Septic System Approval Process Not So Simple

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New technology and new onsite system products are continually emerging, and installers face stringent regulations when seeking approval to use them.

A recent example involves Berry and Deanna Meadows, owners of Digging Dirt LLC in Trumbull County, Ohio. The couple worked with Wastewater Solutions, a local distributor of aerobic treatment units, to gain approval for a complete treatment train. The AS600-1 tertiary filtration device received approval at the state level behind an Aqua-Safe ATU, but was rejected at the local level.

Deanna Meadows explains that the journey has been anything but pleasant. “We jumped through hoops,” she says. “The only product that was permitted for use in the aerobic treatment train was the EnviroGUARD unit from Consolidated Treatment Systems. We ended up asking for public records of that manufacturer so we could see where we were missing the mark. We were just scratching our heads and spending a lot of money.”

Kit Rosefield, education coordinator for the California Onsite Wastewater Association (COWA), encourages those seeking such approvals to educate themselves and the homeowners on overall systems as well as separate components. “I think once the local agencies see that companies are encouraging people to go beyond the product and understand the system, then more products are going to be accepted,” he says.

Statewide regulations
After spending thousands of dollars in testing without receiving full approval, the Digging Dirt owners have taken the next step: legal action with the Trumbull County Board of Health and other county officials.

Not all requests for approval of new systems end in opposition. Ohio is one of several states that have no statewide rules for new system approval, says Tom Frank, president of the National Association of Wastewater Technicians (NAWT). Each county develops its own rules. If a state has an NPDES permit there can be variations to county-by-county approval.

In Trumbull County, a consent agreement was established with the Ohio EPA for off-lot discharging systems, and installers were ordered to use sand filters. It was then amended so systems could include other filtration devices. The agreement, available on the county website, states that tertiary filtration devices must meet Ohio code standards and must be approved by the local Board of Health.  

“The consent agreement gives the local health department the authority to make rules much more stringent than the state,” says Berry Meadows. “The systems we want to install would save customers $3,000 per installation. We’ve tested the tertiary filtration device behind two manufacturers’ ATUs, including the Hydro-Action unit at the NovaTec NSF International lab in Canada. And we’ve done field testing behind an Aqua-Safe unit (Ecological Tanks Inc.).”

According to Ohio Administrative Code 3701-29-09 for household sewage disposal systems, the treatment train must include an aerobic treatment system to process wastewater in front of the sand filter or other tertiary filtration device. The Aqua-Safe and Hydro-Action aerobic treatment units use an activated sludge process to treat effluent.

However, local agencies do not always treat data provided from NSF as sufficient because the water used in the testing is not the same strength as water as the systems would treat in the field.

Frank adds that even if the state approves a system, the county has the right to say it won’t work in a given area or soil type. “Even though it may have been tested for those soils and be fine, county officials can say they have some unique feature that won’t allow it to work,” he says. He believes future statewide regulations would prevent situations like those involving Digging Dirt.

“Every state is different, but installers have to do their homework,” says Frank. “A lot of states will let you put in systems they call ‘experimental’ so you can work with local health districts. You put in a number of systems, and if the systems go bad, you have to make corrections so they can meet the necessary criteria.” He also stresses the importance of documenting the testing and keeping accurate records.

All-around education
The Meadowses have done what they believe to be their due diligence. “Our county has been hit extremely hard with these septic regulations and heavy-handed enforcement,” says Deanna. “For whatever reason, they have allowed one manufacturer to come in and hold a monopoly.” County health officials did not return calls seeking comment.

Frank observes that introducing new products and technologies can provide market competition and give homeowners more options. “The public is in the middle because they’re relying on somebody to tell them if a system is a good system,” he says.

The Meadowses have far from given up. “What I want is to have the county treated like the other counties,” says Berry. “I want the market opened up.”

Local installers, friends and family have offered support. “We just want to be able to bring our product to market and compete, which would ultimately draw the price down for homeowners,” says Berry.

And Deanna agrees: “The officials that represent our constituents should be solution-minded. They should be proactively going after manufacturers and technology that will help lower the cost for homeowners and businesses.”

All-around education is equally important to ensure that regulators, installers and agencies are all on the same page, adds Rosefield. “Education and training for all of the people involved in decision-making is important,” he says.

Qualifying products
In addition to NSF testing, there are two programs available for installers to pursue approval. The U.S. EPA Environmental Technology Verification program (ETV) aims to “provide credible performance data for commercial-ready environmental technologies to speed their implementation for the benefit of purchasers, permitters, vendors, financiers and the public.” This testing is an option for smaller technologies using 400 gpd, generally in residential systems. Check out the current ETV-verified technologies.

The National Decentralized Water Resources Capacity Development Project (NDWRCDP), more recently known as the Decentralized Water Resources Collaborative (DWRC) describes a method local agencies can use to allow products under an experimental basis, setting up performance criteria that would be monitored over a period of time, often two years. The technology can be approved if it performs as the local agency had expected, says Rosefield.

“I understand we need regulations,” says Deanna. “We can’t go back to pumping raw sewage out to ditches and streams. However, there has to be a middle ground where our officials work for the benefit of the economy for the people of the county they live in. Something is amiss.”

Berry’s advice for other installers faced with opposition from local agencies: “Stand firmly.”

Visit the NAWT or NOWRA website for your state’s association information.

What are you doing to get new systems approved? Does your company regularly test new system components? Send me a message to and I promise to respond.


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