Q: We are planning to sell our house on a 0.6 acre lot, and have been told that we need to replace the drain field before selling. However, there is nowhere on our site that qualifies due to modern regulations, which require the drain field to be at least 50 ft. from a stream and 100 ft. from a well. There is really nowhere on my site that qualifies. Are there any options available to us that you are aware of? Thank you. — Phillip
A: Your situation is a common one. It is often not possible to build a new septic system in full compliance with current regulations, especially on small lots like yours.
Where full compliance with the code is not possible, the governing authority (town/county/state) will usually work with the homeowner and their septic designer to find a workable solution that comes as close as possible to meeting current standards.
The zoning and health departments are not in the business of throwing people off their land. Assuming your system was in compliance with the code when it was built, then the lot should be “grandfathered” as a habitable lot with the same number of bedrooms as originally permitted.
The exact procedure for updating the system will vary depending on site conditions and local regulations. This might require a variance, special permit, or other legal mechanism to allow a conventional leach field to be built that varies a bit from modern code. For example, the clearance to the nearest well may be reduced. Sometimes a simple design change, like using leaching pits rather than horizontal trenches, does the trick.
In other cases, you will need to use an alternative septic system design to shrink the size of the drain field or produce cleaner treated wastewater. Which alternative systems are accepted locally varies widely and new systems are being introduced all the time. For good reason, local authorities are reluctant to approve a system that has not yet proven itself in the field over several years.
One approach is to install a sand filter or other pre-treatment system that allows you to reduce the size of the drain field. Some areas allow the use of gravelless trenches with synthetic media that, in some cases, have a smaller footprint than conventional gravel trenches. There are also a variety of packaged systems, including aerobic treatment systems, that can produce very clean effluent in a compact area. Unfortunately, alternative systems usually add cost, complexity, and higher maintenance needs to the septic system. Look at annual maintenance costs in addition to installation costs when evaluating a system.
To learn more, contact your local health department (or building department) to discuss your options. A local septic system designer or sanitary engineer will also be familiar with the options available. If you run into resistance from public officials, you may need to speak with a lawyer, but this is usually not necessary to move forward.
Best of luck with finding a workable and affordable solution. — Steve Bliss, Editor, BuildingAdvisor.com
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