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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).