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The Basics

Your septic system is an underground sewage treatment plant, right in your back yard. Your septic system may seem like it's out of sight and out of mind, but unlike city services, your septic system requires regular maintenance and added caution about what you flush and wash down the drain.


Everything you flush or wash down the drain enters the tank through an inlet pipe. Most tanks have two chambers: the primary tank (closest to the house) and secondary tank. Some older tanks may consist of only a single chamber.


When the waste enters your tank, the solids (things like toilet paper and organic waste) sink to the bottom where bacteria in the tank assist in breaking down them down into sludge. Any grease and soap scum float to the top, while liquids remain in the middle and slowly flow into the secondary side of the tank. From there, the effluent (liquids) flow through the baffle and into the weeping field or weeping tile.


The weeping tile is a network of perforated pipes under your lawn. It allows the effluent to slowly seep away into the ground. They come in many configurations. Yours may vary from the diagram above.


Effluent seeps away through the weeping field, while sludge and grease are left to build up in your septic tank. Eventually these solids will need to be pumped out of your tank, otherwise they will continue to build and cause problems. Excessive amounts of sludge lead to septic system malfunction including blockages leading to back up into the house, and over flowing of the tank. Solids that enter the weeping field contribute to septic system failure by plugging your weeping field and preventing effluent from being absorbed by the ground.


Your septic system should be maintained with regular pumping in order to rid the tank of sludge, along with an inspection to inform you of the condition of your system. Most families will require septic tank pumping every 2 or 3 years. This is only a general guideline that will vary depending on your family's usage, the size of your tank, and the condition of your system.


Regular septic tank pumping (combined with caution surrounding what is allowed into your tank) will keep your septic system running well for years to come.


This booklet published by the Ontario Ministry of the Environment entitled Care and Feeding of your Septic System can provide you with further information about your septic system.

The Baffle

The outlet baffle is a T-shaped pipe attached to the outlet pipe leading to your weeping field. This small component of your septic system has a very important job—it prevents sludge from entering your weeping field.


The original tank baffle is concrete or plastic. Eventually this baffle breaks down and will fall off. The baffle should be inspected every time your tank is pumped. If it is missing, a replacement baffle made of plastic piping can be installed by our technician.


Finding Your Tank

The septic tank location must be known, as the only way to empty the septic tank is through the lid(s).


First of all, explore the basement or lowest level of your house to find the outlet pipe. This is the pipe that transports all of the waste from your house directly to your septic tank. Note the direction the pipe is travelling. Normally it leads straight away from your house and into the tank.


Secondly, go outdoors and investigate the area of your yard where the pipe leaves the house. Occasionally you may find your lid(s) to be at ground level or so shallowly buried that the grass does not grow over your lid(s).


If the location of your tank is not obvious, you will require some sort of metal rod to probe the ground. Begin probing approximately 5' from your house. The nearest side of your septic tank is normally 5-8' away from your home. It may be farther away depending on the lay of the land.


Before probing and digging, be aware of any underground cables or lines. Take care not to disturb any sprinkler lines.


Probe several areas to be sure that you've found the tank. Tank depth varies from 6" to several feet below the ground. Although most tanks aren't buried deeper than 2', we have encountered this.


Most tanks installed over the past 40 years are concrete and approximately 5' x 7' with an 18"-24" lid on either end. Some older tanks are round and consist of only one chamber and one lid. Some tanks consist of several slab lids running across the width of the tank. Some newer tanks are plastic with two round plastic lids. The only way to know for sure is to find and expose your lid(s).


Finding the septic tank on your own can be a trial-and-error ordeal. If you find this to be a hassle, don't hesitate to call. We can find your lids, expose them, and even install risers if you wish to avoid future digging altogether.


Water Softeners

The wastewater created by water softeners is often times released into your septic tank. This discharge creates an additional load on your septic system as your tank must accept and process the additional waste.


Studies have been conducted regarding the effect of softener waste on septic systems. Generally, provided that your system was designed to accommodate the extra 5-10% of water generated by a water softener, your system should not be adversely affected. The findings are described in detail in this report by the Ontario Rural Wastewater Centre at the University of Guelph.


Some homes contain a grey water system in addition to a septic system. Ideally, a grey water system would accept any waste from the water softener in order to completely eliminate the risk of any adverse effects to the septic system.


The Ontario Rural Wastewater Centre provides the following tips for the usage of a water softener in conjunction with your septic system:

  1. A more efficient water softener will reduce the amount of sodium chloride used. In general, new water softeners are more efficient than older models.
  2. The softener should be set to regenerate depending on the water flow instead of being set to regenerate at regular time intervals. This ensures that regeneration occurs only when required.
  3. Water conservation practices should be established to reduce the quantity of sodium chloride sent to the septic system.
  4. Soften only the water necessary. For example, outdoor water does not need to be softened.
  5. Potassium chloride may be used instead of sodium chloride in the water softener. Although potassium chloride is about twice as expensive as sodium chloride, its use will reduce the quantity of sodium sent to the septic system as well as the quantity of sodium in the diets of residents. As well, far more potassium is needed than sodium to cause the same deleterious effects on soil hydraulic conductivity.
  6. Design the septic system to accept the higher hydraulic load due to water softener (increase 5-10%).
  7. In constructing a leaching bed, avoid using soils with high contents of swelling clay (montmorillonite). This will reduce the detrimental effects of sodium on hydraulic conductivity. However, soils with high clay contents have lower hydraulic conductivities than non-clay soils and should not be used for leaching beds anyway.

Retention Time

Did you know that your septic tank is always full? Most weeping fields are gravity fed, so your septic tank must be full to the outlet pipe in order for the weeping field to receive effluent (the liquids). As you introduce waste into the septic tank, effluent flows into the weeping field.


Retention time refers to the time required for the solids in the septic tank to settle out of the liquid. A high retention time is ideal, and will allow adequate settling of the solids.


If water usage is excessive, retention time in your tank will be low. This can cause effluent containing solids to be forced into the weeping field, leading to potential problems in the future.


The following steps will assist with increasing retention time:

  • Space out heavy water usage. For example, don't run the dishwasher and washing machine at the same time.
  • Laundry should be done over the course of the week rather than all on one day. A maximum of one load per day is suggested.
  • Divert your water softener waste water to a grey water system if possible, or cycle only when necessary and during the night.
  • Limit the length of showers.
  • Use low flow faucets, showers, and toilets.
  • General water conservation measures will reduce the load on your septic system.

What Not to Flush

This is not an exhaustive list of what not to flush or wash down the drain, but some common things that we've found in septic tanks over the years. These items do not break down in your tank. They remain there until pumped out. A build-up of these items can contribute to blockage of the inlet pipe and baffle, and eventually back-up.


Items not to flush or wash down the drain:

  • Baby wipes and sanitary wipes
  • Sanitary napkins and tampons
  • Cotton swabs
  • Condoms
  • Bandages
  • Cigarette butts
  • Grease, bacon fat, waste oils
  • Food scraps (garburator waste should be composted)
  • Wrappers, candy/gum papers, etc.

The Importance of Bacteria

Bacteria are present in your septic tank. They are vital in keeping your septic system running properly, as they assist in breaking down the organic material into sludge.

It's important to protect the population of bacteria in your tank by being cautious about what you allow to run down the drain. The following common household items should be prevented (or at least limited) from entering your septic system in order to avoid killing the bacteria in your tank:

  • Bleach
  • Drain cleaners
  • Paint
  • Paint thinners and solvents
  • Any other harsh cleaning agents and chemicals

The human body creates enough bacteria that "starters" and other additives are unnecessary. If you are careful with what you allow down the drain, the bacteria will flourish in your tank and there will be no need for expensive products.

Soil Saturation and Excess Water

Soil Saturation and excess water is an issue related to water usage. Saturation of the soil occurs when the soil molecules are so full with water that they can no longer accept any additional effluent or water.


A saturated weeping bed can lead to a wet or flooded lawn and potential back-up within the home.


Saturated weeping beds are common during the spring thaw; particularly during a very rainy spring. Some homeowners find that their system floods out each spring and dries as the season progresses. Pumping out the tank will ease the load on your weeping bed, though waiting it out is also an option. With warmer temperatures and sun, the ground will eventually become drier.


Water conservation measures within the home will assist with preventing over-saturation of the soil, but keep in mind these common sources of excess water:

  • Ice rinks should never be created over your weeping bed. The weight of the ice can compact the soil, increasing the chance of your lines freezing. When the ice melts, the high volume of water must be absorbed by your weeping field. This may flood your weeping bed and saturate the soil.
  • Downspouts should be directed away from the weeping field whenever possible.
  • Gardens should not be built over your weeping field.
  • Do not drain hot tubs or swimming pools into your tank or into the area of your weeping field.
  • If you have frequent problems with soil saturation and flooding of your weeping bed, take a look at how your property is graded. Excess water is sometimes as a result of grading that allows melting snow and rain water to drain toward your weeping field. Sometimes this can be altered to allow water to drain away from the field.
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