Septic System Self-Inspection Guide
Septic System: What do you already know, or what can
you find out?
If you have your original Sewage System Use Permit, or Certificate of
Inspection, this self inspection will be easy. Those documents will tell
you the size of your septic tank and your tile bed or filter bed. If you
can't find them, you may be able to obtain copies of these documents,
along with a sketch of your septic system layout from the Peterborough
County-City Health Unit. There is a fee of $25.00 for finding and copying
these files. Call the Health Unit at 743-1000 to see if they are available.
If not, you can still do the assessment, but you will have to do some
math to calculate your septic tank size. There is also some shoveling
involved, so start this on a nice day!
Please note that this assessment does not cover standards holding tanks,
privies, or leaching pits. Call the Health Unit at 743-1000 for information
on these sewage systems.
1 - First, the Plumbing
Before we get to the septic system, look at your plumbing.
Are all of your sinks connected to the septic system, or do some spill
onto the ground under the cottage? Do you have an outdoor shower that
just runs out on the ground? These were very common problems found in
Cottage Pollution Surveys. Sink and shower water are both considered sewage,
and can contain bacteria and nutrients that can contaminate wells and
all plumbing is connected to the septic system
sink or shower water goes onto ground
2 - Check the Condition of the Tank
Let's start with the septic tank itself. If you don't know where your
tank is here are a few hints:
it is usually about 5 - 10 feet away from the building. Look in your basement
or under the cottage to see where the main sewer drain goes out
there is often a dry square in the grass where the septic tank
is located. This is because the bacteria in the tank keep it warm and
the soil above gets dried out.
If your septic tank is made of steel, it is very old and is probably
rusting or leaking. Uncover the top of the tank and take the lid off.
Use a rod or rake handle to poke the bottom of the tank. Is it solid and
smooth, or has it become thin or perforated?
Most septic tanks are made of concrete or plastic, and will have at least
two lids on the top of the tank which you can take off to check inside.
All tanks, including metal tanks, should have a "baffle" at
the inlet (where the pipe from your cottage enters the tank) and the outlet
(where the sewage leaves the tank to go to the disposal bed). These baffles
will look like a "T" shaped fitting over the pipe, or a like
a box built around the opening in the tank.
NOTE: Under no circumstances should you ever
enter a septic tank or holding tank! These tanks may contain toxic gases.
Tank is in good shape
Tank needs new baffles
Old metal tank
- Is the Tank in the Right Place?
Current regulations dictate how far a septic tank must be from buildings,
wells, lakes, etc. Check these minimum clearances to see if your tank's
location complies. A septic tank must be at least :
1.5 metres (5 ft) from a building or other structure
15 metres (50 ft) from any well or spring
3 metres (10 ft) from a property line
A tank which is too close to a building or property line may not be causing
a pollution problem, but could create problems if the system malfunctions
or ponds, or could "blow the deal" when you want to sell the
Tank is properly located
Tank is too close to buildings or property lines
Tank is too close to wells, lake, or other watercourses
4 - Is the Tank Big Enough?
To calculate the minimum tank size needed for your building, you must
consider the number of bedrooms, the floor area of the building, and the
number of plumbing fixtures. This chart shows the tank sizes for buildings
smaller than 2150 sq ft, with two bathrooms or less:
|Number of Bedrooms
||Minimum Size of Septic Tank
|1, 2 , or 3 bedrooms
||3600 litres (800 gallons)
||4500 litres (1000 gallons)
||Ask the Health Unit - 743-1000
5 - Ever had Problems?
If your septic tank ever overflows, backs up into the building, or leaks
sewage out through the lid, you have a serious problem which must be corrected.
Never had a problem
6 - Is the Tile Bed is the Right Place?
After several years, it may be difficult to see, or remember, where the
bed begins or ends. Look for dark green stripes in the lawn over the lines
of weeping tile, or get a copy of your installation sketch from the Health
Unit. It is critical that the bed be located away from wells, streams,
and the lake.
The regulations specify the following minimum separation distances from
a tile bed:
||building or other structure
||well with a watertight casing to 6 metres depth
(most drilled wells)
||all other wells, or a spring used as a source
of drinking water
||lake, pond, reservoir, river, stream, or a spring
not used as a source of drinking water
7 - How's it Working?
If you don't have your permits or installation sketch, you will probably
want to know how big your tile bed is. Unfortunately, to know whether
it is large enough, you need detailed knowledge of the soil structure
in the tile bed area.
For this self-inspection, it is more practical to look at how the tile
bed is working. To check for signs of poor performance or aging you should
walk all over the tile bed, and look for:
damp areas on or around the tile bed area
spongy areas on the tile bed
areas of uneven plant growth
wet spots on the ground surface
wet spots on the sides, if the tile bed is in a raised mound of
Inside the dwelling, pay attention to whether fixtures drain slowly,
indicating the the tile bed is not able to dispose of sewage quickly.
If you have removed the lid from your septic tank, watch to see if the
liquid level in the tank is higher then the bottom of the outlet pipe
from the tank.
Bed is properly located
Bed is too close to buildings or property lines
Bed is too close to wells, lake, or other watercourses
What To Do
Did you find problems? Some can be corrected by replacing or repairing
a part of the system yourself or by having the work done by a qualified
contractor. Please note that to make some of these corrections, you must
obtain a Permit from the Health Unit prior to making the repair or replacement.
Check the chart for a summary.
|I Found a Problem !
|| Permit Required?
|Tank baffles missing
|Tank corroded or leaking
|Tank too small
|Tank overflows or backs up
||Have tank pumped
|Check for blockage between tank and tile bed
|If tank is undersized, replace tank
|Tile bed too close to water, wells, or property
|Tank drains slowly into tile bed
||see "tank overflows" above - replace
|Tile bed has damp or spongy spots
||divert surface water away from tile bed, reduce
water use inside building
|may indicate that bed is starting to fail; replace
|Tile bed overgrown
||remove brush and trees
|Tile bed surface eroded
||replace eroded soil
|Sink or outdoor shower empties onto ground
||connect to septic system, or remove the fixtures
My Septic's Okay, but I Know of One That's Not...
you know of a septic system that is leaking or ponding on the ground,
but the owner won't correct it, you can report it in confidence to the
Health Unit or the Township Building Inspector. Your name will not be
to the Health Unit at:
County-City Health Unit
10 Hospital Drive