Wastewater 101: What you need to know to get started


I receive a ton of calls from new homeowners or land purchasers looking to find out what they need to know about planning their septic system. Usually, the questions are:

What is the process?


How much should I budget?

Both are very valid questions. So lets talk about them.

The process.

Here in Alberta, most counties or municipal districts (MD’s) have adopted the regulations from the Alberta Private Sewage Systems Standard of Practice, which falls under Alberta Municipal Affairs. This means that a new (or upgraded) system will require a certified design to be submitted to the county or district before you can get your permit to start the installation. A designer with a provincial PSTS ticket, such as myself, creates the design after assessing the onsite soils and conditions as well as the household wastewater needs.

My designs are the entire package for a flat rate. This basically gets you everything you need to submit to receive your permit.

Once you receive your permit, you will shop around for certified installers who can complete the installation according to the design.

How much should I budget?

Essentially you have 3 parts to getting a new (or upgraded system).

1. Design work

2. Installation

3. Maintenance

The design work includes all the preliminary information gathering including the site evaluation, soil testing and lab work, county/district permitting and creation of the certified design by a certified designer. The costs associated are typically between $1800-$3000 depending on the designer or engineering firm, and/or difficult site conditions or additional considerations. Once I get your information, location, and project details I will give you the estimate.  (The cost I charge for the septic design for most residential homes is usually between $2100-$2500 depending on location in AB and complexity of the home and lot.)

Please check out my blog post Wastewater 102: Design Work for more detailed info on the design part.

Installation costs can vary greatly. For example, MD Rockyview requires Advanced Treatment Units be installed on all lots <4 acres. This can easily add $15k – $25k or more on top of a regular system. But, for the sake of this article, lets talk about a normal site, with normal soil conditions, that doesn’t require advanced treatment. As of the date of this posting, the install costs for an average 3-4 bedroom home is usually around $20k -$35k. This is an average estimate only and remember that many factors are involved. Once you have your design, an installer can give you an accurate quote.

Just a side note on this. In my experience, choosing an installer is a perfect example of “you get what you pay for”. Unfortunately there are some unscrupulous installers here in Alberta that do not do quality work (some aren’t even certified), and usually have extremely low quotes. They install a lower quality system, they don’t stand behind their work and you never see them again.

As a designer, I unfortunately see this more than I wish to report. It is never “fun” to meet a very disgruntled homeowner with a failed system that needs to start from ground zero again.

*A poor install leads to early failure of system components, voided warranties, and huge costs. If a drainfield location has been ruined by a poor install, and you are already on a small lot, the costs can quickly become VERY high to figure out an alternative solution in a now very restrictive situation*

I work with several top quality installers in Southern and Central Alberta. Ask me for my Trusted Installer list. They are all stand-up installers that do great work and stand behind their installs. If I don’t know their quality of work, they don’t get onto my list. I don’t gain anything from referring you to them other than peace of mind knowing that my design will be installed correctly.

Maintenance of your system is another cost to consider. In general, most systems are very efficient and require very little energy (or not at all) to operate. A system with a pump and control panel might cost $5-$10 per month in energy costs to operate.

Modern design regulations require that we design the tank sizing based on 3 year pump-out intervals. This means that you as long as you are using the system within its design limits, you rest well knowing that you only need to call the pumper truck to clean out the tank every 3 years. A pumper truck usually costs around $200-$300 depending on location.

If you have an ATU installed, a yearly maintenance contract is normally required. This can cost anywhere from $300-$600 per year to have a technician service your system.

If you do not have an ATU installed, it is still an excellent choice to have a yearly visit by a service technician to service your pump and clean the filters in your system. Most filters must be cleaned every year. The costs for a yearly maintenance visit for this is about 1/2 of what an ATU maintenance contract would cost.

Maintenance is key to keeping your system up and running for a very long time. It is much like a vehicle – if you don’t change the oil, it will fail prematurely. Most people don’t realize that regular maintenance on a wastewater system is normally less expensive than paying community/town sewer fees.

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