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One half of all septic system failures are a result of poor maintenance. Think of your septic system like buying a new car; regular maintenance helps protect your investment. To keep your system trouble-free, follow the three M's -- maintain, maintain, maintain!

How Does It Work?

If you live in a rural area or a small community or if you have a cottage, chances are you have a septic system. Septic systems are onsite treatment units that eliminate the need for municipal sewers in rural areas. Anything that goes down the drain - every shower drip and every toilet flush - flows to the septic system. Septic systems are comprised of a tank, a network of pipes and billions of organisms that process your waste.

It is important to know that you are responsible for your septic system and that it is in your best interest to take good care of it - from a health, financial and environmental perspective.

The most common septic system consists of a septic tank and leaching bed - all of which is hidden beneath the soil.

All household wastewater exits your home through an underground pipe that leads to the buried septic tank. The waste flows to the first compartment of the tank where the heavy solids settle and the lighter materials (fats, oils and grease) float to the top as scum. Baffles and screens (see illustration on page 3) keep this scum layer from escaping the tank and flowing to the leaching bed. This scum is removed when the tank is pumped during regular maintenance.  In the second compartment of the tank, finer particles settle to the bottom. Organic materials break down in the tank. On newer systems, any remaining organic material is trapped and decomposes on a screen called the effluent filter located at the outlet of the tank. As of January 2007, effluent filters became mandatory on all new installations and upgrades in Ontario.

From the tank, the effluent moves to a leaching bed made up of a network of perforated polyvinyl chloride (PVC) drain pipes.  Stone and a layer of unsaturated native soil or imported sand surround these pipes. The effluent flows to the leaching bed either by gravity or a pump depending on site conditions. The leaching bed’s perforated PVC drain pipes disperse the effluent, allowing the liquid to seep into the ground where bacteria and other organisms process the wastewater further. Soils below the stone in the trench bottom act as a biological, chemical, and physical filter to remove most remaining organic and biological contaminants.

In Ontario, the Ontario Building Code (OBC) governs nearly all rural septic systems. If you are installing, repairing, upgrading or replacing such a system, you must contact your local regulatory agency. It may be your municipality, health
unit or conservation authority that inspects systems, issues permits, maintains records and enforces Part 8 of the Ontario Building Code.   

Why Should I Maintain My System

Did you know that septic systems are the responsibility of you the homeowner? It is up to you to keep your systemworking properly to protect your environment, your heath and your investment. When properly designed, constructed and maintained, a septic system should provide long-term, effective treatment of your household wastewater. If you take good care of your system, you will save yourself the time, money and worries involved in replacing a failed system. Failed systems can be hazardous to your health, the environment and your pocketbook. It can degrade water supplies and reduce your property value. Below are some valuable tips to ensure the longevity of your system.


• familiarize yourself with the location of your system
• keep the tank access lid secured to the riser at all times
• keep an as built system diagram in a safe place for reference
• keep accurate records of septic system maintenance and service calls
• test your well water at least three times a year - spring, summer and fall - for indicator bacteria
• have your tank inspected for sludge and scum buildup on a regular basis (3-5 years) and clean out when a third of the depth of your tank is full of sludge and scum
• have your effluent filter checked and cleaned every year; if you don’t have an effluent filter, consider adding one
• divert surface water away from your leaching bed • conserve water in the house to reduce the amount of wastewater that must be treated
• repair leaky plumbing fixtures
• replace inefficient toilets with low-flush models • consider installing a lint filter on your washing machine’s discharge pipe
• spread the number of loads of laundry throughout the week


• enter a tank - gases and lack of oxygen can be fatal
• put cooking oils or food waste down the drain
• flush hazardous chemicals, pharmaceuticals, cigarette butts or sanitary products
• use a garbage disposal unit/garburator unless your system has been designed for it
• use special additives that are claimed to enhance the performance of your tank or system - you don’t need them!
• dig without knowing the location of your leaching bed
• drive or park over your tank or leaching bed
• pave over your leaching bed
• allow livestock on the leaching bed
• plant trees or shrubs too close to the septic tank or leaching bed
• connect rain gutters, storm drains, sump pumps or allow surface water to drain into a septic system
• connect leaching bed or greywater system to agricultural field drainage
• discharge water softener backwash to the septic system unless your system has been designed for it
• drain hot tub and spa water to the septic system

If you think there’s a problem, start by having the septic system inspected. The tank may just need a cleaning. However, if there is a problem with the leaching bed, you will want to speak to an onsite sewage system professional for their advice. A second opinion is always recommended.

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