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The Unintended Consequences of Title 5

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In 1995 the Massachusetts legislature, acting on the recommendation from the Department of Environmental Protection, voted to approve Title 5, a set of regulations that governed the construction and inspection of septic systems. Title 5 was ostensibly designed to provide better protection for the environment; Nonfunctioning septic systems are a health hazard to surrounding neighbors and towns if they contaminate the water in the area. 

Most homeowners have heard of a “Title 5 inspection” in conjunction with buying or selling their house. What is less known is that Title 5 stipulated that all drainfields must be surrounded by a special type of sand when installed. This decision proved to be fateful; septic systems that should last 40-50 years are now failing after 20.

While that’s good for septic system installers, its bad for homeowners.

A septic system has two parts; a tank and a drainfield. Most people think about their system in terms of the tank, but that’s really the least important part. The drainfield is attached to the tank, and it allows the liquids to seep out of a network of pipes and into the ground. Through the force of gravity, the liquid finds its way to the water table and is cleansed along the way by carbon-rich soil. 

Over time the pipes in the drainfield develop a goop on them (we call it Biomaterial or “biomat”). Biomat causes 97% of septic system failures that are otherwise maintained and taken care of properly. 

Prior to Title 5, septic installers would place the drainfield pipes directly in the soil, and that goop would be broken down by the nutrient rich soil. But Title 5 required installers to use a special type of sand, and it does not work the same way. In Title 5 sand, the goop gets gummed up and eventually clogs the system, which pushes back into the tank, and ultimately into the house. 

Worry about system failure is leading homeowners to pump twice as often as they need to. If you start to notice any of these signs, it could be that your system is failing:

– Unexplained slow drains (sinks, bathtubs, and showers)

– Sewage backup into your home (sinks, bathtubs, showers, sometimes laundry)

– Wet or spongy spots in the yard (that are not due to rain or other water source)

– Grass that is unusually green over the septic system

– Foul odor near the septic system

If your home was built after 1995 and you’re on a septic system, it’s a good idea to have a qualified professional come out to inspect it. In the best case scenario your system is working fine and and you can check again in 10 years. On the other hand, it may be slowing down, in which case it’s good to know so you can evaluate your options.

Overall, Title 5 is good legislation that protects many homeowners and communities. But what is also true is that it led to unintended consequences – and much higher costs – for homeowners, who are now grappling with systems that should have had a much longer life.

Derek Grant is Chief Operating Officer at Grants Septic Techs.

20th Century Homes
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  1. Thanks HopNews. Too often, we as a society react to what is in the headlines without fully investigating or understanding “unintended consequences”. I refer to them as 2nd and 3rd order implications. We see a lot of examples at the local, state and federal level. Fully investigating issues before deciding on policies, and being open to multiple points of views is what makes for the best decisions for all of us.

  2. Maybe the ‘MA Septic System Association’ (Installers/Techs) can lobby our ‘State Legislators’ to ‘Recalibrate Title #5, so Septic System’s will last longer? Like they did before Title#5?


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