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Homestead Septic System: Do It Yourself (Mostly)

Dave L HeadshotOne of the issues Barbara and I had agreed upon when we started our desert homestead was that we would use composting toilets. The idea that humans take nutrients from the soil, process it through their bodies as food, and then turn the unused nutrients, especially nitrogen, into a toxic waste dump just didn’t sit right with us.

We had installed the plumbing in our first buildings to drain waste gray water from laundry and showers out to our thirsty trees. We had a composting toilet in the straw bale Annex (utility building) which ultimately fed the soil in our orchard and garden. We thought we were all set.

Then we ran into the intertwining of our local phone service and county building codes. To live in the desert and write for a living, we needed internet access. To get a phone line with internet access, we needed a physical address. To get an address, we needed a building permit. To get a permit, we needed an approved septic system.

Straw Bale House Start 

We were building under an inspectionless permit called the owner/builder opt-out that allows a great deal of freedom for rural residents in this county. Unfortunately, the County P & Z permit office is not amenable to composting toilets. So, rather than taking on an ongoing and probably fruitless fight to get our composting system approved, we caved in and put in a septic system.

Thankfully, we live in a wonderful community of independent and helpful people. One of our neighbors is a licensed septic installer who agreed to do our soil leaching test. As a friendly gesture and as part of his very reasonable fee, Frank designed an approvable system that I could do myself. He recommended a nearby tank and pipe vendor for the septic tank, leaching rock, and pipe and we were in business again.

Tonka Toy 

When we moved onto our beautiful desert land and started building our homestead, our digging needs were addressed with a pick, shovel, and wheelbarrow. We dug the footings for our first two buildings and put in our 300’ road with these fine examples of advanced earth moving technology. But by the time we were ready for the main house, I was on the wrong side of 65 years on the planet and my back was letting me know it far too often.

So when it was time to dig a septic tank, we were already in possession of a little Terramite T5C aka Dave’s Tonka Toy. We had purchased this used mini-backhoe from an equipment rental business in Tucson and trailered it out for the earthwork on the main house.

Septic Dig 

Armed with Frank’s design and specs, I cranked up the Tonka Toy and started to dig. We lined up the long axis of the excavation with the waste outlet from the house and dug in the hole for the tank. Our soil is pretty dry and crumbly, so our mini-backhoe couldn’t get quite deep enough for the tank. We needed about 6 1/2’ of hole and I couldn’t get close enough to go down more than 5 1/2 ‘ without a cave-in. So, back to the pick and shovel for the last foot.

Septic Distribution Box 

After the main hole, we dug trenching for the distribution box and the leach pipe. Following the design, a trench from the tank extended about 16’ at a depth of about 2’. Then two 50’ trenches about 5’ deep were cut at right angles from the main trench for the leaching field.

Lowering Septic Tank 

We ordered a load of leach rock sufficient to backfill the trenches after installation and called up our septic and pipe contact. I must say that I was one happy camper when the tank was lowered off the boom truck into the hole and it fit. Just inches to spare all around, but it did fit. Not only did it fit, but it was level.

Level Septic Tank 

We filled the tank with water in case of a monsoon rain. Hard to believe, but they will float out of the hole if a big rain comes and the tank is empty. Filling the tank also enabled us (and the inspector) to check for leaks.

We called the inspector and he made two trips. One for the trench depth and a check for level and leaks on the tank and one trip for level leach pipe installation. Approved first time around!

Although at the time, we felt the expense of a tank, pipe, and leach test (about $1,400) plus our labor might have been unnecessary, we agree now that both kitchen sink waste and flush toilet waste have to be treated as black water. As a result, on cold nights we have the luxury of a real flush toilet in the house as well as a way to handle the waste from the kitchen sink. We also have an address, an internet connection, and the approval of our county P & Z. It’s all good.

However, during the day and when company comes, we continue to use our composting toilet as a matter of principle. I wonder sometimes just how long it will take to require pumping out a thousand-gallon septic tank that is handling one kitchen sink, one bathroom sink, and one toilet used occasionally by two people. I hope to live that long.