Rural Septic Systems

Posted: Saturday, July 8, 2017

By Jennifer Jarvis (OMAFRA) and Deborah Brooker (OMAFRA)

Faulty septic systems are hazardous to your health, the environment...and your wallet.

If you live in a rural area or a small community or if you have a cottage, chances are you have a septic system.

After installation, homeowners with septic systems are responsible for the inspection, operation and maintenance of standard septic systems, except in isolated areas where there are mandatory septic inspections or pump outs. Regular maintenance and management will help extend the life of your system, saving you thousands of dollars in septic repairs or replacement.

There are many contaminants in wastewater that can affect your health and the environment. Regular maintenance can prevent your system from contaminating local drinking water supplies, including your well, and can protect the water quality of nearby lakes and rivers used for swimming, fishing and other recreational uses.

Be Septic Smart!

Anything that goes down the drain flows into your septic system, so you need to be ‘septic smart’ when it comes to maintaining and managing your septic system.

Good practices:

  • Know where your septic leaching bed is and plant only grass in this area
  • Keep accurate records of septic system maintenance and service calls
  • Test your well water at least three times a year
  • Divert surface water away from your leaching bed
  • Have your tank inspected and cleaned out regularly (every three to five years)
  • Conserve water to reduce the amount of wastewater that must be treated (for example, repair leaky plumbing fixtures)
  • Consider the location of your system when planning a new well

Things to avoid:

  • Planting vegetable gardens and trees in the area of your leaching bed
  • Parking cars or heavy machinery on the septic bed
  • Emptying eavestrough run-off, sump pumps and hot tub/spa water into the septic holding tank
  • Putting cooking oils or food waste down the drain
  • Flushing hazardous chemicals or pharmaceuticals
  • Using special additives that claim to enhance septic performance – you don’t need them!
  • Digging without knowing the location of your leaching bed


Failing system warning signs

Failing systems can be hazardous to your health, the environment and your pocketbook. It can degrade water supplies and reduce your property value. Some warning signs that your septic system is failing:

  • Grass growing on the leaching bed area is unusually wet or soggy or looks abnormally healthy compared to other lawn areas

  • Sinks, showers or toilets drain more slowly

  • Sewage begins backing up in drains or the toilet

  • Bacteria or nitrate contamination shows up in your well water quality tests

Spring and early summer are good times to check that your septic system is working properly. Have a professional do a thorough check of your system, and do the necessary maintenance promptly to avoid bigger issues. This is especially important when there is sudden increase in the number of people using the system, such as during summer cottage season.

The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) has a number of resources that provide information on how you can maintain your system. Visit for:

  • Four short videos with information on how septic systems work, how to take care of your system and descriptions of newer types of systems for challenging locations

  • The Rural Septic System Checklist that includes reminders of best management practices to keep your septic system working properly and a table to record maintenance activities

  • Introductions to our two booklets, “SepticSmart! Understanding Your Home's Septic System” and “SepticSmart! Advanced Treatment Systems – Alternatives to Conventional Septic Systems” that you can order through OMAFRA or ServiceOntario

For more information about rural septic systems and system maintenance, contact OMAFRA’s Agricultural Information Contact Centre at 1-877-424-1300 or

Regular maintenance can prevent your system from contaminating drinking water, and nearby lakes and rivers. Illustration from “SepticSmart! Understanding Your Home’s Septic System.”