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Your Septic System

Most of us don’t think about our septic system after it’s installed - until there’s that lovely sewage smell after a rainfall or the toilet starts backing up. Some of us rely on Uncle Dan to keep on top of maintenance, and aren’t even sure how one works.

A conventional modern septic system includes a tank, an effluent filter, and a leaching bed (also known as a tile bed, drain field, absorption field, or tile field). Wastewater travels to the septic tank, where the solids settle to the bottom of the tank. There, anaerobic bacteria take over and break down the organic matter. The effluent filter keeps these solids inside the tank while liquid flows into the leaching bed. There it’s filtered into the ground, and soil bacteria kill pathogens and continue to treat the water.

In most cases, repairing a septic system will cost between $2,000 and $25,000. Replacing one can cost about $6,000 to $40,000—depending on the system’s size and location - so it’s best to take care of what you have, especially since you’re legally responsible for doing so. Septic systems last for 20 to 30 years (and sometimes longer) if they’re well maintained.

Here are 10 easy ways to keep your septic system in great shape.

1. Know where it is

It may sound obvious, but it’s important to know your system’s location and have easy access to its tank and leaching bed. Avoid driving, parking, or building on or near any part of the system.

2. Conserve water

If you’ve been to a cottage, you’ve probably seen a note along these lines: If it’s pee, let it be. If it’s brown, flush it down. Owners aren’t just being cute: Excessive water use overloads septic tanks and prevents solids from settling on the bottom. The solids get pushed into the leaching bed where they cannot be filtered out effectively. The clogged soil will not accept more water and backups can occur.

To save water: Flush only when necessary, use a low-flow toilet, install high-efficiency taps and showerheads, tell guests to be conservative with their water use, run your dishwasher and washing machines less often, and fix any dripping taps.

3. Flush organic only

If it isn’t human waste or toilet paper, don’t flush it. Flushing paper towels, disposable diapers and wipes, condoms, sanitary napkins, tampons, facial tissues, coffee grounds, cigarette butts, grease, kitty litter, and such will quickly fill your tank and clog the system. Even if a product’s packaging claims that it’s flushable, don’t.

4. Seek biodegradable cleaners

Avoid using heavy-duty cleaners (especially those with bleach), toilet pucks, and antibacterial soaps. These products kill the bacteria that keep the system running effectively. Use biodegradable products for tasks that involve frequent water use (such as washing dishes).

5. Avoid chemicals

Never put paints, solvents, pesticides, gasoline, or other toxic chemicals in your system. Don’t flush old medication either. Not only will these kill the beneficial bacteria in the tank, they will also end up in the groundwater.

6. Keep trees and shrubs away

The roots of trees, especially aggressive species such as willows and poplars, will travel as far as needed to get to water. Roots can plug up and wrap around distribution pipes in the leaching bed, causing all sorts of damage. Don’t plant deep-rooted trees or shrubs on your leaching bed or within five metres of it, and consider relocating those already there.

7. Plant shallow-rooted species

A good way to avoid soil erosion is to plant native grasses over the leaching bed. Don’t overwater, as any excess may interfere with the soil’s ability to treat waste. Doug Joy, general manager for the Ontario Rural Wastewater Association, recommends planting periwinkle or other groundcover, as these plants

require very little irrigation, if any.

8. Insulate distant systems

If your septic system is located far away from the cottage, insulate the pipe running from the building to the septic tank to prevent freezing during the winter. Joy recommends packing rigid foam insulation around the pipe, something many property owners he knows have done recently. To insulate the entire system, let the grass grow long over the tank, increase soil cover, or add a layer of mulch.

According to Joy, if a system is constructed properly and buried deeply, freezing is unlikely.

9. Beware of storms

If you own a system with a submersible pump, installing a lightning arrestor helps protect it from power surges that can ruin your septic’s inner workings.

To avoid system overload, ensure that your eavestrough and foundation drains are sending water away from the leaching bed. If it gets too soggy, it won’t absorb enough oxygen or neutralize the waste.

10. Inspect and pump

Have your system inspected and its contents pumped out by a professional every three to five years (or when the tank’s volume is about one-third full). You can open the hatch to look inside, but never stick your head in or enter the tank. The gases inside are not only smelly, they’re dangerous. If you inhale them, you could pass out and fall in, and inhalation alone can kill you - so leave the inspections to the professionals. While inspections are discretionary in parts of Ontario, a recent amendment to the Ontario Building Code (OBC) makes system inspections mandatory in other locations. Properties that are affected include those along the Lake Simcoe shoreline and watershed, and other vulnerable areas. To find out if you’re required to arrange an inspection, check with your municipality. For more information, visit the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing website, and/or contact your municipality.

During the 2019 sewage system re-inspection program, 29 properties were inspected on 7 lakes in North Frontenac. The full report may be downloaded below.