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What You Need to Know... A Guide to Operating and Maintaining Your Septic System

The way you treat your septic system will influence how long the system lasts and how well it functions. 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.

In order to avoid the inconvenience and cost associated with the repair or replacement of a failed septic system, you should know how to properly operate and maintain your septic system. This guide 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.

Tips on Maintaining Your Septic System

There are a number of steps property owners can take to improve the functioning of their septic system and extend its life:

  • Conserve water and reduce wasteflow 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.
  • 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.
  • Clean the effluent filter every year in the fall.
  • 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 wasteflows from water treatment units, furnace condensate discharges and water softener back washes. These substances can harm the septic system, especially in large
  • Direct rainwater runoff from roofs, patios and driveways away from the leaching bed area and septic tank access ports to avoid system overload.

Common Septic System Problems

There are a number of common signs of trouble with septic systems. These include:

  • toilets or drains which are backed up or run more slowly than usual
  • foul odours 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 which run constantly or not at all (Note: not all systems have pumps)
  • unusually green or thick grass growing in or around 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 cleaners;
  • photographic solutions, bleach, pesticides;
  • nail polish remover;
  • cat box litter;
  • tampons, sanitary napkins, diapers, paper towels, facial tissues, condoms;
  • plastics;
  • coffee grounds, egg shells and other kitchen waste; or
  • cigarette filters.

Who Do You Call About Septic Problems?

If you suspect your septic system is not working, a firm which pumps septic tanks may be able to identify the nature of the problem and recommend further action. Alternatively, you can call a licensed company which installs or repairs septic systems. In Ontario, septic 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. Qualified septic installers are registered and listed on the Provincial QuARTS Public Search Registry at

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. Generally, 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 which typically occur in the spring will have receded.

Homeowners can request their copy of the What You Need to Know... A Guide to Operating and Maintaining Your Septic System resource by contacting their local office of the Porcupine Health Unit.