What Is An Illegal Septic System

A septic system is an underground wastewater treatment system commonly used in rural areas without access to public sewer systems. Septic systems work by separating solids from liquids and allowing the wastewater to slowly percolate into the surrounding soil.

While septic systems are legal, there are important regulations surrounding their design, installation, and maintenance. Failing to follow these regulations can result in your septic system being considered illegal.

In this comprehensive guide, we will cover:

  • What Makes a Septic System Illegal
  • Consequences of Having an Illegal Septic System
  • How to Identify an Illegal Septic System
  • Reporting Illegal Septic Systems
  • Septic System Regulations
  • FAQs

What Makes a Septic System Illegal

There are a few key reasons why a septic system may be considered illegal:

Installation Without Permits

All septic systems must be permitted and inspected by the local health department or permitting authority before installation. Installing a septic system without proper permits is illegal.

Failure to Conduct Required Inspections

Regular inspections by health officials are required to ensure the septic system meets standards. Skipping mandated inspections makes your system non-compliant.

Improper Septic System Design

Septic systems must meet strict design regulations pertaining to the septic tank, drain field size, location, and more. Improper design can cause pollution and render the system illegal.

Using the Wrong Septic System Type

The septic system must be suited for the soil conditions, landscape, and groundwater table on your property. Using the wrong type of septic system for your site is not allowed.

Poor Maintenance

Homeowners are required to properly maintain their septic systems. Failure to pump the tank or neglecting repairs can lead to system failure and illegal operation.

Failure Causing Pollution

If a failed septic system is releasing wastewater and polluting groundwater, wetlands, or nearby water bodies, it is not in compliance with regulations.

Consequences of Having an Illegal Septic System

It is important to follow septic system regulations to avoid significant penalties:

  • Fines – Most areas impose fines between $50 to $200 for illegal septic systems. Subsequent violations can increase fines up to $1000.

  • Jail time – Some states may impose jail time up to 6 months as punishment for repeat offenders.

  • Repair costs – You may be required to bear the costs of repairs, upgrades, or complete replacement to make the system compliant. This can cost thousands of dollars.

  • Environmental damage – Pollution of groundwater from a failed system can lead to environmental enforcement action in addition to fines.

  • Liability – Buyers will likely sue the seller if an undisclosed illegal system is found after property purchase.

How to Identify an Illegal Septic System

Here are some red flags that may indicate a septic system is non-compliant:

  • No records of septic permits or inspections

  • Records showing outdated or undersized septic tank

  • Signs of system failure like surfacing sewage, foul odors, soggy ground

  • Old system with no maintenance records

  • Adjacent water bodies showing signs of contamination from sewage

  • Use of cesspools or direct wastewater discharges from home

If in doubt, consult your local health department for an assessment of your septic system’s compliance status.

Reporting Illegal Septic Systems

If you spot an illegal septic system, take steps to get it reported to prevent pollution and protect public health:

  • Contact the health department – Your local health department will have a hotline or online form to report failed septic systems. Provide as much detail as possible.

  • EPA complaint form – You can fill out the EPA’s online complaint form ↗ regarding environmental violations from septic systems.

  • Call 911 – For serious pollution events, call emergency services at 911 so rapid containment action can be taken.

  • National Response Center – Call the NRC hotline at 1-800-424-8802 to report hazardous spills from septic systems.

Early reporting of septic issues helps minimize environmental damage and risks to public health and safety. Authorities can also inform homeowners on how to fix their systems.

Septic System Regulations

While federal agencies like EPA establish baseline septic system regulations, much of the legal oversight happens at the state and local levels:

State Regulations

  • Minimum septic tank capacities based on home size
  • Mandatory maintenance and pumping schedules
  • Required septic tank construction materials and standards
  • Setback distances from wells, water bodies, buildings
  • Percolation rate thresholds for soil absorption systems
  • Approval process for septic system contractors

Local Regulations

  • Permits and inspections for installation and repairs
  • System registration and reporting requirements
  • Additional maintenance and pumping requirements
  • Requirements for upgrades, repairs, replacements
  • Site evaluation and soil analysis standards
  • Zone-based requirements for system types
  • Minimum horizontal distances between system components
  • Enforcement actions for violations

Always check your local and state regulations when installing or modifying septic systems. Violations can lead to expensive repairs, fines, and environmental damage.


Are cesspools legal septic systems?

No. Cesspools are pits that receive raw sewage with no treatment. They frequently fail and cause pollution. Cesspools are banned under EPA regulations.

Can my septic system be grandfathered in if it doesn’t meet current code?

Sometimes older systems are exempt from upgrades if they were compliant with regulations at the time of installation and are functioning properly. But pollution, failures, or major repairs typically require bringing the system up to current code.

How long can I use an illegal septic system before fixing it?

You should repair an illegal or non-compliant septic system as soon as possible. Continued use of a failed system leads to rapidly increasing pollution and risks. Fines also pile up the longer you delay corrective action.

Am I liable if I unknowingly buy a property with an illegal septic system?

Possibly. While lack of intent provides some defense, you can still face civil penalties or be ordered to fix the system. Thoroughly checking septic records during home purchase is advised.

Can I report a neighbor’s illegal septic system anonymously?

Yes, most complaint forms allow anonymous reporting of failed systems. But providing contact info can help investigators get additional details if needed. Your identity will be kept confidential.


Installing and operating a septic system outside of regulations can lead to expensive repairs, fines, jail time and environmental damage. Be diligent in researching what your local codes and permitting processes are. Conduct regular septic maintenance and fix any issues early. Follow the guidelines outlined here to avoid having an illegal septic system on your property.

Leave a Comment