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New household sewage treatment system rules for Ohio: Treatment versus disposal

New, up-to-date rules in Ohio to protect the public health and the environment have been a long time in coming. The old rules from the 1970s limited rural development and has kept modern technology from being used in the state. The new “Ohio Household Sewage Treatment System Rules” went into effect January 1, 2015 and replaced the nearly 40-year old “Household Sewage Disposal System Rules.”


Treatment versus disposal — what is the difference?

In a disposal system, the goal is for the sewage to “go away” and not back up in the house or pool in the yard. Where is away? Many disposal systems discharge pollutants to steams, lakes and groundwater contaminating swimming beaches and drinking water.

Treatment systems must remove the pollutants before the reclaimed water returns to ground or surface water. The new rules set treatment requirements and include a range of treatment systems that can meet the requirements. Starting this year, all new systems will be different from the old-style disposal systems.


For a new system what is the first step?

The soil on the lot is the most important part of an onsite treatment system. Filtering wastewater through natural soil is the best and most effective way to remove pollutants. However, the soil must be deep enough, dry and permeable. The first step in designing an onsite system is to evaluate the soil. Soil scientists are the most qualified to evaluate soil and they work all over Ohio. In a soil evaluation, soil maps are studied and a soil scientist visits the site to dig small holes to determine the soil depth to saturation, bedrock or other restrictive layers. By studying the texture, structure, consistence and color of the soil, a soil scientist can determine the soil’s suitability to remove pollutants and treat wastewater.


Protect the soil on the lot

When building a new home or making improvements to an existing home, heavy equipment on the site can compact the soil, making it impossible to use it for wastewater treatment. Once the natural soil is compacted or moved, it cannot be used for an onsite wastewater treatment system. When the area for the system is determined, be sure to fence it off to keep out heavy equipment. Bringing in fill material will not work if the soil is disturbed or is too shallow. Only the natural, undisturbed soil has the ability to absorb and treat wastewater.

How deep does the soil need to be? The new rules spell out the necessary depth of soil. At least 12 inches of natural, undisturbed soil is needed to install an onsite wastewater treatment system. Deeper soils are especially valuable, as they will allow for the construction of lower-cost septic tank — leach field systems. A leach field system requires the soil to be at least three to four feet deep to saturation, bedrock or another restrictive layer. OSU researchers looked at all of the soil types throughout the state and learned that soils over three feet deep are only found in about 16% of Ohio’s land area. If the soil is too shallow for a leach field to remove pollutants and treat wastewater, the new rules allow for other types on onsite treatment systems to be used. Under the new rules, property owners have many more options to both develop a lot and protect the health of their family, neighbors and the environment.

Many new types of systems can be used. Under the rules from the 1970s, only a few types of treatment systems could be used on a problem lot. This really limited development in parts of Ohio with shallow and wet soils. Finally with updated rules, Ohio is catching up to the rest of the country and is able to use more modern onsite wastewater treatment systems. Mound systems, bioreactors and drip irrigation systems are just some of the types of systems used throughout the country that can now be used in Ohio.

With the update, the Ohio Department of Health now has a Technical Advisory Committee that meets to review new wastewater treatment technology. This committee of experts reviews the research on new ways to treat wastewater and helps the Department of Health approve new systems for Ohio. The goal is to protect the public health and the environment while giving property owners many choices to develop a rural lot. Some systems are low-cost, while others are expensive. Some approved systems are buried and hidden, and others are mounded making them more pronounced. Some systems use pumps to move wastewater in doses into a treatment system, while others take advantage of the slope of the land and use gravity. The simple systems tend to be large and the small systems tend to be mechanical and complex. Just like shopping for a new car, many choices and options are now available to meet the need.


Operation and maintenance

Like all of the fixtures and appliances in a home, a sewage treatment system requires maintenance to protect the investment in the system and make sure it continues to remove pollutants. Maintenance free systems do not exist. All of the new systems will have an operation permit. Regular inspections depend on the system type. The large, simple system requires very little maintenance, while the small, complex mechanical system needs regular attention more than once per year. System inspections may be done by the local health department or a private service provider. Regular maintenance will be the responsibility of the property owner working with a registered service provider.

What about an existing system? No changes are required for existing systems as long as they are not creating a public nuisance. If an existing system must be altered or repaired, just like a new system, it will need an operating permit and regular inspection and maintenance will be required.

The most important thing to remember is the new rules are a step in the right direction. In the past Ohio landowners have had few options to develop housing sites and the disposal of sewage has been polluting waterways and wells.

To find out more about onsite wastewater treatment, check the website for the Soil Environment Technology Learning Lab at setll.osu.edu.


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