How Septic Systems Function

Septic Systems are a vital part of our homes and cottages and can be a hazard to our lake environment when they fail to function. To understand how the septic system can fail it’s necessary to understand how it works. The septic system consists of two major components:the septic tank and the weeping field.

Septic Tank

The first stop for household sewage is the septic tank. Inside the tank the sewage solids sink to the bottom, and are called sludge. Greases and fats float to the top and are called scum. Liquid is left in the middle. Bacteria in the septic tank start the decomposition of the sewage solids. The sludge and scum are retained within the tank and should be pumped out on a regular basis.

The liquid flows out of the tank’s exit into the weeping field. In the soil it encounters more bacteria, which finish the good work begun in the tank. The weeping field acts as a natural sewage filtration and purification system. This natural filtering plant works when the run-off fluid from the septic tank flows past the weeping field, through the soil past the root systems of trees, shrubs and grass. This provides the lake with much needed protection.

Failure to pump out a septic tank when required will result in sludge and scum being carried into the weeping field. This in turn may clog the system. In this event, not only will the tank have to be pumped out, but the weeping field may have to be replaced.

The size and type of septic systems is based on the size of the home and lot, so when planning on building additions, such as adding a washroom, installing a hot tub, etc., check to ensure the system will handle the load.

Septic tanks must be pumped out regularly. Municipal by-laws require tanks to be pumped out based on occupancy of home or cottage.

Seasonal residents: Clean out every 4 years

Permanent residents: Clean out every 2 years

Proof of Clean-out must be sent to the municipality.

Septic tanks must have structural integrity and be watertight. You should be informed if the tank is damaged, leaking, rusting or of any other existing problems when it is pumped out. Ask for this information if it is not readily provided.
If your septic tank is 25 years old, it is recommended that you consider installing a new system.

Avoid commercial septic tank accelerators and/or bacterial additives. They are unnecessary preparations. Your septic tank contains the required bacteria to process waste.

When winterizing the cottage, use only plumbing antifreeze, not automobile radiator antifreeze.

Weeping Field

The weeping field is best located in an open area clear of tree root systems. The area over the weeping field should be grassed or left open to wild flowers so that maximum evaporation can take place.

The weeping field should be protected from all vehicular traffic, including large lawn tractors, snowmobiles, heavy equipment, etc. The weight of this traffic can crush the pipes in the weeping field. Compacting of snow in this area increases risk of freezing the septic field.

Warning Signs of a Failing Septic System

  • Odours near the septic system.

  • Spots of lush vegetation on or around the weeping field.

  • Ground becomes soggy over the weeping field.

  • Presence of thick black sticky soil near the weeping field.

  • Back-up of the sewage into the drains of the house.

  • High fecal coliform bacteria present in the lake in front of the house. The Lake Hughes Association conducts water testing each summer.

  • How to Help the Septic System Function

    Minimize Water Consumption (Don’t Overload the System)

    Many homes draw water directly from the lake and therefore enjoy an unlimited supply. Remember that the septic system has to cope with the incoming liquid. The more liquid we feed it, the greater the likelihood that solids will be carried into the weeping field to clog it. This is the most common cause of septic system problems.

    Here are some helpful ideas:

  • Use water restricted plumbing fixtures, such as low flow showerheads and low flush toilets.

  • Repair leaking faucets and “running” toilets.

  • Allow the septic tank to have a rest period between large loads of waste water, i.e., when laundry load is completed, wait before draining a bath.

  • Run the dishwasher only when completely full.

  • Septic System Hazards

    Be careful as to what goes down the drain. Here are some ideas:

  • Limit the amount of toilet paper and choose one ply.

  • Do not allow food scraps, including coffee grounds, to escape down the drain. Sink garbage disposal systems (garbarators) are not appropriate for septic systems. The generated waste increases sludge and scum in the tank. Use a composter instead.

  • Avoid chlorine bleach (Javel) as it destroys the bacterial action in the tank. Alternatives are Borax or washing soda.

  • Do not allow grease, oil, household chemicals/cleaners, paint and thinners into the system. Baking soda is an excellent substitute for cleansers. Avoid commercial products used for unclogging household drains. Try a mixture of ¼ cup baking soda, ½ cup vinegar and 1 gallon of boiling water.

  • Switch to phosphate free detergents. Read the labels!

  • Phosphate free laundry detergents are readily available in the grocery stores and are not more expensive. Most companies have phosphate free bleach free brands.
    Some examples are:

    All Laundry Detergent - 100% Phosphate Free
    President’s Choice Laundry Detergent - Phosphate Free
    Sunlight Laundry Detergent -100% Phosphate Free

    Phosphate free automatic dishwasher detergents are very difficult to find, usually only available in a health food or environmental store.
    One example is:

    Nature Clean Dishwasher Powder - Phosphate Free

    Most hand dishwashing liquids are phosphate free, therefore this method is much more environmentally friendly.

    Phosphate free cleaning products
    One example is:

    Vim - Phosphate Free