Codes for septics have changed

Upgrades will require more compliance when septic replacement is needed

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  • Jeffrey Houser, an engineer, spoke at a West Milford Health Department sponsored forum on new septic requirements.


While the majority of homes in West Milford have septic systems, many homeowners may not know that there have been code changes governing them in the past few years. The Health Advisory Committee decided to spread the word and gathered a couple of local experts. Two presentations were held at the township hall recently.

Jeffrey R. Houser and Doug McKittrick, each professional engineers who specialize in septic systems, spoke to the groups. They discussed the changes in the codes, newer technology for septic disposal systems and the permitting process and regulations for wetlands.

The basics of septic systems

There are three parts to a basic septic system: a pipe leaving the home, a tank, and a disposal area. Waste water and products leave a home through a pipe that enters into the tank. The tank is buried and watertight. It holds the waste water while solids settle to the bottom, partially decomposing. Water leaves the tank and enters the drain field disposal area. Sludge and solids must be pumped from the tank. In West Milford, there is an ordinance requiring homeowners to pump their septics every three years.

Code changes

Houser explained that the biggest code change made in April 2012 requires homeowners, who are upgrading their systems, to conform as closely as possible to the standards. The old code stated that alteration plans would be approved as long as the proposed system is "closer to conformance" to the code than the previous system. The change now says the alteration plans would be approved only if the proposed system is "as close to conformance" as possible. Because of new technology in septics, engineers are able to get even closer to conformance than before, even on small parcels and those with not the best soils.

Septics must be 10 feet from property lines and, depending on codes, 50 to 100 feet from wells, lakes and streams. A standard three bedroom house uses about 800 square feet for its disposal field. Engineers look at all of the setbacks them come up with an area available for a septic. They dig 10 feet to accommodate all of the requirements of a septic. If they hit the water table, bedrock or clay, they go up from there. That's why mounded systems are built; if all can't fit underground without interfering with the water or with inadequate soils, it's all moved up.

Technology to the rescue

Advanced technologies have allowed septics to be built on smaller properties in part because they require a smaller disposal footprint. Mounded systems are not needed as often and the clarity of the water after going through the system is much cleaner. Houser said the advanced systems are also environmentally friendly and may even cost less than a conventional system.

Advanced technologies include aerobic treatment systems, peat biofilters and drip dispersal systems.

Aerobic treatment systems use blowers to pump air into the system. Oxygen can remove up to 98 percent of the biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) in the system. Smaller fields are required, which can bring the costs down.

Peat biofilter systems are passive systems. Peat moss of peat fiber removes and retains contaminants until they are broken down. Aerobic microorganisms degrade the waste. Peat filters must be replaced.

Drip dispersal systems don't saturate the soil. Instead, waste water and products are dispersed on a timer. Pipes are just six to 12 inches below the surface. This system id dependent on the soils.

These systems require a smaller treatment area, making it possible to conform to the codes more closely than with a conventional system that takes up more space. Setbacks can be met more easily with these advanced technology systems.

He said people have a negative perception of advanced technology, associating it with higher cost, odor concerns as well as aesthetics.


From start to finish, a typical project takes from six to eight weeks to complete, said Houser.

Costs are not easy to estimate, since there are so many factors, but he said a totally new system would run between $20,000 and $30,000. Some could be more, some less.

To see one of the presentations, go to

Contact Houser at

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