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Newsletter #231

New Construction Septic Systems

New House Building: Money Saving, Convenience and Healthy House Tips

James Todd
December, 2004

All past newsletters are archived online at:



  1. Continuation - Septic Systems
  2. Auxiliary Heating/Cooling
  3. Series of articles on Green Building- Flooring
  4. Thought for the Day
  5. Subscription Information
Please forward this newsletter to anyone whom you think may be interested!

1. Continuation - Septic Systems - Sizing and Maintenance

This is the second and final in a multi-part series on septic systems. Last month's newsletter talked about The Basics including the components of the system and how they work. This month we are discussing Sizing and Maintenance of domestic septic systems. Please work with your community public offices or with experts when designing and installing your septic system.

Note: Do not confuse a simple holding tank with a septic system. Holding tanks require weekly or monthly pumping out because they have no planned leakage path.

Generally the old adage, 'the bigger, the better' applies to septic systems.

The Tank
The tank should be large enough to retain the liquid for not less than 1 day, and preferably 2 to 3 days or more. But nothing is that simple. As sludge and scum accumulate in the tank, the usable volume is reduced, resulting in reduced retention time of the next batch of sewage. A properly designed and used septic system should have the capacity to store solids for about five years or more ... a typical household septic tank will have a capacity between 1000 and 3000 gallons.

The Absorption Bed
Keep the absorption bed well away from existing trees and do not plant shrubs or trees over the absorption bed or you will have very nice trees and a septic system bed that has to be replaced at great expense. Remember that tree roots of many trees can extend far from the trunk.

Sizing an absorption bed is complex and the method varies. Basically, you have to determine the percolation rate or absorption rate of saturated soil where the bed will be located. It typically ends up somewhere between 10 and 60 minutes per inch of water in a prepared test hole - say 50mpi. You use the perc rate with local charts, to look up the square footage of absorption bed per bedroom - say 300 square feet. You then multiply the number of bedrooms by the square footage from the chart to arrive at the total square footage, say 900 square feet for a 3 bedroom home. If you are using 2 foot wide trenches for your absorption bed, you would need 450 lineal feet of trench. Assuming a trench cannot exceed 100 feet in length, you will need FIVE 90 foot trenches or some equivalent configuration. This is just an example.

When you first start using your new septic system, some experts recommend a starter culture be introduced into the septic system to speed up the initial propagation of bacteria. This is unnecessary but harmless. You should NEVER add chemicals to help the bacteria, even in a small septic system.

Avoid driving over your absorption bed with cars or heavy vehicles. Lawn tractors or mowers are fine.

The general cleaning interval for a properly designed septic system is 4 to 5 years. I have heard of people cleaning them every 2 years but this is extreme. I have also heard of going 10 years between cleanings, but there is risk involved in waiting this long if things are not working, since problems are not obvious until you open the cover. When you have your system cleaned, ask the cleaning agency whether it 'needed' cleaning and adjust the interval accordingly. Also be sure that the agency checks for damage and be sure to correct any problems promptly.

When septic systems are treated properly they require no day-to-day maintenance and will serve you and your family well for many years but the septic system is a giant bacteria culture and some care is required.

Only allow easily bio-degradable substances to flow to your septic system.


  1. cigarette butts or cigar butts as these contain toxic nicotine which can seriously impact the bacteria in your septic system
  2. non bio-degradable materials such as condoms, or feminine hygiene applicators or other related products
  3. plastic-lined disposable diapers
  4. pills (please return these to your pharmacy for disposal).
  5. paints, solvents of any sort, either latex or oil-based.
  6. insecticides or any strong chemicals.

The following are suggestions that will help you septic system do its job better:

  1. Use non-perfumed, non-tinted toilet paper as it is easiest to breakdown (and better for you too).
  2. Avoid glass, ceramic, sand, porcelain, and metals going down the drain, as they may clog traps and displace the bacteria in your system.
  3. Avoid over-use of detergents (i.e. only use what you need) especially cold-water detergents which may remain solid
  4. Avoid over-use of strong chlorine and household cleansers although regular quantities diluted in warm laundry water are usually harmless to a mature system.
  5. Trash compactors will work, but vegetable food waste makes great compost so please consider using an outdoor compost recycling system for vegetable waste.
  6. Avoid pouring large quantities of pure grease such as from fowl or pork, straight into your drains or toilets. This is bio degradable but can clog your sewage pipes and present an abnormal load on the system. These substances may be sealed in a container and disposed of in your regular garbage collection. NEVER put them or any meat products in compost recyclers.

Some Useful Links


A Homeowner's Guide to Installation and Maintenance

2. Auxiliary Heating/Cooling

The subject of auxiliary heating / cooling is a large subject and more complex than most people would initially think. Requirements for additional heating or cooling begin with a relatively small home, which may need additional heat in the finished basement during the winter and additional cooling in the upstairs areas during the summer, to relative large homes which need additional heat / cooling just to maintain normal temperatures. There are multiple solutions available and we will cover auxiliary heating in this newsletter beginning with smaller homes and auxiliary cooling will be covered in a newsletter next spring.

Auxiliary heating can take several different forms. This includes house orientation to take advantage of solar heating during the day, more powerful furnace fans to push the air into all areas of the home, constant running fans to heat the home more uniformly, additional auxiliary fans to push the hot air into areas you need heat, gas fireplaces in strategic areas of the home to add heat, electric wall heaters placed in hard to heat areas and of course either larger furnaces or multiple furnaces to heat larger homes.

When you are planning the design and construction of your home it is important to consider all of your heating and cooling needs. This includes the general heating of the home and also those areas of the home that are usually hard to heat. We begin with house orientation, which is important if you would like to take advantage of solar heating during the winter. Multiple windows facing south-to-south west in northern climates will maximize the heat intake into your house in the winter and minimize the cooling needs in the summer time.

Next, your level of insulation installed in your home will also impact the overall heating and cooling needs of your home. Well-insulated attics and walls will minimize the heat loss and the load on your heating systems. Likewise doors and windows that are well insulated, double and triple glazed will assist in reducing heat loss as well. We have covered various types of windows in earlier newsletters.

Climate and size of the home are two final factors you will need to evaluate. The heating load for a home in Ottawa Canada, were temperatures occasionally dip to –40 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter time will require a much different furnace solution than a home in Washington DC, were the temperature may dip to –10 degrees Fahrenheit.

A common complaint of all homeowners in cold climates is that heating systems do not push hot air into the finished basement during cold winter days. Hot air naturally rises; so many heating systems are unable to heat the finished basement to the owner’s satisfaction. Many consumers are arranging for either wood fireplaces or gas fireplaces to be installed as an auxiliary heat source as well as an aesthetically pleasing environment. A wood-burning fireplace can be much cheaper over the long hall, if you have a ready supply of inexpensive hardwood for consumption. Gas fireplaces with electric fans will force the hot air into the room to be heated. They are much more convenient and easy to use, usually a flip of a switch turns them on and the force air fan can be temperature regulated.

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Regardless of your needs it is important to have an expert evaluate the home and the size of furnace or furnaces that you should have installed. Over sizing a furnace will mean not only more capital cost for the furnace, but more ongoing expense as well for your energy costs. Have the expert show you his or her analysis to ensure that you have the right size of furnace for your home. Size of the home, insulation levels, climate, occupant preferences, and auxiliary-heating plans such as fireplaces are some of the characteristics they should consider.

We will cover auxiliary cooling systems in a future newsletter early in the new year.

Some useful links to check out

Heating Electric Plus

Sizing Residential Heating Systems

Home heating types

3. Healthy House - Flooring

One of the commonly overlooked items when building a healthy home are floor coverings. There are many choices for flooring but unfortunately not all of them are good for your health.

Ceramic tile floors are very healthy floors. They come in a variety of colours and finishes, which are very durable, and very attractive. They are easy to clean, usually with nothing more than half a cup of vinegar in a pail of warm water. They do not stain and they do not require waxing. They may cost a little more to install properly but they will easily outlast carpeting. Ceramic tile usually has a glaze or glass coating and does not outgas. The mortar or grout used under and between the tile is also inert. Ceramic tile flooring is normally laid on a thicker layer of plywood than carpeting. This plywood may outgas on the underside but the topside is effectively sealed off by the tile so in terms of exposed surface, you are substantially better off with ceramic tile than carpeting. Other considerations of ceramic flooring are that it is cool on the feet and not very forgiving when you drop a plate or glass, and it is often slippery when wet.

Genuine solid hard wood floors are healthy floors because they are relatively easy to clean. Hardwood flooring is often kiln dried and most of the natural gases are driven out during that process. Care must be taken when choosing flooring finishes as some may release harmful gases for several weeks after the material is applied to the wood.

Be careful with the new Do-It-Yourself so-called laminated flooring which is primarily a dense particle compound, moulded under high pressure, with a thin decorative skin on the top. This flooring is relatively easy to clean but beware, do not allow water to stand on the floor or soak in from the underside (i.e. you don't really want this in a wet basement). If soaked, the compound swells and distorts and the repairs are very difficult. Use caution when this laminated floor is being installed, the dust is fine and abrasive. It is harmful if inhaled, and very difficult to get out of your heating ducts. Some versions of laminated flooring are prone to outgas, but the newest ones are labelled 100% free of emissions.

Vinyl tile and cushioned flooring are quick and inexpensive to put down. Almost all of these materials will outgas, some more than others.

Carpeting is not a very health-wise flooring. It is very difficult to clean thoroughly and eventually mites, mould, dust and chemicals will collect in and under the carpet. Many artificial carpet materials themselves outgas substantially and for an extended period of time (years) and of course underlay and the laminated sub floor beneath the carpet will add to the out gassing. If you must use carpeting in your home, consider smaller area rugs on tile or on hardwood. These smaller rugs can be cleaned more easily or replaced.


Consult your tile-flooring specialist before the sub floor is installed in your new home. Make sure that the plan is clear and that the carpentry team understands what type and how thick a sub floor is required in the areas where ceramic tile will be installed.

Research and decide on a finish for your hardwood floors well ahead of time. Look for finishes that protect but do not outgas appreciably. Ask your flooring supplier to recommend healthy finishes.

Ask your builder to avoid the glue compounds for gluing ceramic tile, vinyl tile, and carpeting. Read the warnings on the side of the can and you'll gasp. Ceramic tile should be held down with a concrete-like compound or a glue known to be safe. Carpets do not normally require gluing.

If you must use wall-to-wall carpeting in your healthy new home, try to use natural fibers like wool which are less harmful. Cleaning is still a problem.

Furnace fans should always be shut down when any insulation, drywall or carpentry is being done or your ducts and furnace will be full of irritating and possibly hazardous dust.

Some useful links to check out

Wood Floors On Line

Ceramic Tile

Superseal Basement Systems using laminated flooring

4. Thought For The Day

When it comes to eating you can sometimes help yourself more by helping yourself less.
--Richard Armour

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