Sunday, September 30, 2012

Going Down the Toilet, Hooray!


As you may know, we have a house closer to town which my father (the Nice Man in the Plaid Coat) lives now, along with our son (and his soon to be wife) who have now moved up from California.

Although this project is not taking place at the Homestead, I feel like it is something we should talk about since many homesteaders will at some point be dealing with this very same problem.

If you are buying an old house in the country, you are more than likely buying an old septic tank and an abused drain field. It has made Buck and I realize how precariously we teeter at the Homestead between the civility of indoor plumbing (even though our toilet is in an out building, we do have a real toilet) and being forced to squat in the woods. The tank at the homestead is a 30 year old steel tank- for you that don't know, that will be a tank full of rust and soon that rust will be holes. Put one more big project on the list...

But I digress. Here at my dad's house we have a slightly less dire situation. This house is a very dear little farm house that sits just outside the city limits on a triangular acre of land. It was built in 1943 by the father of three girls and he put a lot of care into it's details. Like the little details he put in, clearly with love, for his wife's kitchen.

He was a do-it-yourselfer back when it was perfectly normal and even expected that one would know how to build a house for your family, no matter what your day job was.

One of the things that he built himself was the septic tank. He dug a hole in the ground and put a smaller space saver in the middle, (to be honest, I have no idea what that was because I did manage to help on this project without sticking my head into the tank) and then poured cement around that, creating a 1000 gal tank. That was considered a very big tank for those days and he was really thinking ahead (thank heavens).

Our first summer at this house, the nice gentleman who built this house came out to ask if he could pick some plums. He was 92 at the time. I had a great time helping him pick plums and hearing all the great stories of this house and his family. I also took full advantage of the opportunity to ask questions about things only he knew.

 He walked me around the property and showed me where faucets were supposed to be (2 were busted off and leaking in the ground). He told me where the barn needed help and the fabulous story behind the 4 plum trees on the property (a future post, I think).

And most pertinent to this story: He told me where the septic tank lid was and where the drain field was.
For those of you in the know about drain fields, you can understand how proud he was that he had put in  a GIANT drain field. It went clear across our property.  This fact alone is why we have a 70 year old septic system that is still functioning.

But it does have it's problems. One of them raised it's ugly head this summer.
There is no sinking feeling worse than seeing "water" oozing out of the ground any where near your septic tank lid.

After much searching and  stressing, our problem turned out to be a 45 degree joint, 5 feet down, which went from the tank to the drain field. It had been rigged with regular straight pipe encased in cement. Which meant it was a rough and goo gathering cement joint. This joint was plugged.

But as all old house projects go (and believe me, I KNOW this sort of phenomena) it snow-balled.

I could see that our years are numbered with this septic system when the pipe began to break off every time we thought we could patch it. We did finally get to a solid spot and put in a PVC pipe.
We added a "clean out" and a new baffle to the tank. We also added a "neck" to the tank and a new lid which will make it so we don't need to dig up my flower bed every 5 years to have the tank pumped. Three weeks later the problem is dealt with.

In the meantime Hank and Jake built an awesome outdoor shower out of cedar fence boards and a propane instant-hot water heater off of Amazon ($120) fed by a garden hose.

We found and told each other where all the great bathrooms around town were. You know how hardships on families create bonds? We became very close during this trial.

By the way, I will be posting about all the things I have learned, from those who know, about how a septic system works, septic maintenance and the REAL importance of having your septic tank pumped. If you don't, your drain field system WILL fail. Maybe not while you are still there, but it will. I wish I had not listened to the old guys about this and I will be doing a better job from now on.

We are doing fine now, but it is very clear that a savings account will need to be started soon. I am guessing by the looks of the goo on the inside of the pipes we have 3 to 5 years.

It will cost around  $15,000 because modern building codes will never allow our existing system to be so close to the house or so small, so we will have to build a completely new septic system.


Now I need to re-landscape. It will be, hands down, the nicest part of this project.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Taste Test

When I arrived at the homestead yesterday, there was an ominous warning:
 Rubber Chickens Beware!
Now that September is here, it is time to address two of the big fall chores, hay and wood. We got the Hay House finished two years ago, and are just finishing up the hay we bought last year. So it is time to fill it up again.

First, we have to decide what to buy. In the Willamette Valley here in NW Oregon, we have a couple different ways to go. There is local hay that was cut this summer, and Eastern Oregon hay. According to Phoebe, my hay expert, the Eastern Oregon feed is the best. They have long, warm, dry, consistent summers and are able to cut and bale it at the peak of its nutritious, delicious cycle.

The local stuff is subject to the same conditions that are causing our tomatoes to still be green. We had a long cool spring, which delayed the start of summer.

Eastern goes for about $300 a ton, local for $130. So, if we can find 5 or 6 tons of good local hay, the savings really adds up.

We are shopping a little late in the season this year, so there were not a lot of options on Craigslist. But there were two that sounded promising, a Timothy and what the seller called Pasture Mix. Since I can't really tell good hay from bad, I bought a bale of each and took them up to the experts.
We fed them a leaf of each and watched to see which they preferred. The verdict was mixed. They ate both, and went back and forth between them rather than eating one before the other. That was a good sign. We are going to feed them both for a few days to see if they develop a stronger opinion with a little more exposure.

This may mean that we can make them happy with the local hay again this winter. That makes me happy because, in addition to costing less, it supports my local farmers and requires much less energy to get it from the field to the barn. (With the Eastern hay, I can get it from a feed store a few miles from here, so it is just as close as the local, but it was trucked 100+ miles to get here.)

Once the horses give us a verdict, we will start filling the barn. It looks like it will be dry here for another week or two, so I have a nice window in which to move it. Lets see if I actually get it done before the rain.