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Making Sense of Septic

Understanding and maintaining a household wastewater system

Unless your residence is connected to a municipal sewer service, a private sewage treatment system is all part of home ownership and owners are responsible to ensure systems operate properly and safely. 

If you are such an owner, you are one of about 600,000 Albertans contributing on average, per person, 340 litres (about 85 gallons) of sewage daily. 

Malfunctioning septic systems are the third most common source of ground water contamination. Properly operated and maintained septic systems protect our drinking water, our favorite fishing holes and the lakes and rivers we use for recreation.

Knowing how systems function including what should or should not go down the drain and why, the importance of regular cleaning and inspections, will help mitigate the inconvenience, expense or harmful effects of waste and wastewater.

Here are some valuable tips.

The only thing that goes in the toilet, other than the obvious, is toilet paper. Wipes (even with the label ‘flushable’), hair, dental floss, pills, dead (or live) fish, disposable diapers, feminine hygiene products, cigarette butts and condoms should never be flushed.

Never pour fats or grease down the drain as these will, over time, clog and potentially damage your septic system components such as pump, backflow preventer and field piping.

Keep vehicles and equipment off your drainage field. The weight of vehicles or large equipment could damage buried pipes or disrupt underground flow. 

Avoid putting too much water in a system in a short time period.  A tank that has not been pumped out recently can easily be overloaded causing solid material to overflow into the water chamber.  Pumps and piping can fail as a result. 

If your treatment system has not yet been installed, plan to observe the installation process so you can understand more about how the system works.

Avoid using a "starter” to initiate bacterial growth following tank pumping. Yeast or similar products can cause harm to a septic field. For a newly installed tank, filling it with hot water before use will usually be enough to initiate bacterial growth.

Overuse of household chemicals, detergents, drain and toilet bowl cleaners can harm the bacterial action in a septic tank, slowing the breakdown of solids causing a faster and greater accumulation in the primary compartment.

Garburators introduce excess green material into a system and only contribute to building up solids and increased pumping of tanks.

The most common tank design has two compartments. The primary compartment allows solids to settle and break down while retaining scum and other floating materials from entering the second chamber. The second chamber releases effluent devoid of solids to the field, mound or outflow.

More elaborate systems involve a third chamber and grinder with a goal to discharge cleaner, relatively speaking, water.

In a properly functioning system, sewage is digested by anaerobic bacteria present in human waste. These bacteria thrive in a warm, wet, dark environment and devoid of fresh air. They establish spontaneously in a properly functioning tank, helping to break down the solids in the primary compartment.

Sediment buildup is determined by tank size and amount of use. Bacterial action is a slow process, collecting over time and requiring removal. A household of three or less likely requires pumping once every two years while yearly cleaning may be necessary for larger households.

Additional resources can be found through the Alberta Onsite Wastewater Management Association (AOWMA), an AOWMA certified installer or Alberta Municipal Affairs. 

Better yet, plan to attend a Septic Sense workshop on February 27 offered through the coordinated efforts of AOWMA and the Land Stewardship Center. With technical instruction through AOWMA you will receive information on regulations, design and installation, troubleshooting and more.  

Upcoming Events

  • Septic Sense Workshop on February 27 - This informative workshop will take place at 6:00 pm at Canalta Hotel, Rocky Mountain House. Learn how you can properly manage and maintain your septic system. Includes light supper. For more information and to pre-register call 403-845-4444.
  • 4th Annual Realtor Workshop on March 6 - Sponsored by Clearwater and Red Deer Counties, this year’s event features "Serious about Soil” focusing on how soil diseases, health and fertility determine farmland value and "Beyond Bricks and Mortar,” exploring how naturally occurring or introduced habitat such as deciduous or coniferous vegetation and water features add value to farmsteads and acreages. March 6, 9:30am – 12:30pm in Red Deer, includes lunch. Pre-registration required by calling 403-845-4444.
  • Tree Seedling Program Application Deadline April 20 - Spruce tree seedlings for shelterbelt or woodlot rejuvenation are available for pre-purchase with June delivery.  One-year old trees are grown from seed harvested west of RMH. For more information and to complete an application form call 403-845-4444.
  • Strengthening watersheds one acre at a time - The Caring for my Land program is moving into year two with funding for projects that benefit land and water.  The criteria and funding for this program comes from the Alberta government’s Watershed Restoration and Resiliency Program which aims to mitigate the impacts of flood and drought.
  • Alberta is working with the Federal and other Provincial governments to develop a new five-year agricultural policy framework to replace Growing Forward 2 which expires March 31, 2018. Ideas can be shared about the future of provincial and national agriculture program through an online survey.  The survey calls for discussion on markets and trade, science, research and innovation, risk management, environmental sustainability and climate change, value-added agriculture and agri-food processing and public trust.  Survey results from May 8, 2017 can be found here:
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