Week of April 7-10
Another week of much activity onsite and a major development milestone: the installation of the septic system. As a city slicker my whole life, septic systems have been those things I was aware of but never had much experience with, so I have done a LOT of reading, asking around and online research into the topic of human waste and its management.
If you’re at all squeamish, you might not want to read any further. Don’t say you weren’t warned. 🙂
Anyone who has ever done backcountry backpacking will be aware of the protocol of carrying a trowel so you can bury your own waste an appropriate distance away from a water source. Nature takes care of the rest. Indeed, animals do “their thing” in the woods all the time and it all contributes to the ongoing cycle of keeping the forest going.
Gabriola Island has no municipal sewer system and the trailer I have onsite is not hooked up to any services other than the power I had brought onsite a few years ago (the story of hauling a 53 pound battery back and forth to the city to charge will have to wait for a later post, and one which I’m glad will be told in the past tense). And since winter temperatures can dip below freezing, having the trailer’s water tank filled seemed risky, so I haul all the water I use. That means that the lovely bathroom, complete with flush toilet, sink and shower, gets used for storage instead of its appointed purpose. So for the past four years I have been using a system called a sawdust toilet as described by Joseph Jenkins in The Humanure Handbook, available to read online for free, here. Overview: Make your deposits into a 5-gallon bucket (I used a smaller one since I’m petite, hehe), cover with sawdust or wood chips/shavings (available in abundance from anyone who does woodworking), and when the bucket is full, dump the contents into a dedicated ‘humanure’ compost pile, which, when well composted, can be used just like any other compost, but for non-food crops. Simple. Elegant. Cheap. Waaaaay cheaper than the $26,000 solution about to be described, even if I were to spring for a new bucket every year!
I am intending to divert my greywater (from showers, sinks and laundry) and am committed to using some form of composting toilet in my house (likely the same sawdust version, though I will “upgrade” to a full 5-gallon bucket), so I have questioned the need for a septic system at all. But if you are building a house, you need a building permit. And if you want a permit in an area not served by municipal sewer, you need to have an approved means of dealing with waste water. A sawdust toilet is not on the approved list (go figure!), so that means having a septic system of some sort. I even considered having just the septic tank installed and having it pumped periodically. There are, naturally, all kinds of regulations around that, too, which I was willing to deal with, but for resale considerations and other reasons (like so my other city slicker friends can flush a toilet), I decided to go with a full system.
Septic systems take up a LOT of room. There is a large tank that holds the stuff flushed down toilets, sinks and tubs. There’s the leach field where all the effluent (the tank’s bacteria-treated liquids) goes. And in BC now, there is a requirement for a separate distribution tank that pumps the effluent, under pressure, out to the leach field. You’d think on a 5 acre property there would be plenty of room to install these components and still leave lots of room for a house. But my site is traversed by a winter creek (officially classified in Riparian terms as a “seasonal drainage ditch”) and anything septic has to be at least 50 feet away from a source of fresh water. Add to that the constraints of the thick tree belt around the site plus a driveway and parking area, and you’re left with a tight fit for a house, carport and septic system in the area I’ve chosen to build the house (so chosen for its solar orientation).
I asked four local septic professionals or installers what they recommended for a system. They all agreed the tank could go adjacent to the house, on the downhill side, which, on a sloped site, was an easy decision. But for the leach field, there was no consensus on the type of system or the location. One couldn’t figure out where it would go at all. One was going to locate a traditional piping and gravel system a few hundred feet away from the house and pump the effluent uphill to there. One was going to locate the traditional system closer to the house, but it meant digging up and sacrificing the entire driveway and parking area (rendering them unuseable for anything but walking on). And the fourth was going to install a gentler type of subsurface drip system, which I liked the sound of, but it would be in a pristine woodland area adjacent to the creek, because “no one would know once it’s put in”. Sigh. Lots of advice but no solution.
On the advice of a friend, I called a fellow who is not only a wastewater practitioner, but also an engineer. In fact, this fellow literally wrote the book the other septic professionals study. He came for a consultation and confirmed the difficulty the others had with the site. But being an engineer, he has the professional discretion to relax the rules a bit, and to design a custom system for my site.
His solution was to locate the leach field behind the house site under the trees adjacent to the roadway using a subsurface drip system less than a foot under the ground, using 1/2 inch tubing that winds in and around the tree roots “irrigating” them with regular dispersals of the effluent in the pressure tank. It’s a more expensive system than the traditional piping and gravel type, but it is much less traumatic to the site … and to me, the owner!
After months of research on the various systems and more months of getting opinions from the local septic folks, and even more time connecting with this consultant and the company he recommended for the installation, we got the appropriate approvals in place and were all set to install the system last fall, but the weather turned bad so we postponed until the spring. So finally, it was time.
On Tuesday, the installers came with their excavator and after some discussion about the optimal location, started excavating for the tanks, which were installed on Wednesday. Although there is sandstone bedrock exposed in a number of places around my site, fortunately this location for the main tank provided plenty of depth for the huge tank to be well buried. But they weren’t so lucky with the distribution tank, which was to be located in the wooded area, so it was relocated adjacent to the main tank, which I’m happier with since it will require less electrical conduit to hook up.
Gigantic tanks being lowered into place and leveled.
Of course, that was only the tanks! On Thursday, the work started on the drip field. I was lead to believe this would involve a minimal amount of ground disturbance, making shallow trenches to bury the tubing, which would allow the plants – mostly salal – to grow back quickly. But no, it was the same excavator basically clearing all the ground cover in a 10 foot wide path 12 inches deep and about 150 feet long through the thick wooded area behind the house site, adjacent to the road. Then 10 lines of tubing were installed, hooked up and eventually backfilled. Machines can certainly make short work of big tasks, but they can also do a lot of damage in a short amount of time. Clearing out the understorey was one task I would have preferred to do by hand … but that would have cost another $2600. So given the options, I’m counting on Mother Nature (with a lot of help by moi) to regenerate the salal and ferns that gave their lives just so I can have a flush toilet. To the credit of the installer, he was aware of the trauma it was causing me so he kindly saved a number of the ferns and relocated them when he was done.
Half of the drip field excavated and irrigation tubing being laid in place. The vegetation on the right was the next to go to make room for the other half.
So that was a major milestone taken care of. Or so I hope: they ran out of time to fill the tanks with water to test the system so will be doing that once the electrical service is ready to hook up many months from now. My cynical side just shakes her head at the thought of them discovering a leak in the system and having to dig it all up again …
Stay tuned for other exciting adventures.