Our Dyspeptic Septic Epic: Part 1

It’s largely invisible to me. Its exact origins are shrouded in mystery. It looms over me, despite being underneath me. It has kept me up at night, feverishly worrying that it will someday crater our life savings. It’s like an underground meteor, and though it’s inanimate it seems hell-bent on sabotaging my peace of mind as a homeowner and, at worst, bankrupting my family.

Also, it’s full of poop.

Other than my 2 precious children, the most high-stakes and nerve-racking thing I’ve ever been entrusted with is the sand mound septic system buried under our rural property. It is an intricate subterranean system of tanks, risers, and pipes leading up to a carefully constructed mound in our backyard. Plus one very crucial pump that studiously works — day after day, year after year — against the constraints of gravity.

No one who is neatly connected to city sewer can imagine the unique mental burden of knowing you’re at the mercy — financially and mentally — of your very own underground, self-contained, privately owned septic system. Especially when you not only didn’t install it yourself, but have virtually no knowledge of who installed it, or when they installed it, or whether they had any idea what they were doing when they installed it.

Right before we bought our home in 2015, I spent close to a week strenuously grinding my mental gears and losing sleep over this one aspect of the property we desired. While the rural Cape Cod-style house we were interested in buying greatly appealed to us in many ways and was at our desired price point, I’d never had well water before, and I’d never even heard of a sand mound. Heck, I’d barely ever even pondered how septic systems function. When plumbing works as intended, it has the wonderful effect of keeping your mind blissfully unencumbered by how it works. You just do the laundry and take a shower and wash the dishes and flush the toilet, then go about your day as if some plumbing fairy is magically making your wastewater and solid waste — poof! —simply disappear.

During that brow-furrowing week of septic research, I learned a good bit about sand mounds. But somehow not enough to realize that hiring a cut-rate company to do the septic inspection is a bad idea. So a (now defunct) company came out to the house, performed an incomplete inspection in which they didn’t even find the primary underground solids tank, and charged us full price to “pump” and “inspect” the system without even determining where the most crucial part of the system was located. We didn’t realize at the time that anything still needed pumped; we just knew it had passed inspection. So we bought the house.

I had a lot of waking nightmares that fall and winter — visions of septic money-pit horror that I carefully shielded from Danielle’s knowledge since she was pregnant with our first miracle baby. But other than a few manageable (and un-connected) plumbing issues, everything appeared to be going fine.

It was 2 years later, during our next scheduled pumping (with a different septic company), that I finally learned this crucial fact: There is a solids tank somewhere underground that needs to be located at some point. But the man doing the pumping didn’t make it seem like an urgent necessity, and the idea of excavating a large chunk of our yard looking for something that might be 4-6 feet underground was an easy job to procrastinate.

Furthermore, just like the first company had done, this one pumped out our liquid waste, charging us full price to do something that I’ve now learned doesn’t even qualify as a true pump job since solids were not involved.

I repeat: The poop people — the people who pump poop — pumped our property, but pumped out no actual poop.

So to sum up this lengthy prologue, mistakes were made in the lead-up to our moment of septic crisis. But make no mistake: I was one of the mistake-makers. I failed to know what I needed to know about our septic system, or to ask the right questions, and I failed to follow through and locate the solids tank once I was informed in 2017 of its existence. Two different septic companies also made mistakes, possibly knowingly. And the previous owner of our house made a mistake, which she now readily admits, in that she waived the right to any inspections when she bought the house from the original owner in 2010. This money-saving decision denied her any even basic knowledge of a system that would later be bequeathed to us — sight and site plan — unseen.

Fast forward to a Sunday afternoon in late February, when a certain (heretofore un-pumped) substance hit the fan. Causing a certain family of 4 to hit the road in pursuit of temporary housing.

Part 2 of our septic saga is coming soon… I promise I’ll keep it to 3 parts max.

Thank you for reading!

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