Septic Systems

Your Septic System

How it works, how to maintain it and how to obtain a permit to construct or repair it.

Septic systems in Massachusetts fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Environmental Protection and the local boards of health.  The state law that governs their permitting, installation, use, and inspection is known as “Title 5” (310 CMR 15.  It is the responsibility of the local board of health to enforce the provisions of Title 5 and any local regulations regarding septic systems.  In Shutesbury, the only local regulation more stringent than Title 5 is the "perc season" requirement: for new construction -- not for repairs -- that the soil evaluation must take place between March 1 and April 30.


A brief definition

A septic system provides on-site wastewater treatment where there is no access to public sewerage.  A conventional septic system has a tank where solids can settle and begin to degrade and a soil absorption system (SAS) that further treats the liquid effluent by removing some of the bacteria, viruses, phosphorus, and nitrogen.  An “alternative” septic system is similar, but uses specially designed components to compensate for site limitations.  In both conventional and alternative systems, the tank must be pumped regularly to remove solids.  A “tight tank” or “holding tank” is a sealed tank that does not allow water to leach into the ground.  Such a tank must be pumped frequently.

Properly sited, installed, and maintained, a septic system is safe and effective, and it has ecological advantages: water from your well is used, treated, and returned to the ground on site instead of being piped to a sewage treatment plant and sent out to sea.


Care and maintenance

The area over your leachfield may look like “prime real estate,” land going begging, but in a real sense this land is being used.  In order to continue working well, the leaching area should receive natural sunlight and precipitation, so structures that block these out should be placed elsewhere.  In most cases, the leachate is distributed throughout a field in trenches, which can be damaged by disruption of the soil (by digging or invasive tree roots) or by compression (by parking or driving on top of it).  Your leaching area is not, and must not be used as, a parking lot, a platform for a shed or a hoop house, or a vegetable garden.  (Plants are very efficient at taking up nutrients from the ground, but in this case, those nutrients aren’t something you’d want to eat.)  The best thing to put on top of it is grass – volleyball or badminton is okay – or you could (delicately) remove the grass layer and sow perennial wildflowers instead.  Either way, be sure to mow it at least annually.

Because the effluent from your septic system remains on site, you must be careful what you put into it.  Poisons such as antifreeze, paint thinner, and pesticides will contaminate the groundwater if poured down the drain.  Household chemicals such as bleach and ammonia should be used sparingly.  Non-degradables such as grease, diapers, and latex paint can clog the leaching trenches and cause expensive system failure.

Another cause of problems is excess build-up of solids that remain in the tank after the liquid effluent is removed.  These solids must be removed by a septic tank pumper licensed in the Town of Shutesbury.  The tank should be pumped out at least every 3-5 years.

As for "septic system additives" that claim to clean or condition your septic system: save your money.  Proper use and regular pumping are the best ways to extend the life of the system.

For more detailed information on how your septic system works and how to keep it working, please follow this link to the Department of Environmental Protection website: Caring for Your Septic System


Getting a septic system permit

Getting a permit to install a septic system is a complicated process.  Whether you’re building a new home or replacing a failed septic system at an existing home, your first task is to retain the services of a septic system designer (an engineer or registered sanitarian).  This designer will perform a soil evaluation, design the system, prepare an application to the Board of Health, prepare drawings for review, and inspect the installation. 

The Shutesbury Board of Health does not review septic system plans.  This service is provided by Claudia Lucas and Charlie Kaniecki of the Eastern Franklin County Health District, acting as an agent of the Board of Health.  Septic system designs must be submitted to the district for review.  The Board of Health will not issue a septic system permit without the recommendation of our agent.


Soil evaluation

There are two parts to a soil evaluation: a soil profile and a deep hole analysis (“perc test”).  Normally these are done together, but they can be done separately.  As of September, 2020, perc tests can be done at any time of the year; there is no longer a "perc season".

In order to be used as the basis for an approvable septic system design, deep hole observations must be witnessed by the Board of Health's agent.  The fee for the agent's time is $200, payable to the Town of Shutesbury.


When It's Time to Sell Your House

By state law, a septic system must be inspected at the time of sale, and the septic system report be made available to the buyer.  This law applies to all sales, even within families.  If the system fails, it must be repaired within two years; the law does not specify whether the repair is to be made by the buyer or the seller.  In other words, a property may be sold "as is," with a failed septic system, but not without a proper inspection.  (There are some exceptions to this rule, but they are fewer than you might imagine.  Contact the Board of Health if you have questions.)

A septic system inspection, usually called a "Title 5 inspection," remains valid for two years (three if the tank is pumped annually for those three years).  Many people wait until they have a prospective buyer before they have the inspection done.  The inspection may involve pumping the tank and sometimes excavation of system components.

The inspection must be performed by an approved septic system inspector.  An engineer or sanitarian who is qualified to design a septic system is also qualified to inspect one, and there is no objection to an engineer's inspecting a system that he or she originally designed.

An inspection report must be filed with the Board of Health, accompanied by a $50 filing fee, payable to the Town of Shutesbury.


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