DIY Septic System


Our DIY septic system passed inspection by our county planning and zoning commission. Following the plan drawn up by our septic engineer, we kept our DIY waste disposal costs to under $1,500.

One 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 food from the soil, process it through their bodies, and then pour the unused waste, especially nitrogen, into a thousand-gallon box of inaccessible  nutrients 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.


DIY Septic System: Inspection Requirements

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.

We were building under an inspectionless, for the most part, permit called the owner/builder opt-out that allows a great deal of freedom for rural residents in this county. An inspected and approved septic system installation and an approved site drawing are the only permit requirements in our county.

Unfortunately, the County P & Z permit office was not amenable to composting toilets when we built. 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, he 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.


DIY Septic System: Excavation

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 early 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 reminding me 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.

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 a hole about 6 1/2’ deep 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.

After the main hole, we dug trenching for the distribution box and 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.



DIY Septic System: Installation

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.

We filled the tank with water in case of a monsoon rain. Hard to believe, but the tank 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. The first inspection was for the trench depth and a check for level and leaks on the tank.

After the trench and the tank were inspected, we filled our five foot deep leach field to a depth of three feet with leach rock. We then laid and leveled out leach pipe with holes open on the sides. A three foot solid pipe was installed at the end of each length of pipe for inspections and cleaning, if necessary.

It was then time for the second inspection.  Both inspections were OK the first time around!

The approved leach field was covered with rock a few inches above the top of the pipe and a silt proof, porous covering laid over the covered pipe. We then carefully backfilled the trenches and were good to go.


DIY Septic System: Cost and Benefits

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.


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