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This section lists useful resources and tools that may be helpful to homeowners looking for wastewater services.
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Septic Sense

The Association provides a program for homeowners entitled Septic Sense, which explains how to properly operate and maintain their septic system.  Webinars or public meetings where this information is presented are arranged by regional districts, homeowner associations, and other interested groups.  Check our calendar of events to find a Septic Sense in your community.


In planning your system, an Installer/Planner/Designer must:

  1. Make a site drawing of your property and evaluate the area available for a wastewater system. He/she will attempt to create a design that preserves the landscaping and natural elements of your property.
  2. In the site drawing, the planner/designer will show the location of other utilities including your well and the location of any public water adjacent to your property.
  3. The planner/designer will evaluate the soil conditions of your property to determine its ability to accept and treat wastewater. The soil texture will be assessed in the field and confirmed with a laboratory analysis. In some jurisdictions either a percolation test or a permeameter test may be performed at the treatment site to confirm the effluent hydraulic loading rate. The quality of the domestic water supply will also be considered since sodium, iron and other components of well water are a factor in system design.
  4. The planner/designer will ask you to supply information on the size and use of the structure in existence or to be built. In the case of a residence, the area of the structure, the number of bedrooms and the expected occupancy will be a factor in design. If the home has high volume water use appliances, will be used for high water use activities, and/ or will be used for a home-based business, the capacity to accept the additional wastewater will be designed into the system.
  5. The planner/designer will establish a peak daily flow rate expressed in gallons or litres per day the system must be able to handle. The flow rate must meet or exceed the minimum standard specified by the provincial regulatory framework.

After completing the tasks above, the planner/designer will recommend one or more systems suitable for your property based on the flow rate, the land area available, the site and soil conditions and the presence of adjacent public water.

A system design that meets or exceeds the requirements of the provincial regulations must be submitted to the authority having jurisdiction in order to obtain either a permit from the permitting authority prior to construction or acceptance of the filing by the health authority.

Once the system design paperwork has been submitted to the appropriate body and accepted, then the installation may begin. In most jurisdictions an inspection of the system is required prior to completion. In the absence of a requirement for final inspection as-built drawings and a Letter of Certification from the installer will be required.

There are five types of systems commonly in use in Western Canada. They are:

  • Septic tank and soil treatment component such as a treatment field
  • septic tank and a sand treatment mound
  • Advanced treatment unit and soil treatment component
  • Open Discharge (also called Ejector systems) (not permitted in BC)
  • Advanced treatment unit and at-grade soil treatment component

Tank And Field

Standard soil-based treatment systems use a septic tank for initial treatment. The household plumbing collects wastewater and sends it to the septic tank which acts as a separation chamber. Heavy particles separate from the wastewater and settle to the bottom to form a sludge layer. Lighter particles, mainly soap, grease and toilet tissue separate and float to the top to form a scum layer. Using a baffle device the clearest liquid from the center of the tank flows by gravity to the effluent dosing chamber. A pump or siphon in the effluent dosing chamber will deliver the effluent to the final soil treatment component, in this case the septic field.

Tank And Sand Mound

As discussed above, the household plumbing collects the wastewater and sends it to the septic tank where it is separated into the three layers, sludge, scum and wastewater. Once the wastewater enters the effluent dosing chamber of the septic tank, the pump in the effluent dosing chamber delivers the effluent to the mound system. In a mound, pressure distribution pipes are placed in a bed of aggregates or chambers with a 12” layer of sand below. The wastewater is pumped into the pressure distribution system and sprays into the sand layer, where aerobic bacteria cleans the water. A sand mound receiving primary treated effluent (Type 1) must be above ground and must have a separation of three feet (AB, SK & MB) or two feet (BC) between the bottom of the sand layer and a restrictive layer or water table. Sand mounds receiving secondary treated effluent (Type 2) may have a reduced sand layer depending upon the regulatory requirements in the  jurisdiction in which it is installed.  Mounds must be landscaped with grass and be regularly maintained in order to have improved efficiency.

Advanced Treatment Plant

Other options for initial treatment components are manufactured packaged sewage treatment plants. They may have components, such as textile filter systems and aeration devices. These components, like a septic tank, will receive all the wastewater generated by the facility they serve. These systems will produce cleaner effluent and are considered to be advanced treatment systems. Cleaner effluent increases the percolation rate of effluent through soil pore spaces during the final treatment component.

Open Discharge Or Ejector Systems

Open discharge systems are sometimes used on farms or acreages. In this system waste enters the septic tank and the wastewater is discharged through a pipe system onto the open property. There are strict provincial guidelines on size of property required to run a direct or open discharge as the discharge must occur a certain distance from the property line and any water source on the property or within a certain radius of the discharge. Refer to the regulations for the jurisdiction the system is located in to obtain information on the requirements and restrictions regarding open discharge systems.

Advanced Treatment And At Grade

The At-Grade effluent treatment and disposal system is a method of accomplishing the final treatment and disposal of effluent from an advanced sewage treatment plant. The At-Grade is arranged utilizing pressurized distributional laterals above virgin ground surface. The pressurized pipe is supported 1 ½ inches above ground surface utilizing feet spaced every meter along the length of the pipe. The pressurized lateral is then covered with a 4 – 6 inch insulated shield. The entire assembly is then covered with wood chip cover or leaf mold or peat moss. The width will vary between 3 and 6 feet depending on slope and terrain variables.

Freezing is avoided by adequate cover, proper timed dosing, and proper drainage of pipes. All of these parameters are site specific and require specialized training to accomplish this task. At-grade systems are not allowed in all jurisdictions and may require a variance for installation.

A typical At-Grade will perform at a rate 4.3 times better than any subsoil absorption method. Within 2 – 6 years, the entire area of the At-Grade will become infiltrated by local flora and fauna, blending it in with the surrounding terrain. The efficiency of the At-Grade is expected to improve as time passes, decomposition and growth in the area aid in the absorption/distribution of water. Research indicates that At-Grades out perform all other methods of final treatment in high water table areas and tight clay soils.

At-Grades perform best in treed areas where protection from wind and vehicles is greatest. The vegetation in the forest provides the best infiltration available. Areas with sloping terrain are preferred, but level areas are also acceptable.

Understanding Your Wastewater Treatment System

Your system safely treats wastewater and returns it to the ground.  After installation and inspection, the safe operation and regular maintenance of your OWTS are your responsibility.  Your system is more than a simple tank – it is a utility and our homeowner’s manual will help you understand and operate it.


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 dispersal 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; dry plumbing trap; 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; dispersal field is inoperable.

Action: Check caps and replace; immediately replace and secure manhole; consult a professional to repair or replace dispersal field. Sewage surfacing in the yard is a health hazard. Avoid contact with effluent.

Pump Alarm Activated

Wastewater May Back Up Into House, Solids May Enter Dispersal Field.

Cause: Electrical breaker tripped; pump unplugged; controls malfunctioning; pump failed.

Action: Limit water use immediately. Check breaker and plugs; consult a professional to check controls and alarm, replace pump.

System Freezes In Winter

Distribution Pipes/Soil Treatment System Freezes In Winter: System May Be Inoperable.

Cause: Foot or vehicle traffic over piping; improper construction or use of system.

Action: Fence off field area, have a professional check construction.

Why Maintenance Matters

When wastewater treatment systems are properly designed, constructed, and maintained, they effectively reduce or eliminate most human health or environmental threats posed by pollutants in household wastewater. However, they require regular maintenance or they can fail. Systems need to be monitored to ensure that they work properly throughout their service lives.

Save Money

A key reason to maintain your wastewater treatment system is to save money! Failing systems are expensive to repair or replace, and poor maintenance is often the culprit. The onsite wastewater practitioner or authorized person who planned and installed your system should have provided you with a maintenance plan. Having your system inspected regularly, according to the recommended maintenance schedule in the maintenance plan, is a bargain when you consider the cost of replacing the entire system. Your system will need pumping periodically, depending on how many people live in the house and the size of the system. An unusable wastewater treatment system or one in disrepair will lower your property value and could pose a legal liability.


Do not pave your dispersal field or drive or park on it as these activities compact the soil and damage field performance. Nothing heavier than a riding mower should be allowed on the field. Also avoid putting pathways or planting anything other than grass on top of the field.

Vegetation Cover

A field performs best if covered with grass and mowed regularly. The grass cover and landscaping that channels rainwater away from the field improves its performance. Avoid landscape plastic or fabric under mulch as this can reduce the necessary air exchange in the drainfield soil. Mulch and bark are not recommended since they can reduce air exchange and retain water. Trees and shrubs generally have extensive root systems. This can interfere with or cause damage to your septic system. Consult with an expert before planting trees near a drainfield.


Livestock should never be grazed over a septic system.  In the winter livestock can trample and muddy the soil; in the summer they can compact it.  Both of these can decrease the soil’s ability the exchange oxygen and reduce the effectiveness of your septic system.

Surface Water Diversion

Direct water flowing from drains, downspouts, driveways, sump pumps away from your dispersal field as it must remain unsaturated for the bacterial action to take place.

Consult a Certified Installer (AB, SK & MB) or Authorized Person (BC) before major landscaping is undertaken. Changing the slopes and elevations near your system can negatively affect its performance.

Advanced Treatment Systems

Mounds, Sand Filters, Textile Filters And Package Treatment Plants

If one of these advanced treatment systems has been installed as part of your system it requires regular maintenance by a trained professional. Your Homeowner’s Manual or Maintenance Plan will provide you with additional information on the operation and maintenance of the unit. Common maintenance includes: cleaning filters, resetting controls, assessing sludge levels and inspecting and cleaning orifices and screens.

Things To Keep In Mind

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 in sinks and toilets.

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

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

Tank Cleaning

New home installation – Pumping the tank should occur within 6 to 12 months of start-up. Often wastewater from a new home contains residues from painting, varnishing, staining and cleaning which reduce bacterial activity and increase the risk of solids damaging your soil dispersal system.

Established home – Pumping will be needed on a regular basis under normal use. When the tank is pumped, be present to observe the level of sludge and scum so you can adjust your cleaning schedule. Sludge should not rise higher than one-third the depth of your tank.

Septic tanks require bacterial action in order to function properly. Pumping your tank out every twelve months or less will negatively impact the efficiency of your system. If you must pump your tank more often than every 12 months you should increase your system capacity or decrease the wastewater sent to the system.

Seasonal Use – If the septic system receives little or no use during the cold months, do not pump the tank dry. It is best to leave about one foot of liquid in the tank to maintain the bacterial action that produces heat which reduces the risk of damage from freezing.

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.

Location & Weight Limits

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.

Fertilizers & Flammables

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.

Avoid Hazardous Products

The following products are hazardous and are not able to be treated by your wastewater system:

  • Pesticides
  • Antifreeze
  • Fertilizers
  • Paint including latex solvents
  • Prescription medications
  • Degreasers
  • Gasoline, oil, grease
  • Chemicals


The onsite wastewater industry in Alberta is regulated by Alberta Municipal Affairs through the Safety Codes Council, Safety Services division. Professionals working in the onsite industry follow the Alberta Private Sewage Regulation and the Alberta Standard of Practice mandated by these government bodies.

For more information on the regulations or for a copy of the Alberta Standard of Practice, please visit the Safety Codes Council website at:

British Columbia

The onsite wastewater industry in British Columbia is regulated by the Ministry of Health.  Professionals and authorized persons working in the onsite industry follow the British Columbia Sewerage System Regulation (SSR) and British Columbia Standard of Practice.

For more information on the regulations, the SSR is available for viewing at:

Copies of the BC Standard Practice Manual and Appendices are available online at or in hard copy from WCOWMA-BC.

Note that SPM V3 can be downloaded here.


The onsite wastewater industry in Manitoba is regulated by Manitoba Environment, Climate and Parks.  Certified installers and others working in the onsite industry follow the Onsite Wastewater Management Systems Regulation.

A copy of the regulation can be downloaded here.


The onsite wastewater industry in Saskatchewan is regulated by Saskatchewan Health which administers The Private Sewage Works Regulation (2012) and The Shoreland and Pollution Controls Regulation (1976). Certified installers and others working in the onsite wastewater industry utilize the Saskatchewan Onsite Wastewater Disposal Guide as resource to help them meet the requirements of these regulations.

Copies of the regulations may be ordered from:
The Plumbing and Drainage Regulation

Pollution Controls Regulation (1976)

The Saskatchewan Onsite Wastewater Disposal Guide may be downloaded here.

How Does A System Fail?

Septic systems can malfunction for a variety of reasons. 

If solids or scum are allowed to accumulate too long in a septic tank or treatment system, they will overflow into the soil treatment area and potentially clog the soils with organic matter. 

The soil may be unable to accept the amount of effluent it is receiving in a day, which may cause soil saturation and ponding.

My System Has To Be Pumped Every Year, Why?

There are a number of reasons why your system needs frequent pumping.  The septic tank may be too small for the size of the residence or the lifestyle habits of the residents.  The outlet of the septic tank may be plugged, not allowing the effluent to be pumped or moved to the soil treatment component.  The soil treatment component may be saturated or clogged and unable to accept the effluent.  A maintenance assessment of the system is necessary to determine the exact cause of the problem.

How do I know if my Practitioner is Qualified?

Wastewater practitioners authorized to construct septic systems are certified as follows:

Alberta – Must hold a Certificate in Private Sewage issued by the Province of Alberta

British Columbia – have a valid Registered Onsite Wastewater Practitioner (ROWP) stamp issued by ASTTBC

Manitoba – have a certificate issued by Manitoba Environment, Climate, and Parks

Saskatchewan – Must be determined to be Qualified by the Ministry of Health, either through training and certification, or demonstrated experience, or both.

Professional engineers working in the onsite wastewater industry are certified by their provincial chapters:  EGBC, APEGA, APEGS and APEGM. Certified technicians may be registered for Private Sewage by their professional organizations:  ASET, ASTTBC, TPS, and CTTAM.

Who Pumps Out Septic Tanks?

Vacuum truck operators, also called haulers or pumpers, who list themselves as sewage haulers.

How Often Should I Pump My Septic Tank?

Every 2 to 3 years unless advised differently by your maintenance provider. Visit the maintenance section for more information.

What Is Graywater?

Graywater is untreated household waste water which has not come into contact with toilet waste. Graywater includes used water from bathtubs, showers, bathroom wash basins, and water from clothes washing machines and laundry tubs. It does not include waste water from kitchen sinks, dishwashers or laundry water from soiled diapers.

In the Western Provinces, graywater must be collected by the septic system where it goes through the same treatment and dispersal process as blackwater.

How Does an Effluent Filter Protect my Septic System?

An effluent filters installed in the outlet tee aids in keeping solids out of the dispersal field.  Wastewater is forced through a fine screen prior to dispersal, ensuring that solids stay in the septic tank.  Solids are pumped out during regular maintenance.

Effluent filters are well worth the cost of having one installed and are mandatory in BC, Alberta, and Saskatchewan.

How Long Should A Septic System Last?

A conventional septic system should last anywhere from 20-25 years, or even longer, if it is properly installed and maintained with regular pump-outs every three to five years.

Is Private Sewage Risky

Is Private Sewage Risky And Less Well Treated Than Big Pipe?
No. Private Sewage Dispersal Systems can match or exceed central treatment facilities for effluent quality.

What Are The Signs That My Septic System May Be Failing?

  • Sewage odours indoors or outdoors
  • Water (sewage) surfacing in your yard (often above your leaching field)
  • Soil treatment area is frequently wet and spongy
  • Backup of sewage into your house
  • A change in plant growth and algae (excessive growth) in nearby ponds and lakes
  • Contamination in well water tests (increased levels of nitrates and coliform bacteria)

Still Have Questions?

For answers to more of your questions, ways to get more from your wastewater system and lots of other useful information, consider purchasing our homeowner manual

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