Manitoba
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Sustainable Development

Onsite Wastewater Management Systems Program

Maintenance Tips

 

Like all of the appliances and structures in your home, sewage treatment systems require care and will eventually have to be upgraded or even replaced.

Septic systems consist of two basic parts; a septic tank and a soil absorption system. The septic tank provides a small portion of the treatment by creating a large compartment to allow solid material to settle out of the wastewater and collect in the tank. Once the large, solid material has settled out, the sewage flows into a deep layer of unsaturated soil where the soil and microorganisms growing in the soil remove the pollutants before the wastewater enters ground or surface water. 

Septic tank

Septic systems are simple to operate and when properly designed, constructed, and maintained. They do an excellent job of removing pollutants from wastewater to protect Manitoba ’s water resources. Property owners must do a few important things to keep their system operating for 20 to 30 years.

Tips for Using and Maintaining Your Onsite Sewage System (to avoid system malfunction and failure)

1. CONSERVE WATER

Since the soil must accept all of the water used in your home, using less water is the best thing a resident can do to maintain their septic system. Disposal fields do not have an unlimited capacity. Limiting water use can help prevent hydraulic overloading of a system.

Water conservation tips:

  • Space out water use throughout the day and week. For example, avoid washing all of your laundry on one day.
  • Install water conserving fixtures like low flow shower heads, low flow toilets, and even purchase a front-loading washing machine.
  • Typical water use is about 500 litres (110 gallons) per bedroom/day. Try not to exceed that amount. A water meter will help monitor water usage.
  • Keep your fixtures in good repair. A slow-running toilet can add large amounts of water. A running toilet discharging ¼ gallon per minute will result in 360 gallons per day. To test the toilet, put a few drops of food colouring in the toilet tank. If it shows up in the bowl, it is leaking. It may take as long as an hour for colour to show in bowl.
  • Wastewater not included in the system's design should not be put into the system. This may include wastewater from:
  • foundation weeping tile drains
  • a hot tub, spa or hydro massage bath exceeding a 2-person capacity
  • a swimming pool
  • an iron filter
  • water conditioning equipment that generates excessive amounts of wastewater
Once a disposal field is overloaded with water, the soil becomes saturated. Water moves slower through saturated soil and the oxygen is driven out of the soil. The aerobic soil microorganisms are driven away, slowing the digestion of the organic particles in the sewage where there is lack of air.

Worms and insects that keep soil spaces open will also move out. Once saturated, the system will take a long time to recover. A continuously overburdened system will fail and is hard to rejuvenate.

2. CAREFUL LANDSCAPING

The soil absorption system is the most important part of a septic system, so it is important to protect the area. The following landscaping tips will help to maintain your system:

  • Divert downspouts and other rainwater drainage away from the soil absorption system area. The extra rainwater can overwhelm the disposal field.

  • Keep pavement, decks, above ground pools, and out buildings off of and away from the soil absorption system area. Construction activity can compact the soil and structures limit access to the disposal field for maintenance.

  • Avoid too much soil fill over the soil absorption system area. Increasing the depth of soil over the leach field limits the infiltration of air into the soil needed by the microorganisms to treat wastewater.

  • Maintain adequate vegetative cover over the disposal field. Plant grass over and near your septic system. Roots from nearby trees or shrubs might clog and damage the treatment field. Keep the grass trimmed.
  • Keep automobiles and heavy equipment off the system.  Because systems are installed near the ground surface, the piping and septic tanks can be damaged by heavy traffic.  Traffic will also compact the ground and reduce its ability to absorb sewage effluent which may then surface in the yard or back-up into the house.  In winter, traffic (even from snowmobile paths) will drive frost deeper into the ground causing the system to freeze.

3.  BE AWARE of what is going into your system.

  • The only wastes that should be disposed of in sinks and toilets are those that break down easily. Onsite wastewater disposal systems work on natural processes similar to composting. Wastes that do not break down easily (facial tissue, large amounts of vegetable scrapings, coffee grounds, chemicals, paints, oils, sanitary napkins, applicators, condoms, medicines, pesticides, poisons, strong disinfectants, etc.) can damage a system or substantially increase the need to clean the septic tank.
  • Grease and oil is hard to break down and when it eventually moves into the soil it will plug it up causing the field to malfunction or fail.
  • In-sink garbage disposals can significantly increase the organic and inorganic content of wastewater.  Excessive amounts of organic/inorganic material in the sewage may cause the system to fail.
     

4. PUMP OUT the Septic Tank

If a septic tank is not regularly maintained, suspended solids and organic material will not settle out, and will be discharged into the soil absorption portion of a system. The additional suspended solids and organic material will clog the soil, eventually causing failure of the system.  

  • Do not wait for the system to back-up before you pump your septic tank. Backs-ups can be caused by clogging of the soil from sewage solids carried out of a poorly maintained septic tank. Once the sewage backs-up, the damage is already done.
  • Do not use biological or chemical additives in place of septic tank pumping. These products include bacteria, enzymes, yeasts, and inorganic or organic chemicals. If the additive increases the level of biological activity in the tank, the additional digestion of the sludge can increase the amount of gas given off by the microorganisms digesting the solids. This gas bubbles up and can cause the suspended material in the sewage to be buoyed up and not settle out in the tank as it should. It is then carried into the final soil portion of the system and can plug the soil pores that accept the water.

    Other chemicals may emulsify greases, which will then not float and be trapped as scum in the tank. They will then flow out to the soil and plug the soil pores. Some of these products may contain chemicals that will damage the effluent absorption portion of the system or will percolate down through the soil to contaminate groundwater and nearby wells.
  • When the tank is pumped, have the baffles inspected. If they are missing or deteriorated, the tank will short circuit and not work properly. Have the baffles replaced with sanitary tees.
  • If pumps are used in the system, have any pump screens cleaned (make sure they are re-installed) and have the control operations checked.  

    Septic field
     

     


Tanks should be checked every year in the spring or early summer to determine how much sludge and scum has accumulated. Having the tank pumped out in the spring will allow the biological action to re-establish quicker during the warm summer months.

The size of the septic tank and the waste it receives affects how often it needs to be pumped out. If the bottom of the scum mat is less than 8cm (5 in.) above the bottom of the baffle or outlet tee, or will be at this level before the next inspection, the tank should be scheduled for pumping.

If the top sludge layer is closer than 30cm (12 in.) to the bottom of the outlet baffle or tee, or more importantly, if the bottom of the scum layer is within 8 cm (3 in.) of the bottom of the outlet baffle or tee, the tank should be pumped.

Pumping a tank more often than is required is much better than leaving it to the last minute.

It is not necessary to thoroughly scrub and flush the septic chamber until it is visibly clean. The small amount of sludge that remains on the floor and walls will "re-seed" the septic tank, and contribute to the re-establishment of its normal operation.

Vacuum trucks are available to pump out septic tanks. They are capable of doing a proper job without spillage. The pumper will take the septage to an approved site such as a municipal wastewater treatment facility. Inquire about where your pumped sewage will go.

5. MAINTAIN & UPGRADE the System

Just like the house roof, driveway, and furnace, septic systems require upgrades and possibly replacement. Expect to have to upgrade a properly designed and installed septic system every 10 to 20 years. Upgrades and replacements will allow homeowners to implement the latest technologies and advances in wastewater treatment.

  • Install watertight manhole extensions if not already in place, to simplify septic tank access.
  • Make sure the access lids are structurally sound, secure and child-resistant. If access lids are buried, consider raising them above grade to facilitate access and prevent the infiltration of surface water into the septic tank.
  • Install risers and inspection ports. Because the system is buried, it is difficult to inspect to check for problems leading to a malfunction. To facilitate quick and frequent inspection, small inspection ports should be installed at the end of each lateral line. By extending the inspection ports up to the ground surface they can be easily mowed over, while still providing easy access to check for ponding in a lateral, which is an early warning sign of a malfunction.
  • Never enter a septic tank. Any work or repairs should be made from the outside. The septic tank produces toxic gases that are potentially fatal.  When working on a tank, make sure it is well ventilated and someone is standing nearby. Never enter a tank to retrieve someone. Call emergency services and put a fan at the top of the tank to blow in fresh air.

6. PROFESSIONAL MANAGEMENT

Have your system regularly inspected by a professional. A quick annual inspection of the lateral lines may reveal possible problems. If ponding is observed, first check for excess water use or changes in drainage of rainwater on the lot. Fixing a water leak or moving a downspout may correct the problem. If not, a portion of the field may have to be repaired to restore its treatment capacity. Septic tanks should be checked for damage every year and pumped when needed.