Our Dyspeptic Septic Epic, Part 3: Endgame


I woke up on Monday morning, as often happens after I fall asleep on Sunday night. Almost immediately, I shifted gears away from the previous day’s helpless anxiety and into a kind of protector-provider-problem-solver mode. This is the mode I would inhabit for much of the week, both for worse and for better, as you’ll see. As is often the case with these things, this initial gear shift was born solely out of pragmatic obligation, not some high-minded ideal. But that doesn’t make it any less valid or, in the end, any less helpful.

Necessity, as it turns out, is not only the mother of invention but also the father of taking care of your shit. (Literally in this case.)

I’ll spare you the full chronological blow-by blow account of the phone calls, texts, private Facebook messages, and internet research I grinded through over the next few days. But I think I spoke to 6 different septic experts at 5 different septic companies for a grand total of over 3 hours between Monday and Wednesday that week. Some of the information I was given turned out to be entirely wrong, even though most of the people I spoke with were quite willing to offer help, and a few of them proved to be warm and patient in a way you don’t often see in the realm of customer service — especially when you haven’t yet pledged your business to the company in question.

Despite this, the trajectory of my 72-hour quest for the solution to our problem was convoluted to a mind-boggling degree. You may recall that we bought our house without a working knowledge of our septic system, due to the previous owner having no knowledge of it. As a result, trying to gain even a basic understanding of where everything was located underground proved to be a fairly herculean task.

Because of the pervasive ambiguity around a lot of these questions (and especially before I managed to find a great septic company who could finally come out and formulate a game plan), there were moments of what I can only call darkness that afflicted me during these endless — and endlessly confusing — phone calls. Here are a few of those moments, which stemmed from various theories and verdicts I was given along the way:

  • A plumber came by on Monday and after sizing things up, postulated that our septic tank was probably full and needed to be located (a very crucial step) and then pumped out. He gave me a whopping $690 estimate just to snake and scope the pipes in an attempt to confirm his full-tank hypothesis. The catch? He said it was possible, and indeed reasonably likely, that this procedure would not actually yield a verdict. So we could very well spend the better part of a grand and end up exactly where we started. I turned him down, paid him $70 for the service fee, and moved onto the next thing. A little bit of darkness settled over my beleaguered mind.
  • I visited our tiny, un-modern, barely staffed rural township office building to see if I could locate the documentation from when the original owners of our home installed the sand mound system. But my tentative hopes were quickly dashed on the rocks of an archaic, non-digitized filing system that yielded nothing but close calls. (“Here’s one for the guy down the road from you! Oh and here’s one for your next-door neighbor!”) A bit more darkness crept in.
  • A septic person came out on Wednesday and after scoping things out — both metaphorically and, well, with an actual electronic scope — concluded with some degree of certainty that our septic tank was directly below the asphalt of our back driveway. A fact which, as you might imagine, would greatly complicate our quest. But for reasons that are too convoluted to explain, I was skeptical of this theory. (Fast forward a bit: Weirdly enough, given my almost complete lack of septic expertise, it turned out that my skepticism was valid.) But in that moment of being given a verdict that would have made everything more complicated, my mind balked again. Yet another moment of darkness.
  • A different person, from a septic company that was recommended by two different people, advised me over the phone that I “should probably just have $4,000 on hand” given what needed to be done. That estimate included an eye-widening $2,100 just for the use of an excavator. And thus a little more darkness burrowed into my beleaguered brain.

So there were moments that week when my mind felt submerged in shadows — both at the theoretical prospect of my aforementioned worst-case fear being validated, and at the tangible prospect of needing to unravel the maddening mystery of the invisible septic tank which 2 septic companies in 3 years had failed to ever locate for us.

The darkness in those moments threatened to asphyxiate my mind and overcome me by blunt force.

But my mind was not asphyxiated. And I was not overcome.

I am a person with a deep well — a full underground tank, if you will — of jittery anxiety. I place too much pressure on myself in even the most low-stakes social exchange, and I place far too much pressure on myself in higher-stakes matters involving health, finances, and homeowner crises.

But here’s the thing: Each of us is not merely the sum of our component parts. As I said earlier, we are not doomed to be the most anxious, fear-propelled version of ourselves. It is eminently possible to stand up boldly under the low ceiling of our neuroses. And that’s what I did, each day more than the previous one, even before any notable progress had been made in our quest.

There are numerous entities I would resoundingly credit for making this possible — Danielle, my resolutely level-headed confidante and best friend; my parents, who put us up at their house and showed nothing but warm support; Rosenberry’s, the superbly helpful septic company I hired to fix our problem; God, the underlying source of all mental clarity (I know this sounds like an Oscar acceptance speech, but I can live with that); and my own lucid resolve and free will, which doggedly insisted that I would not drown in fear or panic. Any psychological audit of that week which doesn’t account for each and every one of those vital entities would be incomplete.

It takes a village not only to raise a child, but also to unravel a nerve-racking septic mystery without unraveling your nerves in the process.

And I have an unusually close-knit village.

In the interest of time, and because I imagine my very small contingent of readers will violently revolt if I turn this into a bloated 4-part quadrilogy, I’ll wrap up this final chapter with an aerial view of final day of our septic saga.

It was Thursday, 4 days after the plumbing backed up and we moved in with my parents. On Wednesday, the third full day of phone calls and internet research and township research and private messages with knowledgeable friends, I had booked an appointment with Rosenberry’s for the next day. The co-owner, Karen, had talked me through our problem for well over an hour on the phone and had been nothing less than a saint in the process — a hyper-competent saint, at that. I’ve rarely experienced that bend-over-backwards-without-any-monetary-commitment kind of customer service, and I had no intention of using any other company, even though several others had been helpful too.

So on Thursday, my dad generously and enthusiastically acted as my surrogate, allowing me to work and support my displaced family, and keeping me posted while Rosenberry’s diligently worked to unravel the mystery over a 6-hour period of time. Here’s the short version of what was discovered during those 6 hours.

Our central operating theory, which we had labored under since Monday when the pessimistic and pricey plumber had imparted it to us, is that the backup was a result of the underground septic tank (i.e. the solids tank) being full and thus unable to accept new deposits. This theory seemed compelling since I had never been aware of the location of the solids tank in nearly 4 years of living in the house. I only knew of the liquid/dosing tank, and that’s the only tank that had been emptied by the two septic companies that had charged us for a full septic pumping.

So it made an unsettling amount of sense that our solids tank would be full to overflowing by this point, especially since the previous owner told us she also hadn’t been aware of the location of the solids tank during her 5 years in the house. Pardon the graphic image, but who knows how much poop can pile up over the better part of a decade?

Our other operating theory during most of this process was that our septic tank might very well be under the asphalt behind our house. But when Rosenberry’s came out that Thursday, they determined — to my great relief — that the electronic transmitter which had seemed to confirm this hypothesis had simply been impeded from moving all the way to the tank. They cleared the impeding clog with an augur, freeing the transmitter to move through the pipe to a point which was not under the pavement after all (*deep exhale*). So that saved us the hassle of tearing up a bunch of asphalt in order to access the hidden septic tank.

[SIDEBAR: I must confess that I may have spoken ill of the dead when I was given the wrong impression about the tank being under asphalt, since it would have meant the original owners foolishly paved over their own septic tank. My sincere apologies extend beyond the grave to Glenn and Vivian Albert, who in 1952 industriously built a sturdy brick house for themselves, the edifice in which my family now resides. I have learned that while they built the house, they lived in what is now our (small, one-story) detached garage. For this and other reasons, they — and the rest of the greatest generation — deserved better than for me to come along decades later and cast aspersions on their decision-making skills without full knowledge of the situation. I humbly retract my ill-informed derision. Rest in peace, Mr. and Mrs. Albert.]

But along with the other realizations that Rosenberry’s made that Thursday, it was determined that the tank was somehow not entirely full, and thus that the backup must have had another cause. So what was that cause, you might (or almost definitely at this point will) ask?

Here is the final discovery that Rosenberry’s made that Thursday. Once they at long last located the septic tank, and once they used their mini excavator to dig down to it, and once they pried off the lid and determined that it wasn’t full (although it still needed to be pumped), they used a scope and an augur to root around in the nearby pipes. And they kept rooting around in the pipes until they discovered that the pipes were being impeded by…

Roots. The underground anchoring system of every tree, which for a septic system owner is the equivalent of a subterranean boogeyman.

While that might sound ominous, and does to me as well, what mitigates it a bit is that the roots in question are tiny and almost hair-like. So it’s pretty easy to have a septic company clear them out, as Rosenberry’s did that afternoon. The broader issue is that they will keep creeping in and impeding the safe passage of our waste if we don’t get to the (*wheezy cough*) root of the issue in the months ahead. And what that means is that we need to remove the offending tree. So that’s our summer project.

But for now, the mystery has been solved. It was solved first and foremost by Rosenberry’s Septic, but valuable insight and assistance were also provided by Associated Products, Young’s Septic, Dillsburg Septic, the Franklin Township office (who patched me through to a local sewer company), my septic-savvy friend Darryl Betts, my everything-savvy cousin Kevin Miller, and my always-there-in-a-pinch dad. As I said before, it takes a village to solve a problem this confusing and layered.

After one last relaxed and rejuvenated night at my parents’ house, we moved home again on Friday, 5 days after our pipes had backed up. Based on my rough calculations, I estimated that the total for the job Rosenberry’s performed would be somewhere around $2,500, maybe even closer to $3,000.

They sent us an invoice for $1,707.

My stunned sigh of relief could probably be heard by every neighbor within half a mile.

What a rare gift it is to locate a contractor who is not only immensely competent, and warmly empathetic, and very responsive, but also willing to out of the sheer goodness of their hearts discount your bill because they recognize the epic struggle you’ve been through. Or at least I think that was their motivation. Maybe they just aren’t very enamored of bottom-dollar capitalism. Either way, I admire them for their sheer generosity — and either way, I’m immensely grateful.

These days, my beautiful wife and I flush our toilets with confidence. With abandon, even. With no sinking sense of apprehension.

And that, as it turns out, is no small thing.

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