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How do I know if I have a Septic System?If you don't receive a bill for sewer services you most likely have your own septic system. Septic systems are generally found in rural areas; though, some properties within municipal boundaries are still on septic.
What is a Septic System?A conventional septic system includes a septic tank and soil filter called a drainfield. A drainfield is sometimes referred to as a leaching bed, an absorption field, or a tile field. The septic tank is a buried watertight container made from concrete, polyethylene, or fibreglass.
The size of the septic tank will depend on the size of the house. Usually septic tank size depends on the number of bedrooms in the house but it is also important to factor in the number of household users. Older tanks are usually smaller than a newer tank which means that it is even more important for members of the household to conserve water if an older septic system is in place so that the system does not get overloaded. There may be one or two compartments in the tank depending on the age of the tank.
What are the different types of on-site systems?
- A septic tank and disposal field ("Type 1" treatment).
- A small mechanical biological packaged treatment plant and disposal field ("Type 2" treatment).
- Advanced mechanical-biological packaged treatment plant ("Type 3" treatment).
- Holding tank for pump and haul.
How does a Septic System work?The septic tank separates liquid from solids and breaks down organic material. As wastewater from the house enters the septic tank, its velocity slows allowing heavier solids to settle to the bottom and lighter materials to float to the surface. The solids that sink to the bottom of the tank are called "sludge", and the lighter solids which float to the top of the tank are called "scum". Anaerobic bacteria (bacteria that does not need oxygen), breaks down the solids and sludge in the wastewater.
The partially treated wastewater in the middle of the tank flows into the effluent filter, if one is present, then out of the septic tank through the outlet, into the distribution box in the drainfield. Older systems may not have an effluent filter but special units have been designed to retrofit existing tanks. The effluent filter keeps solids out of the drainfield which will make the system last longer. The distribution box evenly distributes the sewage into a network of pipes that lie buried in the trenches of the drainfield. Small holes in the pipes allow the wastewater to seep into the soil. The natural filtration through the soil and further bacterial action remove the remaining particles in the wastewater. When it finally reaches the water table, the wastewater has been treated and cleansed.
How can I locate my septic tank?The Provincial Ministry of Environment has a brochure entitled "How to find a Septic Tank" which helps homeowners to locate their septic system components.
If you do not have a copy of your onsite sewage disposal system site plan, you may be able to get a copy by contacting the Island Health office in your community.
3rd Floor, 6475 Metral Drive
Nanaimo, BC V9T 2L9
Phone: (250) 755-6215
489 Alberni Highway, Parksville
Parksville, BC V9P 2M2
Phone: (250) 947-8222
Care and Maintenance
Can I watch videos on how Septic Systems work?For more information on the care and maintenance of residential septic systems view the following videos developed by the Capital Regional District.
Part 1: How Septic Systems Work
Part 2: What Can Go Wrong With Your Septic System
Part 3: Operating and Maintaining a Septic System
Why should I maintain my septic system?
- Save Money: A failing septic system is expensive to repair or replace.
- All systems require maintenance: When septic systems are properly designed, constructed, and maintained, they effectively reduce or eliminate most human health or environmental threats posed by pollutants in household wastewater. However, they require regular maintenance throughout their serviceable lives or they can fail.
- Protect health and the environment: Inadequately treated sewage from septic systems can be a cause of groundwater contamination. It poses a significant threat to drinking water and human health because it can contaminate drinking water wells and cause diseases and infections in people and animals.
- Improperly treated sewage that contaminates nearby surface waters also increases the chance of swimmers contracting a variety of infectious diseases.
- Protect the value of your property: An unusable septic system or one in disrepair will lower your property value and potentially delay or prevent a sale.
- In BC, it is the law: Once you purchase a property with a septic system, you become responsible for correcting any problems.
How do I know how often my tank should be pumped?When you have your tank inspected or before you have it pumped out, you should ask your Registered Practitioner or Professional to measure the scum and sludge layer thickness. By doing this, your registered practitioner or professional can determine the rate at which the solids accumulate in the tank and establish how often the septic tank should be pumped. Most households fall into the 3 to 5 year range for pumping frequency.
Who do I call to work on my system?The Sewerage System Regulation [link] requires an "Authorized Person" to install, repair and maintain a septic system. Authorized persons are qualified registered practitioners or professionals who meet the requirements under the Regulation. Registered Practitioners are limited to construction and maintenance of Type 1 and 2 systems, whereas professionals are authorized to construct, maintain, and to supervise the construction or maintenance of all types of systems.
To find a registered practitioner in your area contact:
Applied Science Technologists & Technicians of BC - Onsite Wastewater Registration ProgramTo find a professional in your area contact:
Phone: (604) 585-2788 ext. 238
Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of British Columbia (APEGBC)
What happens during a septic system inspection?First, the inspector will inspect the septic tank to determine the solids level and to ensure that the tank is functioning as designed. The inspector will conduct an inspection of the inlet, outlet, tank divider, and the general condition of the tank. If there are two compartments of the tank, each compartment will be inspected. This requires some minor excavation to locate and open the tank covers.
The inspector will then locate the system's drainfield. The inspector will visually inspect the drainfield and may dig down to check the drain piping and the condition of the drainfield. This may provide some indication as to potential malfunction in the future. The inspector will also locate the distribution box and inspect its physical condition.
Finally the inspector will provide you with a report on the status of the system. This provides information on whether the system needs replacement or repair. This report should be filed with your other septic system records.
What can I plant over my drainfield?Grass is the ideal ground cover for drainfields as it helps hold the soil and has shallow roots. If you must plant flowers, consult a professional. Generally, shallow rooted native plants or wildflower meadow plants are ideal as they do not require watering or other maintenance. Do not plant edible plants such as root vegetables over the drainfield.
If you are completing any landscaping in your yard, mark off where your septic system components are to avoid damage to your system. Remember that your garden may be disturbed to access your septic system components.
How can I conserve water?Visit Team WaterSmart for tips on water conservation and protecting your drinking water.
Will low flow appliances and water saving devices adversely affect my septic system?Low flow appliances and water saving devices improve the functioning of your system as there is less water to dilute the waste, and the wastewater receives a longer treatment period in the septic system. Minimizing water use keeps solids settled on the bottom of the tank, improves the efficiency of your system and extends the life of the system.
Septic systems are designed to hold wastewater long enough to allow solids to settle to the bottom, forming a sludge layer and oils and greases to float to the top forming a scum layer. If too much water is flowing into the septic tank, wastewater is pushed out into the drainfield before settling and separating occurs. The solids will be pushed out into the drainfield and can cause clogged pipes which are expensive to fix. In addition, older septic systems were designed when people used less water. This means your septic system may be under capacity compared to today's standards. If your septic system is older, water conservation is especially important for you.
Visit Team WaterSmart for tips on water conservation and protecting your drinking water.
What type of laundry soap should be used, powder or liquid?Liquid laundry detergent is ideal for use with a septic system. Using powder or flake dishwasher or laundry detergents is not recommended, as they can clog the pipes in the drainfield.
Should I use an additive in my septic tank?No. At best, you will waste money and gain nothing. At worst, you can will damage your septic system and harm the environment.
Septic tank additives fall into three categories: inorganic compounds, organic solvents, and biological additives.
Companies market inorganic additives, generally strong acids or alkalis, for their ability to open clogged drains. These contain similar ingredients to popular drain cleaners and can destroy the biological function of your septic tank, sterilizing it for days, allowing raw sewage to flow directly into your drainfield, potentially clogging pipes and soil pores. These types of products can also corrode concrete tanks and distribution boxes, causing them to leak and potentially break apart. Research found hydrogen peroxide degrades soil structure in a drainfield, reducing its ability to treat and absorb wastewater effluent.
Organic solvent additives contain concentrated amounts of chemicals used for degreasing machine parts due to their effectiveness at breaking down oils and grease. Unfortunately, these products also kill bacteria and other beneficial microbes in your tank and may contaminate groundwater.
Biological additives combine enzymes and bacteria to supposedly enhance the existing biota in septic tanks to provide a start for new systems or to augment stressed systems. For new systems, many people believe you must add bacteria. While septic systems require bacteria to work, no additives are required. Normal use of your septic systems provides sufficient bacteria.
Can I use bleach if I have a septic system?Occasional use of bleach, in moderation, will not kill sufficient numbers of bacteria in your septic tank to cause harm.
For greener alternatives, try the recipes in the SepticSmart Kit [insert file here] or view the Georgia Strait Alliance ToxicSmart flyer.
Can I park over my septic system?No. Driving vehicles over the drainfield can crush the distribution pipes or compact the soil. Even off road vehicles can compact the soil around the pipes and reduce the life of your system.
It is important to maintain good ventilation and adequate sunlight in order to promote evaporation. Oxygen needs to be able to get into the soil to aid the bacteria responsible for digesting the wastewater as they need oxygen in order to survive and function. This means not constructing anything over the drainfield including parking areas, patios, above ground pools, decks, or any other structures.
Managing Failing Systems
How do I know if my system is failing?The warning signs of a failing system are:
- Sewage surfacing over the drainfield.
- Lush, green growth or soggy areas over the drainfield.
- Slow or backed up drains, toilets or sinks.
- Sewage odours around the property.
- Poor well water test results.
What can I do if my system is failing?
- Locate your system records. They may help your Authorized Person locate your system components, understand your system's maintenance history and determine potential problems and solutions.
- Call an Authorized Person. An authorized person can assess your situation quickly and offer advice on how to fix the problem. Not all problems need to be fixed with a complete system replacement. Often, cleaning the pipes, from the tank to the d-box, will fix many problems at a fraction of the cost of replacing the system. Remember, there are no chemical cures for system failure.
- Have your septic tank pumped. Frequently, this will help the problem temporarily, especially when it is combined with drastic water conservation.
- Conserve water in your home. This is particularly effective if your system has not failed completely. It can help lessen the problem for a short time. Water-saving devices and reduced consumption, especially in your bathroom, can have a significant effect.
- If liquid waste is seeping to the surface, fence off the area to prevent people and pets from getting in contact with the effluent.
Can I reduce my septage disposal fees while I repair my septic system?An owner can apply for a temporary reduction in the septage disposal fee while their septic system is under repair. Temporary reductions to $0.01 per gallon are available for a maximum period of 90 days and required an "authorised person" to sign the application form confirming that the system has failed.
[ Click Here ] for an application, and return the completed form to:
Regional District of Nanaimo
6300 Hammond Bay Road
What can I do if my neighbour's septic system is failing?If you are concerned that your neighbour's septic system is failing, contact your local Vancouver Health Authority office. Nanaimo Office:
3rd Floor, 6475 Metral Drive,
Nanaimo, BC V9T 2L9
Phone: (250) 755-6215
489 Alberni Highway, Parksville
Parksville, BC V9P 2M2
Phone: (250) 947-8222
All information is general in nature and is not intended to be used as a substitute for appropriate professional advice.