SepticSmart Educational Resources



SepticSmart is an educational program that provides homeowners with information on how their septic system works and how to care for it. Care and maintenance includes, among other things, regular tank pump-outs, monitoring, and inspection. Upgrades and repairs should be done when necessary.

To keep your system working properly for years to come:

SepticSmart Workshops

 Workshops were last offered in spring 2024. Check back again for future workshop opportunities.

Locate Your Septic System

There are different ways to locate your septic system:

  • The Province has a brochure How to find a Septic Tank to help homeowners locate their septic system components.
  • You may request a copy of your onsite sewage disposal system site plan from your local Island Health office.

Nanaimo Office:
3rd Floor, 6475 Metral Drive
Phone: 250-755-6215

Parksville Office:
489 Alberni Highway
Phone: 250-947-8222

  • Copies of Island Health's Authorizations to Operate may be stored at the RDN if records were submitted as part of an RDN building permit. Contact RDN Building and Bylaw Services at 250-390-6530 for more information.
  • If records are not available, contact an Authorized Person to locate your system. Read on to find out who is an "Authorized Person".

Hire an Authorized Person to Maintain your Septic System

Septic systems in BC are regulated by the Sewerage System Regulation. Under this regulation, an Authorized Person must install, repair and maintain septic systems.

An Authorized Person is defined as:

  • a Registered Onsite Wastewater Practitioner (ROWP). 
    • ROWPs are registered through ASTTBC.
    • To find a ROWP visit the ASTTBC website
    • Follow instructions for "HOW TO SEARCH" and filter "Subclass" for "ROWP".
  • a Professional Engineer or Professional Geoscientist.
    • Professional Engineers and Geoscientists are registered through EGBC.
    • To find a Professional in your area contact, visit the EGBC Website. Scroll down to find Professionals on "Vancouver Island".

SepticSmart FAQs


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 and island communities; though, some properties within municipal boundaries are on septic.

What is a Septic System?

A septic system receives all household wastewater including wastewater from toilets, showers, dishwashers, washing machines, and other plumbing fixtures. Its job is to treat the wastewater so it may safely return to the groundwater.

A basic septic system is made up of:

1. a septic tank
2. the distribution box
3. the drainfield
4. the soil

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?

Septic tank - the tank's main job is to separate the liquids from the solids and oils. 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". By itself, the tank does not provide a high level of treatment.

The 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 or 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.

Septic Tank
Diagram of a basic septic tank

Distribution box - When present, a distribution box should distribute effluent evenly to the drainfield pipes. A tilted or damaged distribution box will distribute the effluent unevenly. Over time, this could cause your drainfield to fail, leading to costly repairs.

Drainfield - A drainfield is a network of underground perforated pipes that work with the soil filter. Small holes in the drainfield pipes allow the wastewater to seep into the soil. For the drainfield to work effectively over the long term, each pipe must receive an equal flow of effluent.

Soil filter - Naturally-occurring bacteria in the soil filter and treat the effluent. When it finally reaches the water table, the wastewater has been treated. Most of the treatment "work" happens in the soil. Grass above helps draw moisture away so the soil can continue to accept and treat effluent.

What should I know before buying a home with a septic system?

The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation provides a checklist of questions to ask and points to consider when purchasing a house with a well and septic system.

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
How long do septic systems last?

On average, septic systems last 25-30 years. Proper maintenance has a significant impact on how well your septic system works and how long it lasts. Eventually, all systems need to be replaced.

Why should I maintain my septic system?
  • All systems require maintenance: When a septic system is working properly it is an inexpensive and safe way to treat household wastewater. However, they all require regular maintenance throughout their serviceable lives.
  • Save Money: Routine maintenance is often cheaper than repairing or replacing a system.
  • Protect health and the environment: A failing or poorly maintained system can cause odours, contaminate local drinking water sources, and cause serious illness.
  • Protect the value of your property: An unusable septic system or one in disrepair may lower your property value or delay 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 often should my tank should be pumped?

The septic tank should be pumped out when it is 1/3 full of solids. The frequency depends on the tank size, quantity of solids entering the tank, and user habits. Most septic tanks need to be pumped out every 3 to 5 years.

Should I use an additive in my septic tank?

No. At best, you will waste money and gain nothing. At worst, you can 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.

Should 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.

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. 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.

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.

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 these recipes.

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?

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. Have your septic tank pumped. Frequently, this will help the problem temporarily, especially when it is combined with drastic water conservation.

4. 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.

5. 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 "Authorized Person" to sign the application form confirming that the system has failed.

What can I do if my neighbour's septic system is failing?

Contact your local Island Health office if you are concerned that your neighbour's septic system is failing.

Nanaimo Office:
3rd Floor, 6475 Metral Drive
Phone: 250-755-6215

Parksville Office:
489 Alberni Highway
Phone: 250-947-8222

All information is general in nature and is not intended to be used as a substitute for appropriate professional advice.