property where the AOSS is located in electronic or hard copy form, make the log available to the department upon request, and make a reasonable effort to transfer the log to any future owner;
5. Follow the O&M manual and keep a copy of the O&M manual in electronic or hard copy form for the AOSS on the property where the AOSS is located, make the O&M manual available to the department upon request, and make a reasonable effort to transfer the O&M manual to any future owner; and
6. Comply with the onsite sewage system requirements contained in local ordinances adopted pursuant to the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act (§ 10.1-2100 et seq. of the Code of Virginia) and the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Area Designation and Management Regulations (9VAC10-20) when an AOSS is located within a Chesapeake Bay Preservation Area.

Have your AOSS operated and maintained by a licensed operator. As a homeowner if you are not licensed by the DPOR you are not allowed to maintain nor operate you own AOSS. The Virginia code requires the owner of an AOSS to have that system operated by a licensed operator, so you need to hire one of them to operate and maintain your system. That amounts to at a minimum one visit a year, but may be more depending on the type of system you have. The cost of my septic contract increased by 25% after the emergency regulations were approved by the Governor. The operator (or someone who works for the license holder) will visit your home inspect, test and service the components of your system and will file a report on line with the Virginia Department of Health certifying the results.

Have an operator review the operation of the system at the frequency required by the regulations. The frequency of your required maintenance is actually on your AOSS operating permit, which you have probably never seen. Do not worry, if you have an “off the shelf” system it is probably once or twice a year. Typically, the manufacturer obtained general approval for commercially available AOSS (and that is most systems), the maintenance schedule is given in the standard homeowner’s manual (the link to that is below in the next section). My system operating instructions detail system inspections and adjustments every six months and filter cleaning every three months. The operator is required to perform the required system maintenance, fill out and file forms with Environmental Health detailing the operation and condition of the system and compliance with the required maintenance schedule. The operator is required to file a report (on-line) for all visits. A little note, if your system was custom designed by an engineer, you could have significant additional operating, maintenance and sampling requirements.

Have an operator collect any samples required by this chapter. Laboratory sampling is not required for any small AOSS with an installed soil treatment area that is sized for septic tank effluent and complies with the requirements of 12VAC5-610 for septic tank effluent. In addition to regular maintenance and inspection, all systems installed after April 7, 2010 and whose systems have a secondary treatment and is not exempted by the above statement are required to have a grab sample of sludge taken and analyzed for BOD and, if disinfection is required, fecal coliform once every five years. Systems installed before April 2010 are grandfathered and do not require sampling. Expect to pay at least a couple hundred dollars for this. Yes, it would be cheaper if you took the samples yourself, but you are not allowed to.

Keep a copy of the maintenance log provide by the operator on the property where the AOSS is located. Every time the operator visits your system to maintain and/or inspect it, they are required to fill out a form with the Virginia Department of Health on their on-line reporting system and send you or give you a form indicating what service they provided. I file all of these in a notebook with the Operations Manual, but my service company e-mails me the invoice/log entry so I have all items electronically stored.

Keep a copy of the Operations and Maintenance (O&M) Manual for the AOSS on the property, make it available to the health department on request and transfer the O&M Manual to any future owner. All manufactures of systems approved in Virginia have created O&M Manuals that you can access on line and print. You can download the manual and save it or you can print it out. I know this is the biggest waste of paper ever, but I found it easier to actually skim through the manual in print. It does give some useful tips on how to properly use your system. All the manuals from the standard state approved systems can be accessed at this link. (Go outside and read the name and model number off your system. It is on the power/circuit boxes bolted to the house.)

Comply with the local ordinances for the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act when an AOSS is located within a Chesapeake Bay Preservation Area. Once a system is built, the responsibilities for the owner are to have the system pumped out at a minimum every five years. Here is a little tip, systems are less likely to back up into your basement or percolate out of the drain field if you pump them out frequently. In practice the licensed operator should inform you when your system needs to be pumped out and certainly the Board of health will send you a letter.

These are now the final regulations for O&M of alternative septic systems. Compliance is simple, but expensive. Identify the type of system you have, print the manual, then identify a licensed operator in your area and hire them. (Check reference and comparison shop, cost is not always indicative of quality in an inefficient market.) I have found by reviewing the AOSS survey performed for the Department of Health that these systems tend to need regular component replacement or repair, so good response time for a system alarm or failure is important.

While alternative septic systems are a bit more complicated that traditional septic systems they can allow the safe development of environmentally sensitive areas. However, it is widely accepted, but not well documented that improperly managed septic systems contribute to major water quality problems. In 2003 EPA reported that 168,000 viral and 34,000 bacterial illnesses occur each year from drinking water contaminated by waterborne pathogens from fecal contamination due primarily from failed septic systems. Proper maintenance of septic systems (both traditional and alternative) is essential for protection of public health and local water resources. Unfortunately, while you and I responsibly manage our septic systems, (exercise, maintain a healthy weight, eat 5 servings of fruits and vegetables daily, save for retirement, etc.), many homeowners are unaware of how septic systems work and what is necessary to maintain them.

One method to deal with this problem was to eliminate all but the most basic systems in the most geologically favorable locations (reduce percolation rate tolerances and design the systems as conservatively as possible). The other method was to regulate, control and track. Establish system performance and monitoring and maintenance requirements, establish a tracking system and operating permits for compliance monitoring, and establish penalties and enforce the program. As a society we collect taxes, we license, register, and inspect cars; now we permit, register and inspect/maintain a septic system. Legislation approved in 2008 (Va. Code § 32.1-163.6) chose which path Virginia would take. That legislation required the Virginia Department of Health to accept designs from professional engineers for alternative septic systems that comply with standard engineering practice, any performance requirements established by the Board, and horizontal setback requirements necessary to protect public health and the environment. In response to that legislation, several localities banned alternative septic systems to protect the groundwater in their communities. Finally, the Virginia legislature stepped in again and required the Board of Health created the emergency regulations (and ultimately the final regulations) to address three issues for AOSS; performance standards, horizontal setbacks, and Operation and Maintenance necessary to protect public health and the environment from AOSS failure or poor design.

This legislation denied localities the ability to restrict use of AOSS in their counties, expanding property rights. However, the legislation also protects public health, the waters of the state and the environment because it requires all AOSS be properly designed, meet minimum performance standards and be properly maintained and spells out what that entails. It is believed by regulators and manufacturer that proper operation and maintenance of these systems will ensure that all AOSS function as designed. It is hoped that uniform regulations throughout the Commonwealth will facilitate homeowner awareness and compliance with the regulations. The full text of the regulations can be read at this link.

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