Here are 5 important safety tips related to on-site sewage systems (“septic systems”) provided by KSR Engineering for the interest of cottage owners in Muskoka who rely on a septic system for their wastewater servicing. It is recommended that you follow these general safety tips as well as the usage guidelines specified in your system’s design/permit to promote safety, protect the environment, and avoid illness or injury at your cottage.
TIP 1 - Know your tank material:
Modern-day septic tanks are made from materials such as concrete, fibreglass, and plastic (typically HDPE). However, in the 1940s-60s, metal septic tanks were installed in many parts of North America. Metal tanks are often structurally sound for a number of years and can offer a similar amount of functionality as a concrete, fibreglass or plastic - but over time the sewer gases (such as hydrogen sulphide, or H2S) will deteriorate the steel, corroding it away, and the tank will begin to leak untreated sewage into the ground. These sewer gases corrode concrete as well, however not at the same rate or in the same manner. It has been found that “steel tanks installed before 1985 had an 88 percent failure rate”. After leaking for some time, the metal tank may collapse as well.
A study of 858 septic tanks conducted in Haliburton County, Ontario in 2018 indicated a presence of 91% concrete, 6% plastic, 3% metal (22 septic tanks) and less than 1% fibreglass (1 septic tank). While your area of Muskoka may be different, this example illustrates an important point: metal septic tanks are present in Ontario.
Be careful trying to expose the lids of your tank, particularly if you suspect that it is metal. Digging above any septic tank can be dangerous, as noted under Tip 2, however extra care should be taken to avoid any significant weight or downward force above a metal septic tank where possible to reduce the risk of tank collapse. If you discover your septic or holding tank is metal: (1) refrain from sending additional wastewater to the system, (2) fence-off and protect the area, and (3) begin a replacement plan.
TIP 2 – Dig deliberately:
Before you begin digging to uncover your septic tank lids, ensure you are aware of the risks of digging. You can mitigate these risks by knowing your tank material, knowing your tank location, and by locating any buried utilities prior to digging.
To know your tank material and location before digging, your building permit is a great place to look. Septic systems in Ontario are to be installed after the issuance of a Building Permit by the local building department, typically at either the nearby Township office or regional municipality office. Older systems of course may not have a permit available, but it can’t hurt to ask.
Once you are aware of your tank location, familiarize yourself with the “homeowners” page on the Ontario One Call website, and request a (free!) locate of your public utilities via phone or on the web form that their site provides. Ontario One Call will locate utilities that are registered publicly, so any private development on your property will need to be located by a private locator. Both private and public locates are to be done prior to digging in Ontario, and this is to be done so that you can avoid striking any lines or cables in your dig. Submit your locate request two to three weeks in advance of when you plan to dig for public locates. Avoid digging into your leaching bed: this type of detailed investigation should be conducted/supervised by a trained professional.
Photo credit: Ontario Onsite Wastewater Association and Polylok
TIP 3 – Don’t forget the screws:
Unsecured tank lids, and those where the lid or screws (used to secure plastic tank lids) are damaged, pose a very serious safety risk. Cottage owners seeking respite from their daily workflow or stressors will likely be looking to eliminate further stressors at their chosen retreat. The risk factor of unsecured tank lids is one of the foremost factors in septic system safety, especially for small children. Tragically, there have been multiple instances of small children falling into unsecured septic tanks and perishing. In one such instance the lid was fastened with only a single rusty screw, despite the presence of six screw holes for securing the lid effectively. Another tragic instance occurred near Calgary in 2018 where a 2-year-old boy fell into a septic tank with green plastic lids. He was rescued from the tank and flown to the children’s hospital in critical condition, but unfortunately did not survive his injuries.
At minimum, 3 screws should be used to fasten your plastic tank lids. Better yet, use every available screw hole (typically at least 6), and maximize the effectiveness of your lids at keeping your tank closed to curious children and pets. Where concrete tank lids are in use, be sure to keep them on the tank at all times. Unsecured septic tanks pose a risk to human life due to biohazard exposure, the risk of falling, and the risk of drowning. These risks are avoidable, particularly when using all the safety features available- even, and especially, the humble screw.
TIP 4 – Keep an eye on the trees near your leaching bed:
Your leaching bed is an important part of your septic system. It further treats your liquid sewage (effluent) from your septic tank and disperses it into the shallow subsurface for further treatment and disposal. Leaching beds are comprised of underground components including PVC distribution pipes laid in stone trenches – and since they are full of water and nutrients, they are prone to attracting the roots of nearby trees. Protecting your leaching bed from environmental factors like tree roots and vegetation is an important way to guard the natural environment against sewage leaks- and to protect your chequebook from the replacement costs associated with a system failure.
Where tree roots encroach into leaching bed piping, the sewage effluent will have less and less space available within the bed, until eventually puddles of sewage can form on the bed surface or back-up into your tank or cottage. In a septic system guide provided by the Ontario Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Rural Affairs it is recommended that a six-metre distance be maintained between your leaching bed and any trees on your lot. Trees with lateral root structures including some types of evergreens, willows, etc. are common culprits for system failure when grown too closely to leaching beds. Avoiding trees near tankage as well can prevent these roots from finding the nutrient-rich liquid reservoir that is your septic tank. While removing all trees within 6 metres of your sewage system components may not be feasible for your lot, ensure that you are aware of tree roots within the region of these components so you can plan accordingly. Trees can be a very important- and very beautiful- feature on your lot but ensuring that their root structures do not enter your sewage system is imperative to its function and the safety of the surrounding ecosystem.
TIP 5 – Watch for algae:
Blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, is often present at small levels within surface water bodies. The chemical (nutrient) balance within lakes is dependent on what runs into it, “such as fertilizer runoff or septic tank overflows”, and an abundance of nitrate or phosphorus creates an ideal environment for the growth of blue-green algae.
Lakes such as Lake Erie and Lake Winnipeg and in Muskoka, Three Mile and Leonard Lakes have had “eutrophication” issues or “algal blooms”. Algal blooms have been known to have an impact on property value, but more importantly, they can have health risks. Humans and animals can be exposed to the neurotoxic effects of algal blooms by drinking water originating from un-treated surface water system or via accidental consumption while swimming. The CDC states that “Cyanotoxins are among the most powerful natural poisons known. They can make people, their pets, and other animals sick” and that “You cannot tell if a bloom has toxins by looking at it”.
Local radio stations and public health websites in Ontario are known to report on algae blooms as they appear on our lakes, large and small. Because malfunctioning septic systems can play a part in eutrophication, it is important to mitigate this potential risk factor to nearby water bodies by keeping your system in good working order. Then, Muskoka and its residents can continue to benefit from Ontario’s incredible and plentiful water for years to come.
The Big Takeaway
These 5 tips are a great place to start for those people who are new to rural water and wastewater systems, or as a safety review for those who are already familiar.
Of course, these septic system risk factors are only a small part of living in Muskoka. Most people, with regular maintenance and inspections, will have normally-functioning wastewater systems and won’t have to think about their underground septic system all too often. Your cottage and property are a safe-haven and a refuge. Being mindful of these tips will help to ensure you have peace of mind, and that your cottage remains a sanctuary.
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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