On a cloudy day in November of 2010, I was out walking in the yard. Despite the clouds, it was a dry day here in the Pacific Northwest, something unusual for November. I was just checking on plants, amusing the dog, and breathing the clear air before starting dinner. Walking along the path to the shed, along the retaining wall that runs across our yard, I heard the sound of water running.
Well, not running, exactly. Gushing.
Where there had been no sound of water ever before.
And you know, that’s never a good thing.
I quickly traced the sound to a cascade of water coming over the top of the retaining wall, onto the path just ahead of me. It lasted about a minute, then stopped.
Along with that gush of water came the sort of smell you know means trouble. Slightly sweet, very earthy.
Like most homeowners, I know just enough about the systems attached to our house to be dangerous. When we moved out here several years ago, it was the first time we’d ever owned a property with a septic system. I’d heard about these systems in the Midwest town I grew up in, but they were only for the farms that surrounded the town, for the “country people” as we thought of them. I had no idea then what a septic system was or what it did. Those of us who lived in town just flushed away that stuff in the toilet with no concern for what where it went. And the garbage disposal? Well that was a downright miracle for clearing your kitchen sink, something I came to appreciate later during the years we lived in Japan, where the garbage disposal did not exist.
I recall once trying to describe to my students in Japan what a garbage disposal was and how it worked.
“Where does all that stuff go?” one of them asked.
“I don’t know, and I don’t care,” I replied.
But now, we’d bought a house with a septic system and a well, which is quite common in this part of the country. And as good homeowners, we asked neighbors and friends about the system to figure out what we needed to know. How do they work? How do you know if something goes wrong? And, most importantly, WHAT do you do if something goes wrong?
This far into my life, you’d think I’d have figured out not to ask such questions. It only encourages the horror stories. Tales of murky things seeping from the ground, odors wafting to the sky, and thousands of dollars spent. Tales enough to make your lips curl in fear and disgust. The worst was from a friend who noticed nasty things seeping up in her yard one day. Forty thousand dollars later, she had herself a brand spanking new septic system, tank and all.
Being the proactive sort, I decided to stave off the possibility that we too might one day have our own septic stories (yes, I recognize the irony here), and so I took up the county on its invitation for new septic owners to take an introductory class about the care and keeping of our systems. I went – not eagerly (for who is eager to contemplate their own waste processing?) – but resolutely, determined to understand and master our system.
Truth be told, I came home befuddled. All the jargon – what could it really mean? Sand filters, mounds, baffles, and alarms. The drainfield. Operational certificates. Gravity systems and aerobic treatment. The only thing I was sure of was that our entire property is essentially a sewage system, what with the tank down below on one side of the house, the pumps and pipes to the filter up on the other side, and another pump and pipes pushing the effluent still higher up to the drainfield. No longer could we be oblivious to what we put down the sink.
The other piece of information I managed to glean from the class was that the most fragile systems are the ones with a sand filter.
So what system did I discover we had?
One with a sand filter, of course.
And what could disturb a system with a sand filter?
The answer to that question depends upon whom you ask. And ask I did. As I said, I like to be proactive. Besides bleach, I was told that everything from synthetic cleaning products to plain old white rice could cause problems, and the output of a garbage disposal was definitely forbidden. (Never mind that we do indeed have a disposal; I have become intimate with those drain traps in the shower and kitchen sink.) Essentially, a sand filter fails when the bacteria in the filter, the ones that break down the waste, quit working, leaving the sludge to build up and clog the layers of gravel and sand that filter the water before it’s pumped to the drainfield.
But several years passed and we had no trouble with our system. The only time the alarm went off was during a heavy downpour when the earth couldn’t keep up with the sky and the sensors detected too much water in the area. When the time came for us to renew our operational certificate (by then I’d learned what that was), I called a septic service and watched intently while the inspector removed the lids to the tank, measured the slop inside, cleaned the filters, pumped the sh–, uh, sludge into his truck, and wrote up his report for the county. I even monitored his work on the neighbors’ system when they couldn’t be home for the appointment. (That’s when I learned that, unlike us, our neighbors do not live on a sewage-processing plant. The sludge from their system gets pumped about a quarter mile away to a mound in a pretty little wooded area at the corner of our street and the main road.)
But that November day, when the water cascaded over the wall, I quickly learned how little I’d learned.
I called two different septic service companies to come see what the trouble was, and the diagnosis was what we feared. A failed sand filter.
The beauty of a sand filter is that it lies below ground and you never know it’s there – until it fails. That’s when you discover just how impressive the filter can be. In our case, it’s 9 by 42. Feet. Half our front yard. A space large enough to park our cars, nose to tail, that is if you wanted to park them many feet below ground. The water had been pouring over the retaining wall whenever the pump in the septic tank tried to send fluid into the clogged filter, thus the sporadic nature of our “waterfall.” Several times a day, at precise intervals that matched the timer on the pump, the waterfall would appear.
Once the magnitude of the problem set in, we resigned ourselves to a large sum to be paid out for repair, but not one as large as the county tried to extract from us. In the process of approving the new design and issuing the repair permit, the county officials tried to tell us that, not only did we have to rebuild the sand filter, we had to replace the septic tank as well because it was not “up to code” (a phrase that is really code for “We’re going to suck your wallet dry.”)
I still don’t know much about septic systems, but I know when officials become a bit too officious. There was nothing at all wrong with the tank, and so I investigated the regulations and talked to another septic designer, who was actually willing to look at the county’s records, unlike the designer we had, who was a little too quick to arrive at our door in his shiny sports car, wearing his well-creased pants, his hand extended for payment.
Finally, the county issued a permit for the rebuild, but it was many months before work began. (You’ll be relieved to know that the septic specialist we hired created a temporary fix to stop that cascade over the wall.) So, in August of last year, the same month that saw the death of the grand fir tree a few feet up from the sand filter, the work began. What follows is a pictorial record of that work. Click on the photos, if you like, to see the detail. I promise they’re odor-free.
The top of the filter is knee deep.
And deeper still. The white pipe carries effluent from the tank to the filter.
Three men and a hose. These guys oversee the pumping of sludge to the truck.
Here you can see the layers in the filter: sand and gravel below the pipe, rocks, dirt and the roll of sod.
Sludge is also pumped from the sand filter.
Now comes the big equipment: A large metal dropbox for the excavated guts of the sand filter, and a cute orange digger. The workers laid steel plates across the yard to minimize damage and level the surface for the equipment.
As the wet gravel is pulled up out of the pit, the workers spread “pixie dust” (a concoction of lime) on the pile to help dry the rocks and contain the odor.
A couple of the many loads of gravel and sand that were hauled away.
The view through the front door
More digging and dumping.
The nearby trees loved getting their roots in the muck.
The ARC infiltrator panels go in. These panels are now installed in filters to increase the drainage area. The old filter didn’t have them.
Layer by layer, the new sand, gravel, rocks and topsoil go back into place.
From the first spadeful of dirt to the last rake-over, the job took about 5 days (and $13, 000 dollars). Next time we see a waterfall in the yard, it will be one we put there intentionally.