septic system

Part Two: Septic System 101

Welcome to the second installment of Cataraqui Conservation’s Best Practices for Source Water Protection: A Series.

This article will focus on septic system maintenance for homeowners. If you are a private landowner who lives in a rural area living outside the boundaries of municipal water and sewer works, you most likely rely on both a septic system and private drinking water system.

Utilizing best management practices for your septic system and private well will not only protect your own drinking water but help contribute to the overall sustainability of our shared drinking water sources. There are many contaminants in wastewater that can negatively impact both your health and the environment. These include bacteria, viruses, parasites, and nitrates, which if they manage to seep into your drinking water supply, such as a private well, can lead to ailments such as acute gastrointestinal illness, or worse.

A properly functioning septic system will remove most contaminants to acceptable levels, which is why the industry standard is to have your system inspected at least every three years and pumped out every three to five years. Other best management practices for your septic system include:

  • Keeping records of pumping, maintenance, and repair.
  • Diverting surface water away from your leaching bed.
  • Conserving water in your house to reduce the amount of wastewater that must be treated.
  • Keeping vehicles and livestock off your leaching bed and away from your septic tank. Their excessive weight can damage the pipes and tank.

The location of both your well and septic system is also extremely important, as treated wastewater that penetrates through soil may still contain contaminants that can enter the groundwater and travel great distances. Adhering to the Ontario Building Code’s legislated minimum separation requirements of 15 metres from drilled wells and 30 metres for dug wells are critically important. In some instances, depending on the geological conditions of the land - such as being located on a highly vulnerable aquifer where there is fractured bedrock and/or very thin overlying soil on top - it is likely necessary to exceed even the mandated distances to ensure source water and human health protection.

illustration of septic set backs on a property

If you are having a problem with your septic system, you may notice:

  • Sinks, showers, and toilets back up with sewage or drain slowly.
  • The lawn above the leaching bed is wet.
  • There is a sewage odour in your home or your yard.
  • There are soggy areas, areas with surfacing grey water, or areas with surfacing sewage on or near the leaching bed.
  • Substantial amounts of algae growth occur in or around nearby lakes or water bodies.
  • Your well water tests indicate elevated levels of bacteria, nitrates, or other contaminants.

If you suspect a problem with your septic system, start by having the system inspected by a professional installer, engineer, certified engineering technologist or registered sewage system designer. All septic systems need regular care and maintenance.

It is important to remember that anything that goes down your drain will end up in your septic system! Use best management practices, such as proper handling and disposing of noxious substances (medications, household chemicals etc.) to maintain your septic system and protect our shared drinking water sources. Remember to be SepticSmart! (Click here for more information on septic system best practices).

Next month’s installment in the series will focus on the best management practices for private well owners and will include some new and exciting initiatives being launched in the Cataraqui Source Protection Region in collaboration with your local Health Unit – stay tuned!

For more information on the best practices for source water protection and septic systems, please visit:

Homeowner Resources - Ontario Onsite Wastewater Association  |

Best practices for source water protection |

Septic systems |