Frugal Homestead Series Part 6: Septic, The Other End Of The Water Equation
Greetings fellow frugal weirdos, Mr. Frugalwoods here! Welcome to Part 6 of our Frugal Homestead Series, which explores the finer points of how we’re going to reach our version of financial independence and move to a homestead in the woods in 2017 at age 33. Mrs. Frugalwoods and I plan to buy 20+ acres of wooded land, likely with an existing home and outbuildings, in rural southern Vermont. While this series isn’t your standard personal finance blog fodder, it’s a uniquely personal endeavor for us and, it’s essentially what makes us the Frugalwoods.
Part 5 of the series dug deep on the topic of water sources on rural properties. Today in Part 6, I’m continuing my examination of the structural differences between rural and urban properties and discussing the other end of the, ahem, water equation: septic systems! This is yet another factor that distinguishes a rural homestead search so dramatically from a standard city house hunt. While septic systems might sound like an unsavory topic, it’s certainly better to waste some time researching now than to end up in a waste-ful situation later.
“House in amazing shape. Property offered as-is.”
“Land perked in ’94.”
“Approved mound design in hand.”
When Mrs. Frugalwoods and I first browsed rural real estate listings in Vermont, we quickly noticed some vocabulary and innuendo that we needed to decipher. Each of those quotes is from an actual listing, and they all come down to one thing: septic systems are both required and expensive. We’ve learned that the septic situation for a particular property can drastically affect its value, and even the legal ability for people to live there at all!
While the legal specifics vary from state to state, the basics are easy to understand. The government requires that you dispose of household liquid-born waste in an approved manner so as not to pollute the surrounding land. Makes sense, I certainly would want protection from my hypothetical neighbor flushing his toilet into the hypothetical stream that runs through my front yard.
But boy does it get more complicated than that! I figured I would put down on virtual paper the notes we’ve made as we’ve learned about wastewater disposal in a rural context. Hopefully it’ll help other aspiring homesteaders as they search for property.
The goal of any septic system is to take the wastewater from your house through a system of separators, filters, and helpful bacteria, allowing non-harmful water to flow back into the ground.
In practice, this involves several pieces of equipment:
- Septic Tank: collects the solids and the oils. This is what needs to be “pumped” regularly.
- Distribution Block: spreads the effluent (aka dirty water) across the multiple arms of the leach field.
- Leach Field: allows the water to seep into the ground over a wide area where any remaining sewage is consumed by bacteria.
Here’s my terrible drawing of what this looks like:
The wastewater (brown and blue) flows from the house down into the tank. The oils and fats float (brown), the solids sink (brown), and the water in the middle goes into the second chamber where a similar settling process takes place.
From the septic tank, the much cleaner water flows to the distribution box. Here it gets directed into one of several leach field pipes. These pipes have holes in them to allow water to seep out. They also have special, semi-permeable sand and soil around them to slowly let the water out. During this journey from leach field back to the environment, plenty of helpful bacteria (orange) break down the remaining waste.
Ideally this entire sequence happens using only gravity to move the wastewater. You can build systems that use a sewage-pump to move the water uphill into a system higher than the house… but then you can’t flush the toilets when the power is out. No bueno.
(Note: this amateurish drawing is way, way, way not to scale. Each arm of the leach field can be really long depending on the site and the soil.)
Here’s what an actual system’s engineering drawing looks like (from a property we considered):
This was a system built on shallow existing soil which required building a “mound” to accept the wastewater. A mound is a more expensive option since the soils for the mound have to be certified and trucked in.
There are three factors that determine the viability of a site for septic use:
- Size: Is there enough square footage on level ground to put a system with an adequately sized leach field? The entire cumulative distance of a leach field pipe can be hundreds of feet. Modern systems in many states also require enough space for a replacement leach field should the primary one fail.
- Soil Permeability: If the property has bedrock or clay at a shallow level, there’s no surrounding ground for the wastewater to filter into. In that instance, you’d have a leach pond, not a leach field. Yuck. The test to discover how permeable the soils are is called a “percolation test” or more commonly a “perk test.” If you’re purchasing bare land, it’s common to have the sale contingent on a successful perk.
- Location Relative To Existing Wells: The government doesn’t want you to put a leach field uphill of your neighbor’s water well. Makes sense for all involved.
As the years have gone by, the regulations covering septic systems have become stricter. What was code 20 years ago isn’t necessarily code today.
Consequently, modern septic systems are extremely expensive to install. Like $20,000 to $40,000 expensive. And most jurisdictions will not allow you to DIY, even if you’re working from a plan drawn up by a professional.
All that to say, one of the reasons Mrs. Frugalwoods and I are primarily interested in purchasing an existing house rather than building one is the cost of a modern septic system. Between your well and your septic, you can drop $50,000 before even starting to build a structure. Not very frugal.
How Do Septic Systems Fail?
The weak part of the septic system is the leach field. If water can’t exit the leach pipes, the entire system stops working. Eek! There are a myriad of ways a leach field can fail, including:
- Solids from the system clogging the holes in the leach field pipes.
- Tree roots growing into the leach field and infiltrating the pipes.
- Someone driving a heavy vehicle over the field and collapsing the pipes.
- Large amounts of water from the house overwhelming the permeability rate of the leach field.
All of these (save the last one) are supremely bad news. Once a leach field has been clogged, there’s no good way of fixing it save for digging it up and replacing it ($$$$).
How We Assess Septic Systems
If the toilets flush and the sinks drain the system must be fine… right?
When Mrs. Frugalwoods and I look at properties, the seller will always say “Oh yeah, never had any problem with the septic.” And, sometimes, that’s the truth :-). But as savvy buyers, we do have a few tricks for sniffing (ha!) out a system in bad shape:
- How often is it pumped? You want to hear “on a regular schedule, here are the receipts.” You don’t want to hear “aww, it’s a great system. Never needs pumping!” False!
- Systems need regular pumping. If the solids or fats in the tank build up and overflow into the leach field, the field will eventually clog. Every system needs pumping.
- What does the area around the leach field look like?
- If the ground is damp, that’s a sure sign something is wrong. Properly functioning leach fields aren’t noticeably damp on the surface.
- If there are trees close to the edge, roots could be a problem. Or in the case of one place we looked at with an ornamental tree planted right in the middle of the leach field… that will most certainly be a problem.
- How big is the tank, and how many people are living in the house?
- Tanks and leach fields are sized for a certain number of bedrooms, which is usually a good corollary to how much water will be exiting the house. But if 10 people are living in a 3 bedroom house… the system might be experiencing more water than it should.
- Is there a garbage disposal on the kitchen sink?
- We love our garbage disposal here in the city, but they’re murder on rural septic systems. Why? Because they pulverize food into tiny particles that can be suspended in solution in the septic tank and don’t settle to the bottom. These particles then flow into the leach pipes, clogging their outlet holes. If a house has a garbage disposal and a septic system, it’s a giant red flag.
- Giant jacuzzi tub in the master bathroom:
- Most places we’re interested in aren’t this nice, but a huge tub can be a warning sign. That much water flushing into the septic tank all at once can agitate solids and force them into the leach field.
- Septic additives in the basement:
- Yes, I’ll admit to it now: I’m a snooper when it comes to touring houses. And if the homeowners feel the need to pour “save your septic” additives into their system… I want to know about it.
Type of toilet paper used by the homeowners:
- Yep, I look at their toilet paper too (told you I’m a snoop!). Triple-ply ultra-quilted butt pillows may make you feel luxurious, but they probably don’t break down well in the septic. If the system is pumped regularly then it’s not necessarily a problem, but no-pumps plus triple-ply is a danger sign. I like to see Scott’s single-ply septic safe on the roll. Yet another reason to buy the cheapest rolls that Costco sells!
- Does the system layout match what was permitted to be built?
- At least in Vermont, you have to file a publicly viewable permit to install a septic system. For houses we’re looking at, I consult the map contained on the permit and compare it to the actual site conditions. If the system wasn’t built as permitted, this could be a cause for alarm and you’ll want to investigate.
- Ruts or other signs of a heavy vehicle near the septic tank:
- Maybe it was just time for the regularly scheduled tank pump-out. Or maybe the owner has been having problems and had the tank pumped right before it was put on the market so that the plumbing would work. A question worth asking.
As you read this list, you can also consider it an itemization of “how to keep your septic system happy.” Part of our planned frugality on the homestead is taking care of the things we own and properly maintaining systems for the long term. It’s not frugal to delay a septic pumping because it’s expensive. It’s the very definition of penny-wise but pound-foolish.
And on that note, I conclude Part 6 of the Frugal Homestead Series. Next up in the series we’ll discuss the intricacies of visiting potential homestead properties. Want to make sure you’re among the first to receive Part 7 delivered hot and fresh to your email machine? Sign-up in the Frugal Hound email box below and she’ll send you a message.
What’s your experience with septic systems? Hopefully it’s good.
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