The Sage of Septic Systems

Steve Farrell

Some years ago I had a house with a septic system. While I would have preferred either a city sewer and/or a composting toilet a septic system was the only viable option. Maybe we can discuss the barbarity of soiling clean water in a future post.

The care and feeding of a septic system is an important aspect of green building. If the system is not happy then bad, bad things can and will happen……………really terrible things!

So after being in the house for a few years I decided to have the tank empty and get everything checked out. I’m not sure how I got in touch with the Sage of Septic Systems (my name for him, not his) but I met a remarkable person. This being some years ago I probably met the SoSS through the Yellow Pages (remember those?).

So this fellow arrives right on time in a nice truck with pressed clothes on, a full smile and two eyes that tracked. Sorry to disparage the septic pumping industry with stereotypical judgement but this was not what my experience had lead me to expect.

The SoSS found the underground tank by apparent divination. I was the one who buried it and I wasn’t a hundred percent sure where it was. The SoSS went to work and proceeded to regale me with some advice that I still use to this day.

The first thing he asked was how many water closets I had. “Four” I answered (this was a big house with many children so don’t hate me for my plumbing excesses).

The SoSS then bet me $20 that two of the four water closets where leaking. As an avid water waste avoider I took his bet. We then went inside an sure enough, two of the four where leaking from within the tank to the overflow. I’d tested the tanks with dye but the SoSS pointed out that the water was not going into the bowl but directly into the septic system through the internal tank overflow; apparently this is very common.

He showed me how to lower the full level to about an inch below the top of the overflow. I have used this trick myself hundreds of time since whenever I visit a home or office. At the risk of over-sharing I have developed the ability to pee and simultaneously clear and remove the lid, check the full level and, if necessary (about half the time) make the adjustment. By my rough calculation I have saved over 500,000 gallons of water by using this simple adjustment the SoSS taught me.

Remember, a leaking toilet is working 24/7 to waste water, money, and over-burden septic systems and sewers.

Only later did i realize that the SoSS must have seen water dripping into the tank to realize that his bet was safe. Being a gentleman, the SoSS refused my offer to settle up.

But the Sage was not done schooling me, not by a long shot.

“So you like the premium bath tissue do you Mr. Farrell?” I looked around to see if my father had showed up and then realized the Sage was addressing me.

I’d always considered Scott tissue an affordable luxury so I confessed that indeed I did.

“If you needed another reason to buy recycled or recycled content tissue here it is. Premium tissue does not break down easily in a septic system and in fact seriously affects the systems ability to operate effectively”. The takeaway? Always buy  recycled content tissue (of course there are tons of other reasons to do so but we’ll get into that at another time).

“Been doing some painting have you, Mr. Farrell?”. After checking again for dad’s unannounced arrival i answered in the affirmative.

“Never, never clean a paint brush in septic system attached sink” the Sage admonished. Not even water based. Again, this negatively affects the systems ability to function properly.

The lessons kept coming. The Sage noticed that my downspouts, naturally, pointed downhill. Guess what else is downhill? That’s right kids, the septic drain field is downhill. When it’s raining the drain field of course cannot dry out. Dumping the concentrated loads from my 16 square roof was just adding to the struggle the drain field was facing.This leads to premature field failure and can cost many pesos to replace.

The takeaway. Get thine downspouts into underground leaders and move them far far away from thine drain field.

The final lesson of the SoSS was to clear my drain field of brush. In my struggles to run a family and an architectural practice (don’t try this at home, it’s monstrously difficult) I had allowed the local exotic invasive plant community to take up residence on my drain field. Privet (God, deliver us from privet), multi-flora rose, polonia, kudzu and bittersweet (another horrible actor) had covered my drain field negating the systems ability to dry out. This not only shortens the life of the system but it can lead to groundwater contamination.

I hate grass but apparently grass is the preferred ground cover for a drain field.

A few other tidbits from the Sage of Septic Systems. That stuff you buy a the store to extend the life of your system; not necessary if you do the other things the Sage recommended.

Apparently wisdom comes from experience; experience and from unexpected sources.

Who else has met the Sage of Septic Systems or his equal?