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Your septic system

Septic systems are designed to safely recycle wastewater back into the natural environment. If you don't operate or maintain your septic system properly, it can be dangerous for your family, pose a threat to public health or the environment and affect neighbouring property owners.

A septic system has two parts: Septic system illustration

  • a septic tank
  • a septic field

How does my septic system work?

  1. The waste separates into sludge, liquid and scum.
  2. Naturally occurring bacteria break down the sludge and the scum.
  3. Solids that can't be broken down settle at the bottom and must be pumped out regularly.
  4. The liquid flows out of the tank into a network of underground pipes that drain into the septic field.
  5. Naturally occurring 'good' bacteria in the soil feed on and break down harmful chemicals and bacteria, completing the treatment process.

Septic system maintenance and care

There are things you can do to extend the life of your septic system and to enhance its efficiency.

How often should I pump out the septic tank?

Pumping frequency depends on the size of the tank, the number of people living in the house, the amount of water used and the volume of solids in the wastewater. A licensed septic system professional can help you determine the pumping frequency.

When is the best time to pump out the tank?

Pump out the septic tank in summer or early fall. This leaves enough time before winter for the bacteria to start working again.

How can I avoid putting too much water in the tank?

  • use the washing machine throughout the week rather than washing many loads on one day
  • use dishwashers and washing machines with full loads only
  • when replacing washing machines, select a model that uses less water
  • take shorter showers rather than baths
  • install water-efficient appliances and water-saving devices such as low-flow toilets, and water-saving taps and shower heads
  • fix leaks promptly
  • don't run water continuously when shaving, brushing teeth or washing fruits/vegetables.
  • keep a container of drinking water in the fridge instead of running the tap every time to get cool water
  • follow other water conservation practices

What should I keep out of the septic system?

Keep out solids that could clog up the system and chemicals that harm the good bacteria. These include:

  • hair
  • lint (install a filter on your washer)
  • cigarettes
  • prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications
  • personal hygiene products
  • cat litter
  • coffee grounds, tea leaves, egg shells and other kitchen waste
  • fat, grease, oil
  • dental floss
  • paper towels, newspaper
  • disinfectants, bleach, antibacterial cleaners
  • harmful chemicals and substances – the danger symbols (e.g., corrosive, explosive, poison, flammable) on the labels can help you identify many harmful products
    Corrosive, explosive, poison and flammable hazardous waste symbols

How do I take care of my septic field?

  • Plant grass on your septic field. Water sparingly. Do not plant large trees or shrubs, as their roots can clog the system.
  • Keep rainwater runoff away from the septic field. Keep sump pump and foundation drains away from the system as well.
  • Keep heavy vehicles and equipment off your field.
  • Don't build over the septic field.
  • Insulate your system against the cold. Let the grass grow longer to hold the snow or put down a layer (20-30 centimetres / 8-12 inches) of loose hay or straw.

How long does a septic system last?

With proper care and maintenance, your septic tank and field should provide many (20 - 25) years of service. Considering the soil conditions in the Winnipeg area, septic fields can fail in 5 - 10 years if they aren't maintained properly.

How can I tell when my septic system is failing?

Watch for these warning signs...

  • Sewage surfacing on lawns or in ditches
  • Smell of raw sewage around the yard
  • Sewage backing up into toilets, tubs or sinks
  • Plumbing fixtures draining slowly
  • Soft areas or patches of lush growth on top of the septic field
Never enter a septic tank.

Use a licensed professional for any septic repairs or service. Deadly gases are present in a sewage holding tank.

Is there anything else I can do?

  • Use biodegradable or environmentally friendly cleaning products.
  • Install an effluent filter in your septic tank to help prevent solids from clogging your septic field.
  • Don't use a garburator; it can double the amount of solids in your tank.
  • Keep a record of inspections, septic tank pump-outs and any repairs or service.

Contact Manitoba Conservation Icon indicating a link which will open up a new browser window and take you to a Web site outside of the City of Winnipeg's Web site. To return to the City of Winnipeg Web site, close the new browser window. at 204-945-7100 for more information.

Last updated: March 13, 2014