Reg­u­lar main­te­nance key to a happy sep­tic sys­tem

The Glengarry News - Glengarry Supplement - - News -

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.

Mi­cro­scopic or­gan­isms

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.

Aer­o­bic Sys­tems

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 tech­nol­ogy

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.

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