Tuesday, June 14, 2016

# 565 - Aerobic Septic System

Okay, this blog post has taken forever for me to write and isn't going to be for everyone, but it's part of our country house construction process. A septic system is a requirement for our location as sewer city services are non-existent out here. No doubt, building a house in the country has meant we've seen massive expenses and laboring as we also work every day in the normal way of doing laundry, keeping things dusted, cleaning the floors, disinfecting the tub, weed the garden, feed/water the chicks and dogs, and managing the household with paying bills, etc.

Each day I must do normal things, plus do things above and beyond "normal" daily activities to push us forward in the long construction process, such as painting, cleaning the house of construction debris and dust, scrape the plywood floors of plaster, go through boxes of junk needing attention, cleaning EVERYTHING as it comes out of storage or is relocated from the RV and constantly having to organize and re-locate construction tools and products to be used in the house. 

However, in all the well thought out plans along this journey to build on rural acreage has been the serious and unexpected obstacle of our location being TOO FAR from any significant city to get priority for certain construction needs.

For instance, our septic tank installation took months to get installed. I found someone very qualified, but working us into their schedule meant finding a day they'd already be working on our side of the county. Plus we had to wait until the weather became hot enough to make the ground rock solid and not softened by recent rains. The ground being rock solid was problematic due to this year's extremely high rainfall and our normally moist forest ecosystem, considering we live in the Big Thicket.

It's now nearly mid June; we're half way into the year, and our part of Texas has already gotten over a year's worth of rain.

On the other side of our acreage we already have an old septic tank; it's a gravity-fed system, which means the septic piping from the residence is angled downward so that gravity takes the grey and black water to the septic tank. For a gravity-fed system, the ground must be of good quality soil because it serves as your filtering system and the  "treated" water is released in a leach/drain field. Gravity fed systems have a treatment system through the soil's naturally occurring microbes. The Earth itself is a magnificent filtering system.

However, the side of the acreage where we built our house has a lot of clay; it won't allow septic waste-water to seep through the ground so it can be filtered...the high clay content works like a plastic seal to prevent the waste-water from seeping downward to filter in the earth. The high clay content in our soil forces waste-water to percolate to the surface and contaminate the ground.
So, we installed what is commonly referred to as an "aerobic septic system" and this is most definitely a layman's post about this topic.

An aerobic septic system uses a pump to put oxygen into the sewage waste, which breaks down the waste by stimulating growth of aerobic bacteria.

It is sickening that we had to install an aerobic septic system because this kind of system is much more expensive than a gravity-fed system. Shocker for us. But, there is NO SENSE in paying good money to install a system that would fail. A gravity-fed system would've simply given us ground saturated with stinky poo matter and foul water to puddle on rainy days and bacteria-laden water to run off throughout the acreage.

Designing the house required consideration for the room needed for installers to have unencumbered access to the septic tank site for installation and future maintenance.
Here is the start of the septic installers heavy equipment making
it back to the septic system zone. This is the front of the house and
they are backing up so they can curve toward the side of
the house for installation.
Our aerobic system technically has three main tanks. These are HUGE concrete tanks. 

In fact, on installation day, I finally understood the reason the ground had to be rock solid as a heavy-duty rig hauled in the concrete tanks and unloaded them with a crane attached to the truck.


There was a crew of about six men and several different pieces of heavy machinery on our acreage that day.  
The purpose of an aerobic system is to separate solids from waste water by "holding" the solids in the first tank. The first tank handles decomposition so water can be separated and sent to the next tank.

The solids held in the main tank are often referred to as sludge and scum. I think of it as the Poo tank.


The solids sink to the bottom of the first tank to hopefully start the decomposition process with appropriate bacteria levels, but alas, not all solids are capable of decomposing. Regardless, the first tank should ONLY hold appropriate matter finding its way into the Poo Tank. This is the reason other things should NEVER go down your any of your plumbing. Chemicals also should not be put down the drain as they interfere with the bacteria process...only use what is needed for regular house cleaning. In favorable conditions, it is expected that the end process will result in the release of Clarified Wastewater into the yard via a sprinkler system that disperses it.

Clarified Wastewater is also called Effluent; it is free of solids and sludge. It has been thru a process of also confronting a bleach tablet that aids "disinfecting" this water before it is sprinkled onto the ground. However, you would NOT want to bathe, drink or play in this water.
With an aerobic system, the treatment of septic water is as seen in the diagram below...

...the first tank takes in the poo, tissue, kitchen sink mess and any other solids that make it down your pipes, from the tiniest bit of matter to the biggest. That tank allows solids to sink to the bottom. Effluent rises and drains into a second aerator tank and then this water goes through a chlorination system before being released via special sprinklers in the yard.

You don't want that sludge layer to rise too high or it will spill over or block the system. Anything that doesn't decompose is the stuff we discuss having to eventually have pumped out.


The chlorination process occurs via septic bleach tablets that treat the water - there is a drop in area located above the ground for the tablets to be put into this part of the septic system.


The chlorine tablets are not the same as swimming pool chlorine tablets, but are designed specifically for septic systems.

There were several things I had to consider when drawing the plans for our house. Considering the mechanicals and septic system required massive research on my part because I am not a professional architect. However, I had to especially consider the septic system, and I originally believed we'd be able to install a gravity-fed system, same as the other side of our acreage. It was surprising that our acreage has adjoining tracts of land with various soil types.


I planned for a gravity-fed system with considerable space designated for our leach/drain field. The house had to be situated at just the right location, regardless of the system used. If the house is on unlevel ground, it's not optimal to have a septic system uphill from the house. A septic system should also be kept at a good distance from incoming ground water so that drinking water won't be contaminated. I did position the house and carefully considered the water lines while selecting the house site. I designed it so the septic system and ground water are on opposite side of the house.  

The ground water comes in from the highest elevation side of the house and the septic system goes out the opposite side of the house. This keeps ground water and septic wastewater far from one another, plus it allowed for me to consider the bathrooms, kitchen sink and other plumbing to be routed to the septic location that is downhill from the main residence, garage, driveway and so on.
If the septic does fail or become over-loaded, by chance, it won't be possible for contaminated wastewater to run-off toward the house because the house is uphill from the septic.


Regardless, during the conception stage of our house, these are a few of the things that kept me awake at night. It took almost two years to finish making major decisions for our house. Living on the acreage for an extended period of time allowed us to also watch for drainage issues and other considerations.

The process of going from a life with city water, to living in an RV with a gravity-fed septic system and now to a house with an aerobic septic system has been educational. I marvel at how cities maintain water and sewer treatment plants. For people living in a country setting, maintaining a septic system is crucial.  
 In a septic system of either kind, the depth of the sludge in the main holding tank determines the necessity of pumping it to remove waste that didn't decompose with time or that has accumulated too much in the tank so that the solids begin to spill over into the second tank or yard. The tank should have enough room for the solids to sink, but all tanks will inevitably need to be pumped. Usually, tanks are pumped every 3-5 years, but the necessity of tank pumping depends on the internal level of material that didn't decompose. 
 The more people there are living in the house or the higher the frequency of guests or entertaining in the home, the more often the tank will need to be pumped clean by professionals. People living in areas that require dependence on a septic system must have an overall goal to live normally while also trying to minimize unnecessary solids going doing the pipes!

Whatever is sent down the pipes in the house will travel to the solids-holding tank; time and usage will determine each household's need to pump the piled-up ICK-YUK-POO-GOO from the tank.

This is a significant reason a septic tank should also have access points above ground. A removable lid making access easy should be available for each tank. This is where Sgt. David enlightened me as our other septic system is indeed on the low side and it needs to be since it is gravity-fed, but we have to be careful to keep the lid free of encroaching forest growth and top soil accumulation. Needless to say, it is IMPERATIVE that lids to septic tanks be kept securely in place so that pets and children won't be in danger. 
You can see part of the septic system access caps - later these will
have landscaping around them to protect our septic tanks and to
conceal the caps with some beauty.
It is important to note that KITCHEN GREASE does NOT break down in a septic tank. Bacon grease does NOT break down in a septic tank. Grease is grease and is not water-soluble; it's a solid and the worst kind for pipes and septic systems. Kitchen grease needs to be disposed of in the trash, NEVER put down the drain. Regardless, putting grease down any pipes is highly unwise. The grease accumulates and congeals in plumbing lines, eventually creating expensive backups and blockages. 
That being said, garbage disposals also contribute to an excessive amount of solids in the septic tank that won't break down and will require more frequent pumping. I've lived with a garbage disposal for about 15 years in my life, it's a luxury, but it now comes at a price that isn't worth it as the life of a septic system can be extended by not having a garbage disposal. It's more ideal to give scraps to farm animals, to add them to a compost pile or toss them in the trash. Sink strainers should be used to catch hair, lint and food particles.

Designing a septic zone, sprinkler lines and sprinkler head location is a critical part of building a house. This zone should not be in driving or parking areas. The no-driving rule includes tractors, golf-carts, and riding mowers. A good septic system will have visible caps sticking out or be flagged somehow.   
Another thing that can negatively affect your septic tank is hydraulic overload, which occurs when too much water enters the septic system at one time. This can result in wastewater BACKING UP into drains, which isn't pretty if the bathtub or toilet begins to backup.
This can also result in solids being pushed prematurely (overflowing) to the yard. Being conservative with water usage or to consider a schedule to keep water volume usage balanced is important. For example, you don't want to simultaneously do laundry, run the dishwasher, and have someone taking a bath in a huge tub. Spacing heavy water usage is a good idea. However, a good septic system shouldn't have much of a problem. A septic installer usually puts in a system according to the number of bedrooms in the house.  
Here is a list of No-No's for a septic system:
1) Feminine Products, especially no tampons or tampon inserters...provide a trash can and framed note near toilet for those visitors not associated with a personal septic system.
2) Baby Wipes
3) Paper Towels
4) Cat litter
5) Cigarettes
6) Coffee grounds
7) Kitchen Grease
8) Pesticides / Car Oil
9) Paints / Chemicals
10) Try to keep household chemicals minimized. Don't pour extra down the drain.
Another area in which to exercise caution is in the landscaping around the septic system. Tree roots and other plants could be problematic.


Our other septic system has a full-fledged leach field needed to filter the septic tank water that has separated from the poo mess. With the consideration of plants, we live in the Big Thicket, which is a lush forest with rapid growth, it's a battle to keep encroaching growth at bay. We cleared a tremendous amount around our home-site during construction prep, leaving several large trees. 

Only shallow-rooted plants, grass and other such plants should be landscaped around a septic system. Important:  You also don't want any edible plants near the discharged septic system veggie gardens, no fruit trees, and don't eat the berries

We put down St. Augustine sod around the sprinkler areas because it's the only grass out here that thrives with little maintenance and is self-spreading. Properly maintained St. Augustine grass also is FANTASTIC at keeping weeds and blackberry thorn growth to a minimum. The sprinklers from the septic tanks that distribute clarified wastewater will provide the water for this sod and actually help St. Augustine growth in areas that the waterhose won't reach. All septic plumbing is purple.


In the State of Texas, septic sprinkler heads for the treated water are also purple to indicate they are specifically designated to distribute reclaimed wastewater. This is to warn people to avoid direct contact with this water and the purple color of the piping makes it easier to define for maintenance.
We also opted to place the electrical controls under our house, but some people install the electrical panel on a post next to the tanks, in the open.


We did learn that ants LOVE to invade the electrical system and pump, but the warranty is voided if the home-owner doesn't protect the electrical workings from ants. Burying a trench of ant killer and keeping it sprinkled in a wide radius of the electrical panels is worthwhile.

Once you have a system installed, create a map of everything for future reference.
We took extensive photographs in relation to the house so we could locate everything. In your records, be sure to also record the age of the system, type of tanks, pipes, size of tanks and locations of everything.  
We're required to provide quarterly reports for the state, so I made an agreement with our installer to provide two years of maintenance so we don't have to worry about submitting these reports any time soon and they will also check the system every four months or so to make sure all is working well.


At the end of those two years, we can take a class to become qualified to do our own reports, which would save money in the long-run or we can renew a maintenance contract.
Most importantly, the septic system means we were finally able to get one of THESE inside the house! A toilet! We have a THRONE ROOM!
Oh how I love thee porcelain throne.
Two flush options, the wee pee and the poo loo. The wee pee first
button is for pee and the second poo loo button is for matter that
requires more UMPH to be flushed. I LOVE this toilet. No kidding.
The seat is awful, but that is secondary to the functioning. We can
find a more comfortable seat later.
And I leave you all with a photo of a plumber. Indeed, crack IS whack. Thank you Mr. Plumber, you have not let us down!


Charade said...

Great post, Lana, as always! And after reading it, I'm sure glad we have a gravity-fed septic system.

Shortly after we bought our country place, we had a small (thankfully) backup issue, and our tank had to be pumped. It took about fourteen hours. The guy who did it determined that, in the 45+ years since the house was built, the tank had never been opened and pumped - can you believe it? It might not have failed when it did, but the house had sat empty for five years, and with no water flowing through the tank for that long, it crusted pretty badly. Our guy told us that normal (not excessive) amounts of water are good for a gravity-fed system.

He also said that liquid soap is far preferable to bar soap, because the bar soap re-forms after going down the drains, much like it does in a soap dish, plus it narrows your drain lines as it accumulates, just like plaque narrows your arteries. Thank goodness he approves of a garbage disposal, although he said "never" to the following: no bones or meat of any kind, no oil or grease of any kind, no eggs whether raw or cooked (shells are okay), no dairy of any kind, no bananas or peels, no tomatoes and no squash of any kind. We compost most items, but still I can't imagine doing without a disposal and always worrying about something going down the drain.

Texas is obviously more eco-oriented than Missouri, because in most of our counties, once the state approves and inspects installation of your septic system, it never gets inspected again. I wouldn't mind if we had those requirements, because I'm sure we have plenty of people who don't maintain their systems properly.

Karen said...

Lana, so glad to hear you've got a toilet! I know how it is to do without one, trust me. Last Christmas Eve our gravity system suddenly stopped working, came to find out it was a rusted cast iron pipe from the septic tank to the drainage field. That was an easy enough fix for my husband but then we found the concrete tank is crumbling. It will need to be replaced. We have an inspection every three years here, the tank is pumped and inspected (which it had been in July) and found to be fine, but I guess they couldn't tell the concrete was failing. So, long story short, we had to have another soil test in January (frozen ground) and now the codes say that we cannot have a gravity fed system, so we are now waiting for a mound system to be installed. We were told that concrete tanks don't usually last more than 20 years (we didn't know that!) and we were lucky to get 38 out of ours. Oh, well. I don't look forward to having my entire back yard torn up again after all the landscaping we've done, but we have no choice. I'm so glad you're done with this part of the process. I can truly, Truly relate!

Lana said...

Charade - I loved your comment. VERY interesting with the other details and I was hoping people would comment about their own experiences and lessons. We learn from each other. I'm going to pass along the info you shared with my family. I believe we are going to do a post on our family bulletin board about what cannot go down the drains. Our gravity fed system has been in place over 20 years, but it's the drain field we're having problems with. Blech. And I'm positive that tank needs pumping since we've never had it done. And it is so true about the right amount of water being necessary for things to not get too "thick" in there. Lol. I'm considering a garbage disposal.

Karen - I feel for you! Having a soil test and to be forced to go from gravity fed to another more expensive version is a challenge. The concrete tanks last a minimum of twenty years, but today's tanks, as you have seen, usually last much longer than the minimum expected lifespan. I'm hoping that our system will hang in there for an EXTRA long time! I imagine our sprinklers that discharge clarified water, etc., will need regular maintenance and replacement more frequently. I also know the dread of the yard being torn least we didn't even have grass yet. I refrained from planting it because we knew it would just be torn back up and be money wasted. I hope your replacement goes well when the time comes.