Dreaming about changing scenery from city to country? Many homeowners are making the move to abandon subways and skylines for the embrace of wide-open spaces. In a busy, frustrating and chaotic time, more people are finding comfort in star-filled skies and a slower pace of life.
The rural move can bring exciting and new possibilities; we’re talking about everything from finally having the outdoor space for a vegetable garden to choosing fresh paint colors and furniture layouts. There is, however, a few less than glamorous preparations that must be made. One of the most important, yet least exciting, aspects of rural living is the consideration of wastewater removal.
Many rural areas rely on septic systems for the safe disposal of sewage. If your new home is located in an area too far removed from a large city infrastructure, there may not be access to a public sewer system. In this case, you may be looking into alternative methods for waste management. If you are looking to purchase a home with a septic system installed, or if you are planning to install a septic tank on your current property, here are a few details to consider.
The first step to a wise investment is understanding the basic function of the system as it operates to filter your wastewater and dispose of sewage. Simply put, a conventional septic system can be broken down into two functioning parts: a tank and a drain field.
The large, underground septic tank holds any wastewater as it drains from your household plumbing. The wastewater can come from toilets, showers, kitchen sinks, washing machines, and anything else that goes down your drain. Any heavy solids will sink to the bottom of the tank to be decomposed by bacterial enzymes while scum, which is made up of lighter solids and grease, will float to the top.
Inside the tank, good bacteria will break down most of the solid waste into sludge and gasses. Any solid material that cannot be broken down must be pumped from the tank periodically to prevent sewage backup. No matter how you slice it, the words ‘glamourous’ and ‘septic’ do not belong together!
All gray water, also known as effluent, is filtered back out of the tank and into the drain field. The drain field, which is composed of an interconnected network of underground trenches, will strain out the remaining liquid waste. These trenches, made of either gravel or perforated plastic pipes, then distribute the effluent through a buried drainage system into the ground. Microbes in the soil will then work to filter any remaining contaminants to complete the process.
System Size and Type
The size and type of your septic system will depend greatly on several different factors, including the number of people in your household, land slope, soil type, seasonal shifts and geographic weather patterns. Most areas will require a permit for your septic system issued by a local government authority. Permits are issued based on the number of bedrooms in the household and native soil types in the area.
While there are many different system types available, it’s important to do your research to determine which type of septic system is best for you and your space. You should consult an expert who is knowledgeable on state and county regulations as it pertains to septic systems and have the system inspected by a licensed professional before you invest.
Cost and Maintenance
If you are interested in installing a septic system, you can expect to spend a minimum of $2,000 to $6,000, depending on the size and type of system, plus any permit fees. Thereafter, you can expect approximately $75 a year, but this could increase if your tank requires additional maintenance or more frequent pumping.
This may seem expensive, but with regular and properly completed maintenance, you can expect your conventional septic system to last between 25 and 35 years. To avoid racking up an extensive bill in repairs or system replacement, be sure to keep a standard inspection schedule and log any important changes that could affect your system.
Keeping your wastewater flowing through the system properly will require regular maintenance and pumping. Depending on the number of people living in your household, and the size of the septic system, it should be pumped a minimum of once every 2 to 3 years.
If at any point you notice that sinks are draining more slowly or the toilet seems to be backing up, this could be a sign of a clogged septic system. Additionally, your septic system should never smell rotten if it is functioning properly. If you notice a foul smell or the ground area above your system is soggy, this may also be a sign that something has gone awry. If you suspect a clogged system, you should call a professional to service your site immediately.
Lessen the Foot Traffic
Lessening the foot traffic over the drain field will reduce your risk of damage to your septic system. Heavy equipment such as tractors, trailers, and moving trucks can cause unnecessary pressure on the tank buried underneath layers of soil and may lead to costly repairs.
While protecting the drain field from being trodden, it’s also important to keep the area undisturbed and free of trees and other plants. Tree roots can extend in the soil and damage your drainage network, which can be a complicated issue to amend. Low-laying plants may require additional watering, thus disturbing the wastewater distribution process underway.
Additionally, it is also crucial to keep your gray water distribution as far away from any vegetation growth, food gardens, and livestock as possible. It is a best practice to keep the area cleared for at least 30 feet from your septic system. Most county areas have restrictions to install septic systems a safe distance from both private water lines, as well as rivers, streams, and ponds.
To Flush, Or Not To Flush
The easiest way to maintain your system and reduce the number of pumps is simply being mindful of everything that is being flushed or poured down sink drains. Any harmful chemicals or bleach poured down the drain can kill the good bacteria responsible for breaking down solids inside the tank.
Additionally, any sanitary or feminine products, plastic, oils, grease, paints, diapers, and wipes should never go down the drain and into your septic system. These materials cannot be broken down by the bacteria in your tank and will inevitably cause a backup. Basically, if it is not toilet paper, it should not go down the drain.
Before You Buy
Before you buy, do your research. Obtain information from local authorities about how permits are maintained and ask for archived information, if available. Court records in certain jurisdictions may contain historical information that the current owner may or may not be aware of regarding the property’s wastewater distribution and geographic history. You may be able to request an inspection and complete system pump as a requirement for a contract offer.
While wastewater disposal is one of the least glamorous and exciting parts of moving to a suburban or rural area, it is one of the most important considerations that a homeowner should take into account. Septic systems are generally very simple and easy to use as long as they are properly maintained and subject to routine professional maintenance.
Melanie Theriault is a writer, counselor, and lifelong learner. She holds a B.A. in Sociology from Southwestern University, where she discovered her passion for fostering human connection through storytelling.