Kent Schaefer, Center Island’s handyman and jack-of-all-trades, supervises as the Nuthatch cabin’s septic tank gets pumped out.
GOT A SEPTIC TANK? Then it’s no news to you that life can stink when things go wrong.
When we bought our place on Center Island in the fall of 2003, it was our first investment in a home with a septic system.
It was a relatively new system for a relatively new cabin. It was in the ground. It had passed inspections. What was there to worry about? We didn’t even have to pay pesky monthly sewer fees.
The fact that we visited our cabin only once a month led us to believe that the septic system was fine. “Out of sight, out of mind” never applied more aptly.
After a few years, we got a card in the mail from San Juan County saying our septic system was due for inspection. But we’d hardly used it, and while we have a nice view of the water through the trees, even if our septic tank suffered a catastrophic failure there’s no way any leakage would reach Lopez Sound to harm salmon fingerlings or other sensitive inhabitants of our local biosphere (I thought).
So the reminder card, and, to be honest, the next few after it, got tucked away in a “someday I’ll get to this” file.
Eventually a letter came informing us that, having ignored the previous polite postcards, we would be subject to a fine if we didn’t have the inspection done pretty darn soon.
So, I hired the island handyman to do the inspection ($250). He measured the tank’s gunk, filed a report with the county, and told us we were due for a pumpout, which he could also arrange ($1,000 more). So much for paying no sewer fees. They always get you in the end (so to speak).
Three years later, another card came in the mail. Inspection time again!
It was, ahem, a shitty job, but I wasn’t going to pay $250 to someone else to do the inspection again. I signed up for a free training session with the county and spent a morning in Friday Harbor learning how to do my own septic inspection. Got educated about the scum layer and the sludge layer and why two-ply toilet paper is better than one-ply (other than the fingers-break-through-thin-toilet-paper-and-nobody-wants-that factor). Hint: One-ply dissolves too quickly and can plug up the tiny tubes in your drainage field. (It still seems counterintuitive to me.)
The county septic-system overseer, a guy you might call the Grand Poobah of Poop, got my attention when he told us that our septic system was “the most expensive home appliance we would ever own.”
It’s true. If the septic system fails, we could face a bill of $20,000 to $40,000 to replace it. Oh, crap.
So I went to Lowe’s and got the prescribed lengths of PVC pipe and glued them together to fashion a DIY sludge-and-scum measuring device. Did the numbers, sent in the report, and found that we were almost due for another pumpout, four years after the first.
We were on the cusp. But it was close enough that I contacted my friend the handyman, who put us on “his list.” At his arrangement, a while back a big tank truck came on a barge to Center Island and spent the afternoon gingerly navigating our cow-path roads to pump out the muck and mire generated by a half-dozen island homes, including ours. This time our bill was $1,100. (Everyone’s costs are going up, a guy’s gotta make a profit, that barge doesn’t come cheap, etc.)
I guess it’s better than the outhouse days. A few of those can still be seen, unpainted and unloved, tucked in forlorn thickets behind some of the island’s older cabins. I don’t think any are still in active use. And so far, I’ve not seen any of them tipped over on Halloween.
But you know, things do get kind of slow around here in October…