$$$$$$ DOWN THE DRAIN $$$$$$
Have you thought much about your septic system lately? Ever? If you are like many of us, you moved to a rural area from an urban environment where we didn’t really think about what we poured down our drains or flushed through our toilets. It is only when an unmistakable odour comes wafting up from the direction of our drainfield, a toilet backs up or some very suspicious sludge starts moving across the lawn that we wake up to the consequence of an ill-treated septic system. And what a rude awakening that can be!! Fixing a failed septic system can run into many thousands of dollars, pose serious health risks, lead to polluted wells, streams, lakes and groundwater and strain relations with neighbours, especially those downhill.
What is a septic system? There are many different systems, but they generally follow the same basic principals.
A pipe leads from your home to a septic tank. Many older systems have 600 gal (what’s that in metric?) tanks, while newer models for a single family three bedroom residence are now 900 gallons. If installing a new tank, purchase the largest size you can afford, the larger the tank size, the cleaner the wastewater leaving the tank. Older models are single chambered while the newer models are double chambered. Wastes separate and settle out in the tank and bacteria work to decompose the solids. A call to Ken’s Septic revealed that the decomposition occurs at the top of your tank. When the tank cover is removed, there should be no odour until the sewage crust is broken. Some crusts are so thick, a 200 pound man could stand on them! The ideal crust will look like rich, black compost. The wastewater then flows through a distribution box from where it is directed into the drainfield, through a network of pipes with small holes. The water gradually seeps into the soil, where further filtration and microbial activity occur, rendering the wastewater harmless and recharging the groundwater.
Anke Bergner, CRD Environmental Education Coordinator, pointed out the do’s and don’ts of septic system management. Maintenance and monitoring, reduce and refrain are the bywords. They can be summed up quickly as:
• Have your system inspected and pumped out regularly
• Check for signs of failure, such as odours or lush growth in the drainfield
• Reduce the amount of water flowing through the system
• Refrain from putting inappropriate materials down your drains
Perhaps the single most important lessons is what is allowed in your septic system, “yellow and brown flush it down” along with the strongest toilet paper. Paper that disintegrates too easily clogs pipes. That’s it. Anything else can either clog the drainfield or destroy the microorganisms that decompose the effluent. Anke illustrates the perils of improper disposal with a journey of a Q-tip that eventually lodges in a drainpipe, becomes entwined with hair or dental floss and causes a blockage which leads to a system failure. Money down the drain. An effluent filter is highly recommended to reduce clogging and protect your drainfield and can usually be added to your existing system for a reasonable rate. The filters are approximately $70.00 and installation can vary from $0-$300.00. For an additional two dollars you can buy “hair catchers”, which fit over your sink drains to prevent hair and other particles from entering your sewage disposal system. These could also eliminate the expense of callouts to help locate everything from false teeth to diamond rings!
Toxic substances from grease to paint can wreck havoc on the microorganisms that flourish in septic systems, busily digesting and decomposing our wastes. Granular drain cleaners are one of the most toxic substances you can put into your system. Only 2 tablespoonfuls can kill all the beneficial bacteria in a 1000 gal. tank. Instead, if your drains are plugged, try using a plunger, a plumber’s snake, or a recipe of one half cup of baking soda followed by one half cup of vinegar. Cover and let sit 5 minutes and then flush with 2 litres of boiling water. Medications can disrupt the fauna of the septic system. People using strong antibiotics for long periods (which work to kill bacteria) can find they need to pump out their septic tanks more often.
Another common cause of failure is hydraulic overloading of the system. Three teenage kids and two parents having showers, maybe a load or two of laundry and then set the dishwasher, all before leaving for work and school doesn’t leave enough time for the solids to settle or the microorganisms to do their jobs before the wastewater is flushed through the system. Try to space water use throughout the day, so as not to overload your septic system and cause sewage particles to enter the drainfield.
About that drainfield, the best thing to plant over it is grass (some camas, shooting stars and fawn lilies could probably be included) as trees and shrubs will clog the drainage holes in the pipes. Those “good” bacteria in the drainfield need some help too. Don’t saturate the ground over the drainfield with excessive watering (max. 10 minutes), it reduces the oxygen they need to function properly. No buildings, carports or swimming pools, divert stormwater and keep out livestock to have your drainfield functioning properly for decades.
It’s a good idea to draw a map of your system so that you know where your tank, distribution box and septic field are located. It saves money when someone comes to pump out your tank and they don’t have to take a shovel and spend time and effort finding and uncovering the tank cover. It’s helpful information to pass onto a new owner if you decide to sell your property.
There are 30,000 septic systems in the CRD and 700 new permits are issued a year. Twenty-five percent of septic systems in use are thought to be malfunctioning. The average life expectancy of a septic system in the CRD is 19 years but a properly managed system should last as long as your home. Those numbers have the CRD worried and they are considering implementing a bylaw that would regulate septic systems. By 2005 an inspection of all septic systems would be undertaken and pump-outs would be required every 3 to 5 years. Regular maintenance has been stressed by all the companies contacted as crucial in maintaining the health of your septic waste management system. Certification would be mandatory for all service operators and will ensure a high degree of professionalism in the industry. That would decrease the faulty advise one participant received when her tank was recently pumped. She was advised to add some yeast to jump start the microorganisms. While the yeast won’t damage the system, it is unnecessary, all you need are your own waste products. Our guts come fully inoculated with all the right organisms to get things going. No need for dead chickens, cats or fish heads and certainly no need for packaged biological agents. The chemical agents sold to activate a septic system can actually harm it by damaging the structures themselves.
Another way to reduce the flow through your septic system is to use a composting toilet. Michael Rouse, formerly the UK's chief drinking water inspector, recently said that if Britain were planning sewage disposal from scratch today, "we wouldn't flush it away - we would collect the solids and compost it". An interesting idea and perhaps the subject of a future article.
If you would like more information about how to maintain and monitor your septic system, try these websites:
For information on composting toilets try: