Report reveals 41 per cent of Ontario septic systems have major deficiencies

Septic System Photo by Shutterstock/KaliAntye

A report released by the Federation of Ontario Cottagers’ Associations (FOCA) revealed that many of Ontario’s septic systems are outdated and in need of a re-inspection. According to data collected by ESSE Canada, a company that serviced septic systems for over 370 Ontario clients between 2015 and 2017, 41 per cent of those septic systems had major deficiencies that impeded the function and performance of the system. These deficiencies included issues such as heavy corrosion, structural failure, and a buildup of solids.

“What we found out is that there are a lot of systems that aren’t functioning as they were originally intended to,” says Terry Rees, FOCA’s executive director. “If you don’t look, you don’t know, and people don’t always know what to look for. Some sort of formal re-inspection program can be useful to discover deficiencies before they cause bigger problems.”

There are approximately 250,000 waterfront properties spread across Ontario, most of which rely on septic systems to manage their waste water. These rural residential septic systems are regulated under the Ontario Building Code, but according to the FOCA report, 56 per cent of them were installed more than 20 years ago. “These systems, when you look at them, they’re old and some of them have never been looked at,” Rees says. “After the building inspector has said it’s been properly installed and built, they never come back.”

Septic systems are designed to remove contaminants, such as organic solids, bacteria, and viruses, without preventing the release of nutrients. A poorly maintained septic system, however, can result in waste water leaking from your septic tank and contaminating nearby drinking water in your well or even swimming areas like your lake, not to mention bringing your property value down.

To combat these potential issues, FOCA is advocating for septic system re-inspection programs in Ontario municipalities. “The septic system is actually a system where it’s constantly in use and needs to be maintained in order for it to continue to function,” Rees says. “Re-inspection is one way to approach this.”

Rees adds that many municipalities have already started re-inspection programs. The FOCA report outlines case studies with four municipalities that have implemented re-inspection programs: the Township of Leeds and the Thousand Islands, the Municipality of Callander, the Township of Rideau Lakes, and the Township of Tiny.

The case studies revealed that outreach and education measures through events like public meetings have a major impact on making homeowners and cottagers aware of the responsibility of having a properly functioning septic system. The re-inspection programs also helped reduce the risk of contaminated drinking water and ensured properly maintained septic systems, raising property values.

During the re-inspection process, the most common reasons found for a septic system to fail included overuse, improper maintenance, driving vehicles over the distribution bed, planting trees over the leaching bed, the age of the system, and improper installation.

The average cost of a septic system re-inspection ranged from $100 to $350, depending on the location and type of inspection. For example, the Township of Tiny charged just under $100 while Rideau Lakes recovered the costs through residential taxes.

The re-inspections were also conducted by different organizations, depending on the municipality. Out of the four case studies, Rees says, “one was a health unit; one was a conservation authority; another one was a special office that was related to the conservation authority; and the other one was a private engineering firm.”

While many municipalities understand the importance of septic system re-inspections and are instigating programs, just as many are not. “Some, it’s not even on their radar,” Rees says. But he reiterates that this should not stop cottagers from having their septic systems checked out every few years.

“Go out in your backyard and figure out where your septic system is and whether it’s doing what it’s supposed to be doing,” he says. “If you can’t do it, there’s people who are around to help. There are professionals who service these things. They’re in the Yellow Pages. Look them up and get them out there just to take a look.”

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