Septic Systems 101

by Denis Orendt, Executive Director, Ontario Onsite Wastewater Association

Life at many cottages is starting to mirror that in the city with more appliances added to the cottage for comfort, but when it comes to flushing everything down the drain, the cottage owner must be aware that being on a septic system is not like being in the city.

Under the Ontario Building Code, as a cottage owner you are responsible for your septic system’s performance and maintenance.  If you take good care of your system, you will save yourself the time, money, and worries involved in replacing a failed system.  Failed systems can be hazardous to the environment and your pocketbook.  They can degrade water supplies and reduce your property’s value.  Here are some valuable tips to ensure the longevity of your system.

Septic Do’s

  • Do familiarize yourself with the location of your system.
  • Do keep an “as built” system diagram in a safe place for reference.
  • Do divert surface water away from your leaching bed.
  • Do pump out your tank on a regular basis (3-5 years).
  • Do repair leaky plumbing fixtures.
  • Do conserve water to reduce the amount of wastewater that must be treated.
  • Do replace old toilets with low-flush models.
  • Do keep lint out of your septic system by cleaning the lint filter on your washing machine.
  • Do always keep the tank access lid secure to the riser.
  • Do keep accurate records of septic system maintenance and service calls.

Septic Don’ts

  • Don’t flush hazardous chemicals or paint into the system.
  • Don’t flush cigarette butts, coffee grounds, cooking grease, sanitary products, or condoms into the system.
  • Don’t use a garbage disposal or garburators.
  • Don’t plant trees or shrubs too close to the system or leaching bed.
  • Don’t use special additives that are touted to enhance the performance of your tank or system. For detailed information visit OntarioOnsite WastewaterAssociation.
  • Don’t dig without knowing the location of your septic system.
  • Don’t drive over your tank or leaching bed.
  • Don’t enter a septic tank. Gases and lack of oxygen can be fatal.
  • Don’t connect rain gutters, storm drains, or allow surface water to drain into the sewage system.
  • Don’t leave interior faucets dripping or leaking during the winter. Protect water lines during cold spells and insulate your faucets and plumbing.
  • Don’t connect water softeners to your system as the salt content can destroy the required bacteria and can overload the system when backwashing.
  • Don’t park on the septic bed or use it as a driveway.

Separation distances

There are minimum separation distances surrounding your system and other home and yard items that are required under the Ontario Building Code.  Remembering these distances and planning your lot accordingly will lead to a healthier, longer-lasting system.  Some municipalities have specific requirements for cottages and residences on the lake.  Check with your local building official for more information.


Have your system inspected by a licensed and qualified person.  This can save you thousands of dollars should your system require a repair rather than a complete replacement.

Treatment technology for both water and sewage is being used more and more where there are water courses, lakes, rivers, streams, and creeks.  Some people will not hesitate to spend money on the interior of their cottage.  Windows, doors, and dormers can all be added or changed, but the real value in the property starts with water quality and septic systems.

Many cottagers are now installing UV systems for water treatment and looking at technology for their septic systems.  Many of today’s septic treatment systems can reduce nitrogen levels that can affect the quality of your shoreline.  This is good for both the homeowner and the environment.  These systems require yearly maintenance as required under the Ontario Building Code.

Under new legislation, the Minister of the Environment is planning a re-inspection program for septic systems across Ontario to protect our water resources.  Regulations for inspection may fall under the Ontario Building Code.  Tiny Township has implemented a re-inspection program: Proposed Septic Inspection Areas Map.pdf (  Looks like Cawaja will be up for re-inspection in 2023!


Planning on selling or purchasing a cottage?  Not sure if your septic system is working?  Check the Ontario Onsite Wastewater Association (OOWA) website ( and go to the “Ask the Expert” section to find a qualified and certified septic professional in your area.

What’s New

  • Having your septic system inspected and brought up to current Ontario Building Code standards increases the equity in your property.
  • Current regulations for new systems include risers to grade for easy access and maintenance on the ends of the septic tank.
  • New systems require effluent filters that prevent particles and larger material from entering the filter or leaching bed.  Installing an effluent filter can prolong the life of the treatment bed.
  • When having your system inspected you should consider having the filter installed by a qualified septic professional.
  • Proper care of your septic system is simple and easy.  Remember to follow the simple “do’s” and “don’ts.”  Have your system inspected and pumped if required.
  • A well-maintained septic system can perform as expected for many years, but a neglected or abused system can fail tomorrow.


When having a large family function at the cottage contact your local septic pumper or Port-A-Potty rental company and bring in some portable toilets.  This will save you from overloading your septic system.  Remember that the only things to go into your septic system are those that you put in your mouth.

Here is a link to Tiny Township septic guidelines.