5 mistakes you could be making with your cottage septic system

Updated: May 21, 2019

Close up on a Bathroom in a Log Cabin Photo by Mehmet Dilsiz/Shutterstock

When you’re enjoying your time at the cottage, the last thing you want to think about is your septic system. Which, unfortunately, can lead to some truly unthinkable problems. Here are some things cottage owners—and their guests— should keep in mind while at the lake, so you don’t have to think about the worst-case scenario.

Don’t flood the system

The number one cause for septic system failures is too much water flowing into it. The excess liquid flushes solids out of the tank and into the septic field, clogging the weeping tiles. For this reason, the cottage is not the place to be taking long showers. Also, don’t have a “laundry day” at the cottage. Rather, stagger loads throughout your visit or bring the laundry back to the city with you.

When you’re renovating or replacing old equipment, seek out water-conserving fixtures such as low-flow faucets and shower heads, dual-flush toilets, and high-efficiency appliances. For cottages with lots of male visitors you could even consider installing a urinal.

Don’t shock the system

“What we put into the septic has changed a lot over the years,” says Rob Davis, owner of EcoEthic Inc., in Sunderland, Ont. “It’s designed for toilet waste only, not for things like grease, greywater, antibacterial soaps, and so on. Septic tanks are getting indigestion.”

Septic systems rely on bacteria in the tank and septic field to break down the material that gets flushed into it. Harsh chemicals can actually kill the bacteria, stopping the system from doing its job.

Unless you require them for medical reasons, do not use anti-bacterial soaps at the cottage. Also, don’t use bleach or harsh chemical cleaners at the cottage. Instead, use vinegar and water, or seek out “septic safe” cleaner products.

Don’t use it as a trash disposal

This should go without saying but any septic service company will tell you it bears repeating: don’t flush feminine hygiene products and other garbage down the toilet. These non-biological items won’t break down in the tank and can start to clog it or the septic bed.

Don’t tread on the bed

Most cottagers know not to drive vehicles over the tile bed, or store heavy items on top of it. The weight can compress the soil and render the field useless. Make sure guests and renters are aware of this too, or set up obstacles to prevent vehicles from accessing the temptingly flat, open space.

You should also be careful about what types of vegetation you plant near the tank and bed. Deep-rooted trees and shrubs will seek out the nutrient-rich tile bed and clog it.

Don’t forget the maintenance schedule

Even if you follow these guidelines to a T, your septic tank will still need to be periodically pumped out. A general rule of thumb is to pump out the tank every five years, but every system will have its own requirements based on size and frequency of use.

If you suspect that your system may not be operating properly, you can buy a dye packet that you flush down the toilet. If you notice the dye seeping into the lake shortly after flushing it, you’ll need to call in an expert to diagnose the problem.

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