The Accidental Environmentalist

I‘ve been thinking about this post, which may eventually be a whole category on its own, quite a bit lately. Even though you haven’t seen much evidence of it, I’ve been busy blogging in my head throughout the chaos that has been the move, and I’m swimming in ideas and inspiration, if not free time to type it all out.

One of the biggest changes for us as a family in the new house is the fact that we’re now on a well and septic system. I knew virtually nothing about well and septic systems on the day we first visited the house, but I’ve had an education and a half in the past couple of months. What I didn’t expect was that in learning to live with our own private wastewater system, we’ve become far more aware of our environmental footprint than we ever were on the city water and sewer system. I thought it would make an interesting occasional series in the blog if I shared some of our new-found and hard-earned knowledge. If well and septic systems are old hat for you, feel free to intervene and correct me as I go!

For today’s post, here’s a bit of Septic 101. When you are not connected to municipal sewers, anything you flush down your toilets, dump into your sinks or otherwise rinse down your drain goes into a big underground tank — the septic tank. In simplistic terms, here’s how it works. The septic tank has two chambers separated by a baffle. The solid and liquid wastes go into the first chamber, where the solids sink to the bottom and the liquids rise to the top. While the waste is in the septic tank, naturally-occurring bacteria are hard at work breaking it down. The liquids (called “scum”) pass through a pipe into the second chamber, and are further broken down by the bacteria. Then it flows out into a set of pipes called the weeping bed or leaching bed, a series of perforated pipes laid out in a big square or rectangle buried at least three feet under the ground. The waste water is further broken down by microbes in the soil and eventually returned to the groundwater system. Somewhere around every three to five years, depending on your tank size and family usage, you pay someone to suck all the accumulated solid waste out of the tank. Delicious, eh?

The weekend we spent considering putting an offer in on the house, I read pages upon pages of information about septic tanks and frankly? I was horrified. The poop flows out into the YARD? Simplistically speaking, yes, but not exactly. When the septic system is working well, everything is completely natural and sanitary and it is a very effective system. Unfortunately, when the system fails, it can be disastrous — from a financial, environmental and, for me, emotional perspective. The ways that the system can fail are myriad, and I lost more than a couple of hours sleep over it in the early days of my education.

For one thing, septic tanks are expensive to replace, in the order of tens of thousands of dollars. They have a life span of 20 to 40 years, depending on whom you ask. And guess how old ours is? From what I can tell, 42 years old. Eep! But, we hired a professional septic inspector as part of our home inspection, and he said that the system is functioning very well and we have no cause for concerns. For now. *touch wood*

Monitoring the health of your septic system is vital. If the effluent is not breaking down properly or something is blocking the perforations in your leaching bed, you could have problems from sewage seeping up from the ground to sewage seeping into the groundwater that supplies your (and your neighbour’s) well water to sewage backing into the (*shudder*) house, not to mention the cost of repairs or replacement. It’s a pretty good incentive for increased environmental stewardship!

Some things that I might have done on the municipal sewer system are expressly forbidden, like rinsing paint trays in the sink. When I painted the kitchen cupboards, I learned that you can wrap a roller in saran wrap overnight if you’re out of day but still not done the job, and you can even put it in the freezer if you have to wait a few days before you get back to the job. When the job is done, wash your brushes and rollers out in a five-gallon pail of water, and then leave the pail open. The water will evaporate out, and you can scrape the semi-dried-out paint into the garbage — or just dispose of the pail.

You can’t dump cooking oil or grease down the drain, so I now dump it into a mason jar that I keep under the sink. We have to be careful of letting coffee grounds or egg shells rinse down the drain — a bit of a challenge since our coffee maker overflows about once a month, spilling hot coffee and grounds all over the countertop and sometimes the floor. And no kleenex or (ugh!) tampons in the toilet, either. 🙁

I have become as vigilant in reading cleaning supply labels as I was in reading food labels. No more anti-bacterial soap (although the jury seems to be out on this one), minimal household bleach, and no liquid fabric softeners. Did you know vinegar can be used as a fabric softener alternative? I haven’t tried that one yet.

I spent a lot of the weekend googling “what happens if the septic system freezes” because it occured to me that Ottawa winters are long and cold, but it turns out that you really don’t have to do much if you’re on a year-round system. It will take care of itself, if it’s functioning properly. I’m sure there are many other facets of septic stewardship that will panic me in months to come, though.

If you had asked me a few months ago if I were environmentally conscious, I would have said, “Of course!” I recycle madly, even picking things out of the garbage that other family members might have tossed away. I use my Green Bin for most of our household compostables, and regularly walk through the house turning off switches and nagging the boys to do the same. But really? I was in the minor leagues of environmental awareness before now. There’s nothing like the threat of untreated sewage seeping up onto your lawn or backwashing into your house to make you an environmental vigilante!

One of the biggest learning curves for us has been water conservation, the topic of my next post in this occasional series.

For now, though, I’m always curious as to what you think. Are you like me, a child of the city whose jaw dropped at the idea of a personal wastewater plant on the property, or are you rolling your eyes at my endless naiveté? And if you have any, I’d be grateful if you share any advice or knowledge. Not sure I need to hear your horror stories, though — I’ve got enough of those in my imagination to keep me awake through months of sleepless nights!

Author: DaniGirl

Canadian, blogger, portrait photographer, government social media strategist, mom to 3 boys, inveterate storyteller, professional dilettante.

17 thoughts on “The Accidental Environmentalist”

  1. Not arguing your point but more surprised on the fabric softener???? I grew up with a septic system and my mom has always used fabric softeners and they have yet to have a problem with their system which is now over 40 years old too…Interesting I will have to ask about that.
    As for the bacterial soap – the more concerning fact is one of the chemicals in it being exposed to your own skin….test show that anti-bacterial soap is only marginally better than regular soap…….

  2. I grew up on a speptic system and was taught early on not to put grease or oil down the drain. When I moved and had my first taste of being on city water it never occured to me that I could now do those things. I just assumed that was a no no. Are you telling me it is an exceptable practice? I hate always looking for a jar to dump it in and the jar starts to really stink after a while.

  3. Regarding cooking grease: cook up a nice big batch of bacon and keep the drippings in the fridge. Use that as your cooking grease. Don’t use vegetable oils – they aren’t good for you anyway and getting rid of them is a pain.

    Conserving water: keep a bucket under the shower and sink faucets to catch drips and “getting warm” water and then use that water for cleaning, watering household plants, etc.

    And, properly disposing of tampons is really gross and potentially really smelly. Get yourself a cup! So easy, comfortable, less handling than tampons (change the cup twice a day instead of 8+), environmentally friendly and budget friendly (they pay for themselves in about 3 or 4 cycles!).

  4. Vinegar is a great alternative. It doesn’t smell at all because it gets diluted. If you are going to try it make sure to use white vinegar. Plus, it is soooo much less expensive.

    Ugh the only thing that I REALLY don’t like is the no tampon and kleenex. *yuck*

    The good news is that Manotick is getting city services . 🙂 It might take a few years til it is completed. But…depending on where your house is, you might not have to wait too much longer.

  5. I also grew up on a septic system and I’m glad to see from the comments that I’m not the only one who got confused by what to do with the grease when we moved to a city system. While I know have been pouring grease down the drain (really, this is likely no more than a handful of times a month), I always had this deep nagging fear that it was going to do something bad to my plumbing. But I was told I was being unreasonable. Now I know where this comes from.

  6. You guys are always so informative!

    Karen and Gus&Otto, I think that while you probably *can* pour grease and oil down the drain on municipal sewers, you probably shouldn’t. I (blush) did it for years, always following it with several minutes of hot water. Talk about bad upon bad!!

    Windex, not only did I hear that fabric softener is bad for your septic, the LG guy who helped me finish the installation of our washer said liquid fabric softener is horrid for your washer. He said sheets like Bounce are quite a bit better, but that they mess with the sensors over time, whereas fabric softener can do damage almost immediately because it’s so gummy.

    Leanne, great tip on catching the warm-up water for re-use! I was just thinking about that this morning when I showered. But I’m sorry, much as I’ve heard about the Diva cup, I just can’t do it! Well, not yet, anyway. Baby steps, right? Or is this a “pick your battles” situation? 😉

    Sara, I too thought we would be getting city sewers in Manotick eventually, but when I actually called the city to ask about the “when” they said that unless something else comes up, they’re pretty much finished what they planned to roll out. And after hearing that the hook-up costs could be in the range of $25K and up, I think I’m okay with well and septic for now!

    Hahahaha, the Captcha Oracle is at it again! Captcha = “flofix homage”! Yep, this post and comments are definitely an homage to fixing the flow!!

  7. I switched to a cup when I left home, but was forbidden from flushing tampax. I had to go back to tampax once 2 cycles ago and it was NASTY!. Love my cup.

    Instead of using fabric softener, switch to Dryer balls. We’ve been fabric softener free for 4 years, and I love it! You can get them at Extraordinary baby shoppe, and they’re so worth it!

    Vinegar has endless uses: Daily shower spray if diluted 1:1, Soap scub remover (w/ mircofiber cloth) if straight, great dishwasher rinse agent, or fabric softener, and even makes a great toilet bowl and drain scrub if you mix it with baking soda.

    It will be OK – it just takes practice to remember the rules. And? Mowing over the leeching field sucks. The grass is ALWAYS too thick and lush there 😛

  8. Since I got C-diff a year ago this past May, I want to remind everybody that the only thing that kills some bacteria is a bleach solution (10% bleach by volume to water). Put it in a spray bottle for cleaning your bathroom and kitchen surfaces and all your doorknobs and light switches.

  9. We moved to the country 2 1/2 years ago and until that time were total novices with respect to septics, wells and sump pumps. CMHC provides an excellent resource on line for information on all three items plus much, much more.

    As we built our home when we moved here, everything was new so as long as we maintain properly we should have little to worry about. Our septic came with a maintenance program and gets inspected by professionals every year. We installed a home alarm system and for added piece of mind, had both our geo-thermal heating unit and our sump pump hooked into it so if the house falls below a certain temperature in the winter the alarm will go off. If the water in the sump pit rises to a certain level, an alarm will go off. I’ve never put grease down the drain before moving to the country and certainly don’t do it now. I save it in large tin can and when the can is full, I scrape out the fat and put it in the garbage. I didn’t know that dryer sheets can interfere with the sensors so I’m going to try vinegar as a fabric softener for those times when I do machine dry clothes. One of the bonuses of moving to the country was having lots of room for a long clothesline and I line-dry my laundry every chance I get, summer through winter. No one where we live waters their lawn, we are all on wells. Collecting rain water in a barrel is an excellent means through which to water your garden plants & shrubs should nature not take care of that for you. (however, if you get lots of rain water in your barrel chances are your plants already rec’d enough too!) I don’t know if Manotick provides free water testing but it is a good idea to get your well water tested every few months. You can get the bottles for testing free from your Health Department.

    One more thing, we used to salt our driveway and walkways in the winter when we lived in the city. Now that we are on a well, we no longer use salt and opted for sand instead.

  10. Both fabric softeners and bouncy sheets actually make your towels less absorbent. I stopped using softeners and usually don’t even bother with the vinegar. The towels and clothes are all still perfectly soft!

    Even in the city, one SHOULD NOT pour grease down the sink. It really can mess with your plumbing. (The Home Ec 101 blog has a really good post about dealing with grease here:

    Thanks for the painting tips. I knew about the saran wrap, but not about cleaning the brushes in a bucket and letting it naturally evaporate — great idea!

  11. I will echo Leanne on the cup. I have been using a Diva cup for years now, and you couldn’t pay to go back. Not to mention the health risk and environmental impact of tampons. 🙂

  12. White vinegar is a perfectly good fabric softener. Our dryer repairman told me that folks who use liquid softeners have to replace their lint screens every six months, because the softener completely blocks the screen and ruins the air flow.

    We have had a few incidents with kids and kleenex over the years. We make sure to have the tank pumped frequently as a protection against ruining the leech field.

    Friends lost their leech field pipes (the field had to be dug up and re-laid at a cost of US$12,000) and they were told also to be aware of the bits of lint that come off of clothes in the washing machine. There’s nothing you can do to stop that, which is why they were advised to pump their tank clean more frequently than is typically recommended.

    We had to buy a front-loading washer to make sure that we weren’t dumping too much water into our septic on any given day. I’m assuming, though, that front-loaders aren’t as unusual in Canada as they still were in the States in 2004.

  13. Liquid softener often causes mould to grow on the inside of your washer (Esp front loaders apparently). So we don’t use it. It was originally developed to recoat the fabric fibers because washing machines are hard on clothes. Modern washing machines are better though, and only washing your clothes when they are actually dirty helps too. They help remove soap; most people add three or four times as much soap as they need. And then there are those who think something is clean only if it smells like fabric softener. Softener also makes your clothes more flammable…

    Our dryer is old so I do allow the use of dryer sheets even though the goop coats the inside of the dryer and shortens its life. It also makes your clothes more flammable. I second the use of dryer balls but also recommend simply not overdrying the clothes in the first place . It’s amazing what a difference that makes!

  14. I have lived in a house with a septic tank, and we didn’t follow the rules you’ve listed. And now I think I know why we had problems. But in my defense, I was 14, and kind of pig-headed. You can imagine I wasn’t about to NOT flush my tampons. Although in retrospect, I feel badly for the difficulty that probably put my mother through.

    Perhaps you are fortunate that you have sons.

    Now, I am a totally naive city girl. And I’m sort of glad to be that way, although if my dreams of country living come true one day, I’m sure I’ll be right there with you.

  15. Although it has no effect on the septic tank, using a clothesline to dry your clothes is a way to reduce energy consumption. I hang up laundry from April to October, and there were a few years in my life where I did not own a dryer at all.

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