Monday, May 16, 2011

The Simple Steps to Comply with Virginia’s Alternative Septic Regulations

The Emergency Alternative Onsite Sewage System (AOSS) Regulations published on November 16, 2009 by the Virginia Department of Health were approved by Governor McDonnell on April 6, 2010, went into effect April 7, 2010 and will remain in effect until replace by the permanent regulations. Homeowners have only recently received letters informing them of the new regulations because there were several failed legislative challenges to the regulations.

The emergency regulations implement Legislation approved in 2009 (HB 2551, Acts of Assembly, 2009, Ch 220) that requires the Board of Health to promulgate emergency regulations to establish both performance requirements and horizontal setbacks necessary to protect public health and the environment for alternative onsite sewage systems. Though this legislation denied localities the ability to restrict use of AOSS in their counties, it requires all AOSS be properly maintained and spells out what that entails. Proper operation and maintenance of these systems is necessary to ensure that all AOSS function as designed. Uniform regulations throughout the Commonwealth might facilitate homeowner awareness and compliance with the regulations. The full text of the regulations can be read at this link.

The Emergency AOSS regulations require professional operators certified and licensed by DPOR to operate and maintain all AOSS including those of single family homes in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Licensed operators are a small pool of individuals. 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 are licensed by the Board for Waterworks and Wastewater Works Operators and Onsite Sewage System Professionals at the DPOR. Prior to July 1, 2009, Virginia law did not require a license to practice as an onsite sewage system installer or operator. Because the program is relatively new, the DPOR compliant history will not provide much information, but you can obtain a list of licensed individuals.

Maintain a relationship with a licensed operator. This means you must hire a DPOR licensed operator. This “relationship” does not have to be a service contract, but many licensed operators require a contract to take on the obligations of the regulations and quite frankly, it does simplify things. A licensed operator is licensed by DPOR to operate and maintain all AOSS. Appropriate licenses are within the Onsite Sewage System Professionals category (soil evaluators, operators or installers) or Soil Scientists. Note that DPOR does not issue multiple licenses to individuals, so that someone who is qualified to install is also qualified to operate a system. You can go the DPOR website and look up the individual license holder, but it is important to know the individual license holder’s name which is not always the same as a company name. Many companies operate with several employees working under the license holder.

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 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 (where to find that is below). 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 the Regulations. In addition to regular maintenance and inspection, all systems installed after April 7, 2010 and whose systems have a secondary treatment before the soil treatment area 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 (they were installed without sampling ports). 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. I know this is the biggest waste of paper ever, but I’m not entirely convinced that the health department would accept an electronic copy should they happen to ask. Also, read it, 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.)

These requirements went into effect on April 7, 2010 and remain in effect until final regulations for O&M of alternative systems are in place. 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.) Finally, keep all log visits to show that your system has been maintained as required.

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