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Oh to live in the country, now that septic system season is here

Aunt Toby knows that a lot of people feel positively romantic about living in ‘the country’. Grow your own food, sunset cocktails on the patio or deck, a few chickens yammering around in the yard while you, in your large straw hat with the artistically tied gingham ribbon…

Well, it’s not.

One of the major downsides of living in ‘the country’ (versus within the reach of municipal services) is that you are on your own. For almost everything.

For example: Sewer and water. When you live in the municipality, you turn on the tap and there is water. When you flush the toilet, things disappear, never to be heard from again (unless there is a horrific problem in the municipal system, in which case, it all backs up into your basement). When you live in ‘the country’ (and I keep putting quotes around that because you can live just outside the municipal limits, in a housing development that looks just like your neighbors’ across the street, inside the municipality and this is ‘the country’), YOU are the sewer and water provider. That means you need a well in the ground next to your home with a pump and a pipe coming into your house (or, as we had, a pipe coming into the house and a pump in our basement – your mileage may vary), and that also means that you have a sewage system outside your house which usually consists of a septic tank, and some way to handle the effluent (become familiar with that word – we live and die by effluent in the country) so that you are not endangering your neighbors’ wells or the water supplies of people downstream from you. Think of yourself as…the Susquehanna River and your neighbors as the Chesapeake Bay. Your neighbors, whether you like it or not, are extremely interested in the quality of what comes out of your septic system.

Now, how many times have you heard of someone living in a municipality who had to replace their sewage system? (we’ll wait) Right. When you have muni water and sewer, it is the government which has to deal with the sewer and water systems, do repairs, deal with testing, protect the public welfare, and be Superman. People who live inside municipalities do not have headaches. They do not get calls from the County Health Department because of ‘strange liquids’ or ‘bad odors’.

When you live in ‘the country’, you do. The sewer and water situation is yours, yours alone.

And it ain’t cheap.

Here at Chez Siberia, we have a positive banquet of stories about septic systems because our house was built in the 1930s when, ahem, requirements on septic systems in our area were, shall we say, a bit more flexible than they became later. And not only the requirements but the technology has changed several times even while we have lived here, which has been, shall we say, interesting (in the Chinese ‘may you live in interesting times’ way).

When we bought Chez Siberia, we had what was referred to in those days as ‘a private placement’; the lady who owned the property couldn’t sell it (but that is another story and probably does have a strong connection to what I will tell you next) and so we bought it from her and she was the bank. We made the payments to her. Several years later, after the Little Siberians arrived and we wanted to build an addition on the house (the Little Siberians were stacked up on the one other bedroom like cordwood), we decided that we’d get a mortgage from the credit union, pay off Elderly Lady Bank and go on our merry way. To do that, we needed a well and septic test. For those Readers who live in the country, you are already familiar with this arcane bit of documentation but let me tell anyone who has not gone through this that this is the deal breaker on country property.

And, as we found out when the Health Department came out with the shovels, the septic tank was, shall we say, inadequate. Chez Siberia was, to put it bluntly, the Typhoid Mary of the township. We had a metal tank which, when it was put in in 1938, was ‘cutting edge technology’ but fifty years later, was a sieve. We heard later on from the contractor that we shouldn’t feel so bad because he’d found other properties where the metal tank was actually an old car but that is another story entirely.

So, faced with ‘replace in 30 days or we’re going to be very put out with you’ notice from the Health Department, we had to fulfill the technological requirement of the time (and this becomes rather important to the story, actually so pay close attention), which was to put in what is called a sand filter. On the hill behind the house. Uphill. So we needed to also put in a pump in a concrete bunker next to the brand new concrete septic tank next to the house. A very big pump because it had to move all that effluent (paying attention? That word again) up the hill through a pipe and move it through another series of pipes buried in a bed of sand (which is why it’s called a sand filter) with a chlorination unit at the end so that we would not poison anyone else in the neighborhood. Oh yes, and an alarm system so that we would know immediately if the pump failed, or burned out or we lost the power (which amounted to the same thing).

Now, my point is this:

First, that septic systems and what is acceptable, change over time and it’s always a good idea to be familiar with not only what’s ‘cutting edge’ but what your county Health Department is looking at and approving.

Second, that today’s ‘fix’ for your problem can, within 5 years, become something that the Health Department no longer recommends at all.

Third, that no matter how you slice it, YOU are responsible for what comes out of your system and any issues become a matter of public health.

Fourth, that today’s ‘fix’ is not going to last forever and if you stay long enough in that home in the country, you may have a problem with your septic and have to replace it. More than once.

Last fall, we realized that after 20-odd years of service, the sand filter was no longer..well, filtering. So, a couple of weeks ago, we started dealing with the Health Department and a septic guy. Lo and behold, the technology had changed…again. The Health Department is no longer spec-ing sand filters; now it’s aeration units and they are small enough to put right in our front yard. Which means that I now have to dig up some of the landscaping in our yard and the septic guy is going to have to remove the concrete bunker with the pump that is also in my yard (and which is the most ugly thing on the planet). And it also means that we will be dealing with a motor (instead of a pump but the issue of losing power is the same) now and maintenance contracts on the system. And the price on all of this would lift your hair.

If you didn’t live in the country – everything in the country costs. A lot.

So, if you live in a municipality and think fondly of going out to ‘the country’, let me give you a piece of advice:

If you want a garden and have no space, find a community garden and do it there.
Trust me. It’s cheaper in the long run.
(Septic tank installation photo courtesy of Ian Haycox)

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One Comment

  1. madmommy says:

    Oh, how I can relate! We’re in the “town” but outside of city services. So we have a well and septic. But now they call it a “treatment plant”. We’ve been in this brand-new house for 5 years. So far I’ve had to replace the aerator on the “treatment plant” to the tune of a couple hundred bucks (for parts to fix it, if we’d bought new it would have been twice the price!). For 5 years we’ve had crappy water pressure, but the well installers who service the well yearly said it was as good as it would get. I finally called another company. For another astronomical sum they came out, fixed the well, and we can now fill the tub and still have actual water coming out of any other faucet in the house! It’s a freaking miracle!! Just for fun, there are subdivisions on either side of us that have city services.

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