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Understanding My Septic System
A standard septic system provides a permanent or seasonal residence with onsite wastewater treatment based on two key structures: the septic tank and the septic bed. In a properly functioning system, the wastewater that enters the system will eventually exit as purified water, either into the groundwater or atmosphere.
1. Septic Tank: All wastewater is discharged from the residence initially into the septic tank. Inside this large tank, heavy solids settle to the bottom (creating what is called a sludge layer) while lighter or less dense materials, such as fats, float. The materials in the septic tank are decomposed by bacteria.
Your septic tank contains several components to help it operate:
Baffles: these are located where pipes enter and exit the tank. The one at the inlet pipe is called the inlet baffle, and the one at the outlet is called the outlet baffle. The inlet baffle is located between the septic tank and the main sewer line leading from the house and helps wastewater flow into the tank without causing mixing of the tank contents (settled solids and floating fats). The outlet baffle is the first step to keeping solids from exiting the tank and making their way to the leach field.Concrete baffles, especially the outlet baffles, tend to crumble after a certain number of years because of the long exposure to the corrosive gases that accumulate within the tank. If your tank has concrete baffles, you'll want to have them checked for soundness each time your tank is pumped out.
Effluent Filter: this prevents solids from flowing from the septic tank into the septic bed. The filter will need to be cleaned to prevent clogging and backing up, it is recommended to check the filter for buildup and cleaning monthly. Effluent filters can also be replaced and range in cost from $50 - $100 plus labour.
Access risers: are pipes made of plastic, fiberglass, or concrete. The pipe creates a vertical portal at the ground surface for easy access to the septic tank for inspection and pumping out. Commonly, the green lids are seen in yards of many buildings and homes.
**Older septic systems might not have effluent filters and risers. Talk to a septic system professional about having them installed in your system.
2. Septic Bed: Liquids (called effluent) leave the septic tank and flow into the septic bed. The septic bed is made from a series of horizontal, underground pipes surrounded by gravel. The effluent is slowly treated by bacteria in the soil and gradually seeps into the ground water, or is drawn upwards by vegetation (grass).
Your septic system is part of your home or cottage and is your responsibility. Protect your investment and your property value by understanding how the system works, by following general maintenance guidelines, and checking on the health of the system annually.
Seasonal vs. Year Round: Is there a difference?
What is the same? Regardless if you live at a residence with a septic system year round or not, the basic principles remain the same. Your septic will still work the same way and still requires the same annual and regular maintenance (see below).
What is different? The primary difference between a septic system used year round versus seasonally will be the amount of solids entering the system and the overall amount of wastewater entering the system. A seasonal residence with less wastewater input could affect the frequency that the system needs to be pumped out. An inspection by a professional can help you determine when a pump out is needed. (See below).
Signs & Steps for Septic Problems
There are several possible signs of a septic system failure, depending on which part of the system is failing and how severely. If you notice any of these signs at your home or cottage, call a septic system service provider immediately. You will want to address the problem before it becomes worse. Some issues, if left unchecked, can result in the entire system needing replacement.
- Household drains slow down.
- Toilets back up or gurgling into household drains.
- A strong odor around the septic tank or drainfield.
- The grass over the septic bed is unusually green and/or spongy.
- The grass over the tile bed is growing only in strips, this is a sign of compaction.
- Bacteria or nitrate contamination shows up in well water.
- Wastewater pools on the grass/yard.
Caring for your septic system is important and doesn’t need to be complex. It is comparable to caring for a vehicle, a little prevention will go a long way to extend the life of the system and help prevent major costs. This section breaks down strategies, tips, and considerations into annual and regular maintenance.
At least once a year, conduct your own thorough septic health inspection. Look for the following red flags to address.
- Vegetation such as trees and shrubs encroaching on the septic bed or tank. Remove as needed.
- Water pooling on the septic bed, pungent smells, or soft spots. You may need a professional inspection.
- Grass growing in visible strips on the septic bed. This could be an early sign of your septic system not properly functioning.
- Clean the septic tank effluent filter.
Regular Maintenance: Routine Protection
Septic system maintenance includes actions inside the home and on the grounds surrounding the system. Here are several key points to consider and implement:
Protection Around the Septic System
- Grass is the primary recommended septic bed cover.
- Keep the septic bed area free from trees and shrubs to reduce root damage.
- Never drive or park any vehicle (cars, trucks, tractors, or snowmobiles) on the system.
- Never build any structure over the septic system.
- Never put concrete or asphalt over the septic system.
Dos & Don'ts for the Drain
- Never flush anything besides toilet paper and human waste.
- Never put grease or hazardous chemicals down the drain.
- Do not put food scraps, coffee grounds, and similar materials down the drain.
- Avoid use of bleach, disinfectants, antibacterial products, and drain cleaners. These impact the bacteria necessary to treat the wastewater.
- Water softener backwash is not permitted to go into a septic system. These chemicals can affect the bacteria health of your septic system.
- Garburators cannot drain into the septic system as they will cause solids to build up rapidly.
- See additional items on the list below in the FAQs section.
Regular Maintenance: Water Efficiency
According to McGill University, the average Canadian uses about 329 liters (87 gallons) at home every day. The majority of this water usage is related to toilet flushing and bathing, with other contributing factors including laundry and kitchen use. This number can be much higher in homes with running or leaky toilets and taps.
Conserving water and using water efficient taps and appliances can improve the operation of a septic system by avoiding overload, which in turn reduces the risk of failure. Adopting some simple strategies in your home or cottage can go a long way in supporting the wellbeing of your septic system:
- Repair leaks on faucets and toilets.
- Only wash full loads of laundry and run the dishwasher when full.
- Avoid doing many laundry loads in one day and select the proper load size for the volume of materials to wash.
- Use faucet aerators and high-efficiency showerheads.
- When your toilet needs replacing, select a high efficiency model (this can save multiple liters per flush!)
- Take shorter showers!
Regular Maintenance: Septic Inspections
Septic inspections should be conducted on average every three years by a qualified professional. If you have an alternate system containing electrical float switches, pumps, or other mechanical devices, consider more frequent inspections.
Contact a local septic installer/pump out contractor to conduct a septic inspection. During an inspection, at a minimum the following features will be checked and/or reviewed:
- Any available pumping and maintenance records as well as the system’s age;
- Sludge levels and scum thickness within the holding tank;
- Signs of leakage or backup;
- Structural integrity of the tank and pipes;
- The septic bed for signs of failure like pooling surface water; and
- The distribution box, to ensure drain lines are receiving equal flow.
Regular Maintenance: Pump Outs
A septic tank pump out refers to the physical removal of the liquids and solids inside the septic tank by a qualified professional. A vacuum truck is used to drain the entirety of the septic tank. Periodic septic tank pump outs are essential to a functioning system. The bacteria in your septic tank will consume the majority of the solids that enter the tank, however, inevitably a ‘sludge layer’ will form at the bottom. Without pumping, this layer builds up to the point that solids enter the septic bed, clog the pipes, and cause system failure. In cases of severe or prolonged clogging, the septic bed will need to be replaced.
The rate at which your septic system will need to be pumped out depends these key factors:
- The size of the septic system;
- The frequency and volume of use; and
- The amount of solids in the wastewater.
It is recommended to pump a year round and regularly used septic tank when the sludge layer reaches 1/3 of the tank (roughly 4-8 years). Systems with less frequent use may need to be pumped less often. A septic inspection by a qualified professional can help you determine if and when a septic pump out is necessary.
Are there materials and products that should not go down the drain?
Yes! The following items are not septic safe, and should never be disposed of down a kitchen sink, toilet, or any other drain leading to a septic system.
- Grease, oil, and other fats
- Plastics of any kind
- Wipes of any kind and cotton swabs
- Feminine hygiene products
- Kitty litter
- Cigarette butts
- Vehicle fluids (anti-freeze, gasoline, motor oil, etc.)
- Paint, varnish, stain, paint thinners
- Pesticides, herbicides, fungicides
Can my septic system impact nearby waterways?
Yes. Wastewater from seasonal or permanent residences contains bacteria, viruses, and high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus. If the system is not working properly and the wastewater is not treated adequately, groundwater contamination can occur spreading disease to people and animals. Untreated household wastewater can also affect lakes, rivers, wetlands, and Georgian Bay. It could adversely affect people’s use of water bodies, and in extreme cases can cause algae blooms.
Are septic system additives a good idea?
In almost any hardware or building store, you will find a selection of septic system additives which claim to enhance the capabilities and lifetime of your septic system. These products should be used with extreme caution. A properly functioning septic system does not require additives, an improperly functioning system may receive more benefit from a pump out. In some cases, additives can disrupt the bacteria which the system depends on, or can cause the sludge to break into small pieces which reach the septic bed and cause clogging.
Are there native plants or other alternatives to grass on the septic bed?
Many native plant species have deep, strong root systems and are therefore incompatible with septic beds. Avoid aggressive groundcovers (e.g. periwinkle, raspberries). As a rule of thumb, grass is the best plant to cover your septic bed. A shallow rooted alternative is microclover or white clover.
Download the following documents:
- Home & Cottage Owner’s Septic System Guide & Records (file folder)
- Septic Care Fridge Magnet
- Septic Care Door Hanger
Georgian Bay Biosphere Resources:
The Georgian Bay Biosphere launched a webinar series in the summer of 2020. Game of Thrones: Septic Health & Best Practices focused on the basics of what every home and cottage owner needs to know about their septic system.
The Georgian Bay Biosphere's Life on the Bay Guide is a self-assessment tool for best practices in eastern Georgian Bay. Septics is the focus of Chapter 5 (page 54)
Other Septic System information resources
For inquiries to the Township of the Archipelago regarding septic systems, please email: email@example.com