Septic Tank Regulations 2020 – Are You Compliant With The New Legislation?

regulation changes to septic tanks 2020
general binding rules for septic tanks in 2020

If you’re building, reside in, or own property off the mains drainage network it’s crucial that you’re in the know about the changing septic tanks legislation.

In an attempt to take measures against water pollution, the Environment Agency has laid down General Binding Rules, which mean you’ve until 1 January 2020 to upgrade or replace your septic system.

Septic tanks can contaminate groundwater supplies and surface water in lakes, streams, and rivers. Such contamination can render supplies unsuitable for drinking and cause harm to the environment, with social and economic ramifications.

The legislation of septic tanks started in 2010. Around this time, all septic tanks had to undergo registration. In 2011 the Government revised this approach and doled out a consultation in 2014.

In January 2015, new regulations were made following the consultation. Septic tank regulations 2015 dictate the way septic tanks are controlled in England, improving water quality and safeguarding the environment.

If your septic system was installed and discharging before this date, you’ve what is known as ‘existing discharge.’ If it was installed and discharging after this date, you’ve a ‘new discharge.’

Formerly, you could discharge the waste from septic tanks in two ways:

1: Soakaway System

The effluent is discharged through a network of drainage pipes in nearby sub-soils, providing another form of treatment for the wastewater from the septic tank. This helped make sure that the wastewater being released didn’t cause pollution.

Septic tanks discharging into a drainage field aren’t affected by 2020 septic tank soakaway regulations.

2: Waterway

The sewage runs through a pipe directly into a lake, river or stream. The new rules do affect the direct discharge to a waterway as they simplify that direct septic tank discharge into a ditch will no longer be allowed.

If you’ve a septic tank, by law, you must act per the ‘general binding rules’ by making sure your system is properly maintained and doesn’t cause pollution.

Additional protection is in place in zones classified as environmentally sensitive, where people might need to request for a permit.

New Septic Tank Regulations In 2020 Explained

Straight to the nitty-gritties, what is changing as of 1 January 2020 with regards to septic tanks?

Well, if you’re accountable for a property that has a septic tank or are buying an estate with a septic tank, you need to be conversant with the upcoming legal requirement to upgrade by 2020, which could affect you.

Please use this info to find out if you’ll be required to take action towards compliance before 1 January 2020 to avoid violating regulations and suffer an unwanted fine equating to £100,000:

Septic Tank Regulations England

A septic tank settles the solids in the wastewater and then discharges the liquid septic waste to the ground through a well designed and made drainage field – Not an Ezy drain, tunnel, soakaway crate, or soakaway pit. These are inadmissible for wastewater dispersal.

Septic tanks cannot discharge to surface water drains, rivers, canals, ditches, streams or any other type of waterway.

Under the new Environment Agency Septic Tank General Binding Rules, if you’ve a specific septic tank that discharges to surface water (river, stream, ditch, etc.) you are required to upgrade or replace your septic tank treatment system to a full sewage treatment plant by 2020, or when you sell property, if it’s prior to this date.

All septic tanks that as of today discharge into waterways must be either:

  • Replaced, using sewage treatment plants with full BS EN 12566-3 Documentation, or
  • The discharge to the waterway impeded and redirected to a drain field, designed and made according to the up-to-date British Standard BS6297 2007

Septic Tank Regulations Scotland

If your property resides in Scotland, you MUST register your sewage treatment discharge, both existing and new with SEPA (Scotland) before 1 January 2020.

If it’s an existing discharge that has been in use since 1st April 2006, then you can register it if it’s for 15 people or fewer.

If it was in use before 1st April 2006, then you can register it if it’s for 50 people or fewer. For populations higher than these, on the dates highlighted above, then you have to get a license from SEPA.

Septic Tank Rules and Septic Tank Registration Wales

If your property resides in Wales, you MUST register your septic tank or sewage treatment plant with Natural Resources (Wales) before 2020. You’ll also require consent of discharge for any discharge to ground through a watercourse or drain field.

For small-scale discharges, it’s usually free, subject to conditions:

  • If your sewage treatment plant, or septic tank discharge into a drain field in the ground and the residential property has up to 13 persons.
  • If your package sewage treatment plant discharges to a waterway, and the residential property houses less than 33 persons.
  • If a sewage system isn’t near a protected location, or the groundwater under your property, runs to a water extraction point that is used for human consumption.
  • For instances of the above, a source protection zone for drinking water or a site of special scientific interest (SSSI). Natural Resource Wales will check this once they get your application.

Looking for a compliant tank?

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Frequently Asked Septic Tank Questions… Answered!

The following are some questions you might have about your septic system to better understand if your septic tank is 2020 ready, how to maintain it, and how it functions:

What are Small Sewage Treatment Plants and Septic Tanks?

picture of a sweage treatment plant diagram

If your business or home isn’t connected to the mains sewage system, the effluent from your washing machines, sinks, showers, baths, and toilets will flow into one of the following systems:

  • A Septic Tank is an underground tank where solids descend to the bottom forming sludge, and the liquid flows into a drain field where microorganisms treat it as it penetrates the ground. It’s not allowed to discharge into a waterway.
  • A Small Sewage Treatment Plant works in the same way but uses mechanical parts to oxygenate the microorganisms, which makes them more effective at treating effluent and means they can discharge treated wastewater into flowing water or a drain field.
  • A Cesspit or Cesspool is different since the raw sewage is deposited in a sealed tank, instead of being treated and discharged, which means the general binding rules does not cover them. However, cesspit regulations dictate that they must be drained when full and shouldn’t be allowed to leak or overflow.

What are My Responsibilities as a Homeowner?

Under the new code of practice put into effect by the Environment Agency, homeowners are in charge of the installation and maintenance of the sewage treatment system on their property and to reduce its impact on the local environment.

What are the Deadlines?

If the Environmental Agency discovers before January 1, 2020, that you’re currently contaminating surface water through discharge from a septic tank, you’ll be required to install a new system before the new regulations are implemented.

In such circumstances, you’ll be given 365 days to upgrade, although this will be decided on a case-by-case basis.

What are the Options?

Well, there are two ways in which you can comply with the new regulations:

  1. Exchange your septic tank for a sewage treatment plant – a sewage treatment plant produces water that’s clean enough to discharge straight to a waterway.
  2. Install a soakaway system or a drain field – this will take the wastewater from your septic tank, and discharge it safely into the ground without causing pollution.
Septic Tank Regulations 2020 – Are You Compliant With The New Legislation? image 1

What Do The New Regulations Mean For Septic Tank Owners?

If your septic tank was installed and discharging on, or after, 1st January 2015 it must conform to the ‘General Binding Rules’ by discharging to a drain field. This is known as a ‘new discharge,’ and no action has to be taken, however, if your septic system was discharging before the regulations on 31st December 2014 you’ve got an ‘existing discharge’.

‘Existing discharges’ are no longer deemed safe and the Environment Agency demands that these septic systems have to be replaced with new, compliant systems before 1 January 2020.

If you’re selling your property the ‘General Binding Rules’ simplify that you must replace your system with a compliant one prior to selling your home.

On the other hand, if your septic system poses a serious risk to environmental or human health or is causing pollution, the Environment Agency will ask you to upgrade or replace your septic tank before 1 January 2020 and within 365 days of being notified.

What Else Do I Need to Know?

Make sure your septic system is correctly sized and installed, according to the new septic tank installation regulations. Always consult the Government’s Approved Document H before undertaking any installation.

Additionally, you’ll need to ensure your tank is maintained and emptied on a regular basis by a professional (e.g., a registered waste carrier) in line with the manufacturer’s directions.

If you’re buying or selling, it’s the seller’s duty to inform potential buyers in writing if an estate has a septic tank – including its maintenance requirements and its exact location.

Keep in mind that if you reside in Scotland, Wales, or near groundwater source protection zones (SPZ1), other rules might apply. Your manufacturer can provide guidance but always check with your local environmental agency as well.

How to Follow the Regulations and Protect Your Local Environment

Complying with the general binding rules is easy. Here are the main things you need to do:

  • Have your septic system emptied by a registered waste carrier regularly to make sure it doesn’t cause pollution
  • Maintain your septic system regularly, getting any problems or faults fixed immediately
  • You’re limited to discharging utmost 2,000 liters of treated waste daily into the ground or 5,000 liters of treated waste daily to flowing water. If you discharge more, you’ll need a permit.
  • Check in with the Environment Agency before installing a new septic system as you might require a permit. Speak to your local council to determine if your system meets building and planning regulations.

Quick Tips for Maintaining Your Septic Tank

Maintaining your septic system properly will help minimize your energy consumption, avoid costly repair bills, and prevent pollution. Here’s how:

  • Have the sludge emptied regularly by a registered waste carrier
  • Get it serviced annually by a certified engineer and fix problems immediately
  • Frequently check for signs of pollution like grey fungus, lush weeds, foam, sludge, pools of water or sewage smells in your local river or stream. If you spot any of these problems call a professional for help:
  • Don’t flush wipes, nappies, sanitary items or similar objects down the toilet as they can block the system
  • Don’t put chemicals, oils or fats down the drain as they kill the microorganisms that help break-down the waste
  • Avoid using phosphate detergents, which are harmful to the environment
  • Keep maintenance records, so you know when to empty and service your system


It’s not all gloom and doom; there’s still enough time to make the switch. And let’s face it, no one wants to think about the inhabitants of the local rivers or streams hanging around in the polluted water from septic tanks, so it’s a positive change for the environment.

If you’re unsure whether your septic tank has existing or new discharge, contact the Environment Agency who will be able to inform you if your system is compliant. The government’s own guide is available here.

Check out our compliant tanks:

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36 thoughts on “Septic Tank Regulations 2020 – Are You Compliant With The New Legislation?

  1. Marion Blake says:

    My septic tank has been here longer than we have (35 years) do I have to install a new septic tank before I move which is soon. The septic tank is in good working order and drains of into a over flow ditch. If I do need a new system how much would it cost.

  2. Adam says:

    Hi Marion!

    It looks like possibly you may have to upgrade to meet the new regulations. Please give us a call and we can discuss it in more detail. We will be able to get someone from the tank manufacturers to call you back and check for sure also.

    • Adam says:

      Hi Joe! Most likely. It’s impossible for me to be able to tell you any more than what’s in the guide above. I think the best option would be to contact your local water authority and give them the details / have them inspect it and tell you for sure. Hope that helps. Many thanks. Lee.

  3. viv hunt says:

    I am about to buy a property with a septic tank. I have been advised by the vendors that it does not need upgrading and that it drains via soakaway to a neighbours property. Is this acceptable and how can I confirm that these statements are true?

    • Adam says:

      Hi Viv.

      Going by the guide above, it does sound like it will meet the new regulations as it drains into a soakaway. However the only way to be sure would be to contact your local water authority and have them check. Many thanks. Lee.

  4. jane kennett says:

    I’m sorry but I’m confused! I’m buying a property with a septic tank which I am told is a soakaway system (so should be ok?), but it was installed before 2014 so probably isn’t?? And if it isn’t, does the seller or me have the responsibility to upgrade it? We haven’t exchanged contracts yet but are close to doing so – I hope. Jane

    • Lee Eaglen says:

      It is the homeowners responsibility to ensure it conforms to the new rules prior to sale, contact you local engineer for help

  5. Adam says:

    Hiya Jane! It does sound like you might be OK, but we can’t comment on individual cases. The best thing to do is to contact your local water authority so that they can take a look at your individual case.

  6. Philip Nulty says:


    I am on a septic tank which I share with a neighbour. The septic tank is in their garden. My neighbour approached me a couple of weeks ago to say they had heard of this new regulation and found out a little more on the internet. Nobody has told us about this previously and neither of us had come across this. We have had a quote of £4100 to connect the outlet to a main drain but we cant afford this. If we had known a few years ago we could have put money aside but with less than 5 months to go I don’t know what to do. My neighbour is well off and money is not an issue but I don’t have two pennies to rub together. A loan or credit card is not an option. Just feel we should have been told about this years ago. Obviously can’t afford any sort of fine either. Doesn’t seem like this was made common knowledge to septic tank users.
    Thank you.

  7. Adam says:

    Hi Philip. Sorry to hear about your situation. Unfortunately we can’t really help or advise. We don’t make the rules, we’re just trying to answer some questions for our customer who’re interested in the upcoming regulations change.

    Wish you all the best with your situation. Lee.

  8. chris says:

    I have a pre-2015 septic tank with a seperate soakaway. The slab on the tank has partially collapsed and I therefore need to replace the tank due to damage to the structure. Can I replace the tank and connect it to the original soakaway, or do I need to upgrade to a drainage field?

  9. Wesley Hutton says:

    Can you run a non drinking well into a septic tank? I can not see anywhere on the internet that says you can not.

    • Adam says:

      I’m not sure either I am afraid Wesley. I’d suggest giving Harlequin Plastics a call, they make the tanks: 028 9261 1077 I am sure they’ll be able to answer this one quickly for you!

    • Lee Eaglen says:

      Wesley, you must ensure that you do not overload your septic tank with additional water from either a well or roof/top water. Only foul or grey waste from a property can be discharged into a septic tank. A septic tank is designed for your property based on certain calculations from British waters flows and loads document. You should consult an engineer

  10. Roy Parker says:

    i have a sepic tank and drain field in my garden it was installed around 2004 during heavy rain the system struggles to drain away as it should . i am told that if i have a treatment system added to my sepic tank it will help with the soakaway is this right

  11. Ian says:

    I am buying a house which should complete after the 01st of January 2020.
    The house has a septic tank, but we have no information on what it is, the size or when it was fitted.
    The house had been repossessed by the bank.
    As I won’t be the legal owner until after the 01st January 2020, is the bank responsible for the cost for updating the septic tank?

    • PD says:

      If you look on the Gov website it states that it is the sellers responsibility to ensure compliance and disclose non-compliance of a current system after that date however your Solicitors should be aware that as soon as you take ownership the liability so buying off a bank who have never had residency you need to make sure that the tank is inspected by an expert. To cover all avenues I would recommend a full survey and your surveyor when told there is a septic tank will probably recommend an engineer look at it.

  12. Simon says:

    I have a sewage treatment plant installed about 30 years and was issued Consent To Discharge certificate It has been regularly serviced and internal pump replaced a number of times .When first installed it was sampled a couple times a year and results recorded with copy sent to Severn Trent. Approx 10/11/ years the regular sampling ceased. It has never given any problems of smell whilst working or discharging into the ditch just basic maintenance once or twice a year. Do I need to do anything?

  13. Simon says:

    Are properties in rural areas ‘without ‘sewage treatment plants IE septic tanks cess pits etc likel;y to be contacted by environmental health/building control and served enforcement notices to get them updated?
    If not why not?

  14. Katy says:

    I am doing planning permission for a septic tank but I might want a treatment one instead. Do I need to make sure that the type of tank is stated within the planning permission?
    Also the guy completing states that there isn’t a waterway nearby that we could use but I wouldn’t know where to look to know if there is one or not near the new house?

  15. Patricia Dimberline says:

    Farm house sold, pipe from farmhouse sent raw sewerage to our field, not known to us. This was stopped. Stables now converted to housing, the builder p, although original plans said allwater to stay on property, persuaded the local council to allow them to put in new drainage system and connect to farmhouse pipe, cheaper for them. We said no, they did it. Arguing now with council and builder. He changed pipe in our field into a ditch, not drainage field, and quagmire in field, we have disputed their right as no pipe in original farmhouse plans show stables being connected. Do they have rights and can we block inspection chamber as not maintained for well over 20 years. Four other houses, prior, do have rights and this goes to proper soakaway, including our own, what can we do, Council were informed in 2012, drainage done after 1st January 2015, not used until late 2019. Council reneging on responsibility and builder used private building regs to dodge works being checked so Council ignoring liability, even though told in advance. We are elderly.

  16. Angela Ellins says:

    We have a Klargester septic tank & inspection chamber installed in 1992. According to site plans this then drains into an agricultural drain soak away, but someone at the Environment Agency have just told me that soakaways are illegal as from January 2020. We have a Consent to Disharge Certicate, but believe this is meaningless now. How do I find out if I am compliant please?

  17. Ida says:

    A new build was constructed in 2016 on a plot adjoining our garden.. There was septic tank and drainage field fitted which was built in his sloping back garden. Our garden is at the bottom of that slope and even lower down. Since the neighbours moved in we have had trouble with their sewage discharging onto our property. The first drainage field was found to contravene building regulations as it was too small. A new drainage field was constructed but it also contravened building regulations as it was too close to our property. The neighbour arranged for a Water Treatment plant to be installed which was attached to the second drainage field. This was then passed by Building Control. Water ingress continued to be an issue and is still occurring. Recently we had a water sample taken and it has a high faecal content and a large portion of our garden has had to be cordoned off. Is our neighbour, his builder and the Building Control Authority all liable for this contravention of the General Binding Rules?

  18. Chris says:

    Hi, I have a cesspit, roughly 70 years old, that drains into a soakaway. Having read your article, I’m still a little confused.
    Are you saying that when I sell the house, I’ll be required to replace this cesspit?

  19. Sarah Waller says:

    I’ve been in my 2 bed cottage over 15 years and just heard about this as a neighbour is selling. I have a septic tank which uses a soakaway on my neighbours field for which I pay an annual fee. How do I find out if I am compliant or do I need a new soakaway tank in my garden.
    I turn the pump on once a week for 5 minutes to empty the small tank and has the pump replaced a few years ago so it is a very efficient system.
    Chatting to my neighbour it seems she has a soakaway in her garden now. Also what are the rough costs for this ?

  20. carva says:

    I have a septic tank but don’t have the space to accommodate a massive drainage field.
    So do I upgrade to a sewage treatment plant and discharge to a stream. Oh no I don’t have a stream running thru my garden.
    Perhaps I can run some outlet pipes across nearby fields to run treated water into nearest stream, but the landowner won’t let me or charges too much111 Also I don’t have an easement so there is no future security when I come to sell my property!!! This is crazy, I could be left without sewage or ripped off by adjacent landowners and with no future security. Do I have another option or is this a dead end????

  21. Mrs Xavier says:

    Our neighbours have a septic tank and they now run a business on their land meaning much more waste. They pump liquid from the tank onto the neighbouring field. None of the soakaways in this area have worked for years, the ground is dense clay. The corner of our paddock where it meets their property is waterlogged in winter and it stinks, especially in summer. There are huge lush weeds. They are aware of the smell and have looked into it but due to the cost of replacement with a sewage treatment plant (and, we think, the fact they have no suitable ditch or waterway to discharge water from a plant into), they have simply not done anything about it. We all drink water from boreholes. I’m very concerned about the smell and the potential for pollution. Is there anything we can do? Can they be reported to the environment agency?

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