Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Hitting the limits of homesteading: some thoughts on septic

What can't we do ourselves?  What are the limits of homesteading practice?

We ran up against some of those limits this fall, and they smelled bad.  Yes, readers, we had a septic crisis.  We blogged it a little bit, earlier.  Short version: we replaced our entire septic system.

Note that sentence's active voice.  Passive voice is more appropriate, as in "we had our septic system replaced."  Because we couldn't do it ourselves.  From start to finish, we were simply passive spectators and paymasters (i.e., debtors).
Machine dropping boulders.

At best we did some manual labor, just to clear the way.  We relocated a couple of compost piles, hauled around a bunch of rocks, ended one sweet flower garden.

Here's the problem.  Septic work is very resource-intensive.  It requires very specialized knowledge, rare skills, and big machines.  None of these are readily accessible to the average homesteader.  It would take a long, long time to get good enough with an excavator, for example... assuming we'd have access to one (we didn't), and know how where to dig (ditto).  Or consider the septic tank, a huge construction of concrete, steel, and plastic. A new septic tank isn't something we have the skills or tools to make.  That's an industrial-age artifact.  Or assessing the land to make a plan: we're intimately familiar with our land, and know enough technology (GIS) to start to make a basic map.  But we're not surveyors, so we had to hire someone skilled who could stomp around with lasers and other equipment.  And an excavator-driving genius.  Ultimately, we had to pay for many someones, by the end of the thing, along with lots of equipment and material.

One part of the work: ad hoc road cut through the land.

The only way to obtain these things is through money, and lots of it.  Barter won't do.  Giving eggs or hours of labor won't pay for a smidgen of septic work. Paying for it out of our monthly expenses budget: nowhere near the costs. Instead, we ended up running further into debt, in a big way, to stage the whole thing.  This meant Bryan had to add more work on top of his current job to start paying for it.  We plunged further into the financial world, deepening what we owe, and reversing our previous direction of reducing debts.

The old rank, ripped out and crushed.
Another homesteading problem: this project was an involuntary one, triggered by a hidden failure we couldn't anticipate.  Septic tank, pipes, the leach field all live underground.  They don't send date to our home network, because they don't have sensors.  Septic overhaul is not something homesteaders can do on demand, just because they want to.  "Say, let's add a new cold frame!"  No.

When septic fails, you have to fix or replace it asap, for health reasons.  Moreover, recently implemented Vermont state regulations require massive work to bring a home's septic up to snuff - i.e., not just replacing, but aggressively expanding and improving.  Which is a good thing for the environment.  Therefore we risked serious penalties, both financial (fines) and practical (stinking sludge, followed by health problems), until the thing was redone.

So we couldn't do it by hand.  We couldn't afford it normally.  It wasn't something we chose.  On top of that, this was also something we had to do offline.  Yes, we could research septic online, which was very helpful.  But blogging about it during the process risked drawing attention to its incompletion, risking fines.   So we were told by folks who've lived here much longer, and work in the government world.  That process took several months, meaning two seasons of social media silence.  We live online, in many ways.  The Web is essential to how we learn, share our work, get feedback, network.  We shared small, even cryptic hints via Facebook updates, one (1) post here, some Flickr images.  But essentially this septic thing had to happen asocially, in darkness, buried.

Spot the buried tank.

When we describe this process, we sometimes compare it to going through a dangerous medical crisis.  Like recovering from a heart attack, it's expensive, time-consuming, impossible to do (successfully) on your own. And when you're done?'re right back where you started.  The cardiac survivor isn't healthier.  Our homestead doesn't have some super-septic.  The difference is being out a lot of money, or being deeply in debt.  Very little learned, and nothing through hands-on work.  I know a little more about septic systems, but am nowhere near being able to dig the right trench, or site a leach field.

I (Bryan) am still mad about it.  I understand the benefits of a functioning septic system, of course.  Ceredwyn regaled me with horror stories about bad septic in Haiti.  But the costs burn, especially given the longer hours I work.  Worse yet, and most instructive, is the hard limit to our homesteading.  This is something like electrical power, or surgery, or automative construction: essential, irreplaceable, and way beyond our abilities.


Linda Burns said...

Another friend of mine has also been having septic problems....she also lives out in the country. I hope yours does not smell as bad. Her dogs love it.


Ceredwyn said...

No, ours didn't get to the "stinking to high heaven" phase, thank Cloacina.


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