Septic Inspection Program Off to a Great Start in Canadian Lakes Region

It’s great to see waterfront homeowners embrace a comprehensive 12-year program to preserve a pristine environment

Home inspector Mike Rahme in Haliburton, in central Ontario, knows where he’ll be working through 2030. He says he’ll probably retire while still on the job for the septic reinspection program for the municipality of Dysart et al. And he’s fine with that.

Rahme is a strong advocate for clean water in this area a few hours north of Toronto populated by retirees from the city and weekenders who maintain cottages on numerous pristine lakes. Thousands of homeowners in Dysart live within 100 feet of a shoreline, so they are subject to the inspection program approved in 2017 and will methodically cover five lake zones.

And in the midst of the second season of inspections, Rahme says residents are embracing the program, even as some cottagers learn their septic systems require updates, significant repairs and even replacement. He and local officials find most homeowners are supportive.

“There’s a big emphasis on the educational component, and that’s the angle I come at it from. If someone understands why the rule is what it is, they are more willing to move toward compliance,” says Rahme, owner of HomePro Inspections. He meets with homeowners and explains the septic system’s position in relation to the drinking well, the drainfield’s location in relation to the shoreline. And people get it.

“You see a lightbulb come on and it’s refreshing. You’ve made somebody aware, and that carries a whole lot more weight than a penalty the municipality has to enforce. Taking the time and providing an understanding is paramount in my mind to trying to get people thinking the right way and not just complying.”

Tank pumping a must

Rahme worked with Dysart environmental officials and the Kennisis Lake Cottage Owners’ Association to push for septic system inspections in the area faced with growing construction pressure as more people want their own piece of the waterfront homeowner dream. The lakes in northern Ontario haven’t faced pollution issues such as blue-green algae, and officials and homeowners would like to keep it that way.

So they’re starting the inspection program with 900 properties in Area 1, which includes Kennisis Lake, Little Kennisis Lake and Paddy’s Bay. About a third of the inspections were completed in 2018, and the rest must be done this year. Of the almost 300 systems inspected last year, 17 required replacement and about 30% were in noncompliance and remedies varied.

Dysart is requiring a building code Level 4 inspection. This includes a pumpout to check the condition of the septic tank, as well as a comprehensive inspection by an Ontario licensed septic inspector. Rahme is one of seven in the area, and he says he’s done the majority of the inspections to date.

Dysart et al is a collection of townships in Haliburton County. Two other townships have approved a less comprehensive inspection protocol, and another is currently considering Level 4 inspections.

“It’s important when doing these inspections to be as robust as possible with our process, and the best way to do that is with a pumpout,” Rahme says. “It’s the only way to check the integrity of the tank.”

Impact of medications

Requiring tank pumping has been one of a few challenges getting the program started. Rahme says it’s so critical because many of the issues inspectors are seeing involve problems with tanks that might otherwise go unseen. The tanks are old and so are the system users … and that’s a problem, he says.

“We have a very aged population on our lakes, a lot of retirees, and these people are taking a lot of medications and passing them through the septic tanks. They are corrosive to the tanks and we’re seeing a lot of deterioration, end walls being eaten out,” he explains. And then there is other physical damage to tanks and piping, fractures in the concrete or plastic caused by traffic over the systems.

A hodgepodge of home additions are also driving many noncompliance cases. A cottage may have been built 50 years ago as a two-bedroom dwelling, but has since had two or three bedrooms added on or part-time residents are moving in full time. Both situations overwhelm smaller systems. Sometimes these systems are brought back into compliance by removing beds and cautioning homeowners about overuse.

A building boom dates many of the onsite systems to the 1980s, and they likely have never been inspected beyond the occasional pumpout, Rahme says. Today concrete tanks are sometimes replaced with plastic units, often depending on the site conditions. And while most systems new and old utilize conventional gravity designs, Rahme is seeing more advanced treatment options being specified by designers.

Rahme concentrates only on providing inspections. He doesn’t make repairs or replace systems. He says he maintains a reputation for impartial observation that way. He still has to battle misinformation from some inspectors who offer their services at a discount and want to cut corners. He doesn’t blame the consumer for leaning toward price when they listen to the first few contractors they call and don’t have the knowledge to make an informed choice.

“Unfortunately money outweighs common sense in a lot of cases. Fast and cheap is the way of the world these days, and that’s not always going to give you the best result,” he says. “My personal endeavor is to show people if you spend more money now, you’re going to get paid back in spades because it’s not just your pocketbook you have to worry about. If we have one blue-green algae breakout in our lakes, your property value is going to drop by 30%. That hits home.”

Septic open house

That’s why education has been so important in getting off to a good start with the inspection program. Rahme has worked with the cottage owners’ association and health officials to give inspection demonstrations.

One homeowner who volunteered to host a septic open house is John Smith, a member of the Kennisis Lake association who has since been elected a Haliburton councilman representing Dysart. Smith says 40 people showed up at the demonstration and kept an inspector and pumper for three hours afterward answering questions.

“Most people want to do the right thing,” Smith observes. “Lots of people care deeply about the lake and want to do their part, and the open houses are a chance for them to learn.”

On the campaign trail for councilman, Smith says most lakefront homeowners say they favor the inspection program. While there is no mandatory pumping or routine inspection interval being discussed to follow these inspections, Smith is confident homeowners will keep their systems running properly.

How can he be so sure?

While knocking doors, one resident confronted Smith about his support of the inspections. The man told him the program cost him $20,000 when he had to put in a new septic system.

“I thought, I’m not going to get a vote here. But then he went on to say, ‘I’m sure glad you and other got this into place. I had no idea there was a problem. I got it fixed right away, and now I know I’m good for 40 years.’ More than not, that’s the reaction I get,” Smith says.

Another resident Smith met was mortified that he had a problem with his 10-year-old system. He didn’t want to feel responsible for harming the water quality.

“He was an extremely caring individual. When he saw the problems, he was nearly sick to his stomach,” Smith recalls. “He moved out of his place and stayed in a motel until the repairs were completed because he didn’t want additional pollutants flowing down into the lake.”

Making progress

Sure, there are always a few people who will complain about forced system inspections, Smith says. While they may be few and far between, Dysart is working on adopting an idea from Rahme to get everyone on board: Lawn signs that read, “We’ve Done Our Part. Septic Inspection Completed.” Rahme calls it “positive peer pressure.”

There was a time when folks in the lakes area weren’t so enlightened about caring for their septic systems, Rahme recalls. In the past, homeowners relied on old wives’ tales about adding bacteria to systems by throwing roadkill in the septic tank. He doesn’t hear that anymore, but it’s been a long process.

“We’re extinguishing those myths one house at a time,” he says.


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