Caring for your septic system in our ask the expert series:
We recently helped a client find a great Muskoka cottage. Our buyer had no knowledge of septic systems and he was concerned to learn that the septic at this cottage was 15 years old. He asked, “Does this mean that I need a new septic system?” We thought this was a great question to ask Frank Salaris of Insight 360 home Inspections. Frank told us –
If the onsite sewage system has been well maintained it should last 40 plus years. Here are the most common factors that affect a septic system’s life expectancy or failure:
- Poor location of a septic system can lead to failure if installed too close to a driveway where heavy vehicles have access to drive over the septic tank or leaching field (including ATV’s and snowmobiles), one can risk cracking the tank and crushing the leaching bed pipes.
- Trees, shrubs and overgrown vegetation can cause premature failure when roots enter leaching field pipes and clog them.
- Clearances to lakes, rivers, streams, and wells can lead to water contamination if clearances are not respected. These clearances are designed to give sewage enough time to percolate through the soils and get filtered properly before reaching our water.
- Poor land grading can lead to system failure if runoff water collects over the leaching field, once saturated the sewage will come to the surface and will also eventually cause a backup of sewage to the house or cottage.
What goes into the septic system
- Cooking grease should never be poured down the drain. Grease will not break down. It will easily enter the leaching field and over time clog the soils around the pipes causing sewage to come up to the surface and eventually back up to the house or cottage.
- Water softeners backwash should never drain into a septic system; high concentration of salts will break down concrete baffles and walls in a concrete septic tank and eventually clog the soils around the leaching bed pipes over a 10 to 15 year period.
- Harsh chemicals can kill good bacteria in a septic system and we need good bacteria to break down sewage properly. There are many products that can enhance bacteria growth found at most local stores; I always recommend dumping yogurt monthly. Yogurt has great enzymes and is my preferred choice, the more bacteria in the tank the cleaner the water.
How often should the tank be pumped
Conventional septic tanks require pumping every 5 years full-time use and 7 years seasonal use. Not pumping can lead to solids entering leaching field and clogging the pipes.
Is there a preferred time of year to pump the tank
Pumping in the spring or summer is ideal, when pumped in the fall or winter we risk the water in the tank freezing and possibly cracking the tank. Sewage generates heat and prevents the tank from freezing. If the tank must be pumped during the winter months for repairs, ask the pumper to return after repairs and put some sewage back in especially when it is used as a seasonal home.
Out of sight – out of mind?
Septic systems are generally out of sight and out of mind but when they fail they can become very costly and create a possible health risk if they enter our surface water. Having them inspected is not only a good idea but also a wise one. A good inspector will educate the property owner and inspect the physical condition of the tank, lids and baffles. The inspector will take note of liquid, scum and solid levels, test pumps and high-level alarms if present, conduct a flow test to ensure the leaching field is functioning properly and look for evidence of breakout making note of clearances to any water source or structure.
It is important that the tank size can handle the designed water flow coming from the house or cottage. Understanding how a septic system works and how to maintain it will help prolong the life of your septic system and keep our lakes and rivers clean.
Onsite sewage systems can be very costly to replace. When buying a home or cottage, it is always advisable to have the septic system inspected by a qualified home or septic inspector.
Thank you, Frank, for helping answer our buyer’s question. Frank Salaris is owner/operator of Insight 360 Inspections. Frank is a fully licensed home and WETT inspector and is certified to inspect rural sewage systems.