Signs of septic system failure are usually obvious. That’s good, because this lets you know that you have a problem. But it’s bad, because these obvious signs are also usually gross. We asked Lesley Desjardins, the executive director of the Western Canada Onsite Wastewater Management Association, for the most common symptoms and causes of septic failure, and how a cottager should proceed when problems crop up. “Whenever you have any issue with your septic system, reducing water use is the first line of defence,” says Desjardins. Shorten your showers, and reduce the number of times you flush the toilet; don’t let the tap run while you’re brushing teeth or washing dishes. This probably won’t solve the problem—but it’ll keep it from getting worse until you can call in an expert.
1) Sewage is backing up into the cottage!
What causes this? Roots clogging the pipes; blockages in the plumbing; excess water from a leaking tap or running toilet; pump failure.
What should you do? Repair any leaky taps and toilets; consult a plumber; call a professional to check your pump, investigate problematic roots, and possibly clean the septic tank.
2) Sewage is surfacing on your cottage property!
What causes this? Excess water entering the system; system blockages; improper system elevation; undersized soil treatment system; pump or controls failure.
What should you do? Consult a professional; use a vacuum truck service if need be; fence off the area in the meantime.
3) You smell sewage indoors!
What causes this? A clogged roof vent pipe; incorrect plumbing that’s trapping, instead of venting, sewer gases.
What should you do? Check and clear the roof vent; consult a plumber—your pipes might need a rejig.
4) You smell sewage outdoors!
What causes this? Treatment field problems; inspection pipe cap damaged or missing.
What should you do? Check and replace damaged caps; call a professional to look at your treatment field.
5) Your septic system alarm is going off!
What causes this? Assuming there’s no reason to think that you’ve flooded the system with water: the electrical breaker for the effluent pump has been tripped; the pump is unplugged, or has failed; the controls have failed.
What should you do? Check the breaker and plugs; replace the pump.
How’s the health of your septic system? A report from the Federation of Ontario Cottagers’ Associations reveals that many Ontario systems are out of date.