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Septic Systems: Part One

by Tyler

For the past few weeks, we've been waiting to hear if the land we're hoping to buy will support a legally permitted septic system. Mostly, this has entailed waiting around for an engineer in Vermont to make an assessment for us. In the meantime, I've been educating myself about wastewater management, trying to determine what solution will make the most sense for our non-traditional home.

The results of my research have overwhelmingly indicated that current regulations make no sense for people who are determined to be personally responsible for their role in the ecosystem where they live. At the moment, I have a distinct feeling this sort of thing is going to be a trend on our quest to build a self-sufficient life in 21st century America.

For this and the entry following, I've documented some of the things I've learned.

A conventional septic system has two main components, the first of which is a buried tank, usually a minimum of 1,000 gallons in size. Incoming solids (feces, food particles, clothing lint, etc) settle at the bottom of the tank, where natural bacteria break it down into a "sludge" which must be removed periodically. Until the 90s, the gunk was often pumped into the ocean or indiscriminately buried in landfills. These days, much of it is applied to commercial farm soil (after extensive treatment).

Conventional Septic Tank

After a retention period of two or three days, the waste in the tank has separated and begun to break down. The liquid portion (called effluent) is now ready to move into the second component of a traditional septic system: the drain/leach field. Next, soil acts as a filter to remove contaminants from the effluent while it percolates into the ground. Eventually, most of the liquid seeps back into the water supply, ready to begin the process anew.

Conventional Septic System

For any number of reasons, a proposed building site may not be able to support a leach field (unsuitable soil, shallow water table, etc). The most typical solution (if one is possible at all) to this problem is the construction of an artificial filter, known in the industry as a "mound system".

Essentially, this involves creating a complex sand hill to clean wastewater in the same way soil would. These over-engineered solutions require extra tanks and pumps to carefully dose effluent into the mound at timed intervals. Once wastewater reaches the substandard soil below, the liquid is (hopefully) clean enough to continue seeping into the ground water.

Mound Septic System

Frustratingly, many of the complexities inherent in these systems are unnecessary for our home. We will have composting toilets, practically negating the need to treat blackwater entirely. We will be using environmentally safe cleaners (possibly ones we make ourselves) and we will forego a garbage disposal, opting for the more sensible choice of judiciously composting any left-over food bits from cooking. Our greywater will be a resource, not waste! Honestly, the most "toxic" thing in our plumbing will probably end up being vinegar.

Sadly, in the world of self-contained septic management, conventional leach fields and mounds are the only solution with a wide precedent in our country. Somewhere on the fringes of regulatory acceptance is the option of a constructed wetland, but the stratospheric implementation costs make it moot, at least for us.

At the moment, we're following the path of least resistance: finding out if we can even install a system that regulators will readily accept (ie: a backup plan). Up next: the process and costs associated with septic design and permitting, and the response from our engineer about the viability of what we hope will one day be our land.



Great start so far! All I need is a little time (for you to do all the research and illustration) and I can implement your ideas! Brilliant! :)

Except the cob house part ;)
Posted by Dave on October 11th, 2011 at 11:03 PM
Wow, deja vu! I almost bought a foreclosed property in the Gold Country outside Auburn CA a few years ago. The property would have been great for a weekend place and the price was a deal. The problem was the "OLD" standard septic system was filled up and we would have been required to put in a Mound System. The cost of the Mound system was more than the property value (house and 1 acre combined). We wisely passed on the deal. Good luck navigating the County inspection/permitting process!!!!
Posted by Allen Thoma on October 12th, 2011 at 9:58 AM
Check out John Todd's living machines, he is at UVM
Posted by Eliza on October 13th, 2011 at 1:08 AM
Wow, you guys are really doing it! So excited and inspired. As frustrating as it is for you, I can definitely understand why the regulations are based on the assumption that harmful chemicals will be a regular part of your grey water. I don't think this particular system should be based on an honour system -- I guess that makes me a cynic ;)
Posted by Katherine Herriman on October 15th, 2011 at 7:31 AM
I just had to mention that as a post title, this is one of my favourites. But then, the book title I'm fondest of is "The Incredible Heap". It's a book on composting, Chapter 2 being titled, "The Importance of Muck" :)

"At the moment, I have a distinct feeling this sort of thing is going to be a trend on our quest to build a self-sufficient life in 21st century America. "

Unfortunately, I'm certain you're right about this. But, having watched the staying power and amazing patience the two of you exhibited on your travels I am totally confident you're more than up to the challenge!
Posted by Caro (BB) on October 17th, 2011 at 9:49 PM

We sort of agree, but it is hard to take seriously when you look at environmental policy as a whole in our country.

For example, if we grievously polluted our greywater on a daily basis for the next fifty years, the overall environmental impact would be some tiny fraction of a percent of the pollution caused by a single day of runoff from a CAFO (chock full of mis-used antibiotics, hormones, dangerous pesticides, and heavy metals such as zinc and copper, which wind up in our surface and groundwater).

Where is the regulation on fracking (a natural gas extraction method that, among other things, involves pumping millions of gallons of toxic chemicals directly into the ground). How about genetically modified, pesticide excreting seeds that are killing our bees? I could go on and on.

There is not a single documented instance of someone in the US becoming ill because of greywater. A quantitative field test done by the Department of Water Reclamation in California found that greywatered soil did teem with pathogens, but so did tapwater irrigated control soil. The conclusion? Don't eat dirt, with or without greywater.

The system is horribly broken and contentious homesteaders are the least of our concern.
Posted by Going Slowly on October 18th, 2011 at 9:26 AM
Haha, that was supposed to read conscientious homesteaders, not contentious. But, in this case, it seems both work :)
Posted by Going Slowly on October 18th, 2011 at 9:34 AM
Dave - Sure, sure, we'll pave the way, and you can sit back and learn from our mistakes. ;-)

Al - Thanks for the good luck! Hopefully you found some other nice place that didn't require a mound system?

Eliza - Thanks for the tip, darlin'! We'll definitely check him out!

Caro - Ha! You should check out the book called "Holy Shit" -- I've heard it's a good one. :D Anyway, thank you for your confidence in our abilities. Sometimes the scope of our project is immensely overwhelming, and it helps to read nice comments like yours!
Posted by Tara on October 18th, 2011 at 11:02 AM
Our big holdup with ditching the septic system on our forever-home (other than government regulation) is cloth diapering. To wash diapers you need a washing machine that can be diverted from a grey water system when washing diapers. I don't know if this will ever be an issue for you but with our second now in cloth it's something we have thought about.
Posted by Angie on May 25th, 2013 at 10:47 PM

We're still waffling about if we want to have kids but we will definitely use cloth diapers if we do. Where do you live? Do you have plans to put in a diversion?
Posted by Tyler on May 28th, 2013 at 9:15 PM