Need to Know: Septic tanks

Well septic tanks and sewage (that is to say, the stuff that passes, compared to ‘sewerage’ being what is passes through) might not be a particularly savoury topic, but it is definitely a necessary one and moreover, one which it is better to get right from the beginning, rather than learning from one’s mistakes. The consequences of getting it wrong are, after all, more than a little unpleasant. However, take heart: the Prince of Wales has a very ecologically sound system operating at Highgrove, which is an excellent advertisement for anyone doubting the sanity, not to mention sanitariness, of private drainage systems.  
From the advent of the Public Health Act in 1836, the government decided that it would be a good thing (and probably result in a considerably healthier population) if they could provide a mains system for providing water and sewage disposal. A large amount of the country is now covered by the mains network, but as ever (and especially in harder to reach rural parts), there are exceptions where property is still on private drainage. If you are buying a property, your solicitor will, as a matter or course, carry out a drainage and water search (also known as a CON 29DW) and this will tell you whether the property is on mains water and or drainage. If it is on mains drainage, you still need to ensure that it is directly connected to the sewage mains. If so, there is no problem. However, if there is a length of private pipe connecting you in to the mains, which crosses property belonging to a third party, you need to ensure that you have the appropriate rights to use the entirety of the pipe. Such rights are usually in the form of an easement which is a formal right to do something on (or take something from) someone else’s land.

As with private water supplies, the provisions might be contained either in a previous sale of the property, or in a separate document. In the case of private drainage pipes, you need to ensure that you have the right to go on to the neighbouring land in order to inspect repair renew and replace the pipes. It should also be clear who pays for maintenance and renewal and who is responsible for actually carrying out any repair work.

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If the property is not on mains drainage, the hunt is on to find out what happens to the waste – occasionally all too literally. One poor land agent once resorted to going out with a telescopic camera to a house we were selling, to find the septic tank. He was dismayed to discover that the waste was, in fact, going straight out onto a hole in a field. This is not ideal.
Ideally, there should be a septic system of sound construction: either a septic tank, or a cesspit or pool. Septic tanks are a two chamber system: waste arrives in the first tank where it undergoes anaerobic digestion and the solids settle and are liquefied. The clear water is then drawn off into a second tank where aerobic digestion takes place before it is discharged into the secondary system. The solids from the first tank will need to be taken off regularly (usually annually) by a licensed contractor – occasionally referred to by the fabulous nickname, ‘sludgegulpers’. The secondary system may comprise land drains, wetlands, or reed beds, such as they have at Highgrove. Wastewater discharged by this sort of system is likely to require a discharge consent from the Environment Agency. Not every house that needs one, has one and you should get the seller to rectify, before you buy the property. By contrast, a cesspit is a single, watertight tank which holds the sewage until it can be removed by a licensed contractor – it is easy to spot the problem with this (especially if you have a large family). Frequent emptying can become very expensive, however, it may be a viable option for properties with limited use, such as holiday cottages.          

In the case of any private septic system, it may serve and be situated on just your property, or it may also serve and be partially situated on, property in different occupation. In the case of the latter, you need to be very clear about who is responsible for what, who pays and in what proportion and make sure that you both have adequate rights to go onto each other’s land to deal with emergencies. Again, this should be clearly (and formally) set out to limit the scope for disagreements later. The point at which you start wondering what the odd smell is, or worse, the man from the ministry starts taking an unhealthy interest in the contents of your drains, is far too late.

About Elizabeth

Despite being one who feels the cold, Elizabeth braved a move to Northumberland and has worked there as a solicitor with the firm of Dickinson Dees LLP, in the Agriculture, Farms and Estates Team, where she started life as a trainee in 2003. As part of this specialist and nationally renowned team, she works both for a number of larger estates and trusts on an ongoing basis and also on one-off matters, covering the range of rural property law, including; sales and purchases, sporting rights,rights of way, easements and tenancies, to name a few. Outside the office, she nearly managed to get sent to the North Pole, loves the occasional hunt with the CVNNH and continues to try and break the 4-hour mark for a marathon. She lives with her husband, a terrier and a very silly basset.

She can be contacted through Dickinson Dees on 0191 279 9000