Frequently Asked Questions
Who regulates septic systems?
Local Boards of Health are the primary regulatory authorities. However, MassDEP is involved in certain approvals, including many innovative/alternative technology approvals, shared systems, large systems and many variance requests. In addition, MassDEP is responsible for overseeing local implementation of Title 5 and provides local governments with training and technical assistance.
Your first contact for questions about septic systems should be your local Board of Health.
When did Title 5 go into effect?
The most recent version of Title 5 (310 CMR 15.000) took effect on September 9, 2016.
What is the difference between a cesspool and a septic system?
A cesspool is a pit which acts as both a settling chamber for solids and a leaching system for liquids. The use of cesspools may overload the capacity of the soil to remove bacteria, viruses, and phosphorus, and to nitrify ammonia and organic nitrogen compounds. A conventional septic system has a tank where solids can settle and begin to degrade, a distribution box, and a soil absorption system (SAS) that further treats the effluent by removing some of the bacteria, viruses, phosphorus, and nitrogen.
Does Title 5 require every cesspool to be replaced?
No. Only those cesspools that exhibit signs of hydraulic failure, are located extremely close to private or public water supplies, or otherwise fail to protect or pose a threat to public health, safety or the environment will need to be upgraded (310 CMR 15.303). Also, cesspools must be upgraded prior to an increase in design flow (e.g., the addition of a bedroom to a home or seats to a restaurant).
What is maximum feasible compliance?
The concept of maximum feasible compliance (MFC) is "do the best you can with what you've got." Wherever feasible, a failed system must be upgraded to full compliance with Title 5. If this is not possible, in many instances the local Board of Health is authorized to approve a Local Upgrade Approval that brings the system as close to full compliance as possible in accordance with certain minimum criteria. (310 CMR 15.404-405).
What happens if I cannot meet the minimum requirements of maximum feasible compliance in repairing a failed system?
You generally will have to apply to the local Board of Health for a variance from Title 5 requirements. Title 5 provides a number of options for situations where a variance is required, including use of an innovative/alternative technology or a shared system.
In many cases, MassDEP also must approve a variance once it has been approved by the Board of Health.
What are Nitrogen Sensitive Areas?
Areas that have been determined by MassDEP to be particularly sensitive to pollution from nitrogen in sewage. Interim Wellhead Protection Areas and Zone IIs of public water supplies are specifically identified as nitrogen sensitive areas. Title 5 also allows for the designation of nitrogen sensitive embayments based on appropriate scientific evidence. (310 CMR 15.214).
Title 5 has special requirements for repairing failed systems and for the construction of new systems in Nitrogen Sensitive Areas. Talk with your local Board of Health or your system designer for details.
What are "tight tanks" and how are they regulated?
Tight tanks are similar to septic tanks, except that they have no outlet and must be pumped out at regular intervals. Title 5 strongly discourages the use of tight tanks, but they are allowed in situations where an existing system has failed and there is no other feasible alternative. Tight tanks are not allowed for new construction or increases in design flow.