Last week I talked about some of the frustrations our clients experience when renovating their home with a septic system. Sometimes the spaces are defined as a bedroom, other times they are not. The definition of a bedroom can be vague depending on your local health department. For example, according to one local health department in our area, to be considered a bedroom it must meet the following conditions:
- Be a habitable or planned habitable space per the Building Code.
- Provide privacy. A large cased opening (minimum 5 feet width and no doors) can be installed to eliminate privacy.
- Have convenient access to a full bathroom (containing either a bathtub or shower).
- Entry is from a common area, not through a room already deemed a bedroom.
Who Makes Up These Rules Anyway?
At first glance the criteria seem simple, but in fact it’s pretty broad and open to interpretation.
For example, what makes a bathroom convenient to the bedroom? My guess is that your view of convenience differs greatly from the health department’s view of convenience, or even privacy for that matter.
How A Sealed Off Bonus Room Could Have Cost Thousands
Let me share with you a real life example of how frustrating these hazy conditions can be. This time it’s not limited to the renovation of an existing space, this is new construction!
One of our clients, who is a builder, built his own new home. He had already installed his septic system which was adequately designed for his 5 bedroom home. The home he was building included a bonus room over the garage. The bonus room was left unfinished and the rough plumbing was capped.
He knew the potential issues; i.e. the room could be a planned habitable space, so, after framing the door to the bonus room, the entrance was completely sheet-rocked and sealed shut and the construction stairs in the garage where removed. For all intents and purposes there was no way to access the bonus space. Problem solved?
The Health Department Strikes Again
Enter the health department. The sanitarian decided that although the space was sealed off it could still be a habitable space per the 1st condition of the building code. In effect, he or a new owner could simply punch a hole in the wall and, voila, it’s a habitable space.
In addition the sanitarian determined that it was also a bedroom because there was a conveniently located full bathroom on the first floor, per the 3rd condition. So, now he had a 6th bedroom, but his septic system was only designed for 5.
In this case he also did not have the possibility of enlarging the newly installed septic system because doing so would have encroached upon the reserve field which was not permissible by the health department. Are you frustrated yet?
Two Can Play At This Game
In the end, he was able to make modifications to the home by making use of the vague 4th condition of the health department code.
There were 2 bedrooms on the 3rd floor that shared a common hallway. He built a 2nd doorway in the common area hallway, basically creating one bedroom that was accessed through another bedroom that was “already deemed a bedroom”.
The 2nd bedroom was no longer a bedroom by the health department’s definition. By making this change he now had 5 bedrooms, including the sealed off bonus area.
How To Avoid Septic System Size Issues
As I mentioned in the previous article, the best way to avoid problems is to gather as much information as you can from your local health department and building department. These can generally be found on their websites.
If you see a potential problem arising, call the health department and tell them what you are proposing. Certainly, if you are working with a residential designer, express your concerns to them too. They work with many different health departments in their area and have well established relationships that can help you get the info you need.
Finally, remember that although the code can be vague and even frustrating, at times, its vagueness can also be to your benefit.