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Our cottage septic system – a ticking time bomb?

22 May

Most of us haven’t thought about our cottage septic system – I sure haven’t, I don’t even know where the tank and leaching bed are. But I’d say we had better start thinking about it.

A conventional septic system includes a tank, an effluent filter, and a leaching bed. Wastewater travels to the septic tank, where the solids settle to the bottom of the tank. There, anaerobic bacteria take over and break down the organic matter. The effluent filter keeps these solids inside the tank while liquid flows into the leaching bed. There it’s filtered into the ground, and soil bacteria kill pathogens and continue to treat the water.

In most cases, repairing a septic system will cost between $2,000 and $25,000. Replacing one can cost about $6,000 to $40,000—depending on the system’s size and location. Septic systems last for 20 to 30 years if they’re well maintained.

Ours has got to be at least 20 years old, has never been maintained or pumped out and we don’t even know where the lid of the tank is! Uh-oh.


Here are ways to keep our septic system from imploding.

1. Know where it is (we don’t)

It may sound obvious, but it’s important to know your system’s location and have easy access to its tank and leaching bed. Avoid driving, parking, or building on or near any part of the system.

2. Conserve water

Excessive water use overloads septic tanks and prevents solids from settling on the bottom. The solids get pushed into the leaching bed where they cannot be filtered out effectively. The clogged soil will not accept more water and backups can occur. The cottage does not have an unlimited water supply.  To save water: Flush only when necessary, tell guests to be conservative with their water use, run the washing machine only when necessary. Maybe we could install a low-flow toilet and high-efficiency taps and shower heads?

3. Flush organic only

If it isn’t human waste or toilet paper, don’t flush it. Flushing paper towels, disposable diapers and wipes, condoms, sanitary napkins, tampons, facial tissues, coffee grounds, grease, and such will quickly fill our tank and clog the system. Septic systems cannot digest oils, grease and fat. Poured down the sink or toilet, they congeal in pipes sometimes plugging them.  All oily waste should go out with the garbage. Even if a product’s packaging claims that it’s flushable, don’t.  No, really – DO NOT!

4. Use biodegradable cleaners

We need to stop using heavy-duty cleaners (especially those with bleach), and all antibacterial soaps. These products kill the bacteria that keep the system running effectively. Use biodegradable products for tasks that involve frequent water use (such as washing dishes) and NO fancy shower gels.  Some household chemicals can be eliminated or reduced and some can easily be replaced by suitable substitutes, for example:

  • Automatic Bowl Cleaners – do not use.
  • Deodorant Soap – Use regular soap – Not antibacterial
  • Hand Soap – Use regular soap – Not antibacterial
  • NO Chlorine Bleach
  • Dishwashing Liquid – Use only completely biodegradable & Not antibacterial
  • Laundry Detergent – Use only Liquid & completely biodegradable.

5. NO chemicals!

Never put paints, solvents, pesticides, gasoline, or other toxic chemicals in our system. Flushing even small amounts of paints, solvents, thinners, nail polish removers and other common household compounds (or pouring them down the drain) can poison the organisms that break down organic material. Don’t flush any medication either. Not only will these kill the beneficial bacteria in the tank, they will also end up in the groundwater.

6. Keep trees and shrubs away – I think we have a problem here

The roots of trees, especially aggressive species will travel as far as needed to get to water. Roots can plug up and wrap around distribution pipes in the leaching bed, causing all sorts of damage.  We need to identify the limits of our system and make sure we have properly cleared the area.

7. Insulate our system?

We should think about insulating the pipe running from the cottage to the septic tank to prevent freezing during the winter.  And while we are at it, I wonder if we can’t insulate our whole water system a little better – not only from cold but also from animals and UV.


10. Inspect and pump – I don’t ever remember this being done

Generally, a system should be inspected and its contents pumped out by a professional every three to five years (or when the tank’s volume is about one-third full).  


Mushrooms at Andrea’s cottage

31 Aug

In a moist, loamy corner of New Brunswick, Andrea and Ugo’s cottage is perched on stilts, overlooking a stony, sandy beach. On a misty afternoon, Andrea and I took “the pack” on an adventure walk through the forest surrounding the cottage. As we walked on the soft bedding of the regenerating decay of the forest floor, I noticed a wide range of mushrooms. Here is a small sampling…actually it is as many as I have been able to identify to date. I am probably wrong on my identification of a few…more to come.


Cloudy clitocybe



False chanterelle





Violet branched coral mushroom


Crown tipped coral mushroom


Emetic russula



Variegated mop


20 Jul

I told you in an earlier post that I would follow up on issues about having a logger come in and thin out the pine plantation. Without much thought, I figured it would go like this … look up a guy under “loggers” in the yellow pages, call him up, tell him to take out every second row, and he pays for the privilege. Easy-peasy.

Not so fast, little lady!
We need to find a logger who will use careful logging practices (CLP), including a range of techniques and practices to minimize damage to the forest, soil, wildlife habitat and water. Examples of CLPs include directional felling of trees, erosion control measures on skid trails, tree protection for wildlife and the establishment of buffers near water. if we are not careful and don’t get the right company and provide oversight, we could end up with a mess.


The following are excerpts from regarding the need for a strong contract and oversight when hiring a logger.
“While it is essentially impossible to harvest trees without some level of damage to some of the remaining trees, it is important to minimize damage, both to the number of trees damaged and the extent of damage to any individual tree. Some strategies for controlling damage involve a fee schedule that fines a contractor for each tree damaged. Typically these fee systems are graduated based on the economic potential of the damaged tree. Another common strategy is to set a threshold for an acceptable number of damaged trees and any damage in excess of that threshold would cause a contract to default. For both of these systems, it may be important to define exactly what damage is in the contract. Under any circumstances, working closely with the logging contractor and clear communication of your concern regarding damage will help minimize logging damage to your woodland.”

“A common mechanism for minimizing compaction is to restrict the abundance of skid trails across a site. Skid trails are the travel routes that logging equipment use to move around a stand. Some specifications on skid trail layout can be outlined in a logging contract, but, at the very least, a logging contract should specify a maximum skid trail width and a minimum distance between skid trails.”

All we want to do is break even and have an area left behind that is healthier than before it was logged. So perhaps the question we need to ask the forestry consultant is:
We would only be thinning out the pine plantation for the health of the trees. Will the logging operation accomplish that?


If you are interested in more info on this subject, there is a very good booklet called the landowners guide to careful logging that can be found here. It is over 80 pages long, that might give you a hint that there is a bit more to our little timber harvest than meets the eye.


20 Jul

This post is the content of an email I just sent off to our forestry consultant to provide him with some information about the kinds of activities we plan to do to maintain the property over the next 10 years. This is required as part of our submission to the Ministry and it will also give Frank some idea of what priorities we have. I have added photos to the post that I did not send to Frank.

Hi Frank,
The following is information you will need for the plan. Below I have listed some of our priorities and the activities we plan to undertake to meet with our 10 year objectives. I have also included a few notes for your information.

Controlling invasive species.
There are 2 invaders that I know of on the property. The first is eurasian milfoil in the lake. We have already teamed up with other lakefront property owners and contributed to a project to try to deal with this.
The second is garlic mustard. I believe that we have a nasty patch of it close to the driveway, in the area colored yellow. This is a high priority as the area is one of the most sensitive on the property. Advice here would be appreciated (I’m hoping you’ll say it isn’t garlic mustard after all).
Here is what garlic mustard looks like…seem familiar?

Note : although not really considered an invasive species, we have a good deal of poison ivy on the property which we work to keep in check.

Developing trails and pathways
for recreation, nature appreciation and access to areas for management of natural area. We do not snowmobile or hunt on the property and do not ever plan to.


Creating snags and brush piles
to provide resting/escape cover and den sites for wildlife. We already have numerous natural snags and brush piles on the property but we will monitor them and create new ones in selected areas.


Develop or encourage selected native species,
especially wildflowers and native orchids – specifics here would depend on if seeds or seedlings of true native plants can be obtained.


Selective tree cutting and planting
To maintain a healthy forest ecosystem based on the recommendations of a forest consultant.

Identification and encouragement of threatened or endangered species.
Identification efforts have begun.

I have a particular interest in the area colored yellow on the map. This area nurtures an abundance of birches, aspens, ferns, frogs, mosses and lichen. Trillium used to be plentiful here as well. Well off the driveway are two “ponds” which I believe could be categorized as either bog or fen. They are underwater or waterlogged for much of the year, filled with peat and mermaid weed. I hope to maintain and develop the special nature of this area. Any advice you can provide would be useful.


I hope this information will help prepare you for your site visit on July 25th. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions.


19 Jul

This is a re-issue of a post from last September. Since we are in the home stretch of getting a plan together and we’ve hired a forestry consultant, I thought it might be of interest to those of you who are following the property forest and wildlife management efforts.

One of the requirements of the Managed Forest Plan (MFP) is to divide the map of the property into separate COMPARTMENTS. For the purposes of nature and wildlife management, areas on the property that have different characteristics should be treated separately. An individual compartment should have similar vegetation, soil and topography and be uniform in species composition, condition and age so they can be distinguished from adjacent compartments.

Our property seems to have every possible type of cover. My initial stab at dividing the property is on this map (crude, but remember, I’m at the cottage without any major tech tools)


This isn’t written in stone – I have one more day here and may change some boundaries.

CONIFEROUS FOREST – this could also be considered a plantation.







MARSH – this is the beaver pond area


BOG OR FEN? This is the area some call the turtle pond


We’ve got everything!

September 18 – Cutting a swath

2 Oct

Awake to a foggy, foggy but sunny morning.  Chilly too, so I built a robust fire with a few of the logs we cut yesterday.  A little later, I joined Tim and Mum for a steaming cup of earl grey supreme and a thick slice of toasted bakery bread with golden clover honey.


Having decided that creating some strategically place paths will be one of the activities for the MFP, Mum, Tim and I head off toward the beaver pond.  Tim and I were armed with clippers and snippers to start work on access to the farther reaches of the pond.


Tim and I snipped and chopped our way through sharp-needled junipers, grasping blackberry bushes, many-branched maples and plenty of bushy bushes.  What was Mum doing as we sweated and whacked and snipped our way through the underbrush?  Well she was happily ensconced on a rock, yelling things like “it’s lovely here, why don’t you hurry up?” or, apparently thinking we were too doltish to find our way, she’d say  “you just go around the juniper and over the rock and …”.  When we finally cut the path right up to the beaver dam, there she was, just enjoying the view…P1030940

To give Mum credit, she was pretty impressed at our work when we returned along the path we had just cut.

So finally, I actually reached the beaver dam! 


Looks like Monet could have painted here…P1030932

After the sweat-making path work, we had to go back and rest.

After a nap, we tucked in to a clear-the-cupboard dinner of tuna hash, pasta and great lashings of wine – I’m going to have to stop hanging around these two – I go home half sloshed every night!

September 16 – The Mighty Naturalist ain’t so smart

29 Sep

Being an armchair naturalist actually takes some work and study – the more you learn, the more need to learn.  I am now in the position of knowing how much I don’t know.  I assumed that since they were all so distinctive, mosses, mushrooms , lichens and fungus would be easy-peasy to identify.  Ho-ho-ho – apparently nothing is easy in the world of identification.  After a session with mum and I both looking through a foot-high stack of nature guides on plants, mushrooms, wetland plants, amphibians and others, we managed to identify the grey frog and brown cockroach (see previous post) as well as the following;

cortinarius cinnamomeus for blog 

polyporus versacolor for blogfalse pixie cup for blog

I really love the false pixie cup – here is a closer look at some.  It is a bit dryer that the selection above so it looks slightly different – fascinating though…no?


Not much identified – at this rate I’ll have to work all winter on this!