How a septic system works

For all intents and purposes, a septic system is not much different from your city or town’s sewer systems. A good septic system operates like both a mini sewer system and a micro waste treatment facility, with all waste originating from the household being released into the septic system.

The point at which your septic system ends is where the “environment” begins. What you add to your septic system and how you keep up with its maintenance are essential.

A septic system operates beneath the ground and generally is made up of a large watertight tank, and a “leaching field” where safe waste is disseminated into the soil. It is a system that naturally decomposes waste through the action of native bacteria. The bacteria simply produces in the system via the normal waste produced in the household.

What is called the “leaching field” or “field bed” is just a stretch of ground under which is a network of perforated pipes with many perforations that open into a gravel bed. In a properly functioning system, treated water enters the pipe system as it leaves the septic tank. As it drains into this bed of gravel, it is naturally pulled into the soil around it and then it evaporates. Should anything other than clear water come from the septic tank and flow into the leaching field, the leaching field and the surrounding environment will be contaminated.

What is a septic tank

The septic tank is the first stage of your onsite wastewater disposal system. Tanks are airtight/watertight and come in a variety of sizes and are usually a large buried rectangular or cylindrical container made of concrete, plastic or fiberglass. The tank is buried somewhere in your yard and accepts all the wastewater from your house.

Septic tanks have two compartments. Two compartment tanks are more efficient at settling solids from the waste water. Baffles are provided at the tank’s inlet and outlet pipes. The inlet baffle slows the incoming waste and reduces the disturbance of settled sludge. The outlet baffle reduces the solids and scum from inside the tank flowing to the field bed.

Baffles can be damaged due to corrosion, erosion or decay. As a result the solids will be allowed to escape into the drainage areas that are not designed to break down such solids, and can frequently accompanied by unpleasant sewage odors. The life of your field bed will be drastically shortened resulting in extensive repairs.

Newer tanks have an effluent filter rather than a baffle on the discharge side. This further reduces the amount of solids from entering into your field bed and extending its life, preventing a premature failure of your sewage system. See Effluent Filter System section for more details.

All tanks should have accessible covers allowing for inspection of the baffles, and for pumping the compartments. Almost all new septic systems have a septic tank lid that allows you to access your tank at the ground level. If you have an older septic system, the addition of a septic tank riser is a simple and important upgrade that we can help you with. “No More Digging Up” your lawn in order to clean or inspect your septic tank. See section on Septic Tank Riser Lids for more details.

What is a septic field

The field bed receives the septic tank effluent (liquid separated from the sludge). The field bed is a network of perforated pipes (sometimes referred to as laterals) laid in stone/gravel-filled trenches or beds in properly draining soil. The effluent (waste water) trickles out of the septic tank into the pipe, seeping through the holes into the gravel and soil filtering material were oxygen-using bacteria further break down “waste particles” before it reaches and drains into the soil.

What does septic system soil look like

The soil below the field bed, provides the final treatment and disposal of the septic tank effluent waste water. As the effluent passes into and through the soil – natural filtering organisms – chemical, physical and bacterial reactions remove remaining solids and bacteria before the fully treated water meets the underground water table. Soil filtering material allows the waste water to drain away slowly enough so that contaminants are filtered out, but also quickly enough that the bed doesn’t fill up.

It percolates downward and outward, eventually entering the ground water. A small percentage is taken up by plants through their roots or evaporate from the soil.

The septic tank is the place where the wastewater treatment begins separating sludge from liquids. Conditions in a septic tank are ideal for bacteria growth. The bacteria uses the organic waste in the tank as food. After the bacteria digest the organic waste/food, it settles to the bottom of the tank and is referred to as “sludge”.

The bacteria digests very little of the soaps, fats and grease that make their way into the tank. They are lighter than water and float to the top layer of the tank – a build up known as “scum”.

The area between the sludge and scum is called the “clear zone”. This first zone of treated wastewater moves out of the first compartment of your septic tank to the second compartment for further settling before being discharge to the field bed.

Solids that are not decomposed remain in the septic tank. If not removed by periodic pumping, these solids will accumulate until they eventually overflow into your field bed, causing field bed failure or sewage back up into your home. Most septic tanks need to be pumped every 3 to 5 years, depending on the size of your tank and the amount of solid entering the tank.

Remember the system works on natural bacteria produced by flushing natural products. You can kill the natural bacteria with some of the products you use or introduce products (wipes, sanitary napkins…) that the system cannot break down. The result could be a failure of the septic system and a backing up of sewage into your home.

A few tips to help keep your septic system working properly and protecting your family with environmentally sound waste management practices:

  • DO inspect the system regularly, complete regular maintenance and keep records
  • DO arrange for a septic service provider to maintain and monitor your system
  • DO pump out the tank on average every 3 years. This may vary depending on tank size and usage
  • DO check the baffles to insure they are in good working order
  • DO check and service/clean the effluent tank filter yearly
  • DO use the system for what it’s designed for – managing the waste water from your toilets, showers, sinks, laundry units, human waste and toilet paper
  • DO spread laundry use over the week rather than many loads on one day
  • DO frequently clean washing machine lint trap
  • DO run water regularly in seldom used drains such as sinks, tubs, showers, etc. to avoid noxious gasses from building up and causing odors inside
  • DO flush waste products regularly into your system regularly in order to sustain active microbes; infrequent use (vacant homes, extended holiday, season use only…) may not provide the bacteria in your system with enough food to sustain themselves and effectively breakdown your waste product
  • DO use water-conserving devices where possible. Low flush toilets and low flow showerheads
  • DO insure that faucets and toilets are not leaking (placing a few drops of food coloring into the tank and leaving it for several hours. The dye should not appear in the toilet bowl – if it does the tank is leaking and needs to be repaired)
  • DO use phosphate-free detergent. Phosphorus is harmful to the environment, as it can deplete oxygen which is vital to aquatic organisms and helps reduce algae problems in nearby lakes and streams
  • DO install risers from the tank lids to the soil’s surface to allow for easier regular maintenance
  • DO install and maintain effluent filters to limit the solids from entering into the field bed and helping to extend the life of your septic system
  • DO remove or prevent trees with large root systems growing near the field bed
  • DO insure that sump pump discharge is directed away from your septic system components
  • DO limit the amount of water you use and discharge into the septic system when their has been a prolonged period of when weather that has left the field bed rain-soaked – it may be too saturated for the effluent to percolate down through the soil
  • DO consult with a professional before using septic tank additives or “miracle system cleaners”. Some of this chemical can actually harm you on-site sewage system and contaminate ground and surface water
  • DO have a visual inspection done at the time of pumping when purchasing a new home


  • DO NOT dispose of prescription or non-prescription medication into the toilet or sinks
  • DO NOT discharge water from water softeners into the septic system
  • DO NOT use a garburator – garbage disposal, as it will overload the tank
  • DO NOT use excessive amounts of bleach (not every load) and avoid harsh cleaners
  • DO NOT discharge excessive amounts of water into the septic system. This is called “hydraulic overload” and it can contribute to field bed failures
  • DO NOT stress the system with multiple loads of laundry – spread laundry throughout the week
  • DO NOT clean paint brushes in the sink or pour paint down the drain
  • DO NOT pour excessive amounts of fat, grease or oil down the drain
  • DO NOT flush any of the following into your system, it cannot break these down: hair, dryer sheets, paper towels, Kleenex, baby wipes, sanitary napkins, tampons, dental floss, coffee grinds, kitty litter, cigarette butts, condoms, cloth…
  • DO NOT dispose water from hot tubs into your septic tank – drain large volumes of water away from your field bed
  • DO NOT enter the septic tank. Gases inside the tank are poisonous and the lack of oxygen could be hazardous
  • DO NOT drive over your field bed, avoid improper landscaping or building additions that encroach the field bed (i.e. pools, decks & patios)

A Septic Inspection is also known as a Service Report. The Service Report includes the following information:

  • condition of the septic tank before and after pumping
  • type of tank
  • capacity
  • condition of lids
  • evidence of water leakage
  • evidence of sewage seeping from the tank or lids
  • condition of inlet and outlet baffles

Septic odors can, but do not always, indicate that it’s time to pump your tank. A septic odor inside the house could be caused by several things.

  • Make sure that all traps (drains) have water in them. When a sink, shower or toilet is not used for an extended period of time, the trap could dry up allowing the septic gases to enter the house back through the dried trap. If a sink, shower or toilet has not been used allow the water to run for several minutes.
  • Septic odor in the house could be caused by a faulty gasket/seal around the bottom of the toilet. Check to see if gasket/seal is broken (sniff around bottom of toilet), if broken call a plumber to have it replaced.
  • If you get a septic odor outside it could be coming from the septic tank, the vent pipe on the roof or the vent pipe at the end of your field bed. Septic gases can and will escape out of any small opening.

These signs generally mean service is overdue or a problem has occurred in the system.

Some indoor signs that may be noticed are:

  • gurgling toilets and sinks
  • slow draining sinks
  • water coming up in tub or shower when the toilet flushed
  • plumbing of septic tank back ups (black liquid with a disagreeable odor)

Some outside signs may be:

  • green stripes on lawn where field bed is located, even during dry weather
  • effluent seeping to surface in the area of the field bed
  • wet spots in your field bed
  • if you have a well and water tests indicate the presence of coliform (bacteria) or nitrates may indicate a failing field bed

Pumping sludge out of your septic tank must be done on a regular basis for the health of the system. We are able to do this regularly or automatically for our clients, and as-needed. When pumping is needed depends on various factors, including:

  • capacity of your tank
  • number of people in your household or business
  • how often the shower, laundry, toilets are used
  • if inappropriate material is introduced to the system?
  • quality of design and condition of your field bed
  • the kind of soil that comprises your field bed

If there are no risers to surface, the two lids need to be uncovered allowing us to remove and replace lids at the time of pumping, inspections and/or planned maintenance.

Septic tanks contain deadly gases and should be serviced and inspected by trained professionals only. Under no circumstances enter the tank.

An effluent filter is installed on the exit side of the tank. This allows for further filtering of the waste water, preventing sludge and scum from leaving your tank. This filter will extend the life of your field bed.

Your tank is likely buried several feet under ground, which helps to eliminate the very real possibility of odor leakage. However, this means labour intensive digging, searching for the lids (access points) and possibly struggling with heavy concrete lids every time your tank needs cleaning, servicing and/or maintenance.

A septic riser enables a tank to be buried a few feet beneath the earth. The riser provides the extension that brings access of the septic tank to ground level. This allows easy access when it becomes necessary to pump out the tank, for cleaning or for inspection. You know exactly where the septic tank and its lids are located. In the long run it easier and more cost effective to have a riser installed with a lid.

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