Click to Home
Go To Search
FAQs: Septic Systems and Title 5
Frequently Asked Questions about Septic Systems and Title 5

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.

When did Title 5 go into effect?

The most recent version of Title 5 (310 CMR 15.000) took effect on April 21, 2006.

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 phosphorous, 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, phosphorous, 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) and in Provincetown all cesspools, whether single or multiple, will be considered failed for purposes of the Septic System Inspection Report, required at the time of transfer of property, thereby negating the need for a septic system inspection; and must be upgraded to conform to the maximum feasible compliance with 310 CMR Title 5 and Provincetown Board of Health Regulations or, if required and/or qualify, enter into an Administrative Consent Order (ACO) with the Town.

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.

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.

How does a conventional septic system work?

Conventional septic systems are the most common type of septic system (the others are innovative/alternative (I/A) systems and cesspools). A conventional system includes a septic tank, distribution box, and soil absorption system (SAS). The septic tank separates the solid and liquid wastes and the SAS provides additional treatment before distributing the wastewater to the ground. Additional details on septic system maintenance are also available.

Why are failing septic systems harmful?

Inadequately treated wastewater can transfer diseases such as dysentery, hepatitis, and typhoid fever to animals and humans. Failing systems also leak excessive nutrients and bacteria to rivers, lakes, and the ocean, destroying plant and animal habitat, closing beaches, and hurting the fishing industry.

How do I know if my system is having problems?

Some clues:
- Muddy soil or pools of wastewater around your septic tank or soil absorption system.
- Sewage smells around your system or inside your house.
- Backups when you do laundry, take showers, or flush the toilet.

Additional details on septic system maintenance are also available.

Do I really save money by maintaining my system?

Yes. Pumping your system costs between $150 and $250, and an inspection could cost $200-$400. Replacing a system could cost up to $40,000.

What are the most important things to do to take care of my system?

Pump your system at least every 3 years (annually if you have a garbage disposal). Conserve water. Don't dump non-biodegradables or trash down your toilet or sink. See this list of do's and don't's

How often should I pump?

Every 3 years, and annually if you have a garbage disposal.

Will additives help my system?

There isn't one on the market that can make a failing system pass inspection. MassDEP issues permits for septic system additives, but only to ensure that they will not harm your system or the environment. We do not evaluate the accuracy of claims manufacturers make about the effects their products will have on system performance. A complete list of additives allowed in Massachusetts is available.

What are the regulations governing the disposal of paint and paint wastes into a septic system?

Only sanitary sewage is allowed to be discharged to Title 5 septic systems. Paint and paint wastes should not be put into Title 5 systems because they can adversely affect their operation and may cause groundwater contamination. 

Certain paint wastes may be hazardous and require special handling and disposal. Other paint wastes may be disposed of at local refuse disposal facilities.

What is a Local Upgrade Approval?

Local Upgrade Approvals are variations of the Title 5 regulations that allow system owners to upgrade a nonconforming system to the maximum extent feasible (310 CMR 15.401-405). Local Upgrade Approvals are issued by the local Board of Health, or by MassDEP only for federal and state facilities, where MassDEP is the approving authority.

Can a Board of Health issue more than one Local Upgrade Approval for repair of a single system?

Generally yes. However, if one of the approvals is for a reduction in the separation to groundwater, other factors must be considered. Check with your Board of Health for clarification on your situation.

What is a variance?

A variance is required whenever Title 5 requirements are varied for situations not covered under Local Upgrade Approvals (310 CMR 15.410-420). Variances can be granted only when the applicant has demonstrated that their situation without a variance is manifestly unjust AND that granting the variance will not reduce the level of environmental protection below that offered by Title 5.

When do I need to get a variance approved by MassDEP?

Some variances to the code can be approved by the local Board of Health without MassDEP approval, under the Local Upgrade Approval provisions. Any variances other than those needed for Maximum Feasible Compliance must be approved by both the local Board of Health and MassDEP. Examples of variances needing MassDEP approval include the repair of a system in an area with less than 4 feet of naturally occurring soil, a setback of less than 50 feet from the property owner's well, or less than 4 feet of separation to groundwater. Check with your local Board of Health about whether a specific variance can be handled locally or must be approved by MassDEP once it has been approved locally. 

Also see application forms for variances.

If the Board of Health does not approve a variance, can I submit my variance request to MassDEP?

No. In order to be considered by MassDEP, a variance must first be approved by the local Board of Health. MassDEP is not an appeal agency for local decisions on septic systems. Local decisions may be appealed through the Superior Court of Massachusetts. MassDEP decisions may be appealed through an adjudicatory hearing.

Additional Title 5 & Septic System FAQs

Additional FAQ fact sheets are also available for the following topics:

Town of Provincetown
260 Commercial Street
Provincetown, MA 02657
Ph: (508) 487-7000
Fx: (508) 487-9560