Fascinating reading has taken on a whole new meaning since living in rural Maine: books like “The Septic System Owner’s Manual: Subterranean Mysteries Revealed” by Lloyd Kahn line my shelves.
Most people living in urban areas rely on city sewer systems to handle their plumbing waste. But when you live in a rural area, you have a septic tank. There are some precautions one must take if you have a septic tank: you can’t flush Kleenex or sanitary products down the toilet because it doesn’t degrade well. You can only use toilet paper that is marked “safe for septic systems” on the package. You can’t dump cooking oils down a drain (but you should not do this anyway if you want to avoid clogged pipes). Because food waste can rapidly fill the tank, garbage disposals are not recommended in houses that rely on septic systems (surprisingly, I find I do not miss having a garbage disposal. Vegetable/fruit peels, eggshells and coffee grounds go into our composter). Certain chemicals, such as pesticides or bleach, can also cause problems, because they upset the balance of anaerobic bacteria that allows the septic waste to decompose.
Our septic tank was installed six years ago. We had never had it cleaned out, and while we haven’t had problems (I was about to write “issues” but realized that would be a poor choice of words), we also didn’t want to wait until it overflowed. While I’m all for trying to do things myself, certain jobs are best left to professionals, as one unlucky man in Massachusetts found out just yesterday.
According to CBS-Boston:
Plympton firefighters were called to a home on Forest Street Tuesday afternoon after the man fell into his septic tank.
He was up to his waist in waste.
“I ran up to the hole, found the man in the tank and I got a rope around him,” Fire Chief Warren Borsari told WBZ-TV.
“We got a really good hold of him. He was in an 8-foot tank up to his waist in liquid about two feet below the manhole cover.”
The Plymouth County Tech rescue team eventually got the man out.
His name was not made public.
He had minor scrapes, according to the chief. He was decontaminated right there in the yard and taken to the hospital for treatment.
Borsari said the man may have been drinking before he fell in the tank.
Unfortunately I wasn’t there during the phase of construction that involved our septic system, so I wasn’t sure where the septic tank was actually located. We knew it was somewhere between the house and the leach field. To the untrained eye, our leach field looks like a large rectangular grassy field. But underneath the grass is a maze-like series of trenches and gravel, where liquid waste (called “effluent”) disburses after it travels through the septic tank. We noticed a large metal rod protruding from the ground and figured that might be a marker. My husband got out the shovel and started digging and digging. He dug all the way to China, through rocks and roots and sand and dirt, but there was no sign of a septic tank.
The next morning I left a message for Jeff Ward, our excavator who had installed the septic system. “Hey Jeff, give me a call. I need to know where our septic tank is located.”
He emailed me back: “Check your copy of the septic design report if you still have it. There should be a diagram showing the location of the tank.”
Going through old files, I located the report. We had hired a septic “architect” (someone with a civil engineering background) to design our waste system, and he had drawn it out. But that didn’t mean it was completely accurate, because it was up to Jeff to install the system, and certain natural obstacles such as underground rock or tree roots may have forced Jeff to slightly alter the location on the plans. The diagram looked like a pirate’s treasure map. But it did give a better idea of where the tank might be found.
That night I had a dream. We were looking for the septic tank and digging around the corner of our house, when I came upon a Tupperware container with a red top. Inside the container was $350 cash!
The next day my husband started digging again, this time in a completely different spot closer to the house. Much to my disappointment, there was no Tupperware container with $350. After only a few inches, though, he hit pay dirt, so to speak – – the cement surface of the septic tank. But where was the septic lid? I did a YouTube search on “how to locate septic lid.” (Is there any topic that YouTube doesn’t cover?) Sure enough, a short video tutorial told us how to find it. But we were missing some key tools, like a tile probe – – a long, thin metal rod with a t-shaped handle – – and a metal detector.
When I called Doyon’s Septic Service out of the yellow pages, I spoke to co-owner Betsy Doyon.
“Do you know where your septic lid is located?” she asked. I told her we had an approximate idea of where the tank is, but we couldn’t find the lid. “No problem, we’ll find it,” she said. “We do this all the time.” You have to admire the confidence and pluck of someone whose vanity license plate reads, “Got Poop.”
Dennis Doyon drove his septic truck up our driveway Friday morning. The truck was painted a shiny bright yellow with gleaming chrome trim. The truck was only 2 weeks old. (I wondered: do septic trucks have a “new car” smell? I was too shy to find out.)
Dennis didn’t need to see our septic plan diagram; his years of expertise guided him as he made a beeline right to the area in my dream. Using his tile probe – – that YouTube video had been right on the mark – – he found the parameters of the septic tank within seconds. But where was the septic lid?
“Do you know who installed your septic system?” Dennis asked.
“Yep: Jeff Ward,” I replied.
“Oh, Jeff buys his septic tanks from American Manufacturing. That lid would be located around here,” he said, pointing to a spot on the ground. Sure enough, the lid was found immediately with minimal digging. (It always pays to hire local labor when you live in a rural area. Besides helping the local economy, someone you have to see at the Town Meeting is unlikely to do bad work, because word travels fast. And everyone knows everything about everyone, which often proves to be useful.)
Ever curious, I’m sure I drove Dennis crazy with all my questions and picture-taking. I mean, how many customers stay to chat with the septic man while sludge is being sucked into the truck? How many people find sludge fascinating? (Actually the biology of it all is quite amazing.) Whatever prejudices or preconceptions I had about men who drain septic tanks were flushed away by Dennis, who was clearly very intelligent and quite dapper in his preppy polo shirt and immaculate jeans.
Did we have a baffle or a filter? (A filter, which is a newer design.)
How often did he think we should empty the tank? (Every 5 – 6 years, since except for a couple of weeks in the summer, it’s just my husband and myself.) Have there been any recent innovations in septic design? (Besides filters which replaced baffles, a guy invented a way to clean baffles that cut maintenance and repair time significantly.) Where does the sludge get disposed of when he drains the truck? (At one of two sewage plants in the area.)
How did he get started in the septic business?
“I was helping my friend build a basement,” he replied, “and he needed to have a septic system installed. Unfortunately the septic guy in our area had a year-long waiting list until he could take care of my friend. So the demand was there. Shortly thereafter I heard about a guy in the septic business who was thinking of retiring and selling his old septic truck. Two weeks later, I signed a ‘non-compete;’ I had a license and a truck; and I was in business. That was eleven years ago. I’ve never looked back. And now my son and daughter-in-law are joining me in the business, and we just got this new truck.”
“Was it hard to get used to the smell?” I asked.
“Actually it’s not so bad.” (He was right. There was very little odor when he drained our tank.) “There are really only two instances when the smell gets you: when people don’t call until their tanks are overflowing; and when people are on chemo. You know how they say chemotherapy kills the good cells along with the bad cells? Well it also kills the good bacteria in the septic. I don’t know why – – but the waste products from someone who is undergoing chemo are really . . . different.” (Interesting!)
“But I’ll tell you this,” Dennis continued, looking a bit sheepish. “To this day I still can’t change a baby’s diaper. It just makes me sick.”
For a good basic explanation of septic systems, click here