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Septic Systems for Dummies

Designing Your Private Wastewater Treatment System

In planning your system, a designer will . . .

  • Make a site drawing of your property and evaluate the area available for a wastewater system.
  • Evaluate the soil conditions of your property to determine its ability to accept wastewater. Under Alberta regulations, the designer will dig a test pit, take soil samples and determine the soil texture using lab tests to establish the loading rate.
  • Shown on the site drawing will be locations of other utilities including your well and the location of any public water adjacent to your property.
  • The designer will ask you to supply information on the size and use of the structures in existence or to be built, and can only design a wastewater system based on information provided.
    • Number of Bathrooms
    • Jetted tubs
    • Garburetors
    • Home based business
  • Establish a peak daily flow rate expressed in gallons-per-day that the system must be able to handle.



Understand Your new Wastewater Treatment System

Your septic system has two primary components (see Figure 1 below):

Component 1: Septic tank - The septic tank is a digestion chamber comprised of two steps in which sewage is retained and effluent is discharged (see Figure 1). The first chamber settles out the solids producing a sludge layer, which is pumped out after a certain time period. The second chamber receives the effluent from the first chamber, which is then stored and intermittently discharged to an effluent treatment system/drainfield.

Component 2: Treatment Field - A treatment field system is an effective means of distributing effluent evenly within a soil-covered trench containing void spaces. Microorganisms living in the soil then use oxygen in these voids to breakdown the effluent into safer components. These organisms need 5 ft of suitable soil below the treatment field according to the Alberta Standard of Practice.

Figure 1 - Septic field with a two-chamber septic tank.


Gravity distribution versus pressure distribution of effluent - A gravity distribution system may overload and provide soil microbes with more food than they can consume. The soil may also become saturated under a gravity distribution system and is not favourable for aerobic microbes to treat the sewage. Pressure distribution provides a more even dispersion of effluent in a disposal field or mound, resulting in a more effective wastewater treatment and extending the life of the system.


Tips for System Longevity

  • Do conserve water and spread out water use, you will allow the time needed to properly separate the wastewater in the working chamber of the septic tank or treatment plant.

  • Don’t shock the system. It is best to prevent large volumes of water from entering your tank in a short period of time.

  • Do have your system inspected (every one to three years) and pump your tank (as necessary, generally every 18 - 36 months).

  • Do use water efficiently.

  • Don't dispose of household hazardous wastes, personal hygiene products, paper towels, cigarette butts, condoms, fats, oils, and grease in sinks and toilets.

  • Do preserve bacterial activity by keeping these bacterial killers out of your tank: every-flush deodorizers, solvents, over-the-counter or prescription medications, pesticides, anti-freeze, wash water from latex paint brushes. Normal amounts of drain cleaners, cleansers, and bleaches will not harm the bacterial action.

  • Do plant only grass over and near your septic system.  Roots from nearby trees or shrubs might clog and damage the treatment field.

  • Don't drive or park vehicles on any part of your septic system.  Doing so can compact the soil in your treatment field or damage the pipes, tank, or other septic system components.

  • Do attach inspection reports and receipts for maintenance to this package as proof you have maintained your OWTS.


Troubleshooting Guide

  • Sewage backup in building: Serious health risk - avoid contact with effluent.
    Cause: Roots clogging pipes; blockage in plumbing; excess water from leaky tap; running toilet; pump failure.
    Action: Reduce water use; repair taps and toilets; consult a professional to check pump and possibly clean septic tank.

  • Sewage surfacing in yard: Serious health risk - avoid contact with effluent.
    Cause: Excess water entering system; system blockages; improper system elevations; undersized soil treatment system; pump or controls failure.
    Action: Reduce water use; consult a professional and fence area until problem is remedied.

  • Sewage odour - indoor: toxic gases can cause discomfort and illness.
    Cause: Sewage backup in house; roof vent pipe frozen closed; improper plumbing; sewage surfacing in yard.
    Action: Check and clear roof vent; consult a plumber; consult a professional to check pump and possibly clean septic tank.

  • Sewage odour - outdoors: major nuisance, no serious health risk.
    Cause: Sewage surfacing in yard; inspection pipe cap damaged or removed; manhole cover partially or fully open; treatment field is inoperable.
    Action: Check caps and replace; immediately replace and secure manhole; consult a professional to repair or replace treatment field.

  • Pump alarm activated: wastewater may back up into house, solids may enter treatment field.
    Cause: Electrical breaker tripped; pump unplugged; controls malfunctioning; pump failed.
    Action: Check breaker and plugs; consult a professional to check controls and alarm, replace pump.

  • Distribution pipes/soil treatment system freezes in winter: system may be inoperable.
    Cause: Foot or vehicle traffic over piping; improper construction.
    Action: Fence off field area, have a professional check construction.


Safety and Your Wastewater System

  • Never enter a tank
    You would probably be dead from noxious gases before you reached the bottom of the septic tank. Extreme care should be taken even when inspecting or just looking in the tank.

  • Keep the tank lid secure
    Secure and regularly inspect lids to prevent deliberate or accidental entry. Keep children and pets away from the tank during servicing and cleaning.

  • Prevent electric shock and explosion
    Explosive methane and other gases are produced by your system. Do not smoke, use electric lights or power tools, or allow flame or sparks near your septic tank and treatment field.

  • Avoid infectious diseases
    Contact with the liquid, sludge and scum in the tank may cause infectious diseases. Wash thoroughly after any contact with your system.

  • Mark the system location and keep heavy vehicles and equipment off
    Do not park, drive or operate any heavy vehicle on your tank or treatment field.

  • Keep fertilizers and flammables out of the system.
    The risk of explosion occurs if fertilizers or petroleum products are placed in your system.

  • Smell of sewer gas in your home
    If you can smell sewer gas in your home, call a plumber. If the smell of noxious gases is strong, evacuate the building. A sewer gas smell outside is a nuisance but normally poses no risk.


Providing all Albertans with professional service that
protects human health and the environment

For more information visit:

Handbooks and Standards of Practice for Private Sewage may be
ordered from the Learning resources Centre Toll Free
province-wide number 310-0000 then 780-427-2767.



Download the Wastewater Treatment System Maintenance Record

Download and print this PDF form and keep track of when you services your septic tank. Make the most out of your investment.



Reference: Owner’s Manual Alberta Onsite Wastewater Management Association, 2009.



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