Thursday, 11 July 2019

I got a rock

In late September of 2018, Karen took a bath, and when it drained, we had sewage back up into our basement once again (it was about the 7th time it's happened in the last 8 years).

We immediately got in touch with a local plumbing outfit. First we had our septic tanks pumped, then the plumbers came. They poked and prodded and came to the conclusion that we had a plug in the line downstream of Septic Tank #2 on the way to the septic field. The plug was for sure downstream, but where they could not assess. They tried for most of a day to get an auger down the line leaving from Tank 2, but that was an issue. Take a peek into Tank 2:
Note the pipe on the left
Not visible in the photo above is the bell siphon. The Bell Siphon is a simple bit of kit that basically pumps the tank out based on air pressure; find out how one works here. The tube on the left allows air pressure to equalize. Through it, the plumbers pushed an auger, but it's only a 2.5" pipe, and they couldn't get an auger bigger than 1" around the 90° bend that leads to the field. So they managed to drill a 1" hole in a 3" pipe leading to the field. Not great.

We were instructed to dig up the field and install a clean-out that would enable cleaning the pipe all the way back to the tanks, and into the field as well. Until we could do that, we would have to prevent Tank 2 from filling to the point where it would pump out, basically using our septic tanks as a two-tank holding tank. Pump outs cost $350 each time.

We then called Bogdan, our favourite contractor, to get the stuff done, but he freely admitted he had no experience of expertise on septic fields. On advice from neighbours in our hamlet, we contacted a local contracting firm that shall remain nameless, but whom I will call ABC Contracting. Several folks in our hamlet have used ABC for septic tank and field work. ABC said they were pretty busy, but they would try to slot us in soon.

And then it snowed. About 9" (23 cm) fell, and my yard looked like this:
The field is under there 
That's the driveway
We contacted ABC, and they said the snow put them behind (though for the record, that snow was gone in about 5 days). Four weeks (and 3 pumpouts) later -- 4 weeks of perfect fall weather to work -- we were still trying to convince ABC to come help us. By now it was the beginning of November, ski season was starting in 7 days, and the snow had started to return. We finally gave up on ABC and called our hero Bogdan. He was astounded nothing had been done, and within 24 hrs, he showed up with an excavating contractor and the plumbers, and they dug up our yard a bit.
The digging commences
They exposed the line from the tanks to the field...
The pipe. Note how many there are.
..., cleaned the line back to the tank with the 3" auger, added clean-outs going both directions...
Two risers
...and then buttoned it back up.
Two risers, and dirt. They did put the grass back

They would not auger the field. They noted that the pipe section they cut out was +50 years old and so fragile that they risked breaking it. And...

We only had 1 lateral.

The laterals are the part that actually lets the fluid run into the ground. We thought we had 2. In 2012, we unearthed 2 (which you can read about here). But we proved only 1 was now connected, and it was no more than 30' long. That makes it grossly undersized by current standards BUT had worked flawlessly since the 1980's. Hmmmn....

In any case, the plumbers said "You need to replace your septic field".  And they also told us that until we replaced the field, there was no way we could be certain we would not have septic back up problems again.

They told us this on November 6, 2018. There was no way we could do any work in frozen ground over the winter, so Karen spent winter 2018/19 bathless (this despite having the brand new bathtub we installed during our bathroom reno in November 2017 that I started to write about here but never finished).

Instead, in January 2019, we sent out a Request for Proposal to three professional septic contractors. We outlined what our issue was, and asked for a recommendation, a quote and a time frame for a May/June fix (once the snow was gone and the ground no longer frozen).

One (Grayline Contracting) wrote us back. He had reviewed our bid package, and his conclusion was for us to sell our house and move. There was no way he could bring our system to code; we didn't have enough room for a field under today's rules. He couldn't think of a fix we could legally do. Awesome.

We traded notes with another (Titan Water) a few times, but could never get him to give us anything. Not a comment, not a suggestion, not a recommendation, not a quote.

Alberta Septic (who had done a tank replacement for friends of ours in our hamlet) not only spent some time on the phone with me discussing the problem, but actually came to look. And he was from WAY far away, but just so happened to ski at Sunshine every week, so was happy to drop in. We had a long conversation, and I learned a lot. Like the first guy, he warned me there was no way to re-build the system to bring it to code. He gave me three options:

  1. Denude the front of the property of trees. Permanently remove our front deck. Move the gas line to the property boundary. Decommission our basement toilet. Destroy our two concrete septic tanks in place, and haul them away. Change the drainage in the house to lead to a new lifting station to be installed outside. Use a pump to lift the sewage to a 2,500 gal holding tank to be installed in the front yard. Pump the holding tank monthly for the rest of all time ($500/month). Ballpark cost: $100,000.
  2. Remove our driveway (rendering the garage useless). Denude the front of the property of trees. Permanently remove our front deck. Move the gas line to the property boundary. Dig out and remove all the soil in the front yard to a depth of 12' (3.6 m). Replace the soil with gravel and sand. Install a new field that would hopefully fit in the space -- but whether it would fit would have to be determined AFTER the soil had all been replaced (field size is a function of soil takeaway capacity, NOT floor size or number of bathrooms). Ballpark cost: $40,000, if it worked, $120,000 if it didn't and we ended up with Option 1.
  3. Fix what we had. Repairs of systems were allowed, but if we made the laterals 1" longer, we would need a permit and an inspection, and we would fail. Ballpark cost: $10,000
In mid-March, I asked this guy for a quote on Option 3.

He declined to bid.

He basically said that unless we were willing to do it "right", he wasn't willing to band-aid it. He noted he had seen too many band-aid solutions go south, so was no longer willing to just fix things.

We were not willing to destroy all the trees in our front yard, get rid of our deck, move our gas line, or do any of the other things he wanted done. So we were at a bit of a stalemate.

When in doubt, call Bogdan. Together, we hatched a plan using everything I had learned. I spent the next week studying the current regulations of the Alberta Onsite Wastewater Management Association, and the entire Alberta Private Sewage Standards of Practice. I learned about pipe specs, job specs, trench and fill design, sizing, and construction methods. I told Bogdan what he needed to know, and he got the parts from a rural supply shop in Red Deer. He got an excavation contractor in, and we designed a plan to repair what we had, including repairing the connection to the lateral that we had but was no longer connected. We were to start digging in late May.

And on May 7, we started to have sewage leak into our basement through the basement walls.

We immediately went back to using our tanks as pump out. We didn't know what the problem was; we didn't care, as we were 14 days away from work starting, and everything we needed to fix anything was coming. We just had to put up with sewage leaking constantly through our walls for 2 weeks.

May 21st came, and the first thing we found was that the pipe leading from our house to Tank 1 had split. Cast iron, and in place for +50 years, an expansion joint failed about 1' from the basement wall.
That would do it
We dug the whole pipe up and replaced it.
That should sort that out for a bit
Then it was time to attack the front yard.
Field marked out. New risers exposed
By the end of the day, one lateral was dug out & removed.
Nice trench
The next day, the second lateral was dug up and removed...
Two slots
...and a code-specified layer of code-specified size of gravel was added to the bottom.
Add caption
My plan was to get rid of the old soil and gravel, and bring in new. The old stuff was covered in a layer affectionately referred to as "bio-mat". I didn't want my old bio-mat interfering with the new. But... what to do with this gooey pile of dirt with 50 years of crap in it?
Some of it
Neither Bogden nor I knew what to do with it. We couldn't figure out if it was considered bio-hazard waste. Everyone we talked to gave us different info. The local landfill refused to take it; they said they were a Class III landfill, and it had to go to a Class II landfill. We called Calgary's Class II landfill, and they initially said that if we let it dry out, it would be considered clean fill ($10/tonne disposal). But our local landfill wouldn't agree to this, and then Calgary's landfill changed their tune and started calling it hazardous waste. We contacted a hazardous waste facility and they gave us options including putting it in drums and storing it long term ($5,000/drum, plus a permanent storage fee of $20 per month per drum), incineration ($20,000), or transporting it by rail to a Class I landfill (didn't want to ask).

I called Alberta Septic. The kind gentleman not only took my call, he told me I was nuts. He noted that a) it was basically fertilizer, and b) all of his work was in the country with farmers used to dealing with manure. He said just put it back in the ground and it would be fine.

So we did. Then we laid in code-specified pipe, laid down code-specified level, covered it with code-specified landscaping textile, and gently put the soil over top, not tamped down (as per code).
Buried. Note the lower right corner.
One thing we did do was install a code-specified distribution box. This box ensures that fluid coming out of the tanks distributes equally between the laterals. It also offers a way to gain access to clean out the lines if they plug. By code, the distribution box must be accessible from the surface. To do that, we sank a 24" diameter culvert vertically in the ground. Because that leads directly to the lines and gravel we so painstakingly put in, in the photo above, you can see that we temporarily covered it with a garbage bag and wood lid to keep water out.

Then we sodded the whole thing. I thought of seeding, which I did in the back yard (that you can read about here), but that didn't turn out all that well. So sod it was.
First levelled, then topsoil added
The guys did a great job of the sodding operation (didn't get pics of it), and a month later, it just looks great. But...

I have this lovely 24" diameter galvanized steel culvert sticking out of my front yard. I spent all winter with two highly attractive plastic clean-out stacks sticking up, now it's a culvert. What to do about that?

Turns out there's a company that makes things to cover crap like 24" diameter galvanized steel culverts (or septic tank lids, or electrical boxes). It's called Dekorra. They make giant fake rocks that neatly hide crap in your lawn. After some searching, the closest dealer to me that had what I wanted was in Red Deer, about a 2.5 hr drive away. So I drove to Red Deer, and...

I Got A Rock.
Looks fairly real when surrounded by his real cousins
For those of you who were wondering, now aren't you glad you asked?


Christine Bennett said...

Omg you lost me when you said sewage was leaking through your basement walls! Ewwwwwwww! What a crazy horrible adventure. So glad it's all solved

Don D said...

What an incredible story! and well explained. Almost makes me want to move to the country and have more of your stomach-churning and wallet-busting adventures.

Great write-up. And your rock looks wonderful.

Steve, M. R., Connor and Duncan said...