As more homeowners and cottagers flock to Muskoka, they may find that there are considerations to make which they have never had to previously (especially if they are accustomed to property ownership in an urban climate). In an April 29th, 2021 Globe and Mail article, a recent buyer of a rural Ontario home comments “we are on a septic tank here. That was an adjustment for me, because I’ve always had sewage.” Any cottagers new to Muskoka, and finding themselves in a similar situation, are perhaps wondering “since I have this septic system now, how can I maintain it?” That is a great question!
Below, you’ll find some maintenance tips to help you keep your cottage septic system and its components working properly. Most of the time, your septic system will be “out of sight, out of mind”, as the saying goes. But be sure to give some attention to the function of your underground system. Proper maintenance practices can help you get the most out of your onsite sewage infrastructure.
TIP 1 – Be familiar with maintenance agreements:
If you have an advanced treatment system for your onsite wastewater (such as a “Waterloo Biofilter”, “Norweco”, or “Enviro-Septic”, etc.) your septic system maintenance will be a bit different than those with a conventional system. Advanced treatment systems can provide alternatives to the typical septic model and offer space-saving possibilities and advanced environmental protection. The manufacturers of these systems certify technicians to be able to maintain them, and it is required that there is an active maintenance agreement in place with a qualified company.
Generally, once per year a technician certified by the manufacturer will attend your property. While there, they may clean equipment within the tankage (filters, baskets, aerators, etc.), change component and panel settings as needed, and take a sample of the treated wastewater. This sample is sent to a certified laboratory to examine how the advanced treatment unit is functioning and notify them of any issues with treatment that may be evident.
It is important to adhere to these maintenance agreements so that you can get the most out of your advanced treatment system. Schedule your maintenance as often as outlined in your agreement, typically once annually. These systems can be quite particular, and adhering to your maintenance agreement, while also ensuring you protect them from flow surges (see Tip 5) will help to keep your system working as it should. While this agreement is required under the Ontario Building Code, it is also advised to ensure you can maintain the equipment installed within the tankage.
TIP 2 – Nix the additives:
You may have seen septic system additives advertised as a method of improving the function of your system overall. However, the reality is that these systems were designed to function in the way that they do, and not designed to require the inclusion of special additives to do so. Septic tanks do not require additives (beyond wastewater) to function.
Septic tank additives available in retail stores may indicate on their packaging that they can improve septic system performance. They may even suggest that these additives can allow you to pump your tank less frequently. If your system is regularly pumped out and inspected and found to be in good working order per the Ontario Building Code, you can rest assured that it is doing its job. If it is found not to be in good working order, and to require repair, then additives for your system are not going to alleviate (and may even compound) the issue. As specified in an informational booklet from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs: “don’t use special additives that are claimed to enhance the performance of your tank or system — you don’t need them!”
If you want to use a septic system additive, the Ontario Onsite Wastewater Association (OOWA) recommends selecting “one that has the Eco-Logo symbol, which indicates that the product isn’t harmful to the environment.” On the OOWA page for septic system additives, you can also find information about what types of additives are available, what they may or may not do for your system, and some of the ways in which some of these additives can harm the microbiological ecosystems within your onsite system (such as inorganic compounds and organic solvents; even biological additives can do more harm than good, in some tanks and with certain additives).
There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Some Ontario cottage owners use septic tank additives and swear by them! Be sure that you do your research prior to selecting an additive, if you want to use one, and continue to follow maintenance guidelines. These additives will not remove the need for pumping, inspections, nor cleaning your effluent filter (if you have one). They may change the chemical and microbiological equilibrium within the septic tank, which could work in your favour- but their use is not necessary for system function.
TIP 3 – Pump your septic tank regularly:
As a septic system processes household wastewater, septage, including sludge and scum, builds up. This must be regularly pumped out to keep solids from traveling from the first chamber of your system into the second (and then eventually your leaching bed). Pumping your septic tank regularly (every 2-4 years) to avoid a buildup of sludge and scum is fundamental to the longevity and efficacy of your septic system. Remember that even if you have an advanced treatment unit, it is often down-gradient of your septic tank and that your septic tank will still require pumping out regularly!
As determined by field studies in Wardsville, Ontario, “The frequency of solids removal from the tank can impact not only the efficiency of the systems, but also protect the downstream wastewater treatment from failure.” It is important, then, to maintain your septic tank with regular pump-outs, in order to remove a risk factor for contaminating groundwater with inefficiently treated wastewater- potentially creating a hazard to both human health and the environment. Your septic system, when well-maintained, will take care of this for you, so you can go about relishing all that your property and the surrounding landscape have to offer.
TIP 4 – Rinse that filter:
Rinsing your effluent filter of built-up solids is an important part of septic system maintenance. Your effluent filter prevents solids from entering your leaching bed, playing an essential role in your system. The effluent filter is “part of the maintenance of a sewage system that homeowners often forget about”, says Julie Ingram (a Public Health Inspector from Peterborough Public Health) in FOCA’s video on septic systems. Signs that you need to clean your effluent filter can include slow drainage in the bathroom and kitchen and septic system back-up due to slow drainage, which will result in standing water in showers, bathtubs and sinks. It is important to clean the effluent filter “a couple [of] times a year”.
Ingram recommends that, while wearing PPE, homeowners take a garden hose and spray off any of the collected solids from their effluent filter into the tank, and not onto the ground. Spraying and cleaning your effluent filter may not be what one imagines when picturing an idyllic slice of country living, but it is an important factor in ensuring that your onsite system is working normally. Your effluent filter prevents unnecessary solids from entering your leaching bed pipes as well, protecting your investment by improving its lifespan. Book KSR Engineering for an inspection and we’ll show you how!
TIP 5 – Watch the flow surges:
Another consideration for your cottage septic system is the design flow. Your system has been designed to process a specific amount of household wastewater. By dramatically increasing the amount of wastewater your household or cottage produces, such as having a number of guests using your restroom over a short period of time, you will exceed the expected and accounted-for flow to your septic system.
Your system will have been designed to account for peak flows of daily living for your household or cottage use, including laundry habits and showering routines. However, if you are planning for a high-usage event or season, consider the rental of a portable washroom (to minimize the use of your system beyond its daily loading design).
Flow-balancing, or “flow equalization” tanks may be a good option for larger systems, particularly wherever there is a “great variability in water-use habits or the hours of operation in the facility are variable”. A flow equalization tank will help to manage sewage distribution in a way that doesn’t overload the system at any one time, however it should be designed by a qualified person such as a Professional Engineer.
The Big Takeaway
Septic system maintenance isn’t glamorous, but it is incredibly important. It can maximize the longevity of your system and help to ensure its components are in good working order. Regular septic tank pump-outs and cleaning of the effluent filter will help these components to function as well as possible for the life of your system. Remaining cognizant of your wastewater flow and any maintenance agreements can prevent calamity. The use of additives is unnecessary, but it is to your discretion as to whether you want to use any additives, and you will want to do research as to what these additives contain and whether they are safe to put into your system. Bear these five things in mind to help to avoid issues with your system overall, and contact KSR Engineering today to learn more.
For a full list of references used, please click here.
This article is compliments of: KSR Engineering
Kathryn E. Stasiuk Riddell, P.Eng.
Founder, KSR Engineering
Kathryn has worked as a Water and Sanitation Engineer in the non-profit sector, as well as an Environmental Engineer in private sector consulting in Ontario; her professional focus has been on various aspects of on-site water and wastewater servicing.
Sarah K. E. Memmott
Administrative Assistant, KSR Engineering
Sarah has worked with KSR Engineering in their pursuit of high-quality drinking water, and for safeguarding both human health and the environment.
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