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Advice on dealing with Tennessee water laws

 
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This has been costing me a lot of frustration/stress. Heres what I want to do ideally: build an offgrid cabin (very small, ~16 x 16) in a no building code county in TN. Ill have a sawdust compost toilet and a humanure compost pile on site, ill collect rainwater and have greywater from my shower / sink drain to my garden / or a perforated 50 gallon drum on gravel. Water for the sink / shower will be a hanging bucket with a spigot until  I develop a gravity fed cistern system.

Problems:

1. TN does not recongize greywater. All water is "wastewater".  Wash your hands in a sink? Thats wastewater and no different then blackwater from TN view.
2. Compost toilets are illegal. Only NSF-Certified compost toilets which run around ~$2000 which have a subscription service of compost products it needs to work such as branded sprays / culture liquids to assist in composting. Alternatively you can use a pit privy.
3. NSF-Certified compost toilet / Pit privy are illegal if you have "running water" unless there is an acceptable means to dispose of wastewater (which I think means, septic tank)
4. I called the dept and they said a septic is still required to live somewhere, even if its a dry cabin. I was told: "I still got to wash my hands and stuff and its go to go somewhere, right?"

Question:

1. Does anyone here live in TN? How do you have your water / septic / compost system set up and have you dealt with DIVISION OF WATER RESOURCES? Whats your experience?
2. Should I just build what I want and not advertise? The counties im looking at dont require building codes.
3. How would you proceed with this scenario?
 
Cameron Miller
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The law: https://publications.tnsosfiles.com/rules/0400/0400-48/0400-48-01.20140408.pdf
law.PNG
[Thumbnail for law.PNG]
 
pollinator
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Cameron Miller wrote:2. Should I just build what I want and not advertise? The counties im looking at dont require building codes.
3. How would you proceed with this scenario?


I'm not in TN, but on the acreage I bought there is a building classified as a "garage" that the previous owner was turning into a cabin (bathroom, generator, wood stove, etc.). The guy was living there full time, and basically just building what he wanted. My suggestion would be to make sure that you are on really good terms with your neighbors, because unless they complain, it's unlikely that an inspector is going to check on what you are doing.
 
Cameron Miller
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John Wolfram wrote:

Cameron Miller wrote:2. Should I just build what I want and not advertise? The counties im looking at dont require building codes.
3. How would you proceed with this scenario?


I'm not in TN, but on the acreage I bought there is a building classified as a "garage" that the previous owner was turning into a cabin (bathroom, generator, wood stove, etc.). The guy was living there full time, and basically just building what he wanted. My suggestion would be to make sure that you are on really good terms with your neighbors, because unless they complain, it's unlikely that an inspector is going to check on what you are doing.



Good info. Ive been calling different clerks / zoning departments to figure out how the backend works. So one county im looking at has no zoning regulations or special building permit requirements or enforcment, but the state of TN has the water laws, so I would ask if I buy a parcel and register my address with E-911 and then send all my mail / drivers license there I now live there ... will the "TENNESSEE DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENT AND CONSERVATION DIVISION OF WATER RESOURCES" be notified for all new registered addresses and follow up on all to make sure they get a septic permit?

The county is unsure and says I should contact the state, but so far the state says septic is required, but im not sure how they would ever find out, unless like I said they are notified somehow for all new addresses or someone complains. I dont think they'll take it kindly by me calling and asking how their enforcment works and how they are notified of new properties and how I can get around their rules lol.
 
Cameron Miller
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One county I called states that the local accessor notifies the state of new structures, then they may investigate from there and see if theres septic, etc. Then the accessor office I spoke with said this isnt true, they just add buildings to their accessor database for tax purposes so I really dont know who to believe.
 
pollinator
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A septic PERMIT is required to get an address, not a septic system. ;)
 
Cameron Miller
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R Scott wrote:A septic PERMIT is required to get an address, not a septic system. ;)



Its not required. I spoke with the E-911. They come mark your house and add it to their GPS system and give you an address. A septic permit is not required to get this.
 
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compared to other places, rural Tennessee has very minimalistic requirements and putting in a septic system or tank or whatever it is is the one thing you have to do to be on the right side of things. after you get that put in you can do anything you want. that's the way it is here where I live. the county has no dept of building or zoning and no codes or regulations for building and zoning. there was a big battle at county commission meeting here a couple years ago about this and they decided to keep things just as they are, no building or zoning codes or regulations. there are people with camper trailers that get away with no septic system. but they have to drag the camper to a dump station when the tank gets full.  in fact there is one right down the road from me, people living in camper trailer just like I described.
putting in septic can be as easy as getting a generic plan for one, getting materials needed and rent a small machine for a weekend to do it yourself  or you can pay some septic outfit to do it for you. the only other inspections they have here is if you want to have power and hooked into grid the power company will not hook you up trip they inspect what they are hooking up to. I not sure what states still allow a building for housing to be put up without septic, maybe rural Alaska.
 
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If the installation of a septic system for health reasons is the only requirement insisted apon, I think it would be best to install one as suggested and then get on with things.
Its a small contribution to society that will allow you to move on and do what you want.
 
Cameron Miller
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Installing a spetic services no contribution to society except to appease bureaucrats so they can checkmark their clipboard they I am complying at the expense of thousands of dollars + time, of which I will continue to never use. The consensus ive gotten so far is many people in no restriction counties do as they wish and theirs not really any enforcment unless your actually doing something impactful like dumping sewage in to a waterway and someone reports you.

So I think the best route is to not comply with laws that are wrong, and just my compost toilet and grey water system. If, for some reason I am forced to comply down the road, I will install a septic as cheaply as possible, including a camper with septic, and continue to not use the septic so they will leave me alone.
 
John C Daley
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Septic tanks in some situations do assist with personal health issues.
I guess you have a different view on the issue and I am interested as to why you are bothering about any of the issues you asked about?
 
bruce Fine
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I think that the septic thing is a reasonable regulation. ive seen places in Florida and Louisiana where people put in quasi drainage and they have after a while basically open sewers no different from what you might find in a refugee camp in a third world country, its not pretty and little children somehow are naturally drawn to playing in muddy water.
not to say that's what you would have but if it were open season and there were no regulations everyone that could build on the cheap and put in traditional bathroom would just be dumping foul used water and water out in the open.
in order to get regulators in Tennessee to change anything will be a hard nut to crack. , but might be a worthwhile endeavor with the advancements made in composting toilets and the true meaning of grey water
 
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Cameron Miller wrote:So I think the best route is to not comply with laws that are wrong, and just my compost toilet and grey water system. If, for some reason I am forced to comply down the road, I will install a septic as cheaply as possible, including a camper with septic, and continue to not use the septic so they will leave me alone.

I can empathize with regulations that often don't make sense. Septic systems can fail and pollute the environment just like home-made humanure done wrong can.

To me, what is critical, is to look at the goals of the laws - nothing toxic making it into the ground water - and how permaculture can do better than that. With permaculture principles, we not only want to keep ground water clean, we want to recapture the nutrients in urine and excrement and use them effectively and responsibly. Do that well, and maybe when and if there is a complaint, you will have something to show them that might help them see room for an exception.
 
pollinator
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Personally I really like a aerobic wormcomposting septic system, and you get to use running water inside the house.
 
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Did you ever find out what constitutes a “wastewater system” for gray water?  We’re under contract on land in Tn and also interested in doing a compost toilet. Are you still in the process or did you go that route?
 
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Hi Eric,

Welcome to Permies.
 
master steward
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Eric said, "what constitutes a “wastewater system” for gray water?  We’re under contract on land in Tn and also interested in doing a compost toilet.



Eric, welcome to the forum.

I can't help with Tennessee Water Laws, though where I live a person is best to start in the local area.

My suggestion would be to contact the County Health Dept. and if that is not the right area they most likely can point you in the right direction.

To help you, I would suggest being specific with your request so ask about a composting toilet, not a greywater system, unless you also want one of those.

Congratulations on the new land.
 
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I would be surprised that TN is different than any other state on this issue.

All AHJ's are going the route of "put in an OSSF (septic system)", as part of buying a piece of land and building something. Doesn't matter if you conserve water, use composting toilets, will do greywater, etc.

The clauses in almost all AHJ documents treat greywater as blackwater, so the system for treatment is the same (tank and infiltrators).

Just plan on putting in an OSSF, if the land doesn't have it already; it will sort of be recouped when the land exchanges hands later. To save money, put it in yourself, if a DIY'er. If not a DIY'er, it's the cost of doing business, or the "ante" to play the game, etc.

Once it's in, then do your own thing ... never touch the OSSF again, put in greywater systems (Oasis book), humanure (Jenkins), worm digesters (Solviva), and so on. Composting toilets, bucket systems, it's all good (if done right) ... but only once the OSSF is in, and the AHJ's have moved on to new tax base dollars.

Or, beat your head against the AHJ bureaucratic wall as long as you can stand it ... having read first the definition of "insanity".

We put in our OSSF ourselves ... about $2500 at the time, for the DIY effort. It's on record as inspected and installed ... the land is improved by that amount, the AHJ is happy (and property taxing us).

We've moved on to the "systems" efforts on our property, as in "how many systems can we re-use our water in before it heads off to various treatment methods", and "how can all the waste systems tie together to reduce to almost zero", and so on.

Long-term, definitely try to change the AHJ laws ... but that is a huge effort, and the game is stacked against you in the short-term.
 
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Here is the laws regarding pit privies and composting toilets (pretty simple and both are a relatively cheap option to a septic system) I'm still looking for the law regarding a sewage vault, which is a large tank with no outlet, to be pumped out when needed, (also a cheaper alternative)

0400-48-01-.17 PRIVIES AND COMPOSTING TOILETS.
(1) Pit privies shall be constructed to prevent a health hazard and prevent insect and rodent accessibility and shall not be located less than fifty (50) feet from a water supply or less than ten (10) feet from any habitable building or property line.
(2) Composting toilets must be certified by the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) to be in compliance with NSF Standard 41, and be published in their “Listing of Certified Wastewater Recycle / Reuse and Water Conservation Devices,” before they may be used for disposal of human excreta by non-water carriage methods.
(3) A pit privy or composting toilet shall not be permitted for a facility where the facility has running water available unless there is an acceptable means to dispose of wastewater.
 
John C Daley
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Jay, I am surprised at this comment

Septic systems can fail and pollute the environment just like home-made humanure done wrong can.


I disagree strongly.
Yes they can overflow if the septic is not pumped out once in a while and the lines fill with solids, and if the lines are not set into the ground correctly, but otherwise
normal maintenance as needed is all that is required.
They can be overloaded if 25 people suddenly start using it.
As for 'bum' laws I am intrigued by what happens if heaps of people are attracted to an area because they can do what they like, and they do.
Taking it to the extreme, if it turns to chaos how are things resolved?

Perhaps these Housing Associations are popping up because many people do want some overall management for the good oif all, which the County is not doing?
Is that reality?
 
Jay Angler
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John C Daley wrote:Jay, I am surprised at this comment

Septic systems can fail and pollute the environment just like home-made humanure done wrong can.


I disagree strongly.


Maybe Australia is different, but in my climate, a septic field built to code is deeper than most of the microbes that would be needed to manage the effluent. It tends to travel like a plume under the surface, slowly seeping lower until it hits ground water. I can't remember where I first read about it, Joe Jenkins or Gene Logsdon, but google got 2 hits quickly:
https://esemag.com/water/artificial-sweeteners-groundwater-indicate-contamination-septic-systems/
https://www.epa.gov/septic/septic-systems-and-surface-water

As I've read about soil science here on permies and through my public library, we need to make much more effort to treat all sorts of grey water and sewage through artificial wetlands and aerated composting systems to recapture all the nutrients represented by human outputs. Too much "nitrogen" in various forms, entering groundwater and from there, into wells is a septic system fail - it may not make you sick in the same way that e-coli does, but it's bad for humans. My understanding is that this issue is not confined to septic systems, but that many municipal water treatment systems discharge far too many nutrients into local water-ways than nature can handle, affecting water quality for downstream communities relying on that same water-way or aquifer for their drinking water.
 
John C Daley
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Jay, I am surprised and disgusted to read about the septic systems you must build.
In Australia we rely on transpiration of the fluids through grass or specific plants in the drain field.

No wonder wells are bad and others 'hate' septic systems. What a different world.
Is it possible to work backwards and show that the regulations are causing the Environmental laws are being broken?
 
William Kellogg
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Once the effluent travels down 6 feet into the ground, it becomes inert or the bacteria has been eliminated.

And yes, a shallower system is better, due to the available oxygen speeds the process...


 
William Kellogg
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Most of the contaminated wells in the heartland are due to nitrates from fertilizer, not from septic systems.
 
William Kellogg
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Evaporation-Transpiration septic systems are mostly utilized for arid climates, high water tables, and for soils that don't percolate. They are also used in areas where ground water contamination is more likely, but they are not superior to absorption systems.

Absorption systems return all of the water pumped out of the aquifer back into the ground. So in that regard, they are sustainable and environmentally friendly, especially when looking at multiple homes.
This is quite often a condition of the well permit because as the water table drops, the water quality also drops.
 
John C Daley
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I was under the impression no thought had gone into the septic designs, other than not allowing it to go directly to a creek or river.
By undergrounding it, its out of sight, out of the way of children playing in the mud etc.

Some bigger ones needed a sand filter on the end with chlorination before discharging into a water stream.
I spent 8 yeras working around Victoria sorting the discharges out.
 
William Kellogg
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A lot of the modern systems incorporate a dosing mechanism in the tank that allows the leach field to dry out a bit between doses, distributes the effluent more evenly throughout the field, and encourages bacterial growth in the field.

Generally leach fields are required to be no closer than 250 feet from a well and all sorts of other setback requirements like from streams, dry gulches, drop offs, and property lines.

The county health departments strictly regulate the codes and where there is no county budget for this, the state health department is responsible.

What a unique place (Australia) to live. So different but I'm sure similar in some ways too. Lots of interesting gold mining history...
 
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If you have any doubt about building codes,  Any of the building codes!  Google "Last House Standing on Mexico Beach"!  
How many lives would have been saved if Tornado Shelters were mandatory for each home?  
 
John C Daley
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William, I live in  the Wellsford Forest, 15km from Bendigo a city of 120,000 people.
It was created on gold and has been very wealthy from it.
Today there is a Fosterville mine, about 12 km east of my place, that is currently the richest mine in the world in terms of % of gold per tonne.
The history is celebrated.
 
William Kellogg
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I will definitely need to read up on that place,

and thanks for sharing that John!
 
I agree. Here's the link: https://richsoil.com/wood-heat.jsp
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