Septic systems can provide effective, long-term wastewater treatment for homes not connected to a sewer system. Regular maintenance and proper care can have a significant impact on how well your system works and how long it lasts.
How septic systems work
Wastewater from your sinks, toilets, showers, laundry, dishwasher and other household plumbing fixtures drains through a pipe from your home into your septic tank. Your septic tank is designed to hold the wastewater long enough to allow solids to settle at the bottom and oil and grease to float to the top. Natural bacteria in the tank start to break down the solids; however, eventually the solids build up and must be pumped out.
The partially treated wastewater from your tank flows through an outlet into a distribution box. The box evenly distributes the discharged wastewater into a network of pipes underneath the drainfield. The wastewater begins to percolate into the soil through small holes in the pipes. Natural filtration and microorganisms in the soil remove any remaining harmful particles in the wastewater. The treated and cleansed wastewater passes into the groundwater and returns to the water cycle.
Why should I care for my septic system?
- To save money. A failing septic system can be expensive to repair or replace. You can protect yourself against costly surprises through regular maintenance and proper care.
- To protect the health of your family. A failing septic system can release untreated or partially treated wastewater right in your backyard. Human wastewater contains disease causing organisms and can pose health risks to your family and your neighbours.
- To protect water quality. We all depend on clean water. A septic system uses the environment to treat wastewater. A failing system can pollute our streams, lakes, shorelines and groundwater.
Maintaining septic systems
Septic systems require regular maintenance to ensure they continue to function properly.
Here are ten steps you can take to care for and maintain your system:
Locate the components of your septic system and make sure they are easy to access.
Check the operation of your system annually and look for signs of failure (see Signs of Failure).
Have your septic tank pumped regularly – every two to five years depending on tank size and usage. Combine the pump-out with a professional inspection of all system components.
If you have a package treatment plant, set up a regular maintenance contract according to your maintenance plan.
Keep an up-to-date maintenance record.
Consider installing an effluent filter to reduce the amount of solids entering the drainfield.
Reduce your water consumption. Using too much water will flush solids into the drainfield before they can settle in the tank.
Use septic-safe cleaning products. Some chemicals can upset the balance of bacteria in the tank.
Properly dispose of hazardous products – don’t pour them down the drain.
- Protect your drainfield. Do not park, drive or build on it. Do not overwater the soil or plant trees or bushes on the field – the roots can damage your system. Divert surface water away from the area.
Minimizing water use is key to a healthy septic system. Low flow appliances, water saving devices and efficient water-use practices can improve the function of your system by allowing for a longer separation and treatment time. It is also important to avoid running multiple water-using appliances at the same time or back-to-back to prevent too much water from entering the system over a short period of time.
Following efficient water-use practices is especially important if you have an older septic system. Older systems were designed when people used less water, meaning if your system is older it may be under capacity compared to today’s standards.
Tips for Conserving Water
Retrofitting your home for water efficiency is easy. New technology allows huge reductions in water use with the same or better performance than older technology. Install low flow showerheads and faucets and replace older, water-guzzling toilets and appliances with more water efficient versions.
Unnecessary water use can also add up to large volumes and is totally avoidable. Ensure that toilets and faucets aren’t leaking and when performing simple tasks such as brushing teeth and doing dishes, make sure to turn the tap off.
Check for leaks
High volume water leaks often come from toilets. They can be hard to detect and are usually caused by worn or misaligned parts. A toilet that continues to run after flushing could be wasting 20-40 litres of water per hour. To check for a toilet leak, place a dye tablet or food colouring in the toilet tank. Wait about 15 minutes, without flushing, and then check the water in your toilet bowl. If the water is coloured, you’ve got a leak. Toilet repairs may require the assistance of a plumber.
Signs of Failure
Along with performing regular maintenance, it is important to know the warning signs indicating that something is wrong with your system. It is time to call a registered practitioner or qualified professional if you notice any of the following:
Slowly draining sinks and toilets
Gurgling sounds in the plumbing
Unpleasant odours around your property
Patches of lush growth or soggy or wet ground over the drainfield
The BC Public Health Act Sewerage System Regulation requires an Authorized Person to design, install, repair or maintain a septic system. Authorized Persons are qualified registered practitioners or professionals who meet the requirements of the regulation.
As a homeowner you are responsible for ensuring your septic system is being properly maintained. If your system was installed after 2005, you are required to have an Authorized Person conduct regular maintenance on your system according to your maintenance plan.
Systems constructed before 2005 may not have a maintenance plan. If you do not have a maintenance plan for your system, an Authorized Person can create one for you.
To find a registered practitioner visit:
Applied Science Technologists & Technicians of BC - Onsite Wastewater Registration Program
To find a qualified professional visit:
Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of British Columbia