Wednesday, June 29, 2016

# 566 - The Grass is Greener on the Other Side

More than ever before, dirt is a part of our life. We purchased our acreage approximately 17 years ago. Our girls were young - Stefie was in Elementary school and Heather was in Junior High. We all worked hard and played hard on our land. They both had fun pitching tents, swimming in the lake, playing in the creek, playing flashlight tag, building camp-fires, and running from bats swooping toward their heads. There are too many wonderful memories of them growing up being wild ones through the forest.

Then again, there are these memories...picking up sticks. A forest has a lot of sticks. Unending sticks. But, to build a camp-fire to sit around and roast marshmallows and make s'mores, you need sticks. The girls learned the value of hard work as they spent time each day gathering sticks, limbs and building their fire to burn that night.

Stefie yanking vines.

Heather determined to also remove the vines and huge roots
left from clearing this area of trees.
We took this rural acreage and cleared a couple of acres. The clearing began with grueling work that Sgt. David perversely enjoyed because he had a lot of energy to expend thru chopping, burning and purging.

About 15 years ago.

By the end of the work for this area of dense wood being cleared, we were left with dirt, dirt and more dirt. The berry vines with large thorns also fought to quickly resurge their growth through the soil.

It took a couple of years of hard work, but we finally laid a pallet of St. Augustine grass in this cleared area and it took root to spread over the coming years to make a beautiful yard. Sgt. David and I had come camping on our land, in a tent, and we ordered the pallet of grass to be delivered. My husband was working so hard and we retreated to the tent for a nap as the pallet sat nearby and I couldn't nap, so I went outside and laid the entire pallet before he woke up. I don't think I have the same strength or energy these days! The photo directly above and then the one directly below are of a time-lapse of a minimum of 15 years.

A bonus of hardy, thick St. Augustine grass is that it prevents growth of the berry vines from coming through, but you have to keep the grass mowed for it to do its job properly. The weeds can't be allowed to thrive and grow amidst the sod. We tried EVERYTHING to keep these horrible thorned vines from growing and spreading, but St. Augustine grass surprised me and finally worked with us to do the trick.

However, there was a gap of time when we didn't visit our acreage at all. There was a full year when we didn't come to the land and that's when my mother discovered she had breast cancer. Her battle was short, only about two years, and in her last year of life, I had zero desire to leave our main home in the city, six houses down from her house.

At times unkempt, the sodded area would have waist high weeds.
However, we eventually managed to fight our way back to enjoying the acreage. In fact, the week my mother passed away, I felt an instinctual strong need to come back to the acreage, so Sgt. David brought me with a loaded down flatbed trailer of yard tools, and I sat on the Cub Cadet mowing for six hours...zoning out...making peace with the inevitable. The acreage gave me space and it allowed me to be with nature so I could accept both life and death.

I didn't want to talk with anyone during this time about her coming death. She was only 57 and wanted so badly to live. Sometimes the fighters die fighting.

I was still working a minimum of 50 hours a week, but for two years I'd been spending significant time taking my mother to M.D. Anderson. I had taken her to her last appointment about two weeks before this day of mowing, and I knew there would now be no more trips to M.D. Anderson. Everything that could be done had been done and the cancer had spread everywhere...spine, brain, lungs, femur...everywhere. I knew, at any time, there would be no more mother. She was leaving involuntarily and I would experience a deep feeling of loss in a new way. She died within three days after my silent day of mowing. 

So, the grass out here has a weird connection to life and death out here for me. I guess people who love to garden and farm can relate.

But, to see the land go from dirt to a place of beauty because of diligence was rewarding, indeed. I might not have been able to control my mother's cancer growth, but I damn sure could chop down the weeds.

The good thing through this process of many years is that I learned that St. Augustine grass definitely is worth the value as it self-spreads while coping with periods of drought, once it is well established. And it is safe for farm animals and is beautiful

The pictures shared so far are of the sodded yard on the side of the acreage where we kept our RV and camped through the years. It's the area we lived in an RV for approximately three long years as we were building our house, but the pretty grass acreage side is not where we would later build our house.

This makes me remember the difference between our years of living in a city suburb to the country experience. In the suburbs, the houses come with sodded yards. The newly constructed houses brag of their "sodded and landscaped" yards for good reason.

The picture above and the picture below are of the same area...freshly cleared and a wreck, then you can see the yard as of this year with my grand-daughter Coraline enjoying it.

Through the years, we have made sure to have a lot of fun.

A family/friend day on our lake for the Three-Acre-Easter Egg Hunt.

Stefie and Heather - my girls who
love the outdoors.

I'm usually the one taking pictures, but every
so often I am at the other end.

Our lake is big...just big enough, but not too big.
No motorized engines, except for a trolling motor.

The good part about having gone through a phase with lotsa dirt is that I am full of hope that the ugly area around the new house will eventually be just as pretty as the side of our acreage with the RV. I keep reminding myself that the sodded area that is now so lush with grass took a long time to grow more widespread and it is great that it continues to creep further outward. What was once rather ugly and chaotic looking is now beautiful.

I'm hoping the same process will happen for the area we cleared for our home-site. However, I tried to sow seed as well.

Several times I walked this entire area while broadcasting seed...expensive seed. I did this four separate times via a broadcaster and then I spread seed by hand, walking and sowing. Not only was this a lot of physical work, it was expensive. We purchased about $200. in grass that was supposed to be GREAT for this area and that is also self-seeding, but it just wouldn't work.

A few times we had unexpected massive rains too soon after sowing the seeds and the ground is so hard that the seeds just washed away. The high clay content made sowing seed nearly impossible. But, I tried.

We knew that we'd have to get pallets of St. Augustine grass to sod the area.

We spent several hundreds of dollars on sod and Sgt. Dave strategically laid rolls down in the areas most critical for immediate needs. We wanted to have a bit of green space in the backyard for the grandkids, and we also wanted the main stairways that lead to entrances to the house be sodded so less dirt would be tracked inside.

Mainly, the sod is crucial in preventing erosion. The rains cause the topsoil to simply wash away. We've had layers disappear as my seed sowing efforts failed. Sgt. Dave laid those two lines of sod seen in the photo below and that has helped retain a measure of soil along those areas. We now have taken notice of areas that desperately need sodding. I hope that we can soon add another pallet of St. Augustine grass to the backyard and that I can make more plugs from a few rolls for areas that are apt to be left forgotten. A few plugs of grass can make a huge difference over time.

We also put sod around the detached garage (not shown) and put many rolls of grass around each sprinkler head in the distance. Later, I would go and separate these rolls to create many plugs of St. Augustine grass for planting around and those have worked beautifully. It will take a couple of years for these areas to see the grass spread out, but they will.

As Sgt. Dave got started with the sod placement, initially forgetting they needed to be staggered, so I followed along behind him to stagger the rolls so that the seams weren't long and deep. We worked to reduce the brown and to increase the green. Even though so much more needs to be sodded, we are thrilled to have a bit of green get started. The ample rain we've had this year is helping the newly laid sod to root and spread.

For now, I walk outside and hold a hand up to block the expanse of dirt still needing sod, and I laugh. It took YEARS for the other side of our acreage to become lush and green, but I can envision the day that the yard surrounding our house is beautiful and even includes ornamental and vegetable gardens.

One day we will have a yard worthy of pictures with grandbabies sitting upon the ground...for now, I use creative imagination.

My thoughts beyond my ordinary catch-up blog post...

The mundane in life is what gives life meaning. Every day we handle the most ordinary and necessary of tasks, but these moments are actually what give life security, depth and enjoyment, even if that seems ironic. Lately, I've been sharing deep sadness with untold numbers of others regarding the terrorist attack in Orlando, Florida. To those who lost their lives and to those who are directly impacted by their tragic loss, I am mindful of your suffering. I understand that you wish to simply do ordinary things in life and that you wish boring enjoyment could be the distraction it had once been. The rest of us should take this time to appreciate the simple distractions of life for the beautiful, carefree moments they offer. A heavy heart can no longer move through a day with ease. One who is mourning cannot do anything anymore with the same mindless movements. Many of us know what it means to experience tragedy and loss of some sort, life usually grabs hold of us in this way, sooner or later. However, the horrific scale of the Orlando tragedy is a stacked type of upon the other. For those who endured the attack and survived, I hope you can eventually and miraculously find peace with your circumstances and make your life a representation for all who didn't make it out alive...your purpose is heavy and great. For those who lost a part of their heart, it is true that we do not forget, and we do not recover from such loss, we simply learn to live with it. That's the new task of one who has experienced great loss; the mundane, daily task they must now confront is to live with their hurting heart and aching soul. My prayer is that joyful remembrance will again one day touch the suffering.

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!