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A short guide to septic tanks: price, maintenance and operation

Last modified: 2021-08-10 | Approximate reading time 6 mins

Amanda Harvey

For any property that's not related to the sewer system in place, the construction of a septic system is necessary. To demystify how it operates on top of the recommendations required to protect it from breakage, we offer you the following article.

Septic tank: how does it work?

First, the wastewater arrives inside the septic tank, which is a reservoir buried in the ground where the water is stored. It has two compartments which make it possible to separate liquids from solid matter. For your information, septic tanks are created out of concrete, fibreglass or polyethylene. Their size can vary between 2300 and 5500 litres. Although it was once possible to build them out of metal, this hasn't been allowed since 1980.

The tank contains bacteria that make possible the digestion of the organic matter by liquefying the solids and settling and eliminating the impurities present. Liquids pass through the liquid compartment and then into the purifier (also known as an "absorption bed" or "purification field") through a distribution box or pipe. Residual solids and grease remain in the septic tank.

The treatment unit consists of a network of perforated pipes installed in a layer of gravel to release the wastewater into the added soil. The microorganisms present in this absorption bed contribute to the biodegradation process. This purifying element's main role is to eliminate suspended matter and microbes that remain in the water.

To ensure optimal purification of the wastewater, the water undergoes a second and a third treatment by the purification element.

Soumission_Rénovation "fosse septique de grande taille"

Photo: Wikipédia

Signs of a problem with your septic tank

Several signs may allude to a problem with your septic tank, such as:

  • a foul odour escaping from the ducts ;
  • a black liquid appearing on the surface of the ground ;
  • a very green and spongy turf that covers the area of ​​the leaching field ;
  • particularly slow draining water from the toilet, sink or shower ;
  • if your system has one, a pump that runs intermittently ;
  • the presence of bacterial contamination inside the septic tank.

Ensure the proper functioning of the septic tank

The proper functioning of the septic tank involves several measures, these include:

  • change it every 2 years (for year-round use) or every 4 years (for seasonal use) ;
  • protect the septic field ;
  • control the amount of water discharged ;
  • maintain the system.

Emptying your septic tank

About emptying, we should note that it’s necessary to prevent solids and fats from accumulating inside the tank and compromising it from functioning properly. 

After emptying, it’s important to know that it’s useful to leave a layer of mud in the bottom of the tank, as this helps keep a certain amount of bacteria inside of it. This has a very precise function, namely that of helping to reduce the quantity of sludge present in the tank and therefore, to reduce the amount of cleaning the tank requires.

A good indicator to determine if cleaning is necessary is to observe the amount of sludge present in the septic tank: if it reaches 30 centimetres or higher, your septic tank needs to be cleaned. Ideally, have your septic tank emptied during the summer. If you wait until later, the bacterial flora won’t have enough time to rebuild before the cold weather arrives.

Protection of the purification field of your septic system

To ensure that nothing comes to crush the pipes or that the soil is not compressed, it’s necessary to avoid installing or construction above the purification field such as on a terrace or a patio. Damaging the pipes would be fatal for the proper functioning of the septic system, as the purification field can no longer function properly.

Control of the amount of evacuated water 

Controlling the amount of water has two main dimensions: reducing water consumption and avoiding using a large amount of water in a short period. The first happens when there’s a lack of decomposition of organic matter, occurring when the water flow is too high inside the septic tank. To reduce the amount of water, put these tips into practice:

  • use your washer to do regular-sized loads of laundry only ;
  • start your dishwasher only when it’s full ;
  • fix leaky faucets ;
  • avoid the use of garbage disposal ;
  • install water-saving devices in plumbing fixtures ;
  • decrease the number of baths (it would be better to take showers).

In regards to using too much water in a short time, it’s not recommended since it keeps solid particles in suspension which are then transferred to the scrubber element.

Also, make sure that the drains and gutters aren’t routed to the septic tank and the purification element, as this will create too much water. Finally, you should know that the use of a water softener is not recommended due to the overload of water it causes and its excessive concentration of minerals.

Soumission_Rénovation "Excavation pour l'installation d'une fosse septique"

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Maintenance of the septic tank

As a first step, it’s important to maintain the interior of the tank using products specifically designed for this purpose. These are used to prevent the obstruction of pipes. Following this idea, it is also recommended to clean the pipes to loosen any residues stuck on the walls while eliminating scale, as this can be very damaging to the proper functioning of the septic tank.

Lastly, it’s recommended that you clean the filters of your septic tank as well as the pre-filter, these can be found on the liquid side of your tank. You can simply rinse them off using a garden hose. As the pre-filter is more difficult to remove, tie a string to its end to be able to lift it easily. We’d recommend taking on this cleaning process every fall.

The lifespan of a septic tank

As we previously pointed out, septic tank installation is a very expensive project. This is why anyone wishing to have this system installed should be curious about its longevity. To answer this question, their lifespan varies between 20 and 25 years.

In this regard, you should know that the lifespan of a septic system is closely dependent on the quality of its installation. Therefore, it’s essential to entrust this project to an experienced professional holding the licenses required to carry out the installation following the industry standards.

What products are prohibited in the septic tank?

We recommend avoiding several products if you want to keep your septic tank in good condition. The first concerns those that could reduce bacterial activity such as disinfectants (bleach), motor oil, solvents, paints or other chemicals used to unblock plumbing as well as wash water that has traces of water softeners.

Be aware that cleaning products, phosphate-based detergents and soap cause algae growth in rivers and surrounding water sources. Moreover, phosphate-based products are very damaging to the life of fish.

Lastly, we should mention that all elements that aren’t degradable, such as hair, oil, grease or tissue, must be avoided.

Do you suspect a sealing issue?

Note that it’s possible to perform a fluorescein test to be sure. Fluorescein is a dye that reacts to the presence of contaminants, whether they’re on the ground or in a surrounding waterway. After the test, wait a maximum of 48 hours and then you’ll know if you have a sealing problem or not.

Septic tank and septic system: how much does maintenance cost?

As for the septic system itself (septic system and septic tank), it costs between $7,000 and $25,000, depending on the technology used for its construction.

For emptying your septic tank, you’ll have to pay between $40 and $180 (for a three-bedroom residence). If you need confirmation that your entire septic system in place does indeed comply with current regulations, the inspection will cost between $300 and $500.

Also, let's not forget to mention the cost associated with the soil analysis test, which is approximately $500. Note, however, that this price varies from one region to another.

fosse septique

Factors that influence the price of a septic tank

Taking into account that a septic system costs between $7,000 and $25,000, it’s possible to wonder why there’s such a difference between the installation rates.

To answer this very legitimate question, it should be noted that many factors will influence the total cost. Among these, let us note:

  • the type of septic system (biological reactor or biofilter) ;
  • the size of the installed system (itself depending on the flow of water to be treated) ;
  • the type of equipment used to install the system ;
  • the materials used in the project and their availability ;
  • accessibility to the site ;
  • the number of rooms in the home.

Summary table of prices

Type of service Price
Soil test around $500 (peut être variable en fonction des régions)
Septic system installation between $7,000 and $25,000
Installation inspection between $300 and $500
Emptying the septic tank between $140 and $180

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