Frequently Asked Questions–with frequently given answers

Q. Why do septic systems fail?

A. The variables that affect the workings of a septic system are numerous. Each single component of the system can cause a system breakdown. Mechanical malfunctions (pumps, electrical, piping, structure etc.) are relatively easy to fix by replacing the component. The more difficult issues are problems with healthy septic tank action and leaching bed saturation. These issues can be caused by the way the system is being operated/used (water load, disposal of harmful compounds into tank) or the soil saturation in the leaching bed.

Time will eventually catch up with any conventional leaching bed (tile bed). Whether this is 20 years or 60 years depends on the installation quality, maintenance (regular pump out), usage and the type of soil it was installed in.

The main reason why properly functioning leaching beds can eventually fail is called BIOMAT. When wastewater enters the soil from the drain pipe, the natural process of digestion produces a dark grey slime layer under the pipe called a biomat. It’s like a mucus of microbes and bacteria that help in the treatment process of the water trickling through. Oxygen permeating into the soil retards the growth of the biomat but, depending on the soil conditions and the amount of solids making it out of the septic tank, this biomat can grow quickly and eventually clog the entire drain field.

Q. How does a septic system work?

A. The federal and provincial Ministry of the Enviroment have produced a number of publications explaining how septic systems work. Download “Septic Smart: Understanding Your Home’s Septic System” (PDF).

Q. How do I take care of my existing septic system?

A. See our Septic System Owner’s Guide page.

Q: What are Tertiary Treatment Systems?

A: These are advanced treatment technologies that treat sewage much more than a conventional septic tank. In fact, a septic tank doesn’t really treat sewage other than some anaerobic digestion. It is meant to provide separation of liquids and solids. Solids are stored in the tank until pump-out, liquid effluent is directed to the leaching bed where the soils provide the ‘cleaning’ action.

A standard for effluent quality was established to classify the level of treatment these new treatment units provide. The septic tank is a primary treatment. The first generation of advanced treatment units met secondary effluent criteria. We are now up to treatment units that meet tertiary effluent criteria as defined in part 8 of the building code, hence the term “tertiary” treatment system.

Treatment units all use oxygen to provide ‘aerobic’ treatment of the waste water and come in two basic categories:

  • Trickle bio-filter type: uses a medium through which the water flows and promotes microbial growth by providing ample surface area for water/microbial contact. The medium can be peat-moss, foam, or other type of material.
  • Bubbler / Aeration type: uses air bubbles or water agitation to force oxygen through the waste water to enable aerobic microbial action. The principle is similar to what is used in municipal water treatment plants.
  • Some systems combine both principles.

This ‘aerobic’ treatment improves the quality of the effluent to a much higher degree, thereby eliminating problematic biomat growth. Also, the amount of ‘work’ required by the natural treatment process in the soil is greatly reduced. Therefore the size of the leaching bed area and its separation from groundwater can be reduced.

Muddy Men offer advanced tertiary systems from Waterloo Biofilter, EviroSeptic, and MicroFAST. Read more about these vendors’ systems on our Septic Page.