The Country Living "learning curve"

Adam Taggart
By Adam Taggart on Thu, Jan 24, 2013 - 6:15pm

If you're considering relocating from a more urban/suburban area to one more rural, don't underestimate the size of the learning curve "country living" requires.

A case in point: septic systems.

I relocated this summer to a much more rural location from Silicon Valley. For the first time since I was a child, I'm not on city water or city sewage.

California has had a wet winter so far. The rains have caused flooding in my back yard where the leach field is (how many of you suburbanites know what a leach field is?). The flooding wasn't so concerning...until the unpleasant smell started.

Well, turns out the septic tank was full. So, this morning a cleaning team has been pumping it out. In the process, they discovered the leach lines leading from the tank are compromised, which is causing an overflow of untreated water to bubble up in the yard.

Gross. But that's part of life in the country, where you're trying to live resiliently and independent of centralized municipal systems.

To be more specific about the problem we've discovered, the leach lines are joined together at intervals by circular junction boxes. The crew realized that several of these boxes are broken and are making their way across my yard as I type, digging man-sized pits down to each box to inspect and replace, if necessary.

Here's what the process looks like so far:

 

Good times.

Fortunately, I'm renting, so the rental management company is footing the bill for these necessary repairs. But I've still been intimately involved in the process and suffice it to say, my knowledge of septic systems has grown substantially (from a low baseline) over the past several days.

I raise this example to underscore the point that those new to country living (and unschooled in the many practices it requires) should budget both time and money for the "unknown unknowns", if they relocate to a rural area. 

My septic system was hardly on my radar screen a week ago. But I quickly had to make it a priority because life without one gets unpleasant fast. Beyond the time distraction and the trauma inflicted on the lawn I've been trying to resurrect, I think of the unwanted blow this would have made to my wallet had I owned this house.

The 6 months I've spent here since moving have proved to me that a rural lifestyle is right for me. But it's also taught me that resilience is continuously earned. You're never "done", and things never work perfectly. And you need to realize that fate, Mother Nature, or the government can change the rules of the game on you at any moment.

So as it relates to preps:

  • Invest the time to understand how the systems you depend on work, so you can troubleshoot intelligently when needed to (it's much preferable than having to scramble once a system fails, as I'm having to do right now)
  • Make sure you have the most important tools (in advance) to troubleshoot with
  • Maintain your sytems dutifully. Maintenance is far cheaper than repair work.
  • Include an "unknown unknown" reserve in your household budget. Unexpected problems will arise, so increase your budget's ability to absorb them when they do.

I'm sure there are other good tips more experienced homesteaders will add to this list in the Comments section below.

Note: If you're reading this and are not yet a member of Peak Prosperity's Relocation USA Group, please consider joining it now. It's for for people considering relocating themselves and their families within the United States. Simply go here and click the "Join Today" button.

19 Comments

kevinoman0221's picture
kevinoman0221
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eeew... thanks for sharing

eeew... thanks for sharing your unpleasant experience, Adam.

Imagine how much worse the situation would be if you were really out in the middle of nowhere and the nearest septic company was, say, 200 miles away. I think a backup toilet would be a wise thing to own in such a place!

cmartenson's picture
cmartenson
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If ever, uh, "pinched"....

... a composting toilet can not only work in a pinch, but can work forever.

By which I mean our more basic waste stream can be accommodated in a way that is not only safe, but durable in the sense that it can be an important return path for the nutrient cycle that our gardens require.

In the meantime, I fully understand that how a formerly 'out of sight, out of mind' process that is typically managed for an urban dweller by a crew of seasoned professionals can create a big learning curve for a new initiate to life's lesser miracles.

How many learnings are out there in our food, energy, and economic systems that are as 'out of sight and out of mind' as Adam's septic system, to each of us because they have not yet failed us?

Emphasis on 'yet.'

My guess is 'lots.'

kevinoman0221's picture
kevinoman0221
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hmm, gives new meaning to

hmm, gives new meaning to "when the SHTF"

Doug's picture
Doug
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I had a similar rude awakening

Several years after moving here we found out that some raw sewage was finding its way into the drainage ditch out front.  I discovered after a bit of digging that our septic tank was woefully inadequate so decided to bite the bullet and get a new one.  One benefit of living in a very poor rural area is that there is plenty of talented people around who can run a backhoe and acquire the necessary infrastructure at a reasonable price.  Nonetheless, it cost about $6G for an oversized system that should deal with our waste for the rest of my life and probably my kids' lives.

One thing I've discovered is that there are many septic systems that are inadequate and are not fixed.  Most poor people can't afford that kind of hit.  I guess that's one benefit of living in a middle class or upscale neighborhood, even if it is rural.  Things get fixed.

Doug

jasonw's picture
jasonw
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Lucky to be renting

Adam - I think one of the best investments you may have made while transitioning to a rural life was to rent. I would be very curious to find out what the cost of the repairs to the septic system come out to be.  And consider yourself lucky that they can repair it. 

I have heard stories from contractor friends about how septic systems fail due to age (nothing like crumbling infrastructure) and the county regulatory authorities require a homeowner to install a whole new leach field and other system components.  (new perc and mantle testing, environmental testing, permitting and compliance).  And then they don't support alternative waste management methods (composting toilets).

As this is part of the Relocation USA thread, before one moves to any location, it might be wise to investigate the status of the infrastructure within a community.  Where has there been failures in the past (power, sewer, water, trash, roads) and what investment is being done for future improvements?  Will systems be in place in the future to support you or should you start taking actions now to have resilience for those "out of sight" systems? 

Lots to consider.  Time now to go work up some plans for that outdoor pallet solar shower.  :)

Poet's picture
Poet
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A Few More Benefits About Renting

It's not just the infrastructure. Especially if you move to a new area, renting gives you time to find out whether you'll find like-minded friends and neighbors and be a good fit to the climate, location and lifestyle. You may find that the ideal location is actually an hour or two further in another direction from where you are renting; if you were an owner, finding that out later would be difficult.

Here's my renter experience: We recently had a pipe leak in our living room. The wooden floor boards needed to be replaced, a pipe in the wall needed to be cut out and replaced, then a section of drywall patched in painted.

I was glad someone else was taking care of the problem. And in this economy, I am glad to be paying rent that's a few hundred dollars cheaper than the mortgage, HOA fees, insurance, and maintenance would cost me. The place I live in is still worth about 25% below the purchase price that my landlord paid.

Poet

EarlyGirl's picture
EarlyGirl
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Transfer of information

In two of the rural homes I've lived in, I've found neighbors and previous owners to be sources of information that become invaluable when things go wrong. At one home, the neighbor had lived next door for 40 years and knew so much about the property he became my go-to man when things went awry, even though I could have called the rental agency. In our current home, the original owners and 2 subsequent owners had been so good as to pass on the original plans or instructions for several of the systems (septic, irrigation, etc.) each time the home was sold. And since the old-time neighbors here have things in their memory that are not documented - such as work that has been done on the original systems - we make a point to stay on good terms with them.

KathyP's picture
KathyP
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Country Living is not cheap!

If anyone thinks that country living will be less expensive than city dwelling (with basic infrastructure intact and well funtioning), I'd think again.  In addition to carefully maintaining the septic system, there are a plethora of subsystems and potential expenses in using well water.  Well pumps wear out (often unexpectedly), wells develop leaks, pressure switches break down, pressure tanks need to be replaced, etc. 

In addition to the water and waste systems, electrical power can be erratic.  Our power co-op used to have the reputation of losing transmission every time a bird pooped on a power line.  While it has improved greatly, we still invested in a whole house natural gas generator.  When we moved here, I had no idea that you couldn't flush the toilets during a power outage!  The basic infrastructure that you take for granted in city just doesn't exist in the country.

If one were looking for job security in more rural settings, I'd recommend well servicing and septic servicing.  The "honey dippers" are highly respected and well compensated around here.

Aside from the expenses. I wouldn't trade the fresh air, clean water, and open spaces for anything.  Just be prepared for a whole new set of expenses.

RJE's picture
RJE
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Adam, you are indeed lucky.

I was the only house for what seemed like miles while living on my 6 acre spread. An engineered field can cost some serious coin. When we would have the rains you described we had the same issues.

What I did was rented a ditch digger and opened things up and back towards a nice sized garden. I cut through the soil with the ditch digger and laid out seep pipe so I would have a below ground source of food and moister for the plants, and it acted as an overflow for the septic field. In addition to this I had an overflow to the back field, and that was all I needed.

I also invested in a pump and fire hose sized hoses to drain the pond to the front ditch to keep the water from gathering about the property as the pond grabbed everything. Naturally the drainage to the pond DID NOT include the septic water.

I did notice the trees near your septic field and that isn't a great idea either as the roots can do allot of damage.

For those not knowing this you should never drive over your septic field even though you may think the ground will support the weight of a car/truck, it is an accident waiting to happen. It is illegal to add to and drain from your septic but you gotta do what you gotta do.

Septics last a family of 4 about 20 years so plan about $20,000 for a new one. Never throw anything in your toilet but T paper (1 ply) and never cigarette buts. Use Rid X often as it is a natural bacteria and helps the break down of solid matter.

Yeah, I know all to well about country living and for me no better life is like country living. I bet the lease holder is silently upset with this bit of news. Perhaps they can claim it on their insurance but doubtful. Those trees should go are my thoughts.

Regards

BOB

RJE's picture
RJE
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Kathy,

...you are sooooo right. When you live in the country it is a completely different game and be prepared for the cost of heating oil and propane. That comes out of pocket and is billed on arrival and is a nice piece of change. Do prepare for your pumps to go dormant for your well too, and usually on Thanksgiving, Christmas and any other Holiday during the winter. Man that was a trip especially the first year. My plan was to have the plumber snake all drains directly after Christmas and I never had issues with that. Country living also gives you an imprinted forehead on the door wall as you sip coffee, day dream, and watch baby deer and foxes abound on the property. Every now and then the pooch runs into a skunk and that is always a delight. Wouldn't trade any of it for the world. Well, actually I did about one mile from there in town with everything provided. Not my choice though.

BOB

CAH's picture
CAH
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Some thoughts on septic systems

I have a septic system at my house, and I grew up in a house that had a septic system.  I think there are some common misconceptions about them -- as well as some things that we can do to change the way they operate for the better.

In the house I grew up in, we NEVER had our septic system serviced or pumped.  And it worked just fine.  I think part of this was because it was located on a slope, so the pressure head helped blow any potential clogs out of the piping.  But it was also largely due to the fact that we never put anything other than TP or waste into it (as mentioned above), and even MORE importantly, we didn't commonly flush antibacterial cleaners into the system.

Products like Rid-X are largely unnecessary if you don't use substances like bleach or antibacterial soap in large quantities.  This is because you already have all of the microbial activity you need in the septic tank.  Maintaining it like this can literally take you many years between pumpings for a system in a relatively flat leach field.

Speaking of leach fields -- watch the following video featuring Toby Hemenway (author of Gaia's Garden and permaculture instructor) starting around 48:00.  It's a fascinating method of using plants to treat septic overflow -- AND capture a yield in the process.  To be sure, you should check your local codes before proceeding and possibly get yourself a licensed engineer as well.  Anyway, here's the link to the video:

rheba's picture
rheba
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Posts: 29
Honey Dumping

Nothing nicer than a well maintained privy IMHO. Nothing worse than mixing it all up with clean drinking water and putting it underground or, worse, in the ocean. If we are to survive it will all have to be recycled.

Of course, try telling that to your local board of health.

Hope all of the folks moving to rural areas and trying to grow food will read "Holy Shit" by Gene Logsdon. Also "Forty Centuries of Farmers" by King. You can get both for not much $ on Amazon.

If you have money you can buy a good composting toilet. If not, you can get a 5 gallon bucket and a screw on toilet seat from a camping store. (If you do this, be sure to read a book about composting. Urine is sterile and you can put it into the compost pile or garden easily. Feces must be heated just like any other manure in order to destroy potential pathogens.)

Nervous Nelly's picture
Nervous Nelly
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Septic Tanks

My Sister and I sold the family home 2 years ago after Mom died. We moved in 1968, I was 9. Anything that went wrong with the septic tank or water pump cost time ,money and a real inconvience . First thing that went was the original metal tank.( rotten and rusted).  Dad designed a new two section one out of concrete. The exterieur form was the ground  and the interior form was 4 " wood planks that were removed after the concrete cured. Since there wasn't a lot of money, we  the kids  had to help dig by hand that huge pit. crying.  It still worked beautifully in 2010. I remember one winter

during a rare cold snap -25-35 degrees  and not enough snow fall to insulate the ground, the pipe going to the septic tank  froze. We had to dig that frozen ground without busting the abs pipes. Once it was fixed Dad put 

2 inch blue styrofoam over the pipes and then buried them. That was the end of that problem forever.

Be prepared to do a lot of problem solving.  It ain't for the faint of heart.

Nervous Nelly's picture
Nervous Nelly
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Manure

Forgot to mention the best book on Human manure is called Humanure!!

Excellent rated 5 star on Amazon.

Amanda Witman's picture
Amanda Witman
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Adam, you and I have more in common than we might have thought

A previous house we lived in had what sounds like exactly the same issue.  The leach field was seriously aging (built in 1969, it was over 40 years old.)  Stinky soggy spot in the yard; worse with rain and spring thaw and after several family members had bathed.  I couldn't afford to do anything remedial at all.  A new system for that location will cost $10-20K and even judicious make-do repairs would be in the unaffordable $1000s.

First I paid to have the septic tank pumped and inspected, as it hadn't been pumped in eight years.  The worker guy was very impressed with how deep and healthy our septic tank looked after that unmaintained span.  The issue was the field (and/or the pipes), not the tank.

We made some changes that allowed us to make do with that septic system for about a year and a half before we moved. 

We consciously decreased the volume of water going into the septic system as much as possible.  We stopped using the bathtub entirely (we love our baths), and began making use of a mostly-defunct (and no longer legal, but technically grandfathered) drywell system for showering indoors.  In the warm weather, we showered outdoors using a garden hose fitted with a spray nozzle and hung strategically in a bush.  Our laundry water was already going into the drywell, or I would have started using the laundromat or shunted a graywater pipe outside (also not legal, but you do what you have to do.)  We flushed only when absolutely necessary, which meant once a day minimum, but with 5 people we'd usually flushed 5x by end of day anyway.  Pans or tubs of kitchen dishwater or graywater were dumped outside on plants when possible.  We used washable cloth wipes instead of toilet paper for what probably amounted to half to 3/4 of our toilet paper use, to reduce the bulk going into the tank and because the laundry water was diverted to the drywell so not of concern.

It was a very good exercise for us to consider our water use and what we were dumping into the system.  We did our best to use as little water as possible, and we watched the system (yard bog) closely to see what would happen.  I took the preventative measure of having a friend help me build a ratproof humanure composting bin, and we already had a 5-gallon bucket with a Luggable Loo cover and some sawdust in our preps.  If we had needed to go another step further to not use the septic tank, we would have simply switched to a sawdust toilet system.  For anyone wanting to learn more about this (and I consider it essential in a prepper's library), the Humanure Handbook is a great source of info.

I observed that the yard started drying up after several weeks of our more careful usage.  Turned out we never had to switch to the sawdust toilet, but I would have if it had been necessary.

At the time, I imagined that this would be the situation many people might be in over the next 5, 10,  20 years -- having to make do where they were, unable to afford septic system improvements, and out of money and other options.  I still thnk that is likely.  A new septic system simply is not a financial option for many people.  Our state offers "help" in the form of subsidized/guaranteed loans for septic repair, presumably because they do not want people putting off needed sanitation improvements for lack of funds.  But in my situation it was (and is) simply not an option to take on a $10K-$20K loan for any reason.

After about a year of our carefully managed septic use, I had a highly recommended septic professional come out to give his opinion.  He dug some test pits and showed me how the active part of the field had visibly receded 6-8" from the surface of the ground.  That "proof" of the success of our efforts was very gratifying.  The test pits filled up quickly to that point, however, and he concurred that the system was "aging" and would need replacement before long.  But he said that whatever we were doing was working in that it was prolonging the life of the system enough that it could potentially continue limping along for some number of years before giving out completely.

It was a learning experience, that is for sure.  (And now we live in town, with sewer service, and so it is a nonissue at this time.  But it still begs the question, what will you (or your family) do when your system fails?  Not if, but when.

Adam, I'm so glad your landlord is taking responsibility for this issue.

jasonw's picture
jasonw
Status: Platinum Member (Offline)
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Posts: 818
Humanure Handbook free online

If you are looking for a quick start to getting up to speed on human waste composting - there is an online version of the Humanure Handbook in individual chapters via pdf docs:

http://humanurehandbook.com/contents.html

Here is a link to get a hardcopy: The Humanure Handbook: A Guide to Composting Human Manure, Third Edition

John Lemieux's picture
John Lemieux
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Posts: 224
Most Rural residents drive a lot

What I came to realize during my time as a rural resident is that country folks drive A LOT. Especially if you have a family. 

I'm a carpenter and many of my friends are carpenters/tradespeople so I'm aware of how driving to worksites and then taking family members to town for after school and other activities really adds up. And although I can do most of my own car repairs, I still got tired of the added expense of fuel and wear and tear on vehicles from all the running around.

All this extra driving for your kids is something some people need to consider when choosing to live in a rural area.

But I do know a few folks that live within walking distance to a small village. My aunt never had a car but as she was only a about a mile from a small town. And she was able to live in the country most of her life and she didn't have to move to town until she became very old. 

KathyP's picture
KathyP
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Posts: 82
Driving a lot

When I relocated, I foolishly thought that the mileage on my car would decrease quite a bit.  It did not, in fact, it increased, even though my previous jobs in a metropolitan area involved a LOT of driving. 

One consolation, though:  It takes less TIME to get places due to the lack of traffic congestion.  In the Metro area, it took me twenty minutes to get from my house to a health club that was located two and a half miles away.  Now it takes me twenty minutes to get to a health club that is 15 miles from my house.  And, the driving is less stressful because there is less traffic.  It does save on auto repairs, too.  I seldom have to use my brakes, and they often last 8-10 years. 

I purchased a hybrid car after a couple of years, and now I'm shopping for an EV that has enough range to get me to town and back.  I also notice that many of the tradespeople are downsizing to smaller vans.  Also, many service providers (like window cleaners, carpet cleaners) won't come out to your job until they have other jobs in the same area that they can perform on the same day. 

I don't know how people with kids do it.  But it's clear that "country living" has many additional expenses.  Had I been more planful about my relocation, I would have waited for properties that are closer to town, at least biking distance.

Griz's picture
Griz
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Posts: 3
Septic Systems and Some Alternatives

I have lived most of my long adult life on properties with septic tanks and leach fields, including my current home.  If this is your situation, or you are looking at buying a property with this type of sewage system, here are some suggestions from experience:

1) Before you commit to purchasing an existing system, have it inspected by a qualified expert.

2) As part of your agreement to purchase, have the seller pay for a septic tank pump out (might be the best time also to arrange for that inspection).

3) Make sure the system is a gravity feed system and does not require electricity and pumps to operate.  If  power is lost for an extended time, use may be limited or curtailed use due to back up problems.

4) Make sure you learn how to use and maintain the system properly for long life and maximum efficiency.

5)  If expensive / extensive repairs or replacement of a failed system occurs, consider a composting toilet which may be cheaper than the alternative.

6)  In a grid down situation, or if you need to conserve water for more important life-sustaining needs, use a bucket which can then be dumped into the service opening in the top of the septic tank.  Another emergency possibility would be to construct an old-fashioned out house over that service opening.

7) Know where the septic tank and leach field boundaries are and do not permit vehicles or heavy equipment to pass over.  I once saw a dump truck break through the top of an old septic tank - messy!

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