Farm Life: Septic Helper

The Vicar mentioned that there are certain processes in life that he likes to have work correctly, but he prefers to not know the details about.  He referred the the digestive system.  Well, the garden is at one end of the digestive system and septic tanks  at the other for folks in the country.   That may be more than the Vicar wants to know on this topic.  

Just as knowing how your meat got into that plastic wrapped package in the store, for most city folks, after the sink drains and the toilet flushes, there may not be much thought of where gravity takes the liquids and solids.  The sediment tanks, filtering systems, and solid recovery and disposal processes are usually located out of town, or in the less fashionable neighborhoods.  I recall finding Alexandria’s waste water treatment plant because the bicycle path from the West End to Old Town loops around it.

In rural areas, homes are too spread out the make sewage system economical.  Your options are an outhouse or septic system.  You might surprised how many of the older or poorer folks I work with at the hospital think that a bed-side-commode is a luxury (as long as someone else will empty it out for them).  Electricity did not come up this way until some time after WWII, so indoor plumbing did not make much sense before you had a way to pump water around easily.

For the curious, a septic system is a main discharge pipe running from the house to a 1,000 gallon holding tank, which has 200 to 300 feet of filter lines running into a drain field.  The system works best if it has some downhill grade (duh).  Flush the toilet, and that swirling whirlpool of waste products flows out the discharge line into the tank.  The intermittent waterfall hits a dividing wall about 18 inches from the inlet.  Plunk.  Solids settle to the bottom of the tank.  This wall descends about 2 feet, leaving about 4 feet of open space below it for the “liquified” waste to migrate around teaming with bacteria.  By the way, make sure that you run a little water in ever sink, toilet, and shower/tub every week or so.  Should the water in the trap evaporate below the level of the pipe, you will get a good whiff of what those bacteria are up to.  Eventually the liquid level in the tank fills up to the opening of the field lines.  The water drains out into the field, allowing the water to absorb into the ground and rocks.  When all works well, the ground “perks”.  I doubt that this is were the term “perky” came from though.

Now, if you are still reading, you may be wondering were all those bacteria come from.  You have a couple of options: eat a lot of yogurt and raw vegetables which are teeming with “good” bacteria (for your gut and the septic system), or add some yeast cakes or a septic system product .  You do have to be careful about pouring too many cleaning products down the drain (e.g. bleach in laundry, toilet bowl and tub cleaners, etc.) as these function to kill bacteria, giving you a sense of good hygiene on the pot, but destroying the bacteria that break down the solids in your holding tank.  Also, avoid putting any item down the drain that is not organic or so bulky that it will take a long time to decompose (such as running the garbage disposal to grind up vegetable matter that would do better in the compost pile).

Septic systems cannot work indefinitely on yogurt waste.  Eventually, the tank needs to be pumped out.  This can be for two reasons.  First, if you produce enough solids to fill up the bottom 1/3 of the tank (the website do not explain how of figure this out), or before the bacteria migrate from the tank into your field lines.  The main problem with both issues is that if either the solids or the bacteria get into the field lines, they can plug up the pours which allow the water to drain into the ground.  A periodic pump out costs a couple hundred dollars.  A new drain field costs around seven to ten thousand dollars.  Do the math.  Also, the ground and rocks in your drain field have a limited carrying capacity for how much water they can perk.  While this will vary from soil type to soil type as well as whether you are on the side of the mountain (good drainage) or in the valley (usually saturated).  If bacteria escape from the field lines to the ground, they will fill up the spaces between the rocks, sand, loam, etc.  I do not know how you measure this either.  The sign of a ruined septic field is standing, stinky water.

With garden season over for us, the time for the pump out was at hand.  To be honest, we have been living dangerously, as we have never had a pump out in the 18 years since we built our cabin.  After moving up her full time, I decided to explore how our tank was doing.  That meant finding the top, which used to be marked by a stick in the ground, which has long ago rotted away.  Fortunately,  I took photos of the excavated drain field and tank, so with a little triangulation, I started digging about a foot away from the lid.  This was three years ago.  Once I had the lid uncovered and opened, I shoveled out about two drywall buckets of floating sludge, which I spread in the woods.  I swished a shovel around to the bottom, but could not find any solids.  Good yogurt consumption on our part.  That was during the McCain-Obama presidential election year.  I figured I would check the next presidential cycle, as getting the shit out seemed to be a good metaphor to trigger my memory.

In the mean time, I did some internet research on septic systems and learned more about bacteria load risks.  Shoveling out the scum would not be sufficient.  One of our neighbors was having their system pumped a few weeks ago, and had a recommendation from our local excavator.  We also worked out a day for the pump out, but our task would require a little more preparation, as our driveway is in the front of the house and the tank around the back.  About 100 feet separated the easy fix.  The truck needed to come within about 60 feet of the tank.

So, after breakfast, Operation Honey Pot began.  We moved all of the dogs toys and chew bones out of the way, cleaned up garden supplies and yard art along the path, and pulled up fencing, including the front gate.  We had just enough distance for three lengths of hose to reach our tank.  As I was about the move the front gate, the driver pulled up.  About an hour later, as a light drizzle began, he pulled up his hoses, we paid the bill, and I repositioned the fence and gate.  Good thing that I planned for the gate to be moved when I installed it!  Now we can flush with confidence, again… and keep eating that yogurt.

I inquired about what the tank pumper would do with this load after he left us.  He told me that before he leaves the site, he adds about 25 pounds of lime to neutralize the acidity of the waste water.  When he returns to the shop, he runs the sludge through a filter to remove any non-organic material, which should not be in the system to begin with.  Then, West Virginia disposal regulations allow them to spread the liquid on non-livestock fields, with certain limitations on how much can be spread per acre.  Living in a rural area, there are lots of hay fields that benefit from the honey pot fertilizer treatment.  Good thing that it is winter and too cool to raise a stink about the field.


About hermitsdoor

Up here in the mountains, we have a saying, "You can't get there from here", which really means "We wouldn't go the trouble to do that". Another concept is that "If you don't know, we ain't telling." For the rest, you'll have to read between the lines.
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6 Responses to Farm Life: Septic Helper

  1. Barneysday says:

    Congratulations for writing about a necessary, but often overlooked topic! Even though we are in the rural mountains, we are on a county maintained water and sewer system, which certainly has its benefits.

    • hermitsdoor says:

      Yes, The Necessary 🙂 Our local Public Service District is working on a multi-million dollar water project and next will be a sewer project…. That is millions of your dollars as most of the money is from federal grants. Neither will come our way in this allocation, as they are mostly focused on setting up the main road areas where businesses might be enticed to come (any surprise that the line ends as the animal hospital… owned by the daughter of the county commissioner?). They needed to have 40% pre-build sign up in the residential area to take the project there. Of the 180 households fewer than 20 signed up. The opposition came from the cost, which would be monthly fees starting at $40 (which in the neighboring town went up 50% a couple of years after the project started) and the homeowner would have to pay for the line from the road to the home. I did a rough estimate to trench in water line for our development: $40,000. We cannot get all of our owner to pay their annual dues of $125. The math is not working in favor of multi-million dollar federal grant programs. Of course, your region in the Sierra Nevada mountains has different hydraulic cycles and bed rock formations and political agendas.

  2. The Vicar says:

    How could I not click on “continue reading”? Insinuating that I may not to know more only peeked my curiosity. I’m glad to know that the periodic clean out is linked to the presidential election cycle, not the winter after the Vicar’s summer visit (Colbert for President!). This “digesting the harvest” blog was very informative on matters that don’t get a lot of attention, unless they stop working as planned, which usually happens during the holidays when guests are in town. Fortunately I have been consuming large quantities of Wheat Chex, Rice Chex, and Corn Chex for breakfast which I choose to believe are vegetables, and therefore help in keeping the plumbing clean in our townhouse!

  3. mj monaghan says:

    Very interesting, and you’re right that this is something we city dwellers don’t have to deal with.

    • hermitsdoor says:

      Quite frankly, I did not put much thought into many things that are part of our society until we moved to the mountains. But, considering that 150 years ago lack of sanitation was one of the main reasons that people died, we have made amazing changes in our environment and health which we do not think of much. Outhouses, voiding in the ditch, tossing the chamber pot out the window were common only a few generations ago. If the systems backed up now (pun intended) many would not know what had happened or what to do.

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