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Guide Innovative Technology and Title 5 Systems

We know that innovative technologies deliver cost-effective environmental results. MassDEP encourages innovative technology development and use in the Commonwealth.

Table of Contents

Innovative Technologies

An Innovative Technology can be an entirely new technology; one that has been proven effective in certain fields but not yet applied to problems; or one that is accepted and commonly used in other states or countries but is new to Massachusetts.

How MassDEP Can Help

For vendors of innovative, technology-based solutions to environmental problems, MassDEP will identify the regulatory issues that may affect their use or marketing; help generate credible, independent data on performance; provide referrals to sources of business planning and financial assistance; and provide guidance on the applicable MassDEP permitting pathway. MassDEP will share what it learns about the technology with internal staff, partner agencies, environmental regulators in other states, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

If you are contemplating the use of a specific technology, you need to be sure that it will be an appropriate and effective solution for your site or project; what its benefits and drawbacks are likely to be; and whether it will deliver environmental results that are at least as good as, if not better than, conventional alternatives. MassDEP will clarify the regulatory requirements and guide you to the appropriate office within the agency for permitting assistance. We will also refer you to independent sources of additional information about the technology you are considering, as well as any alternatives that may be available.

MassDEP does not recommend or suggest the use of specific technologies. The agency's role is to facilitate deployment of technologies developed or chosen by others if they are likely to deliver environmental results equivalent or superior to those expected from the use of conventional approaches.

Innovative Technology and Current Regulations

Regardless of whether an innovative technology or a conventional approach is going to be used, the same stringent environmental performance standards apply. At the same time, MassDEP recognizes that many of its regulations were written before certain IT solutions were developed or even contemplated. So, if an existing rule unintentionally impedes the use of an IT that offers the potential of superior environmental protection, we will review the regulation, consult with other stakeholders, and make adjustments if they are warranted.

MassDEP's Technology Approval Process for I/A Systems

MassDEP encourages the development of I/A technologies with performance superior to conventional systems. To ensure that the use of I/A systems will protect public health and the environment, MassDEP has a three-tiered approval process for new technologies: Piloting, Provisional Use, and General Use.

  • Recirculating sand filters and humus/composting toilets are certified for General Use, subject to certain conditions.
  • MassDEP has issued Piloting Approvals, Provisional Use Approvals, Certifications for General Use, and Remedial Use Approvals for more than 50 I/A technologies.
  • New technologies are under review on an ongoing basis.
  • In addition, technologies which are designed to reduce nitrogen may also receive a Nitrogen Removal Credit.

MassDEP must review and approve any I/A technology for use in Massachusetts. The local board of health also needs to review and approve plans for the technology. A qualified system designer who is either a registered professional engineer or a registered sanitarian prepares these plans. In certain instances, the site-specific local approval must then be sent to MassDEP for concurrence and final authorization.

Once I/A technologies have been approved for use in Massachusetts, they still must be reviewed and approved for actual installation at a specific site. MassDEP and your local Board of Health share responsibility for this step. The installation approval process is different depending on the type of technology approval received from MassDEP. 

Piloting: Piloting involves installation, field testing, and technical evaluation to demonstrate that the technology can function effectively under the physical and climatological conditions at the pilot sites and provide environmental protection equivalent to a conventional Title 5 system.

  • MassDEP will accept technologies for piloting when available data on the technology shows that it is likely to be able to provide a level of environmental protection at least equivalent to a conventional Title 5 system.
  • Piloting of a particular I/A technology may be conducted either for new construction or in remedial situations. Up to 15 sites per technology may be piloted.
  • Piloting must be done for at least 18 months and result in a full technical reporting of results. Piloting generally is not intended to address long-term operation and maintenance, although the information gathered during piloting should be used to understand these issues.
  • When a technology completes pilot testing, MassDEP can allow the technology to proceed to the Provisional Use Approval stage, require additional piloting, or disapprove the system. Piloting is considered successful if at least 75% of the pilot sites performed at the expected level of treatment for at least 12 months.
  • Piloting systems that meet performance goals are allowed to remain in place long-term. For piloting systems that exhibit problems, adjustments to system design and operation are necessary. In extreme circumstances, the piloting system may need to be replaced. To date, no piloting system has had to be replaced.

Provisional Use: Provisional Use Approvals are intended to evaluate whether an I/A technology can provide environmental protection at least equivalent to a conventional system under actual field conditions in Massachusetts and with a broader range of uses than in the controlled environment of piloting.

  • Provisional Use Approval typically occurs after a technology has been piloted successfully or has been proved satisfactory past performance over at least two years of general usage in one or more states outside Massachusetts. A system approved for Provisional Use can be installed in remedial situations or for new construction where a system in compliance with Title 5 could be built.
  • Under Provisional Use Approval, a minimum of 50 systems must be installed and evaluated for at least three years.
  • The Provisional Use Approval stage evaluates operation, maintenance, and monitoring issues, and MassDEP uses the data to set final discharge standards and other conditions for General Use.
  • Provisional Use is considered successful if at least 90% of the installations have demonstrated, over three years, performance at least equivalent to a conventional Title 5 system.

Certification for General Use: When an I/A technology has successfully completed the Provisional Use stage, it receives Certification for General Use. I/A systems certified for General Use can be installed at any site where a conventional Title 5 system can be installed. Additional monitoring and reporting is generally not required, although MassDEP has the option of requiring monitoring as part of its Certification.

Remedial Use Approval: MassDEP also approves I/A technologies for Remedial Use to improve conditions at existing sites served by a failing, failed, or nonconforming system.

Technology approvals for Remedial Use often include criteria under which a technology can be used, in order to allow one or more of the following:

  • Reduction in the size of a soil absorption system,
  • Reduction in the distance to groundwater, or
  • Reduction in the required depth of naturally-occurring pervious soils.

If designed in compliance with the applicable MassDEP approval letter for the technology, I/A systems proposed for Remedial Use do not require MassDEP approval. As with an application for a conventional Title 5 system, the local Board of Health must approve an alternative system before installation and issue a Disposal System Construction Permit.

Nitrogen Removal Credits: Many systems, as part of their approval process, apply to MassDEP for Nitrogen Removal Credits. Title 5 restricts design flow to 440 gpd per acre in areas designated as "nitrogen sensitive." These include:

  • The Zone II of public water supply wells
  • New residential construction served by both private wells and on-site systems,
  • Other areas formally designated as nitrogen sensitive.

Some I/A technologies are specifically designed to remove nitrogen from wastewater, and many of these systems seek a nitrogen removal credit, which allows the property owner to increase the design flow per acre, usually to either 550 or 660 gpd per acre from the standard 440 gpd per acre. To date, 18 technologies have received nitrogen removal credit. 

Remember: Once you have identified a MassDEP-approved I/A technology for installation, you must also have approval for its installation at a specific site. MassDEP and your local Board of Health share responsibility for this step. The installation approval process is different depending on the type of technology approval received from MassDEP.

Additional Resources for MassDEP's Technology Approval Process for I/A Systems

Before considering an I/A system: septic system basics

A conventional system has a septic tank, a distribution box or dosing mechanism, a soil absorption system (SAS) and a reserve area. Innovative or alternative systems can help provide wastewater treatment for homes that can't use conventional treatment systems. Some examples of alternative systems are:

  • recirculating sand filters
  • aerobic treatment units
  • Wisconsin mounds
  • peat filters
  • humus/composting toilets
  • intermittent sand filters

At present, recirculating sand filters and humus/composting toilets are specifically approved for general use by Title 5, subject to certain conditions listed at 310 CMR 15.202 (RSFs) and 310 CMR 15.289 (humus/composting toilets). MassDEP has issued many approvals and certifications for I/A technologies, and reviews new technologies on an ongoing basis.

Humus/composting toilets may be installed without a MassDEP permit provided that the proposed use meets the conditions in 310 CMR 15.289(3). Your Board of Health and MassDEP must approve any proposed use that does not meet these conditions.

No matter what use is proposed for a composting toilet, you must have a Disposal System Construction Permit from your local Board of Health before installing it.

Both local and state environmental officials involved in the approval process are responsible for ensuring:

  • that the proposed system meets local requirements, which may be more stringent than MassDEP's;
  • that the selected system will perform at least as well as, if not better than, a conventional septic system; and
  • that the installation is done in accordance with all the requirements of Title 5.

If you already have an I/A system, you need to know what kind of technology it uses, keep good records on the system's location, and be sure to operate and maintain it properly. MassDEP requires that owners of alternative systems have a maintenance contract with a specifically licensed individual or company, and the local board of health can require the owner to provide a copy of a valid operation & maintenance (O&M) contract.

Additional Resources for Before considering an I/A system: septic system basics

Choosing the right I/A system

No matter what type of system you want to install, you will need to work with a qualified designer to make the right decisions and to produce plans that can obtain local and, if necessary, MassDEP approval. Here are some initial questions to ask the designer:

  • Should I install an I/A system?
  • What are my technology options?
  • What are the local and state approval requirements?
  • How much will it cost me to install, operate and maintain an I/A system rather than a conventional one?

Once you have identified one or more specific technologies to consider, you should ask additional questions of the designer:

  • How many of these systems are operating in Massachusetts?
  • What does the performance data show?
  • What is the warranty?
  • What type of MassDEP approval does this system have?
  • Will I need MassDEP approval to install the system on my lot?
  • What are the sampling and testing requirements?
  • What will the operation and maintenance service contract cover?
  • Is there any information available on equipment or operating problems?

Once I/A technologies have been approved for use in Massachusetts, they still must be reviewed and approved for actual installation at a specific site. MassDEP and your local Board of Health share responsibility for this step. The installation approval process is different depending on the type of technology approval received from MassDEP.

Additional Resources for Choosing the right I/A system

New construction

Title 5 has specific requirements for percolation rate, depth of soil, and separation from high groundwater. If your lot does not meet these requirements, you cannot use an I/A system for new construction. Although Title 5 provides flexibility in order to help property owners continue to use existing homes and businesses, new construction or increases in design flow must meet the design standards of Title 5.

If you are building a new house and would like to use a technology that does not currently have a MassDEP approval, the technology manufacturer may apply to MassDEP for Piloting or Provisional approval, or for General Use Certification. Or you may apply to MassDEP for approval to pilot the technology on your property. To pilot an alternative system for new construction, including an increase in design flow, you must show that the property could support a conventional system; this provides for a back-up in case the piloted system fails.

Buying a home with an existing I/A system

If you are thinking of purchasing a home that is not connected to a sewer, you should request a copy of the inspection report that Title 5 requires when a house is sold. This inspection is a requirement whether the house has a conventional septic system or an I/A system.

For either new or existing homes, you should ask about the septic system and whether it uses I/A technology. If it does, you should ask the owner or real estate agent the same questions that you would ask a designer. If they can't answer your questions, you should require that they either do the necessary research and get back to you or put you in contact with the designer of the system. Don't sign a purchase-and-sale agreement until you are fully informed about the type of I/A system in use on the property, as well as the related maintenance contract requirements, annual operating and energy costs, and maintenance history.

For additional information about I/A technologies for wastewater treatment and disposal, contact the MassDEP Regional Service Center that covers your part of the state.

Image credits:  Sandra Rabb
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