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Septic System Self-Inspection Guide

Your 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 lakes.

• 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

3 - 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 property.

• 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)
4 bedrooms 4500 litres (1000 gallons)
5 bedrooms 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
• Occasional problem
• Regular 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:

At least... Away from....
5 metres building or other structure
15 metres well with a watertight casing to 6 metres depth (most drilled wells)
30 metres all other wells, or a spring used as a source of drinking water
15 metres lake, pond, reservoir, river, stream, or a spring not used as a source of drinking water
3 metres property line

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 sand.

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 ! Correction Permit Required?
Tank baffles missing replace baffles no
Tank corroded or leaking replace tank yes
Tank too small replace tank yes
Tank overflows or backs up Have tank pumped no
Check for blockage between tank and tile bed no
If tank is undersized, replace tank yes
Tile bed too close to water, wells, or property lines replace system yes
Tank drains slowly into tile bed see "tank overflows" above - replace system yes
Tile bed has damp or spongy spots divert surface water away from tile bed, reduce water use inside building no
may indicate that bed is starting to fail; replace bed yes
Tile bed overgrown remove brush and trees no
Tile bed surface eroded replace eroded soil no
Sink or outdoor shower empties onto ground connect to septic system, or remove the fixtures yes


My Septic's Okay, but I Know of One That's Not...

If 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 revealed.

Write to the Health Unit at:

Peterborough County-City Health Unit
10 Hospital Drive
Peterborough, Ontario