Septic tank inspections for homebuyers

Some homes – generally those a bit further out in the countryside – are connected to septic tanks rather than the mains sewage system. While the mains is often the cheapest and simplest option, some homes have no choice other than to install a septic tank.

Septic tanks generally collect sewage, allowing solids to settle to the bottom and oils and greases to rise to the top, forming sludge. Liquid separates from the two, sitting between them. This liquid can then be pumped out of the tank.

Before buying a new home, you’ll want to be sure that it’s legal, functioning correctly and unlikely to develop potentially serious problems in the future.

The best way to be confident that your potential next home has an Environmental Agency-approved, well-installed and fully-functioning septic tank is with an inspection. That way, you’ll know there either aren’t any problems or, if there are, how serious they are, what you should do to repair them and how much they might cost.

This time, we’re talking about septic tank inspections.

What are the new laws governing septic tanks?

In 2020, the government’s laws from earlier last decade came into effect and – rightly – began to seriously crack down on surface water pollution.

Some septic tanks – particularly older or DIY models – were designed to discharge into local waterways such as rivers, streams, canals and ditches. If your septic tank releases sewage straight into a waterway – or even to a location near one – it is now probably illegal.

The best way to be sure is to chat with a nearby septic tank surveyor. Your local council may also be able to help.

If your septic tank does turn out to be illegal, you’ll usually be given a reasonable set timeframe in which to replace it (usually 12 months). Although it can cost thousands of pounds, the government fine for polluting waterways could be up to £100,000.

As of 1 January 2020, all septic tanks (releasing less than 5,000 litres per day) must either:

  1. Direct their waste into a septic drain field, complying with British Standard BS6297 2007.
  2. Be replaced with a sewage treatment plant and complete documentation according to BS EN 12566-3.
  3. Connect to a sewer.

What do these terms mean?

You might wonder what a septic drain field is and how exactly a sewage treatment plant is different from a septic tank.

  • septic drain field (usually referred to as either simply a ‘drain field’ or ‘leach field’) is a subsurface series of pipes situated in a designated field. They have to be approved by the Environment Agency, and you must receive a Consent to Discharge. These pipes are located in trenches and direct the flow of liquid waste from the septic tank. They are perforated and covered with a layer of soil, keeping animals and surface runoff from the wastewater. The pipes allow the flow to drain through some kind of permeable surface (often gravel) and then a layer of soil. As it disperses and percolates through the ground, the wastewater is filtered, with viruses, nutrients and coliform bacteria naturally removed. Drain fields must abide by BS 6297:2007.
  • Sewage treatment plants are essentially slightly more involved and advanced septic tanks. In most ways, they are very similar. Like a septic tank, the waste sits and separates into solids, liquid and scum in the first compartment. The second compartment is where you find the difference. Here, they use air circulation to encourage the growth of the bacteria that will break the sewage down, effectively treating it before it leaves the plant. A final compartment removes any last trace solids before the water is pumped out. The waste from a sewage treatment plant is clean enough to be sent straight into local waterways, if necessary. There is no need for a septic drain field.

Does a septic tank need a certificate?

If a septic tank isn’t connected to a public foul sewer and was installed before 1 January 2015, you may need to apply for a permit from the Environment Agency.

Any and all paperwork is vital during a house transaction, and this little talked about law is no different.

If the tank was installed after 1983, it must conform to the time-appropriate British Standard. You check this by seeing if it has a CE mark on it, if the manual tells you, or if it’s on British Water’s list.

You don’t need any certificates or records of maintenance, although we would highly advise keeping hold of them. These documents will help any cases raised with the Environment Agency and are very useful for selling the property.

Importantly, a septic tank must abide by the General Building Rules, as detailed on the government’s website.

Do surveyors check septic tanks?

Yes, surveyors will check septic tanks on all properties they inspect. This includes homes with a personal septic tank and those with tanks shared with neighbours. However, it’s always worth mentioning that you have a septic tank when you book your survey, so your surveyor knows they need to check it.

  • A septic tank inspection involves the surveyor checking that the tank is legal and conforms to the General Building Rules.
  • Of course, they’ll also look out for any cracks or leaks and check the condition of the lids.
  • It’s vital to have a look for any evidence of ‘backing up’ – water returning from the drain field to the septic tank and potentially from the tank back into the house.
  • The tank should have been emptied and maintained regularly. If it hasn’t been, it’ll show clear signs of neglect that the surveyor will note down.
  • They’ll also ensure all the drains are working properly and aren’t intermixing with the wastewater.
  • On top of this, they’ll make sure that it’s big enough for the new household. This is particularly relevant for anyone with a large family or multiple dependents.
  • They’ll take a look at any decommissioned septic tanks and ensure they’ve been safely taken care of.

One last point: although it’s not by any means a legal requirement, it’s generally considered a common courtesy for the previous owner to pay for the septic tank to be emptied before the new buyer moves in.

Instruct one of our surveyors for a septic tank inspection

At GB Home Surveys, our skilled and experienced team of chartered surveyors are more than happy to inspect septic tanks as part of a home survey.

A septic tank is the responsibility of the current owner. According to the General Building Rules, it legally must be in a safe working condition. The good news is that if we find any significant problems with this device, you can agree with the seller as to who should bear the cost. You could consider submitting a lower offer or asking the owner to fix it before you move in as a condition of sale.

If you’d like to get in touch with us to have a chat about septic tank inspections and why they’re essential, do feel free to get in touch. We can be contacted by phone (03333 600 685) or email (contact@gbhomesurveys.co.uk).

Looking for a quote, or maybe you have a question? Get in touch today.

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