On-site wastewater treatment and the new Building Regulations
27 January 2015
Author: Michael Duffy BE CEng MIEI
During the debate in the run up to septic-tank registration, or more accurately the amended Water Services Act, some people with experience at the working end of wastewater treatment suggested that up to 80% of installations are non compliant. On the basis of the first year of inspections, and considering that the inspections are relatively minimalist, this figure seems to be on target. So where did we go wrong? More importantly, are we still going wrong?
In the past, almost everybody involved carried some blame to a greater or lesser extent: local authorities, planners, developers/builders, engineers/architects, building control, the ‘guy with the JCB’ and the householder. If you set out to create such a convoluted and ultimately useless system as existed, you could not have done better. It guaranteed nothing with respect to standards and the person ultimately responsible is the householder. But enough of the past!
Changes to wastewater treatment in Ireland
So what has changed? We now have the Environmental Protection Agency Code of Practice 2009, the Building Regulations (Part H Amendment) Regulations 2010 and the Building Control (Amendment) Regulations 2014. These sound impressive, but will they work? More important, will they work from the householders’ point of view?
Incidentally, householders deserve a special mention here. In the first instance, they are our clients and, particularly with respect to on-site wastewater treatment, they are the predominantly scarce developers. Europe operates on the basis of the ‘polluter pays’ principle. This is a reasonable aspiration and has been embraced in national legislation. However, legislators have yet to convince me that placing the householder behind the eight ball is appropriate or fair.
The amended Water Services Act and the new Building Control (Amendment) Regulations make the householder ultimately responsible. On this basis, it is legitimate for a householder/developer to ask why they should engage our professional members. In the vast majority of cases, the householder knows the least about wastewater treatment yet they are ultimately responsible.
The current situation regarding a new development is that literally anybody is entitled to present a site suitability assessment as part of a planning application. The only statutory requirement in the Planning and Development Regulations is for “information on the on-site treatment system proposed and evidence as to the suitability of the site for the system proposed” to be submitted as part of the planning application. You will notice that this does not mention the EPA Code of Practice or specify who the competent person is.
In any event, the planning application progresses and may, or may not, benefit from a consideration by somebody with a competence in on-site wastewater treatment and design. Typically, planning conditions are applied regarding the on-site wastewater treatment.
Occasionally, these conditions are impossible to comply with, are often contradictory to best practice and, in any event, are seldom enforced or indeed enforceable. In cases requiring a discharge to Waters Licence (if the discharge is greater than 5m3 per day), often planning conditions and the conditions of the Discharge Licence contradict each other. Which conditions take precedence for the assigned certifier in such situations?
Building Control Regulations
Since March 2014, a new regime of Building Control exists. Chartered engineers are one of three prescribed groups of professionals who can act as assigned certifiers under these Regulations. Chartered engineers need to think carefully about this with respect to on-site wastewater treatment.
The Code of Practice published by the Minister under the Building Control Regulations at paragraph 1.5 Regulatory Oversight states:”Oversight is central to the revised arrangements for the control of building activity that will operate from 1 March 2014. Building Control Regulations require the private sector to play an active part in achieving compliance and providing better buildings. A key aim of the Code is for regulatory oversight to ensure a culture of compliance with Building Regulations using a risk based approach to target those who are noncompliant.”
By definition and experience, on-site wastewater treatment has proven itself to be a risk. When engaged as an assigned certifier, what do you need to do to avoid being the target of a risk-based approach to target those who are non compliant with respect to on-site wastewater treatment?
Consider the following questions:
- Is the Site Suitability Assessment appropriate and valid?
- Is the assessor qualified and insured to design an on-site wastewater treatment system?
- Considering the ground conditions, is the design the best long term solution for your client?
- Are the conditions of planning appropriate? Do not simply assume that they are;
- Who will supervise installation of the system?
- Consider the following definitions of wastewater when certifying,
- EPA Code of Practice: “The discharge from sanitary appliances, e.g. toilets, bathroom fittings, kitchen sinks, washing machines, dishwashers, showers, etc.”
- S.I. No. 561/2010 – Building Regulations (Part H Amendment) Regulations 2010: ‘soil water’ means “water containing excreted matter, whether human or animal”; ‘wastewater’ means “used water not being soil water or trade effluent”.
If a condition of planning requires compliance with the EPA Code of Practice and by statute you must also certify in compliance with Part H, then there is a conflict in these definitions.
Could the process be made simpler and better?
The success of any construction activity is dependent on attention to detail. If you design a RC beam, you will stipulate that sample test cubes of the concrete are taken. How will you ensure the necessary attention to detail is supervised for the Wastewater Treatment System? Power demands responsibility. An assigned certifier is a powerful role and requires appropriate responsibility to ensure successful outcomes for clients.
We in Engineers Ireland operate under a code of ethics and this is part of such responsibility. There has been much publicity regarding the cost of this new process to clients. However, the cost of the assigned certifier for the whole project could be more than offset on replacing a failed wastewater treatment engineering system.
Suppose the RC beam mentioned above is in a crèche. The professional engineer designs this beam based on their calculations. The planning process pays absolutely no notice to the design details of this beam. It will not even be aware of them. Permission is granted (or refused), but the design details of the beam are never conditioned in planning permission. Children play under this beam every day. What is the difference with on-site wastewater treatment? If professional engineers with PI insurance certify that a given site can treat the wastewater arising, why can this burden not be lifted from planning authorities?
These resources could be much better employed elsewhere. Along with the initial “certification of treatment at the planning-application stage, the process can now take comfort that the assigned certifier will ultimately certify compliance with Building Regulations.
With regard to inspection regimes for legacy systems, it is reported that a significant percentage of installations are failing inspections. A lack of de-sludging is stated as the most widespread issue presenting. In such circumstances, how can the inspector be satisfied that sludge has not migrated to the percolation area, polishing filter or, more likely in older situations, a sump? Inspections resulting in failure present particular difficulties and challenges to engineers.
The mode of site suitability assessment widely used for greenfield sites is not appropriate for the vast majority of legacy sites. Trial holes and test holes are not appropriate in inundated ground. The author has developed a unique, cost-effective methodology for assessing such sites, which involves particle size distribution assessment of undisturbed soil samples.
Soil samples are retained for regulatory bodies to independently analyse if required. It also provides for ongoing evaluation of the water table and the sampling of groundwater.
Uninspected legacy sites
It is envisaged to inspect approximately 1% of on-site systems per annum. On this basis, many systems will not be inspected in our lifetime. Thousands of householders are aware that their on-site systems are polluting. Some of these are prepared to, and can afford to, address the problem. This could provide much-needed employment in rural areas and improve water quality at the same time.
As matters stand, any remediation work, save on foot of a notice following an official inspection, requires planning permission. Householders who were considering stretching their limited resources to remedy this situation are completely put off when told they require planning permission, attracting extra costs. Often they take the wrong solution and engage the man with a JCB on a Saturday morning. Again, the process should be altered to allow a professional engineer to assess the issues, design a solution, and supervise and certify remedial works.
Wastewater works – but only if properly designed, installed and maintained. Wastewater treatment has occurred in nature for millennia. It is not rocket science. It requires three specific things: a skilled engineer to facilitate this natural process, attention to detail when installing their design and appropriate maintenance. Rather than use the painful expression ‘a lot done; more to do’, I would prefer ‘a work in progress’ or ‘not quite there yet’.http://www.engineersjournal.ie/2015/01/27/wastewater-treatment-engineering-ireland/http://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Waste-water-2-1024x683.jpghttp://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Waste-water-2-300x300.jpgCivilbuilding regulations,waste,wastewater,water