The majority of BC homes outside of major urban areas use onsite systems (commonly called septic systems) to treat and disperse their wastewater. These systems can be efficient, cost effective and can protect health and the environment. However, they must be properly designed, installed and maintained.
Section 10 of the Sewerage System Regulation requires that the owner of a sewerage system:
- Must ensure that a sewerage system on the owner’s land is maintained in accordance with the operation and maintenance plan provided by the system planner.
- Must keep records of all maintenance service performed on the system.
- Must ensure that he or she follows all other requirements under the SSR and local government by-laws.
If you are…
- … the owner of a home with an onsite system … you are responsible for its maintenance and safe operation. An improperly used or maintained system can pose a hazard to public health and the environment. This is the homeowner’s responsibility to prevent or correct. Engage a ROWP Maintenance Provider to look after your system.
- If you are having problems with your system … have the problem diagnosed and repaired by an Authorized Person, an ASTTBC Registered Onsite Wastewater Practitioner (ROWP). Many typical problems can be corrected with some maintenance work, but if ignored, can result in the need for a replacement system.
- If you are renovating or adding on to your home … you may need to have the system upgraded to accommodate the changes. This can be determined by a Registered Onsite Wastewater Practitioner Private Inspector.
- If you are building a new home … you will need to have a new system planned and installed. Contact Registered Onsite Wastewater Practitioner Planners and Installers to assist.
- If you are buying or selling a house … have the system inspected by a Registered Onsite Wastewater Practitioner Private Inspector.
If properly maintained, onsite systems will perform as intended and last for a long time. If not, they may malfunction, become expensive to repair and potentially create a risk to public health. As with a car, proper maintenance leads to lower cost of ownership.
A homeowner must engage an Authorized Person – either a ROWP Maintenance Provider or a Professional Engineer with suitable competency – to maintain sewerage systems.
What to do…
1. Know the location of your system. Sketches and photographs can be invaluable. Legally constructed systems may have permits and supporting documentation available from Health Authorities, including drawings showing the location and configuration. Keep those on file. Keep maintenance records as well.
2. Make sure all access points for the system are easily accessible. Do not place pools, decks, sheds or plant trees/gardens on system components as this restricts access for maintenance and monitoring.
3. Never park or drive vehicles or equipment over any part of the system. System components are not built to withstand vehicle loads.
4. Do not allow large animals or any animals that may compact the soil or disturb the soil of the dispersal field.
5. Divert surface water (i.e. roof drains) away from all components of the system including the soil dispersal field, the tanks and all access provisions for maintenance of the system.
6. Never connect water treatment equipment backwash into the onsite system. Sewerage systems are not designed to accept the quantity or quality of such wastewater.
7. Monitor irrigation of the grass on the dispersal area. Excessive irrigation can cause excessive saturation of the soil. Don’t compact snow on top of the dispersal area.
8. Use liquid, not powder detergent. Minimize the use of bleach and disinfectant cleaning materials.
9. Quickly fix leaking toilets and fixtures.
10. Never put leftover cooking grease or food down the drain.
11. Do not use a garburator.
12. Never use drain cleaning chemicals. They kill the beneficial bacteria in the system and can cause malfunctions.
13. Do not dump waste from an R.V. into the system. Volume and chemicals can cause malfunctions.
14. Never dump paint, solvents, or other chemicals down the drain.
15. Only flush human waste and toilet paper. Do not flush cigarette butts, coffee grounds, cat litter, paper towel, hair, condoms, etc.
16. In general, it is not advisable to use septic additives. At best they have limited effect, at worst they can damage the system or decrease the life span of the system by increasing soil clogging effects. Sufficient bacteria is found in human waste. There is no need to add anything to the system.
17. Have the system checked on a regular basis (1-2 years for simple systems) by a ROWP Maintenance Provider. More frequent schedules may be required for more complex systems but this will be listed in the Operating & Maintenance Plan for the system.
18. Be aware that entertaining large groups can overload the system. Each system is designed based on the expected number of occupants in the home. More than this can quickly overwhelm the system leading to sewage backing up into the home or onto the lawn. Sometimes this damage can be permanent. If you must entertain a large group, try to minimize the volume of water use and sewage flow. One option is to have the septic tank emptied the day before a large gathering.
19. Spread laundry out during the week. This can help avoid overwhelming the system.
20. Keep water usage within the design allowance. The design flow allowance is listed in historic permits or design Filing. The allowable average daily flow volume is prescribed within the maintenance plan. If too much water flows into the septic tank, wastewater is discharged to the dispersal area before the settling and separating process can occur sufficiently. The treatment capacity of the soil dispersal is also severely reduced, in some cases resulting in effluent break out to surface.
21. Educate everyone who uses your system about proper use and care.
More than just pumping out the tank…
Often, people think that regular pump-outs of the septic tank are the most important thing to keep your system functioning. Actually, removing the solids that accumulate in the septic tank is just one part of looking after your septic system. The system includes a soil dispersal system (drain field). Simply put, the drain field needs to work too. The wastewater needs to leave the septic tank and arrive at the drain field properly; the drain field needs to able to absorb the wastewater without any signs of effluent at surface.
Often soil clogging problems, or overloaded conditions in the drain field can be remedied by an effective, ongoing maintenance and monitoring program. The life span of any wastewater system will be significantly improved, and serious problems avoided if you have your system properly maintained. Maintenance of an onsite system is similar to maintaining a car. There is much more involved than just changing the oil (or pumping the septic tank). And a lack of maintenance causes increased costs of ownership.
Each component of the system from the tank to the field should be examined on a regular basis to confirm that it is structurally sound and functioning correctly, and that all mechanical and electrical parts are in good working order. The components can then be cleaned as required and any necessary repairs carried out.
The Maintenance Provider should also compare the design capacity of the system to the flow volume of sewage that you discharge. Most modern systems (and many older ones) have flow monitoring features that allow the Maintenance Provider to confirm your system is not over loaded. Excessive flow volume is a common cause of system failures.
If the system was installed after May 31st, 2005, have your Maintenance Provider follow the maintenance plan provided by the system Planner and filed with the Health Authority. If your system was installed before that date, there may not be a maintenance plan available, but a ROWP Maintenance Provider can perform the maintenance and create a maintenance plan for you.
Don’t make major changes to the usage of the system, such as operating a business out of your home or adding a suite or more bedrooms, without consulting an Authorized Person, such as a ROWP Planner. Systems are designed for a strictly limited capacity. If you overload (or otherwise misuse) the system, it is likely to malfunction in a manner that poses potential health risks – an offence under the Health Act.
If you plan to be absent from the home for an extended period contact your Maintenance Provider for advice. Your system could have components that would be damaged without incoming sewage. In some cases, it may be best to de-energize some components, in other cases, electrically powered components must stay on. In warmer climates, do not pump out the tank prior to leaving for a vacation, otherwise it might become buoyant from seasonal high ground water levels. In very cold climates, your Maintenance Provider may have important strategies to prevent freezing of tanks and other cold related damage. Often, special procedures are recommended or required before returning to the house and discharging wastewater to the system. Consult a ROWP Maintenance Provider, and/or the ROWP Planner who designed your system.
Regular preventative maintenance is cheap. Replacing a system due to lack of maintenance is often not.
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