Cottage Septic Systems


After reading this post about cottage septic systems, many of you will figure I am full of crap and you will probaly be right. By as someone who has had the opportunity to dig up and peer into several septic tanks on several occasions, and can still recall the odor which clings to my memory, I feel more than qualified to at least wax poetically about a cottage septic tank.

Ever wonder what is going on when you flush the cottage toilet? Where does it go? Well for those of you new to cottage life, hopefully it is going into a working septic tank and disposal field.

The septic tank is a big cement, metal or fibreglass tank buried in the ground, in several sizes. Some are as large as 1000 gallons, perhaps even bigger, but for cottages I suspect 1000 gallons is probably pretty big.

The waste from the toilet and sink drains etc runs down a pipe and into another pipe which opens into the side of the septic tank. The solids in the waste will settle to the bottom of the tank while the liquids and softer stuff floats at the top, at least until it breaks down or decomposes, essentially becoming liquid again.

On the other side of the tank is another pipe which leads out, and hopefully branches off into 3 or 4 other pipes which lead to your disposal field. These pipes are perforated, allowing the waste water to dissapate into the gravel and soil.


The Septic Systems Owners’ Manual

Quite often there are ‘baffles’ on the inside of the tank where the waste comes in, and another one where it goes out to prevent solids from sliding out into the disposal field pipes, clogging it.

That’s really all there is to a basic cottage septic system, pretty simple eh? Except there are lots of things that can go wrong causing you lots of grief just when you don’t want it. When do you want grief?

Septic tanks need to be pumped out periodically. The good ones have a pipe that comes up through the ground, allowing the septic tank pumper to put his vacuum hose in and suck the tank out without you having to dig the tank up to get the cover off. However, most of the old ones I have been familiar with don’t have this luxury, so a pick and shovel are the first tools you need to get the tank open for the pumper.

If you are new to your cottage, and didn’t build it, it’s a good idea to ask the former owner exactly where it is located in case you have to dig it up sometime. Knowing where your tank is can save a lot of digging. I know have an unobrusive metal rod stuck into the ground around the center of my tank and another one at the end of the drain pipes so I know exactly where stuff is if I need to start digging. On one occasion before I marked it, I dug for a day only to discover I was missing the septic tank by about foot….tell me that didn’t break my heart….

One of these Bounty Hunter – Metal Detectors – SSHOOT2 would have come in handy on that occasion. I have one now, not for septic tanks necessarily, I’m still searching for buried treasure in the woods around my cottage….but that’s another story.

How often you need your tank pumped depends on use more than anything. A large family using the cottage all summer may need it pumped every year or two. Smaller families, or maybe a weekend couple with occasional guests might not need a pumping out for several years. A couple of signs to watch for are, a septic smell when you are outside around the area of the tank or septic field and waste backing up into the toilet or worse the bathtub…yuck…

Over time the solids in the tank settle to the bottom filling it up. Now this doesn’t happen quickly, but again it depends on use and the size of the tank. When you lift the top and give the concoction a stir with your shovel, you’ll also probably find a layer of thick scum on top. This can extend quite far into the tank which usually means a pumping is required.

Our septic tank lasted for years without needing a pumping, and then started to need to be pumped more frequently.


I talked to the septic tank pumper truck driver and he suggested I check the drain pipes coming out the other side of the tankbecause the tank appeared to be working fine to him, but yet it was backing up more than normal.

So, trusty shovel in hand, I embarked on a week long ordeal using up my vacation to dig up the pipes leading out of the tank. Sure enough, they were jammed up, full of dirt and roots and ‘stuff’ that was packed in so tight I had to break the pipes to get it out. That was clearly the problem. So I dug up all four drain pipes and replaced them with new pipes, added some fresh gravel and covered them with what are called around here drain pipe socks designed to let the water out by not let roots, dirt and rocks in.

It’s been a couple years now and no problem, knock on wood…or septic….however, I know that eventually I will either be back at it, or replacing the system. That’s where the composting toilets I mentioned in an earlier post come in to the picture.

Several of my neighbors, all with cottages and septic systems of the same vintage are doing the same thing, replacing drain pipes etc, so it must be a thing that happens over several years, a lot of years….

There are some other things to consider with a septic tank, but to me they come down to individual choices of how you do your ‘business’

Some folks swear by what’s called a grey water tank for kitchen sink waste water. This is essentially a smaller septic tank, often a drum in the ground, that works on a similiar principle but keeps soapy water out of the septic system. Soaps can harm the bacterial action required for a septic tank to work properly.

Still others won’t put any toilet paper in their toilet, preferring to keep a garbage can by the toilet for used toilet paper. I’m sorry, but I just cannot bring myself to do this…just can’t…

We don’t have a grey water tank, but what we do is wash our dishes in a plastic basin that fits inside the kitchen sink. After the dishes are done, we throw the waste water out on the lawn, and to be honest, the place where I throw the water has, over the years, produced the lushest, greenest grass on the property. It’s a simple system that works fine for us.

Since the addition of a shower and bathtub combination I am considering a grey water tank for the waste water from this unit. That way I can divert the soapy water from the septic system and keep it for what it does best….

This looks like a pretty good book on cottage water systems, might be a good one to own if you are plumbing challenged like me.

Cottage Water Systems: An Out-of-the-City Guide to Pumps, Plumbing, Water Purification, and Privies

Of course before you embark on any septic tank or septic field repairs or alterations you need to check with your local authorities because permits and inspections are usually required for any work done to a septic system.

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