Friday, March 4, 2011

Septic Systems, A Recurring Theme

Septic systems seem to have been a recurring theme throughout my life, a kind of hydra-like monster which rears its ugly head and beckons every so often.  They are a little like cars, a necessary evil in our modern world.  Like cars they are great as long as they are working, no so much so, if they are on the fritz.

I grew up in a house sans indoor plumbing until I was twelve or so.  My oldest brother bought my parents a toilet, sink and tub for Christmas that year.  It was one of those thoughtful gifts, but purchasing the appliances was the easy end of the bargain.  Installation was a much more significant proposition.   We had a lovely gentleman in our church, who was retired, but a handyman extraordinaire.  He did most of the indoor installation and plumbing.  However all of this had to be hooked up to a septic tank and weeper bed, out of doors.  Neither of these existed.  Dad and my brother dug a large rectangular hole right outside our veranda for the tank.

Dad and a friend, down in the septic tank hole.

I don't recall the tank being installed, but obviously a truck and crane must have put it in place.  From there, lines had to be dug out into the lawn.  I do recall there being five carefully dug trenches, snaking out.  I was obviously old enough to be of some assistance, as I recall wheeling crushed stone or gravel in the wheelbarrow to put down in the base of these trenches.  Then the weeper pipes were all laid out and joined up to the tank.  Lastly beach sand was wheeled in, and the pipes and crushed stone covered.  So most of the installation was all done by hand.  Nearly forty years later, that bed is still functional.  So while I'm sure it would never pass code these days, its longevity is a testament to good workmanship.

The next septic system that I got up close and personal with, was at our rental house, we had just purchased the year before.  At purchase, we were assured, a new tank had been installed the previous year.   I worked nights on the Thanksgiving weekend, and came home to a message from our tenant, that the toilet appeared to be backing up into the tub -- never a pleasant omen.  

After a quick inspection, it was determined that the septic system was in severe cardiac arrest.  We called a local contractor to come and investigate.  He dug down around the new tank and yes it was new, but had a hole punched in the top.  All the seepage had basically been leaching out of this hole, because the tank had been installed too far below the outlet pipe to the weeper bed -- go figure!
Plugged pipes, never a pretty picture!

 Some further investigation proved that the old weeper tiles had no adjoining elbows, only mounds of crushed stone.  This was probably a "dead of night" hush hush job that actually functioned for a few years with limited usage. The initial concept was to install a holding tank, a property devaluer if ever there was one.  Fortunately we were able to talk the health inspector into allowing a smaller, undersized (but legal) system thanks to a grandfathering clause.

That next fall we were hosting the better half's family Christmas get together at the end of November.  On the Saturday morning, the downstair's toilet began to do strange and wonderful things, like not flush, for instance.  I went to the basement to check the cleanout for pluggage.  As I unscrewed the lid, copious quantities of sewage sludge began to back flow.  You've heard of the concept of projectile vomiting -- picture a septic tank with the flu! 

I quickly tightened the cap back on, ran and grabbed a 45 gallon drum, from the garage and put it in place. Then I unleashed the lid, and stood back.  Unfortunately it was not just a plug; the tank was flooded.  Obviously the weeper lines had finally expired.  That is not a topic you announce at a festive family gathering.  The missus kept wondering why I kept disappearing throughout the day.  Every time I heard a toilet flush, I would exit and pail five more offensive gallons of effluent out to the back forty.  All I have to say, they had to have been the poopinest, peeinist group of thirty people on the planet that day.

So since it was late November and the frost had already begun to set in, we had the tank pumped.  With limited use, we were able to limp through winter, until we could get a contractor in to give us an estimate.  Of course this was the era of the Walkerton ecoli escapade and suddenly what had once been a fairly quick, simple process, quickly became a gargantuan nightmare.  The soil test, proved we were primarily clay, not a hospitably compatible component for septic systems, so the decree went forth from Caesar Augustus....sorry, wrong story.  The plan was that four feet of clean sand had to be trucked in to fill an area roughly the size of a standard football field.  Thirty five truckloads later, we had a hill on our once flat farm.  My wife was sorely wounded by the loss of our nice private lawn, but it was the destruction of two large, well-established flower beds that finally brought the tears.

So in the course of a year and a half, we sank the best part of twenty-five grand into the ground at two locations and really didn't improve the resale value of either by a single penny.  And then the well decided it was time to give up the ghost, but that's a whole 'nother story.

And that is about all I have to say for today.

Musings and meanderings from the Musical Gardener.


  1. the photo of your dad and judy garland down the septic tank made me smile


Much appreciated comments from my friends: