6 things my septic tank taught me about France

Emma Pearson
Emma Pearson - [email protected]
6 things my septic tank taught me about France
The septic tank, mid installation. Photo: The Local

Taking on a major renovation project is always stressful, not to mention expensive, but it can also be quite educational. Here's what the complicated process of septic tank installation and certification taught me about French society.


There are lots of rules

While most western societies have, for very good reason, quite strict rules on how sewerage is collected and dealt with, the French rules are very formally defined and require extensive paperwork for households.

From how far away from the house the tank is to how deep it is buried, via the type of collection system and the filter beds used, every aspect of a fosse septique is regulated.

READ ALSO French property: What you need to know about septic tanks

And this will not come as a surprise to people who have spent time here - France is a rules-based society and almost every aspect of life has a set of protocols or regulations.

It's also true, however, that as with French grammar, most French rules have exceptions.


Septic tanks might, in fact, be one of the few exceptions to the rule about exceptions. But I think most people would rather have strict rules than face a situation where there is raw sewage in the streets of your French commune - although in our case that did involve having to cut down a beautiful walnut tree in order to make room for the new tank. 

But public services have open doors . . 

When installing a new septic tank or upgrading an existing one in order to become compliant with those aforementioned rules, you will come across a service called Service Public d’Assainissement Non Collectif, widely known as SPANC.

They have the power to either award the certificates of compliance that you need, or to order you to spend another €10,000 and do the whole thing again. 

But they don't just turn up when the job is done, you can also go and see them before you start and make sure that what you're doing is correct and you aren't wasting your time and money.

Offices vary, but most of them are open to walk-ins, so you can just turn up and if there is someone around they will answer your questions.

And I've found this to be the case for a lot of public services - while some préfectures operate on an appointment-only basis, mairies are usually open to the public sans rendez-vous as are the CPAM public health offices and the CAF benefits office.

And as someone still scarred by trying to contact the UK tax authorities, it blows my mind that in France if you have a tax problem you can walk in to your local tax office and find a real live human being who can and usually will help you.

7 tips for dealing with the French tax office 

. . . and are surprisingly helpful 

Which brings me to the issue of helpful public servants - and these really do exist, despite the fearsome reputation of French fonctionnaires.


At the start of our septic tank installation journey I went into the local SPANC office to see if they could give me any info.

The employee sat me down, asked me a bunch of questions about the property size, usage etc and then informed me that he had filled in the form for me. He then gave me precise instructions on what to do next, how to find a contractor and the final steps to ensure that we got the correct certificates.

And I've experienced this type of help a few times with issues such as planning permission and building alterations - you can walk into the mairie and ask for an explanation of what the rules do or don't allow and the mayor will either be able to tell you or point you in the direction of someone else who will.

READ ALSO 'Double your budget and make friends with the mayor' - top tips for French property renovations

I find that if you ask for help, most authorities are pretty happy to provide it (although exceptions exist, clearly).

But the process will still take ages 

As helpful as the officials were, the actual installation still took ages - around a year from initial enquiry to getting the final certificate of conformity. A septic tank has its own specific challenges such as seasons when you can and cannot excavate the site but in my experience it's par for the course for official processes to take their own sweet time.

From registering for healthcare to getting your carte de séjour to doing things like swapping your driving licence for a French one or even applying for citizenship, French admin moves at its own pace.


One of the most valuable skills I've learned since moving to France is just accepting that things will happen when they happen, and there's no point stressing about it. 

And it's expensive 

Once you start renovating a property you already accept that you're going to be spending some money.

When we asked readers of The Local who had successfully completed a French renovation project for their top tip, they said 'double your budget'.

Building work the world over is notorious for time and cost over-runs, of course, but in France you may also find that you're paying more than you expect for services from French tradesmen - which is partly connected to French employment law and the costs of employing staff in France.

Nevertheless, there are distinct advantages to picking established, local French firms - not least that they're more likely to be au fait with all the rules and regulations that their trade needs to follow in France.

In our case, the staff at the septic tank installation firm we used clearly knew all of the employees of SPANC well, since they work with them regularly, and they arranged the necessary site visits and inspections between them, meaning that we had one less task to do.

Naturally there are French cowboy traders and there are non-French tradesmen who are diligent and thoroughly up-to-date with all the regulations required, but for foreigners it can be tempting to go for a compatriot simply because they speak your language. If you're going to do this, I would definitely recommend checking them out thoroughly in advance.

READ ALSO How to avoid being conned by rogue traders in France

Every year there are cases of foreigners in France getting ripped off by expat rogue traders, while there are further cases of honest tradesmen who simply don't understand the French paperwork and regulations as well as the locals.

If you're not sure about the system, it's a good idea if possible to find a tradesman who is, as it will make things simpler in the long run. 

And at the end of it all you get a beautiful certificate 


France still loves its certificates, which must be tamponné (stamped) by the relevant authority. Rubber stamps are a big deal here and only once a certificate is both signed and stamped is it official.

At the end of the septic journey we received a beautiful paper Vérification de l'exécution des travaux d'une installation s'assainissement non collectif, stamped by the local mayor.

This certificate is now in a file with a few other crucial ones and that will be the first thing I will save in the event of a fire - followed by my partner, naturellement


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