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Treatment vs Disposal

Explore the differences between treating effluent vs simply getting rid of it ...

septic
tanks

There are many different options for your septic tank. Concrete, fibreglass ...

septic
fields

Learn the options. Buried fields, mounds, at-grades, open discharges ...

advanced treatment

Technology that takes treatment to the next level. Many options ...

TREATMENT VS DISPOSAL

Out of sight, out of mind?   Eco-friendly development and responsible home and land owners should not think like this anymore.  Properly designed systems will TREAT and CLEAN wastewater, while overloaded or improperly designed systems simply DISPOSE wastewater into the ground and contaminate and destroy soils and groundwater.

 

In the past, most acreage home owners (and installers) simply put a septic tank into the ground and then buried 100′ of weeping tile per bedroom, and this served as their “septic system”.  Many are still operational today, but without first knowing the soils it is impossible to know if the system is properly sized and if proper treatment is happening.  

Soil samples - hand texturing

Investigating and hand-texturing the soils on your site is vital to achieving proper treatment.

The industry has recognized that onsite soils are what dictate how much effluent waste we can distribute over an area.  It is actually the soil and the microbes within the soil that clean our sewage.  If we overload the onsite soil beyond its capacity, effluent can surface and cause ponding. This can “drown” the microbes, saturate and destroy the soils, and treatment will not occur.  Each soil type is lab tested and we have values for each.  

 

A properly designed system will remove almost 99% of contaminants (not pharmaceuticals and other chemicals, unfortunately), and return the water back to the environment in a safe and responsible way.  Today’s regulations require each site to first have a site evaluation by a certified designer/installer.  Test pits are dug and soil samples are analyzed and sent to the lab.  (Note that perc tests are not accepted anymore in Alberta).  A certified design is then created for your unique needs and lot requirements.

what is in wastewater (sewage)?

Domestic sewage (wastewater) includes:

1) “Black Water” – everything that goes down the toilet or urinal

2) “Greywater” – everything else; from sink, dishwasher, laundry, showers, etc. 

 

There are also organics (proteins, organic material), nutrients (phosphorus, nitrogen,) and pathogens (bacteria, viruses, protozoa, helminths) in sewage.  Properly designed soil-based treatment areas will treat and remove most of these elements.

 

Pharmaceuticals (medications) as well as household chemicals are very difficult to remove from domestic wastewater, and excess use therefore should be avoided whenever possible.  Never throw old medications down the drain.  

 

Domestic wastewater does not include, and these should not enter your system:

1) Ground Water

2) Water from weeping tile or roof gutters

3) Industrial waste (paint, fuel, other chemicals and cleaners)

Two chambered Septic tank

Two-chambered septic tanks are common in Alberta.  Proper sizing is critical. 

septic tanks

Most designs today consist mainly of a septic tank and a soil-based final treatment area (FTA).  Most septic tanks have two compartments. The first compartment (Working Chamber) catches all the sewage (from toilets, showers, sinks, dishwasher, etc) from the home, and must be sized correctly to give approx 24hrs of “quiet” time to allow solids (sludge) to sink and for fats, oils and grease (scum) to float. This is the first clarification of the water. This water (effluent) then passes into the second chamber (or Dose Chamber), where it waits to be sent to the field. It can be sent to the field via a syphon/gravity setup or a pump (pressurized) setup.

During the septic system design process, it is important to think about future plans for development.  For example, if you are thinking about adding a future bedroom (home), or extra bathrooms or future capacity (office or commercial),  it’s smart to design and size the septic tank(s) and treatment area to accommodate these future plans.  It is much more economical than having to upgrade and add capacity to the system later on. 

 

As you can see above, septic tanks slowly collect and fill with the sludge and scum that separates out from the rest of the effluent.  A licensed vacuum truck needs to remove the sludge and scum on a regular basis (usually every 1-3 years).  Some people call this “septic tank cleaning” or “septic tank pumping”. 

 

Most septic tanks in Alberta are either concrete, fibreglass, or poly (plastic).  Each type of septic tank material has advantages and disadvantages.     

 

Regardless of the septic tank material, all tanks must be CSA certified.  

concrete septic tanks

Concrete septic tanks are quite popular in Alberta, especially in areas that are prone to Chinook winds that can make the ground heave and move regularly throughout the winter.  Concrete tanks typically have deeper burial ratings, some up to 5m (~16ft).  If your home or facility has a deep basement, a concrete tank might be the only option.   Concrete tanks are heavy and need special equipment to install them.  Concrete can also break down over time, but modern manufacturers mix special additives in the concrete that resists harsh soil and sewage conditions in and around the tank.   Some manufacturers warranty their concrete tanks for up to 25 years.  Concrete is robust and reliable and has been used for decades as a reliable tank product. 

This is a concrete septic tank

Concrete is popular in Alberta due to their extreme burial depth ratings

fibreglass septic tanks

Fibreglass septic tanks also have excellent resiliency against the harsh conditions that sewage and alkaline soils present.  They are not as porous as a concrete tank.  A great advantage to a fibreglass tank is that it is lighter than concrete and is easier to transport and place.  A disadvantage is usually the burial rating… unless extra reinforcement is added, most are only rated to around 2m (6ft) of burial depth.  They are not recommended where high water tables exist. 

tank

Fibreglass tanks come in many different variations

poly (plastic) septic tanks

The industry has evolved recently with stronger and better plastics.  Poly (plastic) septic tanks are an excellent option where a shallow burial (6ft or less) is possible, and/or on lots where access is difficult for big machinery.  They are normally light enough for a small backhoe or tractor to carry and install.  Not all poly tanks are equal – most high quality poly tanks will be ribbed and/or roto-molded for strength.   Poly tanks should outlast both concrete and fibreglass tanks due to the nature of the plastics involved.  They are not recommended where high water tables exist.  

Plastic septic tank

Poly (plastic) septic tanks are light and easy to transport and install

septic fields

“Septic Fields” can be used as a general term, as well as a specific term.  As a general term, it means a soil-based treatment area where effluent is distributed and undergoes the final treatment processes.  We also like to use the name ‘Final Treatment Area” or FTA to represent this.  “Septic Fields” or “FTA’s” can include buried fields, treatment mounds, LFH at-grades, or open discharges.  In Alberta, most treatment options (for residential and commercial facilities) require a FTA as part of the complete treatment process.  

buried gravity

Example of a buried trench system with washed rock and 4″ piping

Example of effluent chambers

Example of a buried trench system with effluent chambers

buried treatment field

Probably the most recognized system is the buried treatment field.  In this system, several trenches are excavated to between 2ft – 3ft deep.  A layer of washed rock is placed in the bottom of the trench and a 4″ perforated pipe is installed in the top few inches of the washed rock.  The effluent is distributed by gravity through the pipe network, which exits the perforated pipe and travels through the washed rock before it enters the soil for final treatment.  

 

Variations of a buried treatment field include using smaller diameter pipe (usually 1″ pipe with 1/8″ orifices) with a pump in the septic tank that will pressurize the effluent in the piping to help distribute the effluent more evenly throughout all the trenches.  

 

Another variation includes using effluent chambers in place of the washed rock.  Effluent chambers are a half-dome unit that creates a void space (like the washed rock) within the trenches to allow oxygen to be present as well as aid in the even distribution of the effluent in the trenches.

sand treatment mound

Although some people haven’t heard of sand treatment mounds before, they have been around for 30+ years or more.  Sand treatment mounds are used where difficult soil conditions exist (ie. shallow restrictive layers or clayey type soils).   They are an excellent (and less expensive) alternative to Advanced Treatment Units (ATU’s), and they produce the same high quality treatment and effluent.  

 

Sand treatment mounds are built on top of the existing soil; this is why it’s important not to disturb or compact the soil in the potential area where it might be built.  treat the effluent to a secondary treatment level before it enters the soil.  

A layer of sand is placed directly on the existing ground, and then a layer of washed rock (or effluent chambers) is placed on top of the sand.  Small diameter distribution piping (usually 1″) is installed on top of the gravel layer (or within the effluent chambers), and then this is all covered with a geo-tech fabric and then covered up with a sandy loam material.  Mounds can be landscaped with grass and incorporated into your existing landscaping features.  The grass needs to be mowed regularly and trees should not be planted on top of the mound as the roots can cause issues.  

 

Mounds require pressure distribution via a pump.  They cannot be fed using gravity distribution.  

 

Mounds are very reliable.  Some people question if they are more prone to freezing in the winter than a buried field.  This may or may not be the case.  All types of systems have the potential of freezing if they are not being used daily during periods of extreme cold weather.  In our experience, mounds have no problems during the winter if they are sized properly and being used daily.  

LFH At-grade septic system

LFH At-grade requires effluent chambers

LFH At-grade septic system

Chambers are completely covered in wood chips to help blend the system into the forest floor

LFH AT-GRADE

Similar to a mound, the LFH At-grade is also built on top of the existing surface.  However, there are a few extra requirements in order to qualify for the option of using this type of system. 

LFH stands for different organic litter horizons found on a forested floor (like leaves, pine cones, grasses, etc)  

L – the structures of the organic matter are easily recognized

F – the accumulated organic material is partly decomposed

H – the original structures of the organic matter are unrecognizable

First, this type of system must be located in an established, forested area.  The LFH layer must be present and visible.  Second, an Advanced Treatment Unit must be used to treat the effluent before it is sent to the LFH At-grade.  Third, pressure distribution and effluent chambers must be used.  The chambers are then completely covered in wood chips, helping it to blend into the forest floor.  

This type of system provides excellent treatment, and is perfect for the land owner that does not want to cut down or disturb their treed or forested area.

A typical At-grade will perform at a rate 4.3 times better than any subsoil absorption method. Within 2 – 6 years, the entire area of the At-grade will become infiltrated by local flora and fauna, blending it in with the surrounding terrain.  The efficiency of the At-grade is expected to improve as time passes, decomposition and growth in the area aid in the  absorption/distribution of water. The vegetation in the forest provides the best infiltration available. Areas with sloping terrain are preferred, but level areas are also acceptable.

open discharge

Open discharge systems are the very basic.  An open discharge system discharges the effluent directly onto the ground.  Because the effluent is not contained in a trench, there is a higher risk of human contact, and stricter setback requirements and restrictions.   Some of the requirements are, but not limited to:

 

  • there cannot be more than 4 parcels subdivided out of the existing quarter section
  • setbacks of 300′ from a property line, 165′ from a water source or well, 150′ from a building, 330′ from a municipal water well
  • specific types of soils only

 

Generally you would need a parcel of at least 10-15 acres to meet the setback requirements, in addition to meeting all of the other restrictions, soil types, etc.  

advanced treatment units (atu's)

Advanced Treatment Units are basically additional technologies that provide additional treatment to the effluent.  For example, septic tanks provide “primary” treatment.  ATU’s provide “secondary” treatment. 

 

Advanced Treatment Units are also known as “Aerobic Treatment Units” or “Packaged Treatment Plants”.  In almost all situations, the ATU uses some form of aerated condition to promote aerobic bacteria and organisms to grow, thrive, and consume/clean the contaminants from the effluent. 

 

ATU’s come in many configurations, but are commonly contained in a separate tank or “pod” that is installed somewhere in the treatment chain between the septic tank and the final treatment area.   

FACILITY

SEPTIC TANK

ATU

FTA

Advanced Treatment Units are required in some counties, districts, and environmentally sensitive areas.  Depending on the configuration, adding an ATU to your system might help reduce the required size of the final treatment area, which can be very helpful on small or restrictive lots. 

tech tips on septic tanks

The Ultimate Guide to Maintaining and Understanding Your Septic Tank: Everything You Need to Know

Welcome to the ultimate guide on maintaining and understanding your septic tank. In this comprehensive article, we will equip you with all the essential knowledge and tips you need to ensure the proper functioning and longevity of your septic system.

Maintaining a septic tank may not be the most glamorous topic, but it is a critical aspect of homeownership for those who are not connected to a municipal sewer system. Neglected septic tanks can lead to costly repairs, environmental hazards, and unpleasant odors. Therefore, it is crucial to stay informed and take proactive steps to keep your septic system in top shape.

In this guide, we will explore topics such as septic tank anatomy, signs of a malfunctioning system, preventive maintenance techniques, and remedies for common problems. Whether you are a new homeowner with a septic system or looking to improve your existing knowledge, this guide has got you covered.

By the end of this article, you will have a deep understanding of how your septic tank works and be armed with practical tips to ensure its smooth operation. Let’s dive in and become septic tank experts together.


How Septic Tanks Work

Understanding the basics of how your septic tank works is fundamental to maintaining it effectively. A septic tank is an underground wastewater treatment system commonly used in rural areas where municipal sewage systems are not available. It consists of a large tank made of concrete, fiberglass, or plastic, divided into two chambers. Wastewater from your home flows into the first chamber, where solids settle at the bottom and form a layer of sludge. The liquid portion, known as effluent, flows into the second chamber, where further treatment takes place before being released into the drainfield.

The key component of a septic tank is the natural biological process that occurs inside it. Bacteria and enzymes present in the tank break down the organic matter in the wastewater, converting it into gases, liquids, and solids. This process is essential for the proper functioning of your septic system. Without it, the accumulation of sludge and scum can lead to clogged pipes, backups, and system failure.


To ensure the efficient operation of your septic tank, it is crucial to be mindful of the types of materials you dispose of down the drain. Avoid flushing non-biodegradable items, such as diapers, wipes, and feminine hygiene products. Additionally, excessive use of antibacterial soaps and harsh chemicals can disrupt the natural bacterial balance in your tank, inhibiting the wastewater treatment process. Proper maintenance and regular inspections are vital to keep your septic tank functioning optimally.


Signs of a Septic Tank Problem

Recognizing the signs of a septic tank problem early on is crucial to prevent further damage and costly repairs. Ignoring the warning signs can lead to sewage backups, foul odors, and potential health hazards. Here are some common indicators that your septic system may be experiencing issues:

  1. Slow draining sinks, showers, and toilets: If you notice that water is draining slowly or your toilets are not flushing as efficiently as before, have a look into the tank to see if the liquid levels look normal.  If so, then this is normally a sign that there is an issue in the main sewer line between the house and the tank (clogged, sagged, or broken).  If the levels in the tank look high (water is passing overtop the baffle wall), this could be a sign that you have a pump or float failure or an obstruction in the line going to the septic field. 
  1. Foul odors: A properly functioning septic system should not emit strong, unpleasant odors. If you detect a persistent sewage smell around your property, it could indicate a problem with your septic tank. The presence of odors may be a sign of a leak or septic tank overflow.  Occasionally you can get odors escaping your septic tank lid if it isn’t sealed well.  Keep in mind that the septic tank normally vents back through the main vent stack in the home, so if there are any issues with the main venting in your home this could cause odors.  
  1. Lush and green patches in the drainfield: The drainfield (or treatment area) is the area where the treated effluent is distributed into the soil for final treatment. If you notice unusually green and lush patches of grass in this area, it could be a sign of an overloaded or failing treatment field. If your home or building is using excessive water (more than the field was designed for), this can cause an imbalance in the soil’s natural absorption capacity, resulting in the overgrowth of vegetation.
  1. Standing water or pooling: If you observe standing water or pooling around your septic tank or drainfield/treatment area, it is a clear sign of a problem. It could indicate a leak, clogged pipes, or a saturated drainfield. Addressing these issues promptly is crucial to prevent further damage to your septic system and the surrounding environment.  Immediately reduce water usage in the home/building until you can have a professional assess the situation.
  1. Gurgling sounds or backups: Unusual gurgling sounds coming from your drains or toilets, along with backups, can indicate a blockage or malfunction in your septic system. These signs should not be ignored, as they can lead to sewage backups and potential health risks if left untreated.

If you notice any of these signs, it is important to contact a professional septic service provider to assess and resolve the issue. Early intervention can save you from more extensive repairs and help maintain the longevity of your septic system.

Regular maintenance and inspection

Regular maintenance and inspection are crucial for the proper functioning of your septic tank and system. Neglecting these tasks can lead to costly repairs and potential health hazards. Here are some important steps to follow:

1. Pumping: Regular pumping is essential to remove accumulated solids from your septic tank. The frequency of pumping depends on several factors, including the tank size, household size, and water usage. As a general guideline, pumping every 3-5 years is recommended for systems installed after 2009.  If your system was installed prior to 2009 a yearly pump out is recommended.  However, it’s best to consult with a professional to determine the ideal pumping schedule for your specific situation.

2. Visual inspection: Regularly inspecting your septic tank and its components can help identify potential issues early on. Look for signs of leakage, cracks, or any unusual odors around the tank. Check the drain field for any wet or mushy spots or areas with lush vegetation, as these could indicate a problem with the system.

3. Water conservation: Conserving water is not only environmentally friendly but also beneficial for your septic system. Excessive water usage can overload the tank and treatment field and hinder its effectiveness. Consider installing low-flow fixtures, fixing leaks promptly, and spreading out household chores that require significant water usage.

Remember, regular maintenance and inspection can help extend the lifespan of your septic system and prevent costly repairs. Don’t neglect these essential tasks and consult a professional if you have any concerns.

Septic tank additives and their effectiveness

Septic tank additives are products marketed to enhance the performance of septic systems. While some additives claim to break down solids, improve drainage, or reduce odors, their effectiveness is a topic of debate among experts. Here’s what you need to know:

1. Types of additives: Septic tank additives come in various forms, including biological, chemical, and enzyme-based products. Biological additives contain bacteria and enzymes that are claimed to aid in the breakdown of solids. Chemical additives aim to control odors and prevent clogs. Enzyme-based additives help break down grease and other organic matter.

2. Effectiveness debate: The effectiveness of septic tank additives is a subject of controversy. Some experts argue that a well-maintained septic system does not require additives, as the natural bacteria and enzymes present in human waste are sufficient to break down solids. Others argue that introducing foreign bacteria (additives) can cause competition problems with the native bacteria in the septic system.  Others believe that certain additives can provide benefits, especially in specific situations such as excessive grease accumulation or high water usage.  Our recommendation is to not use additives.  

3. Consultation with professionals: If you are considering using septic tank additives, it’s best to consult with professionals. They can assess your specific system and provide guidance on the most suitable additives, if any. Remember that improper use of additives can disrupt the natural balance of bacteria in your septic tank and potentially harm the system.

The effectiveness of septic tank additives is not universally agreed upon. It is crucial to weigh the potential benefits against the risks and consult with professionals before using any additives in your septic system.

Common septic tank issues and troubleshooting

Septic tank issues can arise due to various factors, including improper maintenance, overuse, or system aging. Understanding common problems and their troubleshooting techniques can help you address issues promptly. Here are some of the most frequent septic tank problems and their remedies:

1. Clogs and backups: Clogs and backups can occur in both the septic tank and the drain field. Signs of a clog include slow drains, gurgling noises, or sewage backups. To address this issue, try using a plunger or a drain snake to clear blockages in the household plumbing. If the problem persists, it may require professional assistance to inspect and unclog the septic system.

2. Drain field issues: A failing drain field can manifest as soggy areas, foul odors, or slow drainage. This can be caused by excessive water usage, compacted soil, or clogged pipes. To remedy drain field problems, reduce water usage, divert surface water away from the area, avoid planting trees or large shrubs nearby, and avoid travel over the drainfield with vehicles. In severe cases, professional repair or replacement of the drain field may be necessary.

3. Odor problems: Foul odors around the septic tank or inside the house can be a sign of a malfunctioning system. This can be caused by a variety of issues, including a blocked outlet on the tank, clogged pipes, or ventilation problems.  If the issue persists, consult with a professional to identify and resolve the underlying cause.

Remember, addressing septic tank issues promptly is essential to prevent further damage and maintain the functionality of your system. If you are unsure about the cause or solution to a problem, it’s best to seek professional help.

Septic tank replacement and installation

In some cases, septic tank replacement or installation may be necessary. This could be due to system failure, aging components, or changes in household size. Here are some key considerations when it comes to septic tank replacement and installation:

1. Professional assessment: Before considering a septic tank replacement or installation, it’s crucial to have a professional assess your existing system. They can evaluate its condition, capacity, and suitability for your household needs. Based on their assessment, they can provide recommendations for the appropriate size and type of septic tank.  Each jurisdiction has specific sizing requirements to meet current regulations. 

2. Permitting and regulations: Septic tank replacement or installation typically requires permits and adherence to local regulations. It’s essential to familiarize yourself with the specific requirements in your area. Failure to comply with regulations can result in fines or additional expenses in the future.  For example, if you install a tank that does not meet the minimum requirements for volume and certifications, you may be required to excavate and remove it at your expense. 

3. Professional installation: Septic tank replacement or installation is a complex task that should be performed by professionals. They have the expertise and equipment to ensure proper installation, including proper tank placement, connection to the drain field, and testing for functionality. Hiring a reputable septic  installer will help guarantee a successful installation and minimize future issues.

When it comes to septic tank replacement or installation, it’s vital to consult with professionals, follow regulations, and ensure proper installation. This will help ensure the longevity and functionality of your septic system.

Conclusion: Importance of proper septic tank maintenance

In conclusion, proper septic tank maintenance is crucial for the smooth operation and longevity of your septic system. Regular maintenance and inspection, understanding additives, addressing common issues promptly, and following proper procedures for replacement or installation are essential for septic system owners.

By staying proactive and knowledgeable about your septic system, you can prevent costly repairs, environmental hazards, and unpleasant odors. Remember to consult with professionals for guidance, as they can provide expert advice tailored to your specific situation.

Maintaining and understanding your septic tank may not be the most exciting aspect of homeownership, but it is an important responsibility. By implementing the tips and techniques outlined in this guide, you can ensure the optimal performance of your septic system and enjoy a worry-free experience. Here’s to a well-maintained septic tank and a smoothly running household!

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