In this Guide To Operating & Maintaining Your Septic System, you will learn that the way you treat your septic system will influence how long the system lasts and how well it functions.
If you own or rent a property served by an on-site sewage system, you need to think about how your actions affect the system. You need to be careful about what substances you flush down the drain and how often your septic tank is cleaned out and inspected.
These decisions will impact on the effectiveness of your septic system and making the wrong one can lead to expensive and time-consuming problems. Sometimes, they can also result in harm to the natural environment or public health by polluting lakes or contaminating drinking water supplies.
Guide To Operating & Maintaining Your Septic System
To avoid the inconvenience and cost associated with the repair or replacement of a failed septic system, you should know how to correctly operate and maintain your septic system.
This “Guide To Operating & Maintaining Your Septic System” provides some helpful advice for property owners about the steps they can and should take to help their septic system perform well for years to come.
HOW YOUR SEPTIC SYSTEM WORKS…
A typical on-site sewage system consists of two major parts: a septic tank and a leaching bed area. Septic tanks should have two chambers and are usually constructed of concrete, steel, fiberglass or polyethylene, are watertight and are buried underground.
The purpose of the septic tank is to separate solids from liquids in the wastewater stream and begin the process of breaking down contaminants. Solids settle to the bottom and scum floats to the top of the tank. This process occurs without oxygen, so the tank needs to be sealed.
Wastewater from the septic tank then flows to the leaching bed area through a distribution box or header line. Leaching beds (sometimes called tile beds, disposal areas or absorption areas) consist of underground perforated pipes or clay tiles which evenly distribute wastewater over natural soil or imported fill.
The purpose of the leaching bed is to treat further the wastewater through a process where bacteria digest and remove impurities such as suspended solids, organic chemicals, viruses, and bacteria. The leaching bed disposes of the filtered wastewater into the natural soil and, ultimately, into the groundwater.
Most owners of rural (and some suburban) properties and people who live in small communities are probably living with a septic system. Almost all cottages or recreational properties also rely upon on-site sewage disposal. Sometimes, all that can be seen of a septic system is a large grassed area with no trees, patios or paved areas. In other cases, the leaching bed area may be a raised mound on the property.
When buying a rural or cottage property, it is important that you or your lawyer determine whether a septic system exists and that it is working properly (a professional inspection may be appropriate).
If the previous owner does not have a record showing the location of the septic tank or leaching bed area, you may be able to get it from the local municipal building department, board of health or conservation authority. If there is a record of the company that installed the system, the firm may have drawings or site plans showing the location of the system. Companies that pump septic tanks can also locate access ports.
Once you have a copy of a site plan showing the location of the septic system, make sure you keep the records up to date and in a safe place for future reference.
COMMON SEPTIC SYSTEM PROBLEMS
There are some obvious signs of trouble with septic systems. These include:
- toilets or drains that are backed up or run more slowly than usual
- foul odors in the house or drinking water
- sogginess in the ground around the septic tank or leaching bed area
- surface flooding of sewage or septic tank effluent around the septic system
- activated alarm signals (lights or bells) on special treatment units
- dosing pumps that run continuously or not at all (Note: not all systems have pumps)
- unusually green or thick grass growing in or on the leaching bed area
- significant algae growth in or around nearby lakes or water bodies
- high levels of nitrates, bacteria or other contaminants in well water
Toilets and Drains are NOT Garbage Cans!
Some items you flush down a toilet or pour down a drain can significantly reduce the ability of the beneficial bacteria in a septic system to break down and treat domestic sewage. Harmful chemicals and substances will kill bacteria and render a septic system useless. Bulky or hard-to-break-down products can clog pipes, quickly fill septic tanks and decrease the effectiveness of the system. Septic tank additives/starters may be harmful to septic systems and are not necessary to begin or continue septic tank operation.
NEVER put the following items or substances into a septic system:
- fats, oils and grease,
- gasoline, antifreeze,
- varnishes, paints, and solvents,
- caustic drain and toilet bowl
- photographic solutions,
- bleach, pesticides,
- nail polish remover,
- cat box litter,
- tampons, sanitary napkins,
- diapers, paper towels, facial
- tissues, condoms,
- coffee grounds, egg shells and other kitchen waste or
- cigarette filters.
TIPS ON MAINTAINING YOUR SEPTIC SYSTEM …
There are many steps property owners can take to improve the functioning of their septic system and extend its life:
- Conserve water and reduce waste flow into the system by installing water saving features in plumbing fixtures, using dishwashers and laundry machines only with full loads, taking shorter showers rather than full baths, fixing leaky faucets and avoiding the use of garbage disposal units — too much water will overload a septic system.
- Ensure septic tanks are inspected at least every two years by a qualified person and pump tanks out at least every 3 – 5 years (or sooner since frequency depends on tank/household size). These actions can be combined.
- Do not impair access to the septic tank so that proper maintenance and servicing can occur.
- Reduce the use of phosphate-based detergents, soaps, and cleaners to minimize algae growth in nearby lakes and rivers. Phosphates can impair water quality and fish habitat.
- Do not reduce access to the septic tank so that proper maintenance and servicing can occur
- Minimize the use of phosphate-based detergents, soaps, and cleaners to minimize algae growth in nearby lakes and rivers. Phosphates can impair water quality and fish habitat.
- Avoid the construction of parking areas, patios, tennis courts or decks in the area of or over the leaching bed. The extra traffic or weight can crush pipes or compact the soil or fill material. Construction can also limit oxygen from getting into the soil or fill.
- Have an effluent filter installed in the septic tank to reduce the amount of solids entering the leaching bed and prevent clogs.
- Do not use snowmobiles over the leaching bed area in winter since this reduces the natural insulation of the bed provided by the snow cover.
- Avoid planting trees or shrubs on the leaching bed area since roots can clog the perforated pipes and shade the leaching bed area, thereby limiting evapotranspiration.
- Minimize grass watering around the leaching bed area. Extra water can reduce the bed’s ability to absorb and treat wastewater from the house.
- Exercise caution about waste flows from water treatment units, condensate furnace discharges and water softener backwashes. These substances can harm the septic system, especially in large quantities.
- Direct rainwater runoff from roofs, patios and driveways away from the leaching bed area and septic tank access ports to avoid system overload.
WHO DO YOU CALL ABOUT SEPTIC PROBLEMS?
If you suspect your septic system is not working, a firm that pumps septic tanks may be able to identify the nature of the problem and recommend further action. Alternatively, you can call a licensed company that installs or repairs septic systems.
In Ontario, septics installers must be licensed by the Province. These companies must have qualified people working for them who have passed an examination administered by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. Before you hire someone to do work, make sure they have the right license. Most septic installers will be listed in the yellow pages section of your telephone book under “septics”.
If you suspect a problem with your system, you may also want to contact the local agency that enforces the Ontario Building Code requirements for septic systems. This may be either your municipal building department, the board of health or conservation authority.
If a septic system needs a significant repair or replacement, it will be one of these agencies that will have to issue a building permit and inspect the work once it is completed. You can find these agencies listed in the “blue pages” of the telephone book.
TANK INSPECTION AND CLEANING …
Having your septic tank inspected regularly is one of the least costly ways to avoid the inconvenience and expense of doing a major septic system repair. Inspections can determine if the outflow to the leaching bed is clogged because of a back-up in the tank, if too much solid or scum material is in the tank or whether the tank needs to be pumped more frequently. Because they contain deadly gases, septic tanks should only be inspected by firms specializing in this work.
How often you need to pump the tank depends on the size or capacity of the tank, the flow of wastewater entering the tank and the volume of solids in the wastewater stream. This should occur every 3 – 5 years, but factors can change during the life of the septic tank. More people living in the house or the addition of a high water use appliance can exceed the capacity of the existing tank, requiring more frequent pump outs.
Summer and early fall are the best times to pump out a septic tank. Pumping at this time of the year leaves sufficient time before winter for the tank to refill and bacterial activity to become re-established. As well, the ground around the tank will not be frozen (allowing easier access) and higher water tables that typically occur in the spring will have receded.
NEW SEPTICS TECHNOLOGIES
More and more companies are developing innovative ways to improve the effectiveness of on-site sewage disposal technology. Some of these systems add other parts to the traditional septic system, such as pump chambers to provide more regular or controlled flow of wastewater to the leaching bed area and oxygen- enrichment treatment units (sometimes called aerobic treatment units) which add oxygen to the wastewater to assist bacterial activity.
Other types of pre-treatment units use different materials such as special sands, peat or other filter materials. These systems are becoming increasingly popular because of the quality of the wastewater they produce and because they can reduce the overall size of the septic system, especially the leaching bed area.
The effectiveness of these systems is only as good as the degree to which they are properly maintained and operated by the property owner. Many have parts that require regular lubrication, uninterrupted electrical connections, servicing and regular check-ups. Some systems require a maintenance agreement between the property owner and the manufacturer.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency published the “Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems Manual”. This 357-page manual provides up-to-date information on onsite wastewater treatment system siting, design, installation, maintenance, and replacement. In addition to providing a wealth of technical information on a variety of traditional and new system designs, the manual promotes a performance-based approach to selecting and designing OWTSs. It can be downloaded Here: “Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems Manual.”
I’m not that much of a online reader to be
honest but your blogs really nice, keep it up!
I’ll go ahead and bookmark your site to come back later. Cheers
Excellent article! We are linking to this particularly great content
on our website. Keep up the good writing.
Can I safely plant a veg garden over the leaching bed?
Can I safely put a wire fence across one corner of the leaching bed if the T stakes only go 12″ into the ground?
My new 4,000 sq ft home has 2 tanks each with 2 chambers. I have a large weeping bed and just planted grass seed over the bed this past summer. No other grass exists yet.
I have 2 incidents when there was a lot of ground water that I was getting sewage smells in my cold cellar. There is a sump pit in the cold cellar. I complained to my septic contractor and he asserts that when the ground is saturated this is normal. My General Contractor has sided with the Septic Contractor. I have also smelt sewage when downwind during these incidents. And there are times when I have noticed what I can describe as bio rich effluent coming from the bed at the furthest point from the tanks. At one point, while walking the bed, I broke through a crust and was ankle deep in what I can only imagine was waste water.
I worry that the contractor did not prepare the soil under the bed properly. We live in South Western Ontario and the soil is clay here.
Am I being unreasonable in my expectation? Can you help me understand if I should be pushing this further with third party inspections and or workmanship claims?
Thanks in advance!
The best route to go is to call your township’s septic inspector and to explain the problem to him/her. It is heir job to make sure that your septic system is working properly.
We just had an Accessory Dwelling Building approved for our 2 acre lot.
Our 3-bedroom principal dwelling has a septic system that is well maintained (tank pumped every 2 years) and has functioned without issue for 17 years.
We have plenty of room (a full acre) to install a second septic system to serve the 1-bedroom Accessory Dwelling Unit.
Which of these choices would you recommend, and why?
1) to add a tank for the accessory building and open up/add lines to the existing filter bed;
2) to add a 2nd separate septic system for the new build;
3) to decommission the current system and build one big septic system to serve both the house and accessory building?
Looking forward to some good advice.
Without seeing a survey, engineering for the previous septic system and the accessory building plans, this question can’t be answered. You may be able to connect to the old system without a problem. However, if needed, I would always install a new system.
It’s good to know that you should never put oil and grease in your septic system. My husband and I want to look into getting one installed for our home in a couple of weeks, and we want to make sure that we know how to take care of it properly. We’ll make sure to keep these tips in mind once we get a septic tank installed for our home.
I appreciated it when you shared that it is best to determine the frequency of pump-outs depending on the number of people living in the house. My friend just mentioned the other day that she is worried about the septic tank in the backyard of her house as it seems to be producing weird smells since a few days ago ever since her sister comes to live with her family. I will suggest to her looking for a reliable service that can help to pump it so the issue can e resolved.
It’s great that you talked about the importance of maintaining a septic system regularly. Recently, my wife and I decided we want to check our house’s utilities and improve them. We’re not sure if we have a septic tank, so we’ll be sure to look into that. Thanks for the advice on septic tanks and how they treat wastewater.
If I were to install a septic tank in my house, I would make sure to hire the best service that will do the job. Well, I agree with you that the said tank must be properly maintained. Anyhow, we’ll also keep in mind to check whether the grass around the tank is growing.
I didn’t know that septic pumping services can also help you find access ports. I figured they only pumped tanks. Glad to see they can help me out with other important things.
You make a great point about making sure that the tank depends on the size of the wastewater stream. I need to get a new tank replacement for my new house. It hasn’t been replaced in 10 years.
My aunt is looking into buying a home with a septic tank, and she would really like to make sure that she maintains it properly. If she buys the home hiring a professional with a lot of experience to maintain it could be really useful. I liked what you said about how they can reduce the tank from clogging by reducing back-ups or increasing the pumping.
Septic system is recommended to ensure that it is working properly and to determine when the septic tank should be pumped. Hire a professional contractor for proper inspection of the entire system and check cracked pipes, condition of the tees, baffles and other parts of the system.
Thank you for explaining that you should have your system pumped every three to five years but that it could be even more frequent than that depending on the age of your tank. My daughter just moved into a home with a septic tank and has been wondering about the regular maintenance it will need. I’ll be sure to pass this on to her and see if she can figure out how old the system is to help her narrow down how often she’ll need to get it pumped.
It was a good tip when you mentioned that major septic system repairs can be avoided by having a regular home septic system inspection. We don’t want our septic system to be damaged since repair is so costly. I think we should schedule a regular inspection to avoid any major damage.
I like how you said that one of the best ways to avoid costly septic repairs is to have your system inspected regularly. My younger brother and his wife just recently moved into a house that uses a septic system. I will have them find a reputable septic service that can inspect their tank often to keep it in good condition.
My septic tank is already clogged, and that is why I’ve decided to look for a service that may pump it. Thank you for sharing the importance of regular maintenance. I also agree with you that grease and diaper must not be flushed down because this will avoid further damage.
I appreciate that you explained that implementing a visual inspection could help identify septic concerns. A few nights ago, my brother mentioned that they wanted to have their septic tank maintained due to clogging because of a lack of maintenance. He asked if I had any idea what would be the best option to consider. Thanks for helping me understand the septic services, I’ll tell him it will be much better if they consult a trusted septic system service as they can provide more information about the cleaning process.
It’s great that this article talked that you should have an idea that implementing a proper schedule of maintenance could ensure proper septic system function. My buddy informed me yesterday that he wants to have their septic tank pumped due to clogging concerns because of a lack of maintenance. He asked if I had thoughts on the best option to consider. I appreciate this article for helping me understand septic services. I’ll tell him it will be much better if they consult a trusted septic tank service as they can provide details about the process.
Great advice on not blocking access to the septic system. We are always struggling to get to the tanks because owners place things in front of them.