15th June 2020

What you need to know about septic tanks – because the environment is worth it!


Ah, the environment. A topic that is seeping into the mainstream ever more nowadays. From canned water to paper straws, it is no secret that we are consciously finding more ways to help the environment. However, we also hear a lot about waste and how it affects our health, along with the environment. From landfill sites to pollution, there is always something highlighted – but just remember, the warnings are not a waste of time!

This brings me onto today’s topic, septic tanks and the importance of registering and maintaining them. After reading this, you should be aware of what a septic tank is, why registration is important, how to maintain your tank and some recent updates.

What is a septic tank?

A septic tank is a form of private sewage system designed to deal with waste water from a property not connected to a mains sewer. Waste travels from your property into the septic tank where it is broken down using natural bacteria and the treated water is taken out of the tank via a soakaway.

Where is my septic tank?

A septic tank is typically found downhill from your property and will have a metal or concrete lid. It is worth pointing out, however, that the tank may not actually be located on your land especially if you share your septic tank with neighbouring properties. If you are unsure about this, you may find the answer in your Title Deeds.

If the tank is not within the boundaries of your own property then you will need certain rights over the neighbouring property for the pipes connecting the tank to your property and to ensure that you can access them and the tank, when necessary, for maintenance and repair purposes. Details may be contained within the Title Deeds but if not speak to your solicitor.

How do I maintain my septic tank?

It is incredibly important, both legally and environmentally, that you maintain your septic tank, as failing to do so poses a serious risk to the environment. This is due to the fact that septic tanks produce dangerous gases caused by the natural bacterial treatment process that, if untreated and released into the atmosphere, can be very harmful. A septic tank that is well maintained requires to be emptied (or de-sludged) less often which will save you money.

The Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (“SEPA”) and Scottish Water both make many recommendations as to how to maintain your septic tank: here are a few suggestions:-

  1. Do not put anything down your drains that could block them. Scottish Water recommend that no cotton buds, kitchen towels or disposable nappies (to name a few) should be flushed down the toilet as these can cause blockages in the drains. If they make their way in to the tank then they do not break down, which results in a speedy build up of sludge.
  2. Do not put any oils, grease or fat down your sink rather pour the fat into a container and dispose of it in a bin. Fats prevent your soakaway from working as they make it waterproof. If your soakaway does not work, then the waste water will not drain out of the septic tank correctly, potentially leading to unpleasant and untreated materials being released into the environment. If you encounter this problem, SEPA recommends that you contact your relevant authority, or specialist contractor, immediately so that this can be resolved.
  3. If you fancy yourself as a bit of a Picasso, do not to clean your paintbrushes in the sink as the paint kills the bacteria in your tank. As previously mentioned, the tank uses natural bacteria to break down the waste and so, it goes without saying that dead bacteria will lead to the waste not being broken down and, ultimately, pollution.

Do I need to empty my septic tank?

After having taken all reasonable steps to maintain your tank, you may at this point be wondering how to empty the tank or even clean it. The answer is very simple – hire a specialist who can do this for you. As well as emptying and cleaning your septic tank, it is recommended that your septic tank is pumped regularly, every one to three years. This depends on the size of the tank and how many properties it serves. Ensuring that your septic tank is pumped regularly will save you money in the long run, as they will not require to be repaired.

Do I need to register my septic tank?

You can check whether a tank has been registered by contacting SEPA, who manage the registration of septic tanks. If, after contacting SEPA, you find that your tank requires to be registered this can be done very easily by following the instructions on SEPA’s website.

SEPA’s website details a number of registration methods. Firstly, you can register your septic tank online if it has been in use for a period of two or more years and serves a maximum of nine properties. Alternatively, there is a paper form you can download from SEPA’s website and you can register your septic tank that way. If your septic tank has not yet celebrated its second birthday, then there is a specific paper form required for registration which, again, can be found from SEPA’s website. However, if your septic tank serves over nine properties, you will require to apply for a license, which again can be done by downloading forms from SEPA’s website. If you are unsure, SEPA are more than happy to help and you can contact them for advice prior to registration.

Before SEPA confirm registration of your septic tank, they must ensure that the requirements of registration are met. These are found in the Water Environment (Controlled Activities) (Scotland) Regulations 2011. These Regulations allow SEPA to, if they deem appropriate, impose conditions to the registration process in order to protect the water environment. If SEPA determine that your application for registration meets their conditions, then your tank will be registered and you will receive a Certificate of Registration. You should keep this somewhere safe, ideally with the Title Deeds as it will be required should you ever wish to sell the property.

Has there been any recent updates to the rules and regulation which apply to septic tanks?

New rules came into effect for septic tanks in Scotland in January 2020. These stipulate that if your septic tank discharges directly into surface water, your tank will need to be registered with SEPA and either replaced or upgraded by 1 January 2020. This can also be dealt with prior to selling your property.

In England and Wales, the Government do not allow the operation of septic tanks which discharge directly into surface water, such as a water drain or ditch, or onto the ground via a soakaway. This rule came into effect from 1 January 2020 and there are three options which are available to affected homeowners:-

  1. Connect to a mains sewer if possible;
  2. Ask a contractor to install a drainage field; or
  3. Upgrade the septic tank to a small package treatment plant as a means of mechanically treating the waste.

SEPA have confirmed that the changes in England and Wales do not apply to Scotland yet but they are making a point of re-evaluating the Scottish system so watch this space!

In summary…

I hope that I have managed to give you a brief overview of septic tanks and the importance of registering and maintaining them. Just remember that if you are unsure about septic tank registration, contact SEPA as they are more than happy to help. Maintenance of your septic tank is incredibly important, both with regard to what you put down your toilet or sink and emptying the tank itself. With the recent updates already in force, and those being looked in to, this is a topic that is bound to hit the headlines in the near future. As the environmentalist ideology grows, we can hope that changes in septic tank regulations will, in time, aid in the reduction of pollution and make the environment that little bit better. So, don’t delay, take care of your septic tank today!

Blythe Petrie
Trainee Solicitor
Residential Property
Blackadders LLP




The opinions expressed in this blog are of the author only and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Blackadders LLP.

Blackadders takes all reasonable steps to ensure that the content of this blog is accurate and up to date. The blog is not, however, intended as a substitute for seeking legal or other professional advice but rather as an informative guide to the services provided by Blackadders and topical legal developments. Blog users should always seek advice tailored to their specific situation. Consequently, Blackadders accepts no responsibility for any loss or damage suffered by anyone acting or failing to act on the basis of information contained on this blog. Downloading of material contained on this site is at the user’s own risk and all necessary virus checks must first be carried out by the user. Blackadders is not responsible for the material found on any web sites linked to this one and links to this site may only be made with Blackadders prior consent.


Blackadders owns the copyright in this blog and all material contained on it. The material on this blog may be downloaded for personal use only and must not be altered. Otherwise, Blackadders’ written consent is required before any material on this site is reproduced, copied or transmitted in any way.

Privacy Statement

Information passed to us via this blog is kept confidential and will not be disclosed to third parties except if authorised by you or required by law.

© Blackadders LLP 2020

Members of the Law Society of Scotland.

Blackadders Solicitors is a trading name of Blackadders LLP, a limited liability partnership, registered in Scotland No SO301600 whose registered office is 30 & 34 Reform Street, Dundee, DD1 1RJ. Reference to a ‘partner’ is to a member of Blackadders LLP.

Back to Blackadders' Property Blog: Covering Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Perth, Angus and beyond