2.4 Require periodic inspection and maintenance of septic systems and develop incentive programs to facilitate compliance

Key Message: Once a septic system is approved in Florida, ongoing inspection or maintenance is not required. Because septic systems can deteriorate over time, legislation that requires periodic inspection and maintenance is essential to ensuring they function properly to protect public health and the environment.


Septic systems are initially permitted and inspected by the Florida Department of Health (FDOH). Under the Clean Waterways Act (2020), regulation will be transferred to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) starting in 2021. Once a septic system is approved, ongoing inspection or maintenance is not required. Performance of septic systems can deteriorate over time due to improper use, lack of maintenance, or damage from clogging, compaction, or tree roots. Changes in groundwater depth from changes in hydrology or sea level can impair drainfield treatment by reducing or eliminating its aerobic treatment layer. Over time, indigestible solids and scum accumulate in the tank and can cause backups or clog the drainfield.

Removing these waste products every three to five years is a cost-effective strategy to extend system life and reduce pollution. For these reasons and others, septic systems must be periodically inspected and maintained to ensure they are functioning properly to protect public health and the environment. FDOH records show that an average of about 400 (1.1%) of septic systems in Sarasota County have been repaired each year over the past 25 years.

Regular septic tank pump out is required for proper function. Source: Anna Ferrell Photography


In 2010, Florida passed a law requiring septic systems to be pumped out and inspected every five years. The law was repealed in 2012, before FDOH could develop and administer an inspection program. In 2019, another bill to require septic system inspection and monitoring was introduced but again failed to gain traction (see Chapter 2.3).

That bill would have required:

  • Inspection of septic systems by a qualified contractor at least once every 5 years;
  • Administration of the inspection program by FDOH;
  • A county-by-county implementation plan phased in over a 10-year period with priority given to areas within a Basin Management Action Plan identified by FDEP;
  • Disclosure of whether a property contains or will contain a septic system prior to sale; and
  • An accurate statewide inventory of septic systems by FDOH.

Opposition came from a variety of constituencies, including the residential real estate sector, property owners in non-coastal counties, and concerns that the inspection requirement placed an undue burden on low- and moderate-income residents.

The homeowner’s cost of pumping out a septic system every five years is $250-$400. In contrast, central sewer service costs homeowners about $5,400 over the same time period.

Months after the bill died in committee, a Blue-Green Algae Task Force appointed by the Governor recommended that Florida develop and implement a septic system inspection and monitoring program to identify underperforming and/or failing systems and require corrective action (BGATF 2019).

Special considerations and incentives for minimizing pollution from septic systems are already provided under the 2016 Florida Springs and Aquifer Act, which applies to areas with known connectivity between groundwater and an Outstanding Florida Spring. Although there are no Outstanding Florida Springs in Sarasota County, Florida’s Blue-Green Algae Task Force recommends extending the springs rule and incentives to other vulnerable areas across the state. This could include Outstanding Florida Waters like Sarasota Bay.

Figure 4.1.1. Timeline of Florida Legislative and Executive actions related to septic inspection and maintenance regulations. Source: Gulf Coast Community Foundation

The Clean Waterways Act (2020) transfers regulation of septic systems from FDOH to FDEP. The Act requires FDEP to develop new rules for the location of septic systems, fast-track permitting for advanced septic systems in basins with impaired water bodies, and establish a technical advisory committee to make further recommendations on regulation of septics. Transferring oversight from FDOH to FDEP may facilitate septic system management actions that are more protective of environmental water quality.

While Sarasota County Code (Sec. 54-221-223) provides design, permitting, and installation criteria, there are no operation and maintenance requirements for septic system owners to ensure their systems continue to function safely. Sarasota County’s Water Pollution Control Code (Sec. 54-181-193) provides for enforcement of leaking septic tanks on private property, which in practice occurs only when the leak is noticed and reported.


Legislation should be reintroduced to the State Legislature to develop, implement, and enforce periodic septic system inspections to identify underperforming and/or failing systems and require corrective action. A task force should be convened to review Florida HB 85 (2019) as last amended and provide guidance for improving the bill’s effectiveness to prevent nutrient pollution in priority water bodies. The task force could consider the following in its review:

  • Expand the purpose of inspections from detecting “failing systems” to detecting “underperforming and/or failing systems.”
  • Define “underperforming” and “failing” in terms of bacteria and nutrient pollution. At a minimum, “system failure” should clarify that the drainfield must function throughout the year as originally designed.
  • Evaluate whether 10 years is too long for full implementation of the program.
  • Consider expanding the initial priority areas to focus on watersheds of Outstanding Florida Waters and their direct tributaries.

Public awareness and support should be galvanized to encourage legislators and the governor to pass the bill into law. The following strategies could be considered:

  • Organize support from the Florida Onsite Wastewater Association, statewide and local environmental organizations, NGOs, and other pro-environment and pro-public health organizations.
  • Task lobbyists to promote the bill, including single-issue lobbyists and other lobbyists employed by allied organizations.
  • Generate public support through outreach and education focusing on:
  1. negative impacts of septic systems on water quality, including consequences for public health, quality of life, environmental health, economic activity, recreation, and property values.
  2. personal responsibility for personal pollution and the disproportionately small costs of maintaining a septic system compared to higher costs of centralized sewer service.
  3. comparisons of financial tradeoffs for septic system owners related to relatively inexpensive regular maintenance expenses versus repairing or replacing failing systems.
  4. costs of polluted water in terms of reduced community appeal, economic activity, family health — and its effect on real estate values, sales, and commissions.
  • Develop and implement an incentive program for low-income property owners in priority areas.
  • Conduct a simple economic analysis of the effects of expanding demand for septic maintenance on jobs and economic activity and explore how increased demand and competition can lead to lower maintenance charges.

In the absence of a statewide program, Sarasota County could consider developing and adopting a septic inspection and maintenance program focusing on areas near priority water bodies impaired for bacteria and nutrients.


  • Florida House of Representatives website: myfloridahouse.gov
  • Florida Senate website: flsenate.gov
  • Florida House Bill HB 85 (2019, as amended) and Florida Senate Bill SB 214 (2019)
  • Florida House Bill HB 1263 (2012) and Florida Senate Bill SB 214 (2012)


No activity

Performance Measure

Adoption, implementation, and enforcement of regulations for mandatory inspection and maintenance of septic systems, especially those near priority or impaired water bodies.

Experts or Leads

  • Political advocacy: Sierra Club, Suncoast Waterkeeper, Surfrider
  • Potential Task Force members: Dr. Gurpal Toor, Dr. Mary Lusk, Dr. Brian Lapointe; Convener: Shafer Consulting or other independent science-based facilitation firm
  • Outreach and Education: Science and Environment Council, UF/IFAS Extension Sarasota County, Sarasota County Stormwater Environmental Utility, Sarasota Bay Estuary Program, FDEP, FDOH
  • Legislators: State House Member Robinson and State Senator Gruter

Cost Estimate

  • $10,000 – $50,000 Task Force and report
  • $50,000-$100,000 Outreach and Education in Sarasota County
  • $100,000-$1,000,000 Outreach and Education Statewide

Related Activities

Chapter 2.1, Chapter 2.3, Chapter 2.5



Other Septic System Activities

2.1 Quantify annual nutrient loads from septic systems

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