Increasing Bedroom Count or Home Size When Lot Size Restrictions Require an Innovative/Advanced Technology Septic System

Photo of waterfront property with innovative advanced septic system installed in Massachusetts

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The Rise in Regulations Impacting Homeowners Seeking to Increase Bedroom Count or Home Size

The Northeastern coastal and lake regions throughout New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont and Massachusetts are highly pursued by homeowners wishing to build or enlarge their residences near or along waterfront areas.

Historically, few restrictions were imposed on the types of on-site sewage disposal systems used by properties throughout these areas.

More recently, research has produced a greater understanding and awareness of the unhealthy effects of nitrates from improperly treated wastewater on groundwater, wells, and water bodies in these areas. This has led to state and local restrictions on the types of septic systems allowed on small lots located near wells and waterfronts. Consequently, the responsibility to maintain healthy drinking water and protect water bodies gave rise to the development of non-traditional residential wastewater treatment systems that comply with area restrictions.

"Today, alternative technology systems enable homeowners to build or expand their residences on smaller lots where conventional leach fields fail to meet area regulations, or cannot fit on the property."

This article explores some of the state and local rules and approval processes regarding residential septic treatment that homeowners with small lots or lakefront/oceanfront lots must follow to gain approval to increase the number of bedrooms in their home. It also explains the benefits of an alternative on-site residential septic system that uses innovative technology to comply with state and local requirements.

Overview of Restrictions on Septic Systems for Small Lots or Waterfront Lots

Photo of innovative advanced septic system installed on small lot

Throughout the Northeast, the location of your home determines which regulations you must follow when building a home, enlarging it with more bedrooms, or expanding square footage.

New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont

The states of New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont typically have similar, straightforward rules and limits regarding residential sewage treatment and disposal for homeowners in waterfront locations.

For example, regulations for homes on small lots or waterfront lots in these states generally concern how a home’s square footage determines the usable leach field space. Leach field size calculations are based off the design of a pipe and stone system, and alternative systems such as Singulair by Norweco earn a 75% leach field reduction waiver. Other allowances in New Hampshire include a 2-ft soil reduction credit that typically shortens the system’s required distance from the water table by half.

Massachusetts

In Massachusetts – and particularly in the coastal region of Cape Cod – homeowners must comply with a wider set of rules and restrictions, often from both the state and local levels.

Restrictions in Massachusetts Zone 2, or deemed Nitrogen-Sensitive areas

Outside of nitrogen-sensitive areas, new and remedial construction may allow homeowners to build 3 or 4 bedroom homes.

However, homeowners within Massachusetts Zone 2 or nitrogen-sensitive areas must comply with state regulations that dictate the size requirements of residential system leach fields. Beyond State regulations, many towns are also deciding what they consider to be additional nitrogen-sensitive areas, such as areas near vernal pools, ponds, and coastal beaches. For example, the State standard for siting a wastewater treatment system in Zone 2 is a requirement of 50-feet, but some towns are imposing a 100-foot clearance in this zone, as well as other zones they choose to stipulate.

Technology Approval Process for Innovative/Advanced (I/A) Systems in Massachusetts

The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) encourages the development and use of Innovative/Advanced (I/A) technologies with performance superior to conventional systems. As early as December 2003, approximately 2,200 innovative alternative septic systems were installed and operating in Massachusetts, and thousands more have been approved and installed since then.

To ensure that the use of I/A systems are designed to protect public health and the environment, MassDEP has developed a multi-tiered approval process for new technologies. Some of the key use-approval types include: General Use, Remedial Use, and Provisional Use.

General Use Approval

General Use Approval asserts that the system is equivalent to a Title 5 system. According to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, “The purpose of Title 5, 310 CMR 15.000, of the State Environmental Code is to provide for the protection of public health, safety, welfare and the environment by requiring the proper siting, construction, upgrade, and maintenance of on-site sewage disposal systems and appropriate means for the transport and disposal of septage.”

Systems Certified for General Use do not require a MassDEP permit for installation unless variances from Title 5 are required, or unless they are proposed for installation in a nitrogen-sensitive area. However, the system must be installed and operated in accordance with the General Use Certification for the technology and in accordance with Title 5, 310 CMR 15.202. The local Board of Health must also issue a Disposal System Construction Permit for the installation and a Certificate of Compliance before a Massachusetts alternative septic system can be started up.

For example, local Boards of Health may require that denitrification systems are added to on-site wastewater disposal units. Homeowners generally must apply to the local Board of Health in order to vary from Title 5 requirements. Title 5 provides a number of options for situations where a variance is required, including use of an innovative/alternative (I/A) technology or a shared system. In many cases, MassDEP also must approve a variance once it has been approved by the Board of Health.

Remedial Use Approval

Remedial Use Approvals are required for lots that require an innovative or alternative system to update an existing failed, failing, or non-conforming system, to make it operate “better than or equivalent to a typical Title 5 septic system”.

In many remedial situations, a conventional Title 5 septic tank and soil absorption system cannot be built due to site conditions. In order to allow owners to continue to use their property despite site limitations, MassDEP allows some variation in the normal system design requirements:

  • Reduction in the size of a soil absorption system (which increases the soil loading rate),
  • Reduction in the depth to high groundwater, or
  • Reduction in the required depth of naturally occurring pervious soils

MassDEP's Technology Approvals for Remedial Use specify criteria under which a technology can be used, in order to allow a variance from these requirements. These criteria are described in the approval letter for each technology.

I/A technologies approved for Remedial Use in Massachusetts must still be reviewed and approved for actual installation at a specific site. Local Boards of Health have the primary responsibility to approve installation of a system. In limited circumstances, MassDEP must also review and approve the installation.

Provisional Use Approval

Provisional Use Approval is required by the State of Massachusetts when a property is designated as requiring denitrification, or located in Zone 2 with a drinking water well, or on a lot size of ¾ acre in Zone 2. For homeowners seeking to add bedrooms to their homes, each of these conditions trigger the need for nitrogen-reducing innovative and alternative technology residential sewage treatment. Under provisional use approval, the state requires that total nitrogen testing be performed 1-2 times annually.

According to MassDEP, the local Board of Health (BoH) is responsible for reviewing and approving each installation of a technology with Provisional Use Approval. As a first step, the applicant must hire a system designer to prepare plans for submittal to the BoH. The designer must obtain from the technology supplier a signed copy of the Certification Statement for System Design, for submittal to the BoH. If the BoH approves the design, it issues a Disposal System Construction Permit.

Once an I/A system is installed, the technology supplier must inspect the installation and sign a Certification Statement for System Installation. The Certification must be submitted to the BoH, ensuring that the System has been correctly installed. The BoH then issues a Certificate of Compliance.

Operation and Maintenance as Required by MassDEP and local Boards of Health

Winston Steadman, Owner and Principal Consultant of All Cape Environmental Services in Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts, specializes in innovative & alternative (I/A) technology onsite waste-water treatment.

system operation and maintenance for clients throughout New England. His team of certified waste-water treatment plant operators are specially-trained to service I/A systems, as required by MassDEP and local Boards of Health.

For non-conforming lots, Winston advocates the use of alternative aerobic treatment units such as the Norweco Singulair and Norweco Total Nitrogen Treatment (TNT), since these systems allow homeowners to gain a variance for a system footprint reduction. This variance serves to reduce the septic drain field size requirement, depending on the property’s soil and drainage as determined through leach field design. This important reduction often enables homeowners to enhance their properties with additional bedrooms.

Once a tank and leach field are in place, the role of All Cape Environmental Services (ACES) is to install and set up the mechanical equipment to ensure that it works properly per the plan design. Going forward, homeowners often hire ACES on a contract basis to ensure consistent maintenance.

Key Concerns about Innovative Septic Treatment Technology

Comparison of Purchase Price and System Operation Cost

In Mr. Steadman’s experience, the cost to purchase and operate a Norweco product such as TNT or Singulair is relatively low compared to other alternative products. He explains, “For example, the cost of the tank is included in the price of the Norweco Total Nitrogen Treatment system, while the biomicrobic ‘Fast System’ aerobic treatment unit (ATU) requires a special tank – at additional cost.” Regarding utility costs, he notes, “The utility cost to run a Norweco system is one-third or less of the utility cost to run the ‘Fast System’ ATU. This makes a big difference, especially with high electricity costs on the Cape.” The increased electricity cost is because the Fast System has a ½ horsepower blower that requires constant motor operation, while Norweco units have a 3 to 4-amp motor that runs only a portion of every hour, requiring much less power.

Performance during a Power Outage

Another advantage of Norweco products is that during a power outage, Norweco can continue to function as a typical gravity-fed system, through the clarification and filtration processes. Although not as efficient as when powered, this capability is a major performance advantage.

Deed and Maintenance Requirements

The State of Massachusetts, as well as local towns, require that an I/A technology system must be listed on the home’s deed, and must be maintained by a licensed wastewater treatment operator for the life of the system.

Maintenance involves two types of testing: Field Testing and Lab Testing. For field testing, some towns mandate only what the State requires, while some go above and beyond the state-determined testing frequency. On Cape Cod, a quarterly field testing requirement (4 times/year) is typical. After the first two years, a homeowner can request an annual reduction in testing to two times per year, if all previous tests have passed requirements. This testing reduction can represent significant cost savings over time. The State does not typically require lab testing unless a system doesn’t pass field testing.

Benefits of Norweco Alternative Technology as the on-Site Wastewater Treatment Solution for Homes on Small or Waterfront Lots

Singulair® by Norweco Earns Nitrogen Removal Credit, Enabling Addition of Bedrooms

In locations designated as nitrogen sensitive, Title 5 regulations restrict alternative wastewater system design flow to 440 gallons per day (gpd), per acre. These areas include Zone 2 (consisting of public water supply wells, new residential construction served by both private wells and on-site systems), and other areas formally designated as nitrogen sensitive.

The Singulair Total Nitrogen Treatment (TNT) System by Norweco is approved to receive nitrogen removal credit, which allows for increased design flow per acre, usually to either 550 or 660 gpd per acre, from the standard 440 gpd per acre. This credit enables the addition of bedrooms to a home.