Understanding Household Water Systems

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Though every modern household is unique, they all share two common features—a system for supplying water to the home, and one for removing waste water once it’s been used. Beyond turning on the tap or flushing the toilet, where does the water come from, where does it go once it’s used, and who is responsible for maintenance? You may not realize—especially when buying a home for the first time—these features differ depending on where your home is located. They’re also important considerations when planning to buy and play a key role in your long-and-short-term financial planning. Let’s investigate!

Water supply systems

Two main types of water systems are used to supply homes: a well system, and a municipal (or city) water system. A well system generally serves a single home, though it’s not uncommon for subdivisions in rural areas or small towns to share a single well. A well uses a series of pipes, filters and a pump to pull water to the house(s), up from the water table (also called an aquifer). 

Municipal water systems supply water to homes en-masse, usually pulling from rivers and lakes and in some cases storing it in large water towers which use gravity to maintain a consistent water pressure.

A third type of water system is found mainly in Canada’s northern communities where permafrost prevents digging wells and running subterranean pipes. They’re often found in recreational or cottage properties where digging can be difficult based on location. With this system, each home has a holding tank filled by municipal water trucks that collect clean water from a nearby spring, lake or river. 

Waste water systems

Of course, after the water coming into your home is used to drink, clean, wash, and heed the calls of nature, a separate system is needed to remove and manage waste. Homes in cities and larger towns generally have a sewer system connection, while small town and rural homes rely on a septic system to manage waste. 

Like some recreational or remote locations turn to for supplying water, (separate) holding tanks are sometimes used for waste, as well.

A sewer system collects all the waste water of the municipality and transports it to a water treatment facility to remove any solid waste, treat the water, and safely release it back into the natural water cycle. 

Suburban and rural homes have septic systems that use containment tanks with multiple compartments that separate solids and oils. Water is then channeled to another compartment where bacteria breaks down the waste, then the resulting byproduct can be safely drained into the ground.

This, from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, gives a good overview of how septic systems operate.

How each system affects you as a homeowner

When venturing into homeownership for the first time, there’s a seemingly endless list of new financial responsibilities. Beyond ongoing mortgage payments and utilities, there are many maintenance items that require strategic planning and budgeting to avoid unnecessary—and costly—surprises down the road. 

City water and sewer services

If your home uses municipal services, your water connection and supply is generally billed to you every month or two, while wastewater removal and treatment fees are usually bundled with your property taxes. In some cases, a third party organization is employed to manage billing and services on behalf of the municipality.”

Many homeowners may not be aware, until faced with an unexpected repair or blockage, all pipes and fittings within the confines of the property are most likely their financial responsibility. 

Basic repairs typically take less than a day, though larger issues requiring excavation and repair can get expensive. It’s wise to have regular inspections by a licensed professional. You could be faced with some hefy costs if any of your water systems fail, depending on the severity. You may never experience this catastrophe during your ownership, but it’s best to be aware and prepared for any scenario.

Despite the rare risk of problems on-property, city water systems are generally reliable with few outages, which are usually limited to water main repair or upgrades and usually don’t require residents to go without service for more than a day.

Well and septic systems

On the rural/suburban flipside of the coin, well and septic system maintenance falls entirely to the homeowner. As you may have guessed, it’s a smart decision to start saving money for long-term maintenance and repairs. A septic tank will need to be emptied every two to five years, with annual fall inspections to check levels and system integrity. Wells should also be inspected for pump efficiency and your water tested for contaminants annually.

In rare cases, wells can run dry, requiring drilling a new one, an operation that can range from $3,500 to more than $10,000 depending on depth and water production quality. The risk of running dry comes when severe drought lowers the water table, or when too much water has been pulled from the aquifer—this is more likely in rural communities where residents share the same aquifer source.

Rural water systems sometimes contain iron and mineral deposits that cause staining or hard water—these can be managed with filters and softeners. The biggest bonus of owning a well? You can avoid a monthly or bi-monthly water bill!

There’s a lot to consider about this mostly forgotten feature we largely take for granted, but having this knowledge when approaching homeownership will help prepare you to make informed decisions, while planning for the future. 

When you’re ready, let your REALTOR® know the kind of services you’d prefer, and they’ll help you find your next dream home.

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