Is your septic system operating properly?

By Jenn Watt

Published Sept. 27 2016

Despite years of education and advanced warning when WSP Canada went out to inspect septic systems in the municipality of South Bruce Peninsula one in five systems failed.

The municipality decided to implement mandatory inspections and contracted WSP to do the work.

According to Mike Varty director of environment for WSP the number of homeowners with failing systems is alarming and an indication of general misunderstanding of how private wastewater treatment works.

“There’s so many people that have systems that don’t understand the basics of how it works. Or the basic maintenance of those systems” he said during this year’s Septic Day put on by the Coalition of Haliburton Property Owners Associations and Ontario Onsite Wastewater Association.

As a result of that misunderstanding those with malfunctioning systems are potentially releasing toxic substances into the local environment and watershed. Concern for the environment is what has motivated municipalities to mandate septic reinspection programs be implemented since there is a misconception that septic systems largely take care of themselves and last forever.

The potential pollution worries CHA chairman Paul MacInnes who opened the morning of presentations at the Haliburton Legion with a warning about phosphorus.

He brought up the growing number of lakes in Ontario that have encountered the toxic blue-green algae blooms which render the water supply useless for everything from cooking and cleaning to bathing and swimming.

“The key is phosphorus controls the volume of algae. There’s a lot of other factors other nutrients light wind shallowness of the lake. We used to think if the lake was deep it wouldn’t get a bloom. That’s not happening anymore” he said.

The best way to control the amount of phosphorus in water is to maintain a septic system properly.

Rick Esselment president of ESSE Canada noted that on-site wastewater systems can be incredibly environmentally beneficial.

“The paradigm shift is we’re treating that … wastewater to a level that can be discharged back into the environment locally” he said. “You keep the water in the water cycle.”

Esselment said it didn’t seem there was enough emphasis put on the high level of responsibility left with private landowners.

“Decentralized systems are decentralizing responsibility and this is where we run into problems. Our policy in Canada and Ontario is that for anything public health and environmental health we want to centralize all responsibility to the municipality and we can’t particularly do that if we don’t connect all the pipes” he said.

“If you’re going to decentralize responsibility to the system owner the person who uses the system you have to educate them. That’s a challenging thing to do.”

He showed the group several slides of systems gone awry including one that was feeding sewage into a homeowner’s basement due to a clog.

A septic system works for about 35 to 45 years Esselment said at which point it should be considered at risk of failure.

“If you have systems that are over 35 years old they need to be inspected to make sure that the concrete of the tank is intact the baffles are in place and the soil filter continues to receive and discharge fluid through it. It’s that simple.”

Septic Day also included a presentation by Sandy Bos building inspector of the Township of Muskoka Lakes who discussed record keeping systems and the need to educate people on their systems. There was also a question and answer session for attendees who included lake association representatives and local politicians.

MacInnes said public consensus on on-site wastewater management has been changing since the last Septic Day in 2013 with more people in favour of better protecting watersheds through inspection. CHA has given out 10000 copies of a septic tip sheet and its Poop Talk video has received more than 80000 hits online. The videos are available at local libraries Century 21 offices and on the CHA website: