Your Septic System

We have provided a lot of important background information here to help you understand your septic system, including maintenance and troubleshooting options.

What is a Septic System?

A septic system is an on-site waste water treatment unit. Essentially the septic system replaces the need for municipal sewers to your property. Generally all the plumbing in your house leads to your septic system eventually.

For new homeowners and others new to septic systems

The Ontario Onsite Wastewater Association offers a series of detailed publications that provide an excellent overview for any homeowner new to being on a well and septic system.

These publications are helpful for anyone wishing to get more familiar with these systems and their proper maintenance.

How does a septic system work?

Click directly on the animated gif below to see a larger version of this animation of how septic systems work.

Animated gif showing how a septic system works.

Troubleshooting: toilets not flushing or sewage backing up

1. If tank levels are below pipes, septic system is not the problem. Call a plumber — there is a blockage between the tank and the house.

2. If tank levels are above pipes, the pipe to leaching bed may not be draining properly.

a. Do you have an effluent filter? Is it clean? 

b. Do you have a pump? Is it working? If not, check your fuse/breaker, including GFI. The pump may need to be replaced by a plumber.

c. If all else fails, the leaching bed may need replacement, or else it is frozen or saturated. Call to have system pumped for temporary relief.

Anything which goes down your drain will exit the house through an underground pipe and enter the septic tank. The tank itself consists normally of two chambers. The first chamber allows the heavier solids to settle to the bottom of the tank, the second chamber allows for finer solids to settle. A layer of scum is common in many septic tanks and generally consists of oils, grease, fats and soaps.

A septic tank is always “full” in that the level should remain constant. The level should be just below the outlet pipe (normally the one leading away from the house). Every time waste water enters the septic tank, the same amount will exit it as a result of displacement.

Organic materials which are in the tank will be broken down by anaerobic bacteria, and a certain degree of treatment is therefore achieved.

Modern tanks (generally since January 2007) will contain an effluent filter. This is located at the outlet pipe and prevents solids from entering and clogging the leaching field. It also allows for more treatment of solids to occur by the bacteria in the tank.

What goes into good maintenance?

A septic tank should be pumped regularly to remove the solids and scum from the tank which cannot be broken down by the bacteria.

Regular pumping is critical as solids can clog the pipes, resulting in waste water backing up into the house, or more seriously, failure of the leaching bed which will result in costly repair or replacement.

If you smell sewage or see waste water pooling on top of the ground or in surface waters, these are signs that your system is not working correctly and needs immediate corrective action.

Pumping Frequency

How often should you have your septic system pumped?

Generally it depends on the number of people living in the house, and what is going down the drain.

Pumping Guidelines

  • 3 people – every 4 years
  • 4 people – every 3 years
  • 5 people – every 2 years
  • 6+ people – annually

Contrary to what the packaging says, tampons, baby wipes and disposable wipes are not flushable, and can even result in us not being able to pump the tank if there are too many of them.

Septic system tips

  • Know the location of your tank and leaching field/bed, and do not drive over the bed or plant shrubs or trees where roots will interfere with it.
  • Leave snow that falls on your leaching bed, as it provides insulation, but do not plow your snow onto the bed as it will cause problems come spring.
  • Test your well water at least 3 times per year (spring, summer and fall).
  • Have your tank pumped on a regular basis. Please see guidelines above.
  • If you have an effluent filter, clean it our at least once per year (although spring and fall would be best).  If you do not have one, consider adding it.
  • If you have a tertiary septic system, understand the manufacturer’s recommendations and follow them.
  • Make sure that any water softener or similar device is not regenerating into the general plumbing system or it will overload the septic system.
  • Try to reduce your water usage.
  • Spread the number of laundry loads evenly over the week.

Hazards to your septic system

  • Do not pour oils, grease or food waste down the drain.
  • Do not flush hazardous chemicals, medical products, needles, cigarette butts, baby wipes or other sanitary products down the drain.
  • Do not drive or park on your leaching bed or septic tank.
  • Do not plant shrubs or trees on or near your septic tank or leaching bed.