Regular maintenance key to a happy septic system
A licenced contractor should remove the septic tank cover and inspect the system every two years, pumping out the solids when required, says the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing.
Malfunctioning septic systems are a concern across Ontario. Each year, the province investigates thousands of neglected systems each year. Remediation can cost up to $25,000 per system. Maintenance, and water conservation can prevent problems.
Summer and early Fall are the best times to pump out your septic system. This leaves time before Winter, for the tank to refill and for bacterial action to become re-established. Also the ground won’t be frozen, and the spring water table, which can create buoyancy problems for septic tanks, has receded.
Many people don’t realize that ongoing maintenance is required.
Still others connect additional toilets, showers, hot tubs and other water uses, without upgrading their septic system.
It’s simple: a tank, a network of pipes and billions of microscopic organisms. Yet it’s received every flush, every shower, and whatever else you and anyone else who’s lived in your house has ever poured down the drain.
Your septic system treats tonnes of organic waste each season. The tank treats sewage by letting the heavy solid material settle and allowing time for lighter “scum” to float to the top. This partly treated liquid then flows into perforated pipes, called the leaching bed, where it filters into the ground and is further treated. Helpful bacteria and other soil organisms do the bulk of the work.
Over time, a septic tank accumulates solid material, which must be pumped out. Allowed to accumulate, this sludge may reach the outlet level and begin flowing into the leaching bed. There, it can plug the pipes or the bed.
Over the years, many septic systems are subject to increased usage. Some were built for small homes or cottages, and were not enlarged as additions were made. The new volumes of water strain the septic system, and it eventually gives up.
Fortunately, regular septic maintenance and moderate water use can prevent these problems. And a bit of forward thinking when sizing and installing the system can allow some extra capacity to meet future needs. Bigger is better, and more capacity can mean a longer service life.
What happens when a septic system malfunctions?
Plenty. A clogged septic system can be hazardous to the environment and to your pocketbook. It can degrade water supplies and reduce your property value.
The required repairs can be messy, often involving excavation and replacement of the whole drainage field. Frequently, the local building department will require replacement of the entire system and any damaged landscaping.
What are the symptoms of an ailing septic system?
Warning signs range from subtle to insufferable. The grass over the system may become unusually green and spongy to walk on. Toilets, showers and sinks might take longer to drain. Occasional sewage odours may become noticeable, often after a rainfall. Sometimes, homeowners discover grey or black liquids surfacing in their yards or backing up through fixtures into the house. Whatever the warning sign, it pays to fix it fast. A call to the contractor now, can save big bucks later.
Septic systems thrive on wastewater, but certain chemicals can cause major indigestion. Flushing even small amounts of paints, solvents, thinners, nail polish removers and other common household compounds (or pouring them down the drain) can poison the organisms that break down organic material.
Laundry bleaches, toilet bowl cleaners and caustic drain openers can also slow the treatment process, allowing sewage to pass through without proper treatment. And often, the chemicals themselves seep into the ground, sometimes contaminating wells or surface waters.
Septic systems cannot digest oils, grease and fat.
Poured down the sink or toilet, they congeal in pipes sometimes plugging them. Grease can also combine with detergents and flow into the drainage field where it may clog the soils. Fats can form a blop in the top of the tank, and interfere with the biological activities taking place. All oily waste should go out with the garbage.
Using your septic system to dispose of garbage is another no-no. In sink garbage disposals, garburators, are unwelcome strains on the system. Disposable diapers, tampons and their holders, condoms, wrappers and many other kinds of refuse can plug and impair septic systems. If something doesn’t break down naturally, don’t flush it into your septic tank.
A septic system does some heavy-duty digestion. Viruses, bacteria and organic material are just some of the nasty things that it has to work on. And if not treated, they can travel a long way underground. If they flow into drinking water supplies, these organisms and compounds can cause diseases or other health or environmental problems.
Up to 200 litres of water are discharged to your system with each load of laundry and ordinary toilets use up to 20 litres per flush. So, too many loads laundry in a day, or the extra toilets flushing from a party can load a septic tank with several times its usual daily flow. House guests, and the extra demands they place on your septic system are another concern. Older systems are especially vulnerable.
Fortunately, it’s easy to use water throughout the house. Whether washing vegetables, cleaning dishes, brushing your teeth or shaving, use the plug and water in the sink to avoid leaving the taps running.
Keep showers short and to the point. Run dishwashers and clotheswashers only when full, and use the cycles with the lowest number of rinses. Try to spread the clothes washing over several days. And when buying appliances, compare their water usage rates.
A tap leaking just one drop per second wastes about 10,000 litres of water per year. A silently leaking toilet can waste up to 20 times that volume. Day and night, water is pumped from your well, through your septic system – and all for naught. Since most leaks are easy to find and fix; water saving starts with stopping the drips.
The less you flush, pour or drain into your septic system, the better it performs.
Driving cars or machinery over your septic system will crush it. The soil surrounding the pipes may also be compacted, making it less adept at absorbing sewage flows. Snowmobiles compress the snow cover over the field, reducing its natural insulating effect and increasing the risk of pipes freezing.
Septic tanks work better at warmer temperatures.
Insulating the top of the tank helps, and can avoid sewage freezing under extreme conditions.
Planting trees and shrubs (especially willows and poplars) near the field is risky, because their roots travel significant distances to seek water and can plug or damage the pipes. And watering of the grass over the field, whether by in ground systems or by hand, should be eliminated or minimized. Watering interferes with the soil’s ability to absorb liquids and break down wastes.
The drainage field is a specialized system, doing a vital job. Keep it dry, don’t plant near it and keep heavy things off the grass.
Several mechanical alternatives to septic systems are available on the market. These are active systems, using compressors or motors to introduce air into the treatment of wastewater. Most of these systems bubble air through wastewater, or use rotating discs to expose the sewage to air. These systems are required to have an ongoing maintenance contract with the manufacturer or its agent.
While aerobic systems can provide a higher level of treatment than standard septic tanks, they also have many moving parts and electrical connections, and require far more frequent servicing than a conventional system.
New designs in wastewater treatment are reaching the marketplace every year, as new technologies are further developed and demonstrated. Systems employing some very high tech, and some very “old tech” are providing promising results.
Call your local building department if you are considering one of these systems, to ensure that they are approved for use in your area.
Some 35 to 45 per cent of the municipal biosolids generated in Ontario – 300,000 dry tonnes – are applied to agricultural land.
The bulk of the sludge is distributed to farmers for free.
Available through Service Ontario, the Rural Septic System Checklist includes reminders on best management practices to keep septic systems properly functioning as well as a table to record maintenance activities. For convenience and visibility, the backing may be removed and the checklist will stick to a flat surface.