Book Review
from Home Power Magazine
Reviewed by Michael Welch

About one-fourth of the more than 110 million housing units in the United States have septic or cesspool systems for dealing with household wastewater. Of these, 10 percent are malfunctioning or inoperable. That’s a lot of funky wastewater systems. I have long wondered about septic systems. I recall my dad bemoaning that he had to have one, and the pumper truck that came every year or two to empty the tank. Our system had problems, especially during the holidays, when ugly smelling liquid would bubble up through the drain of the shower stall when the toilet was flushed. And later, my folks were upset at the cost of hiring a backhoe to dig new leach lines in our back yard.

When this book arrived, I dove right in to find out exactly what these systems were and how they worked. I started with two questions in my mind—both were answered and more. The first was how to find my septic tank. The previous owner of my home told me, “It’s over there somewhere,” while waving his finger to the east of the house. So I had a rough idea, but the book told me how to poke the ground with a piece of rebar and follow the house waste pipe or the drainfield pipes back to the tank.

My second question was whether my system will be better off if I conserve on water use as much as possible. The answer is yes, generally speaking. The less water you use, the longer the retention time in the tank for better separation of solids, and the better the anaerobic digestion in the tank. Aerobic digestion in the soil of the drainfield benefits from this retention time too. But more important than using less water is minimizing the solids that go into the tank.

A common concern among septic system owners is whether or not to use chemicals in the system. Don’t worry too much about household cleaners going down the drain. Even though bacteria don’t like such things, they have little effect on the health of the system. But don’t use this as an excuse to use other than earth-friendly household cleaners. The stuff still ends up in the environment when sludge is removed, or if it is dissolved and goes to the drainfield with the effluent.

This book is easy and even fun to read. It is illustrated by Peter Aschwanden, who also did the illustrations for the classic John Muir book, How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive 19 Ed: A Manual of Step-by-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot. It does a pretty good job of avoiding the potty jokes and puns that you might expect in such a non-scholarly book.

It explains how and what the tank and drainfield do, and goes deeply into system maintenance and failure. It also contains chapters on greywater, composting toilet systems, the history of waste disposal, and small-town system upgrades. It has excellent access info, a glossary, and a comprehensive bibliography.

This is a great book. Read it, and you will understand that septic system maintenance is something that should be a periodic chore. Even if your septic system appears to be operating properly (as in, “Hey, it works great, I never have to pump it!”), it could very well be on the verge of filling with solids and possibly sending sludge into the drainfield. And a clogged drainfield can be very difficult and expensive to fix. Buy this book as cheap insurance.

–Michael Welch
Redwood Alliance
Arcata, CA