Did Someone Say "Poo?"
RK-- A. Caluen lives in California, and owns property in Calaveras County. This information is vital to understanding the arguments in this article, since water is a lot harder to come by on that side of the country.
A. Caluen, author
Here's another topic glossed over by the glossy shelter magazines, that like to focus on slate floors and redwood walls and granite countertops:
And everything else that can be classified as a bodily product of humans.
It's another thing that is easy to overlook when you are being romanced by photos of lovely country cabins, or straw-bale farmhouses, or rammed-earth showplaces: if you are outside of a town with a public sewer system, you are on the hook for dealing with your own effluents.
This is like trash removal: not a luxury, but an essential component of civilization. The first public works ever were roads, water-delivery and waste-removal. Even now, when we think of "first world" versus "everywhere else," the line is drawn under waste removal.
Everybody has a smart phone? Irrelevant. No poop in the streets? Civilization!
All residential building permits, in any county anywhere there is no public sewer, will require that the prospective home-builder install a sewage collection system, usually called a septic system. What is that, exactly? It's a pipe and pump combination that moves effluent from your indoor toilets, sinks, showers, etc into a sealed, and usually buried, collection tank. Where it sits and ferments until, at some point in time, determined by the size of the tank and the number of pooping people in the house, you call a septic service to come and pump it out and dump it ... somewhere else, probably best not thought of, where chemicals and filtration and added water and time will reduce it to something that can be used to irrigate highway landscaping.
Some enlightened counties will let you install composting toilets, which, in combination with a greywater-disposal system, can greatly reduce your water consumption as well as eliminate (HA!) the need for a septic system. Calaveras County has a rule that if a lot zoned for a residence does not already have a septic tank installed, the home builder can install composting toilets. If it *does* already have a septic tank, you're supposed to use that.
Now, this makes very little sense to me, and when we commence the structural-engineer and building-permit part of our process, if the regulation has not been changed, I intend to apply for a variance. There is no acceptable justification for using potable water to flush toilets when a simple, well-proven alternative is available.
Currently, the cost of two high-quality composting toilets is roughly equivalent to the pipe & pump combination we would need in order to employ the septic tank on our property. The maintenance required by composting toilets is laughably simple and requires no plumbers, no electricians, and no pump-out services. This is one of the reasons I want to go that way: it is a lower-operating-cost solution.
Old people on fixed incomes really do not want too many systems they cannot maintain themselves, for which the cost of hiring services is uncontrollable.
And obviously, if your septic tank floods or your pump fails, you are officially in deep shit and have to get help on an emergency basis, which means you will pay the maximum.
Now, there is another non-obvious component of forgoing a septic system, and that is: you can't use a garbage disposal in your kitchen. Food waste is a non-acceptable additive to a greywater system. So the kitchen is also a source of compost, or, if you have certain types of livestock, critter food.
And what exactly is a greywater system?
It's another simple, low-maintenance, low-cost solution to a problem that in cities is solved by public sewers. (Some cities will let you install a limited greywater system, in which drainage from your shower and washing machine can be run straight out of the house into your landscape, with minimal filtration components.)
In our country-house scheme, a greywater system is planned to handle all waste water from the house. It will be routed through a surge barrel and a series of gravel-and-plant-filled tanks, where it will be naturally filtered before being discharged into the landscape. I've already checked; this is perfectly legal, it adds ecological value to the yard (instant wetland!), and will cost about the same as a manual well pump - around a thousand dollars.
There are not many caveats to a greywater system; you have to use a specific class of detergents and soaps, but most ecologically-minded people already do. Since the landscape we propose to move into is a dry one, this is, oddly enough, our best bet to have a year-round water feature. If we do it right, we may even get us some Calaveras jumping frogs.