Letter Re: An Essential Prep, The Outhouse

There seems to be a general misunderstanding about what constitutes a septic system. I keep reading about the need to pump them out annually or some such. If you don’t mistreat a properly designed system by flushing materials that don’t belong there, it should work for decades with no maintenance. If it needs to be pumped out every year, you must have some kind of storage system, not a septic system, or maybe you’re using toilet paper that doesn’t break down. There is a difference, and the glamorous TV ads ignore the needs of country folks. Also our state agency says additives are neither necessary nor desirable. This is a marvelous system that depends on nature and two types of bacteria, which automatically appear naturally. You can drill your well 50 feet from the lateral lines. Anyway, my reason for writing is regarding MER’s comment about using the septic system in a grid down situation. It’s perfect for that, and he (she) is smart to plan ahead to provide a convenient way to utilize it. I would add that you don’t need water pressure to operate the indoor toilet stool. My barn is slightly uphill and the roof is used to capture rain water for my garden. It isn’t and won’t be potable water because of the galvanized roof, but you don’t need potable water for flushing. I am prepared to run a hose from one of the ground-level barrels to the input line on the toilet stool. I will have about two feet of pressure head at empty, which will probably mean a pretty slow fill with the 50+ feet of small hose. I could raise a barrel or plan on a larger hose (requiring much money for larger hose that withstands freezing), but rapid fill is usually not needed. I like the suggested idea of an outhouse because of the ventilation problem indoors. I have an input to my system for use as a camp toilet dump station without having to do it indoors. It should easily convert to an outhouse, and I will probably at least gather materials in advance of need. But I also like the thought of a normally-functioning indoor facility in cold weather, accomplished so easily with a simple hose. Obviously, if it gets too cold, the line will freeze and it will be time for a water bucket fill, which I anticipated, or an outhouse.

For those who aren’t familiar with how far away to locate the outhouse, the standard distance is to place it so it is too close in the summer and too far away in the winter. – Susan.

HJL Responds: There are a variety of reasons that pumping your septic system every year is recommended, other than just financially supporting your local septic pumping company:

  1. Many modern cleaning chemicals contain things that harm septic systems. Even those that say “safe for septic systems” are generally talking about septic systems that are pumped every year. Finding efficient cleaners that do not contain bleach can be a challenge. It only takes a small about of bleach to destroy the bacteria cultures in a system. In our own house, we occasionally use such products, simply because we like white porcelain.
  2. The septic tank is more than just a storage facility. Proper operation depends upon having sufficient capacity so that solids stirred up from flushing or draining operations have an opportunity to settle out to the bottom before traveling to the drain field. This means that the working depth of sludge in a five-foot tall tank may only be one foot. If the sludge gets deeper than one foot, it really needs to be pumped out.
  3. After waiting years to pump, the sludge may harden into a concrete-like mass, requiring extra labor to remove. If taken care of regularly, the sludge can be pumped in a matter of minutes, but you will pay dearly if the septic pumper has to chip away at the sludge.
  4. Most modern houses dump the laundry into the septic tank. In addition to the bleaches and other chemicals that are not healthy, very few washers actually trap all of the clothing fibers. Most just flush them right into the septic system. All clothing fibers cause issues. It takes a very long time for natural fibers, like linen or cotton, to break down, and synthetics never will.
  5. Septic systems, by design, are supposed to be pumped regularly. That is the whole point of the concrete tank. Pumping every year may be overkill, but waiting 10 years will get you in trouble. Just be thankful that we have giant vacuum trucks to do the job, rather than having to do it by the bucketful.
  6. If you have killed your septic system by using bleach or other chemicals, you will generally know, because it will start smelling foul. If you smell the “septic” smell from the vents on the roof when you flush the toilet, it’s dead. It will start back up on it’s own, but you can hasten the revitalization by flushing 1/4 cup of yeast or septic renewal down the toilet.

In addition, the distance between your septic and well depends on the type of soil you have as well as the depth of your well, and the sealing of the casing. Sometimes it is only 50 feet, and sometimes it is several hundred feet. Check with your local county extension or code enforcement to know for sure.