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November 3, 2007

The Big Stink

Two weeks ago we got another lesson in life as rural homeowners. Our septic system backed up. (A late present from the Un-Wedding.) We discovered it as I was doing laundry, when the water came burbling up through the drain in the laundry room floor.

Richard used the neighbour's excavator to dig up the tank, a septic company cleared it out, and the verdict was our field is shot. No drainage at all. There was a chance we could temporarily keep the field going, if soap sludge was the problem, by digging out the perimeter of the field pipe, clearing it and covering it up again for the winter. Then in spring we'd have a minimum $12,500 replacement job on our hands, and issues with new regulations requiring larger, shallower fields and 240 feet of pipe. So a week before his birthday, Richard was in a foul mood and I was once again stressing about our finances. We just had to replace our truck, paid home and auto insurance for the year, etc, etc. Ouch!

But, there was still some investigating we could do before committing to any digging. (Luckily, although we had our first brief snowfall yesterday, the ground isn't frozen yet.) We assumed the field was right next to the tank on the west side of the house, in that area beside my office where the poppies cover the grass between the spruce and the side gate. Richard was so sure of that, that he had me mark out what plants to dig up, and I lifted all my remaining irises from the rock wall rather than lose them to the excavation. But before digging up the rock wall, Richard sluiced out the pipe from the tank a little with a power-washer attachment, and hired a plumber to come out with one of those things we've seen on Holmes on Homes, where they run a line with a transmitter on the end down the pipe as far as it will go, and use a sensor aboveground that says where the pipe is, and how deep. This turned out to be money well spent.

Surprise, the septic isn't next to the house (although it used to be). Instead a hundred feet of unperforated pipe about 4 feet down goes straight past the house and well along the line of the cherry and chestnut trees out to the back fence. The plumber's line only made it as far as the pine tree (fears of root damage to the pipe there), but Richard and Jonathan extrapolated the line another 20 feet or so, and dug down next to our burn pile, to see if they could find gravel for a field out there. Instead of gravel, they ripped through the pipe, in nothing but dirt. The fear then was that we didn't have a field at all, that somehow the skinflint morons that owned this house before us ran a pipe out to the back fence and let the sewage run underground down the hill.

But breaking the pipe in that spot turned out to be serendipitous. Richard traded in the first 50-foot power-washer attachment for a $250 one with 100 feet of line, and from that broken spot they sluiced out the line all the way back to the septic tank. No blockages found, not even at the pine tree, just clogged. It was a smelly job but the attachment worked perfectly. Then they ran the line into the next section heading towards the fence.

Ah-hah! They found a solid blockage just past the break. Here was the source of our problems, a mass of things that should never have been flushed in the first place. (Signage will now be posted in our guest bathroom!) Once cleared, the water ran freely and they were able to guess where it met a T. They dug again about 6 feet from the fenceline and found, thank goodness, the perforated pipe of a proper septic field. And they could hear the water running.

So at the end of the day yesterday we had a big smelly open pit full of sewage and broken pipe (and the unmentionable un-degradable items that caused the blockage), but beyond that is a working septic field. Before Richard re-connects the pipe he's going to get the plumber back again with the sensor to map out the field, and he may also put in a second tank in that big pit he dug, so we can access the field from there in the future. All in all, compared to the cost of replacing the whole field, this nightmare has only cost us about $800 (and two weeks of unwashed laundry, a mountain of dirty dishes, and limited showers) and we'll probably squeeze in under $1500 by the time the stench has lifted. Whew!

Posted by anita at 9:04 AM