Getting connected

Ian McCusker explains the new rules relating to drainage systems in France and what homeowners need to do

If you love France, you have to love it warts and all: the bureaucracy, the strikes and the opening hours all cause headaches constantly but one of the biggest warts to afflict a large number of houses across France has always been the smelly issue of drainage.

Throughout the history of France, the topic of toilets has been a saga worthy of Horrible Histories. In fact, I think I remember reading it to my boys when they were seven years old.

However, at long last things are changing, slowly but very surely, for the better. After nearly 10 years of resisting what the rest of Europe agreed to without much fuss, France has finally allowed the latest generation of fosses septiques to be installed at properties that cannot be joined to the mains drainage, (tout � l’egout). In fact it is wrong to call these new systems fosses septiques (septic tanks) at all. They are, in fact, mini sewage-treatment plants (mini stations d’�puration), which are able to treat all the wastewater from your house and clean it completely into river-quality water.

The old system

Septic tanks – literally a tank that holds septic water waiting for something to happen – only cleaned the water very slightly. In fact, nothing much happens in a fosse septique so they had to be joined to a very large, for example 40m�, sand filter that uses gravel, bacteria and soil to break down the stuff that didn’t sink to the bottom of the fosse septique.

But to be honest, in most cases they were not joined to a sand filter, and just as often there wasn’t even a fosse septique; be it because of the lack of space, the age of the house or just plain refusal to install something the owners have never used before.

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There are many thousands of properties all over France that cannot actually say they have any functioning drainage system at all. This is the reason that France has always had such a hush-hush relationship with drainage.

It is also the reason that the authorities have procrastinated to such an extent during the discussions to ensure that all of Europe has the best water treatment possible; rules that were put in place to protect the environment.

Where there is a fosse septique, there will be either a concrete or plastic below-ground tank within which millions of anaerobic bacteria live. They are naturally occurring bacteria that live in environments with no oxygen. Their job is to break down the organic matter in the wastewater and clean it. The problem is that without oxygen the process is not very good and not much cleaning is done.

The not-very-clean water that leaves this tank moves to the large filter bed, where more bacteria and the active filtration through sand and gravel further clean the water before it enters the run-off drains. The main problem with the sand filter is its size. It needs to be at least four to five metres wide and up to 20 metres long, and you cannot drive or park any cars on it. Also, after several years of use, this area of ground can potentially become clogged and contaminated land, and may need to be completely replaced to ensure continued effective cleaning.

You can see that this has happened when the grass over the filter grows much better than the rest of the lawn! In fact, many French houses have the vegetable garden conveniently placed over the sand filter! The vegetables must be great, but the smell will not be!

The new systems

The new systems available use the same bacteria in one part of the system but then change to a process using aerobic bacteria, which use oxygen to do their thing. This process is far more efficient and, what’s more, it is the same process that deals with waste all around the world, from fallen trees in the English woodlands, elephant dung on the African savannah and sewage in the mains drains of the UK, Germany and USA.

No sand filter is required to finish the job so the overall installation is very much smaller. They are easier and therefore cheaper to install and are the best sewage solution that France has ever seen.

There are new regulations that allow these systems to be used and a new standard to test them. If you want to use one of these new systems you need to check that it has a num�ro d’agr�ment. This will be something like 2010-022 or 2011-004. The system must be on the list published by the French government and approved by the SPANC organisation.

There are around 20 to 30 systems on the list and around half of them are not true mini stations. These systems still use the old-style fosse septique but with a much better treatment system instead of the sand filter. These can save space but still take up more room than the true mini stations d’�puration.

The true mini stations are self-contained units with the whole treatment process undertaken within it, giving clean water at the exit.

Of the agreed systems available, there are the Kingspan Biodisc (pictured here), the Neve Topaz and the BioFrance F4. Soon to be added to the list is the WPL Diamond. They are all equally compact and efficient at treating the waste and are a major advance for all properties needing to add or improve the system currently in operation.

Nearly all of these systems use electricity to either blow air into the unit or, in the case of the Biodisc, to power a motor that turns the discs. In nearly every case, the power usage is around 40 to 50W, meaning that the running costs are very low, especially when you consider the huge gain in water quality.

The regulations

As is always the case in France, the rules governing fosses septiques are changing, or rather evolving, as the actual regulations were agreed in 2009 and it is the enforcement of these regulations that has changed.

Since 1 January 2011, any house purchased must have a report supplied by the mairie of the village stating what drainage system is in place at the house. If there is no system or if it does not conform to the 2009 regulations then SPANC is informed and they will provide a report on the house and say that it needs to be updated to meet the regulations within one year of the sale.

If you are renovating a house, even if you bought it before 2011, your mairie must be notified of any changes to the drainage. They will give you the form from the local SPANC department and the new system will have to pass their rules and the 2009 regulations before you will be allowed to install it.

The visits from SPANC have started to instill fear in all who need it, as they are very strict and quite old-fashioned in their ways. However, you do not need to fear them, they have to abide by the regulations and if the system has a num�ro d’agr�ment (see New Systems) then it can be installed.

There is some discussion about the installation of these new systems for maisons secondaires, as they require electricity. They can be used in these properties but only in agreement with SPANC.

The application form for SPANC does require several plans and soil tests with various technical details so I strongly advise that you contact a company that deals with these installations all the time.

Previous knowledge of how SPANC operates and its methods will be a great help to ensure that you get the best installation.

The regulations still allow the old style of fosse septique to be installed and do not mean that you have to change your current system, unless it does not conform to the 2009 regulations. The rules apply to all new systems being installed and to all houses purchased since 1 January 2011.

This is a good change to the rules and it should finally bring France into line with the rest of 21st-century Europe. The history of sewage in France has not been a pretty one, due in part to the problems of distance where mains drainage between towns and villages is nearly impossible to achieve, partly due to budget manipulation and lost monies and also due to the mountain of bureaucracy that any change in France is subjected to at every stage of progress. However, now there is a solution. n

• Companies providing the new systems:

A Piece of Burgundy

Arti Construction

Aubin Eco Environnement

• List of allowed systems: