By Robert E. Lee

Summary: The onsite water treatment industry has existed so far via state and local codes. For over a year now, NOWRA has worked toward a national model standard for onsite water systems. With a growing impetus stemming from potential environmental concerns and federal regulators, a concerned party provides his views on the complex matter and its consequences.


The National Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association (NOWRA) has embarked on what everyone understands is necessary in the onsite industry—national performance standards. This is being put together as a national model code; however, there are many who are skeptical of the venture being successful because it has never been done before. The process that usually takes place is that codes come together in several local areas before becoming an area-wide code, which can cover several states. Eventually, these larger areas come together as a regional code and then the regional codes eventually combine into a national code. NOWRA is attempting to provide the structure to allow skipping the middle steps and go from hundreds of state and local codes to a national code. Modernization of the industry is slow because of: regulatory variability, rigid codes, regulatory inertia, designs for which improvements are ongoing, perceptions of failed systems, code writer isolation and onsite systems wrongly implicated as a pollution problem.

The onsite industry is the only segment of the built environment (buildings and related systems) without a generally accepted model code.* Viewed from a national perspective, the onsite industry is in a state of regulatory anarchy. It’s in the same position relative to codes as the regulation of the building industry was in the 1920s when building regulators created the first regional model codes. Now, the regional model code organizations have merged their code-writing efforts to create a national model building code published this year and are currently writing performance codes.

Recent developments
NOWRA determined to move forward in June 2000. The idea and the process have been discussed in various state and national meetings over the past year. The first formal meeting of the code committee to begin the process was held in Madison, Wis., at the end of May. Why should NOWRA develop a model code and not some other organization? NOWRA is an organization focused on the onsite industry. Its membership, composed of all major segments of the industry, is a diverse resource for developing the codes and is the customer base for the services of the organization. A national model code has a number of advantages for NOWRA, regulators and the industry. A model code and code organization will:

  • Create a benchmark code for use by local regulators while allowing them to retain local control.
  • Facilitate concentration of the most qualified professionals to assist in the code development effort.
  • Provide a consulting resource for regulators and the industry.
  • Provide a focus for creation of a national product evaluation and listing system. The service could be coordinated with NSF International’s Environmental Technology Verification (ETV) Program to provide a resource for local acceptance of listed products and reduce the need for manufacturers to “prove” their product for each unit of government.
  • Provide a focus for the development and dissemination of research findings. It should promote the concentration of funds for needed research.
  • Provide NOWRA with a base for the development of a self-funded, full-service organization for its members.
  • Increase the efficiency of the industry.
  • Provide a platform for the development of a system of lifetime maintenance of existing systems.
  • Fend off national regulation. For the onsite industry, a model code is an opportunity for local government and industry representatives to rationalize the regulation and structure of the industry before the federal government intercedes and does it for them like other industries such as manufactured housing.
  • Fend off attempts to use an onsite code as a land use regulation tool. For residential lot owners and local zoning officials in rural areas, a model code organization can exert countervailing pressure to organizations that want to limit rural construction by limiting access to onsite treatment systems.

The code development process will be an evolving process. It will need to have flexibility to assure that it can conform to meet the customer’s needs as changes are discovered; however, to start the process, a straw man—a rough concept that has been laid out—is often appropriate to provide some focus and a basis from which to work. Michael Corry, NOWRA’s Performance Committee chairman, developed the matrix concept as the straw man that the committee is using as a starting point. NOWRA is trying to develop a hybrid design combining the major elements of both performance and prescriptive codes, and addresses the full range of the installed system’s life cycle.

Matrix breakdown
NOWRA has determined to define the performance framework by a matrix (see Figure 1). The matrix is formed by a horizontal and vertical axis. The vertical axis represents levels of pollutants running from raw wastewater to drinking water. The horizontal axis represents the levels of quality assurance and quality control (QA/QC), etc. needed to meet risk management. It runs from a passive “no action” to high levels of management, monitoring, operation and maintenance. Now, conceptually that sounds easy but, when you look at all the combinations and permutations of soils, management, treatment, monitoring and operation and maintenance (O&M), it becomes extremely complex.

It’s possible we may need two matrices, one for the discharging medium—water body or soil and the management and monitoring needed to go with it—and another for the treatment system and its management, operation and maintenance. I believe it’s necessary to separate large systems from individual home onsite systems. Large systems by their nature pose a greater threat to public health and the environment, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) is looking for reform here first. This will be worked out as NOWRA moves forward in the development of the national model code.

Y-axis
Output performance standards are easy to understand. It is what an expected constituent output level is upon leaving the treatment train or some intermediate portion. The committee defined four key constituents that were critical to measure at the end of the treatment train (which includes soil) fecal coliform, total nitrogen, nitrate and total phosphorus.

X-axis
QA/QC performance standards are more difficult to conceptualize than output standards and will require more work for the code development committees than the Y-axis of the matrix. The term “quality assurance” means the treatment train design and implementation of other activities to assure a treatment design will perform within the boundaries of its performance classification over its expected life. The matrix model has four Q/A levels for the purpose of demonstrating the concept. The idea is to define a performance standard so that various design/management elements could be assembled to meet the standard. Level I has few requirements such as periodic maintenance and inspection while Level IV may require controls to ensure that the output standard is met constantly.

As you can see, building a national model code can become very complex, especially at the end of the spectrum where there are sensitive environmental areas and the public health in an Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas (SMSA.) Remember that 50 percent of the onsite systems are located in SMSAs where population is easily affected. The first meeting exceeded my expectations. All those present were able to express their opinions and came to a consensus. In addition to the key constituents for the Y-axis, the committee began a discussion of the X-axis, but the latter will take much more time.

Conclusion
Because treatment is accomplished in the soil after the last designed treatment system, the ability to adequately understand the soils’ ability to treat various wastewater levels and loading rates will be critical to success. It’s the key to cost of a system. Technology to produce the proper effluent before releasing it to the soil and the environment is available. Determining the proper levels of QA/QC and convincing the person who hasn’t had to clean his tank, or have the system inspected periodically, will be the real challenge facing us in the near future. More importantly, replacing systems that can’t meet today’s performance requirements and pose potential environmental or public health problems will become a political nightmare. The USEPA has proposed that it will not regulate large septic systems at this time. It’s giving this industry time to self govern and take care of problems and issues at the state and local levels. How well the industry stands up to the challenge could be a model for other federal rule-making decisions. Can we work toward a common goal or will we have to be “force fed?” It’s our move.

*The International Code Council (ICC) has published the International Private Sewage Disposal Code 2000 (IPSDC) as one of a suite of codes covering construction and related systems. The IPSDC code isn’t “generally accepted” by the onsite industry, largely because the customer base for ICC codes is building regulatory departments, not the traditional regulators of onsite systems—local and state health and natural resources departments. However, the ICC is a mature code organization providing multiple services to members and is one of several models of code organizations that should be considered by NOWRA. The ICC is a joint effort of the Building Officials and Code Administrators (BOCA), International Conference of Building Officials (ICBO) and Southern Building Code Congress International (Southern or SBCCI).

About the author
Robert E. Lee is the executive director of the National Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association. He’s a registered professional engineer with 29 years of wastewater experience with the USEPA as an environmental engineer. Most recently, he was chief of the Municipal Technology Branch in Washington, D.C., where he was responsible for the 1997 “Response to Congress on Use of Decentralized Wastewater Treatment Systems.” In addition to onsite wastewater systems, Lee also had responsibility for the Clean Water Needs Survey, Biosolids, and Technology Fact Sheets for Wastewater and Storm Water. He’s currently serving on an Interpersonal Agreement between USEPA and NOWRA. He can be reached at email: [email protected].

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