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How To Get A Septic Tank Installed – My Septic Install: Costs, Advice, Details And More

How To Get A Septic Tank Installed – My Septic Install: Costs, Advice, Details And More

septic tank installationIf you’re anything like me, a home in the mountains or in the countryside has been a dream for a very long time. Having lived in the city where municipal sewer was available, I didn’t have to worry about such things. After I bought my land in the mountains of NC, I knew getting a septic system installed would be a necessity. Having just finished up getting my septic tank installed, I wanted to share my experience, the cost and other info for those who are doing the same thing

The land I bought is going to serve two purposes for me. The first being wanted a place I could move my tiny house in the future if I ever needed to. Having a piece of land with power, a well and a septic system for my tiny house would make it easy to roll up and connect. The second reason is, while I love my tiny house, it’s not my forever house. At some point I’m going to build a small home and this land is the perfect place.

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What Is A Septic Tank?

what is a septic tank

Let’s start with the basics. A septic tank is a sealed reservoir that’s buried and collects waste water. The solids will settle out, grease will rise and filtered liquids will flow out into a leach field. This allows you to safely collect, filter and distribute your black and grey water from your home. Over time, solids will collect in the tank and it will need to be cleaned.

Do I Need Permission For A Septic Tank? Permits?

do i need a permit for a septic tank

Yes, septic tanks in many countries are regulated to ensure public safety. In the United States, most permits for septics are issued through the state Department of Health.

spetic tankSetting aside the debate of smaller vs. larger government, the aim of this is to make sure that the septic field is installed properly and to make sure the ground water isn’t contaminated. This is something I can get behind, considering I’d like to know if my neighbors unmitigated sewage is seeping directly into my ground water.

Septic systems are simple systems, but the devil is in the details and getting them right is really important. I see a permit as money well spent in order to have a third party verify the important details are done properly. In my area, permits are pretty affordable.

Another important note is that if you build a septic without a permit, you might not be able to sell your home as easily in the future. Some banks require proper permitting before they issue a loan. At the very least, having your paperwork in order will be one less thing a buyer could negotiate against. If you don’t get it permitted, know the county could condemn your house and issue a fine.

Can You Install A Septic At All?

can you install a septic system

Realize that in some places because of the soil or municipality, you may not be allowed to have a septic. Some cities require you to be on their sewer system and won’t grant septic permits without extenuating circumstances granted by a variance. In general, if there is a sewer line on your street, you’ll be required to tap into it and will not be allowed a septic at all.

Choosing A Certified Septic Installer

choosing a certified septic system installer

Most places, if not all, require you to have a certified installer who has been through training. It’s important to remember that just because someone has gone through the classes doesn’t mean they’re good at what they do or run their business in a reputable manner. At the very least, they were informed of the proper way to do things, so one could hope some of it stuck.

choosing a certified septic system installerWhat is nice about this process is the county maintains a list of active certified installers. You can contact them directly to get an updated list (sometimes found on their website). Whatever you do, don’t assume or take someone’s word that they are certified with the county, always check directly with the health department.

I’d start with people listed close to your area, then work your way out from there. Call each person and trust your gut. It’s important to realize that the good installers are busy installers, so they may have to call you back or often they’ll answer their phone while running a track hoe. My installer asked a few questions then had me call his wife to schedule a time for a site visit.

With that said, look for people who are responsive, polite, organized, and time efficient. Schedule a time to meet each of them at the location and be wary of people who give quotes sight unseen. Shoot to have three quotes from three different people who you feel good about. That means you’ll want to have 5+ estimates from different people because you’ll naturally weed out some due to being late, not showing or something else that leaves you uneasy.

How Much Does A Septic Tank Installation Cost?

how much does a septic system install cost

When I started looking into septic system installations, cost was my number one question, but answers were not easy to find. There is a lot of variability in the cost of a septic install, so I’ll share the price and details of my system. I also wanted to outline some of the factors that impact the price and then share examples from others I surveyed to get a complete picture.

Factors That Impact Cost Of A Septic System

factors that impact the cost of a septic system

There are several things that impact how much your system is going to cost. It’s important to remember that while a portion of the price will be impacted by materials (largely commoditized and pretty similar costs across all your quotes), labor will be the biggest swing here. Labor costs are variable and can change based on how busy the installers are, how much of a pain they expect you or the job to be, etc. Permit costs in your area are what they are, so that will be the same across the board.

Municipality / Location – Like all things in real estate: location, location, location. The best way to understand this is to think about how your property prices compare to other areas. If you live in a high cost of living area or a town where home prices are expensive, your septic will cost more. When comparing your location to others, look at the average cost of homes, figure out the percent difference and apply that to septic costs for a rough idea.
Soil Types and Perking Tests – Soil is another major factor of cost because if you have well-draining soils, your system will have an easier time filtering the waste water. If your soil is poor, you’ll have to extend your drain lines more and more to make up the reduced capacity for the soil to filter. Basically, you make up for poor soil filtering by extending the area you filter into until it handles it properly. In some cases, soil isn’t viable or you don’t have enough room. A larger drain field equals more materials and more labor.
State Of The Economy – Simply put, when housing is booming, you’re going to pay more. If you’re in a recession, you’ll find prices to be more competitive.
How Busy They Are – The truth is installers charge more when they are busy. Much like the state of the economy, this is a supply and demand scenario. If there are enough jobs to fill their time for the next 30-90 days, they’re going to start asking for more. The trick is the good installers are often never short of work and the bad installers will pretend like they’re busy.

Try to ask around and see if there is a slow season or ask the installer if there is a time that you could wait on for a reduced price. Sometimes just being flexible and willing to wait will provide an opportunity to save some money. The installer may finish another job early, the inspector may be slow on another job or there could be a cancellation.

How Much Of A Pain You’ll Be – If you seem like you’re going to be a pain to work with, the price just went up. Be friendly and punctual, but also don’t be a push over. Sketchy contractors will try to take advantage of someone’s good nature. Realize and plan for the process taking longer than you expected it to take.
Access To Site And Terrain – It’s easiest to install a system in a flat, cleared space with a wide driveway that leads right to the land. My installer wanted to visit my site to evaluate the difficulty of the terrain and ensure it was accessible. If your lot needs cleared, is difficult to access or steep, expect prices to rise pretty quickly. That said, take the time to install a good driveway and clear the spot well. It will need accomplished anyway and it can save you money in the long run.
Permit Fees And EngineeringPermit fees are what they are. In my county they charged $350 for a septic permit and there is no way around it. Some places have much higher fees. Also, you’ll pay more if your lot requires some sort of special engineering.
Pumps And Cesspools – You ideally want your septic tank to be down hill of your house and the drain lines to be down hill of your tank. In some cases, your house might not be up hill of them. If this occurs, you’ll need to install a cesspool to collect the waste that will be pumped up to the field. These two things (cesspool and pump) are additional units to your septic tank and add extra expenses. I’d suggest avoiding lots that require this because it adds cost and complexity. It’s just one more thing to break and it has moving parts which are prone to failure.
Aerobic Vs. Anaerobic Septic Systems – In some cases, a municipality will require you to have an aerobic system. The basic difference between aerobic and anaerobic septic systems is the presence of oxygen. Traditional anaerobic septic systems operated in the relative absence of oxygen; the broken-down sewage must be able to live without oxygen. Aerobic septic tanks are also located underground, they use an aerator to add oxygen into the tank. Because of the added complexity and equipment, Aerobic systems are more expensive.
Conventional Vs. Mound Septic Systems – I don’t know too much about these other than what my realtor explained to me. Basically, in certain circumstances where the soil isn’t ideal, the water table is too high or there is a lot of rock involved, a mound system is required. This system is a pile of gravel, sand and other fillers to make an elevated septic system. They typically cost more and require extra engineering costs.

The Cost To Install My Septic

cost to install my system

My septic was a 1000-gallon cement tank with 300 feet of drain line in a well-draining soil. My permit was $350 and I spent $300 for a guy to come out with a backhoe and dig pits for my perk test. I made sure to have this done before the purchase of the land, my offer was contingent upon successfully getting a well and septic permit.

cost of a septic tank installI had the system designed for 4 bedrooms because I don’t know exactly what I want to do. Most likely I’m going to have a Master bedroom and a guest bedroom, then space to put two more bedrooms in the future (I’d finish them if I sell to increase resale value). My land is located in the mountains of NC which is pretty rural and low cost of living.

I chose this place because it had minimal building codes, no HOA or restrictions, and the county was pretty inexpensive tax wise. I say this for you to know that my scenario was the cheaper end of the spectrum. The one thing working against me was I had no contacts in the area at all, so I did my best to get multiple quotes.
In the end I think I ended up spending more than I had to, but I got very close to what others were paying at the time. I was on a time crunch as my permit expired at the end of the year, so I couldn’t delay things. After three quotes I settled on a contractor that I liked for $7,500 all in.

Cost To Install Other Systems

cost to install other systems

I took some time to get a better picture of costs by talking with several other people. Here is a breakdown of what their systems cost when they installed their septic system.

Louisiana

$7,000

  • 1,000 Gallon Tank
  • 5 Bedrooms
  • 400 Feet
  • Installed in 2015

California

$30,000

  • 1,800-Gallon Tank
  • 4 Bedrooms
  • 350 Feet
  • Installed in 2020

Tennessee

$3,500

  • 1,000-Gallon Tank
  • 3 Bedrooms
  • 230 Feet
  • Installed in 2012

Ohio

$7,000

  • 2,000 Gallon Tank
  • 4 Bedrooms
  • 500 Feet
  • Installed in 2004

Texas

$5,000

  • 1,000-Gallon Tank
  • 4 Bedrooms
  • 300 Feet
  • Installed in 2013

Oklahoma

$3,600

  • 1,000-Gallon Tank
  • 3 Bedrooms
  • 400 Feet
  • Installed in 2007

Nevada

$7,500

  • 1,250 Gallon Tank
  • 3 Bedrooms
  • 500 Feet
  • Installed in 2005

California

$8,500

  • 1,500-Gallon Tank
  • 3 Bedrooms
  • 275 Feet
  • Installed in 2019

Washington

$5,000

  • 1,000-Gallon Tank
  • 2 Bedrooms
  • 300 Feet
  • Installed in 2018

Michigan

$8,000

  • 1,500 Gallon Tank
  • 4 Bedrooms
  • 3 900-Gallon Dry Wells
  • Installed in 2019

Your State

Your Cost

  • How Many Gallons?
  • How Many Bedrooms?
  • How Many Feet of Drain Line?
  • When Was It Installed?
Let us know in the comments if you’ve had a septic installed and the details.

How To Install A Septic Tank System + My Installation Process

how to install a septic system

Installing a septic tank is pretty straight forward, they’re fairly simple systems. However, there are a lot of little details to get right and it’s often not something someone wants to attempt on their own if they’ve never done it before. Assuming you’re hiring someone to install it for you, talk with your county first to understand their process and requirements.

Talk With Your Local Officials

talk with your local officials

The nice thing about building in the countryside is code officials are much easier to work with than in the city. I’d suggest calling them and asking for details about the process, what it entails, and the order in which to complete the steps. Usually it starts with a perk test to get a septic installation permit.

They’ll come out and perform a soil drainage test called a “perk test”. The results of the perk test will let you know what size and type of system you’ll need to install. They’ll include that info on the permit.

Get Your Permits

get your permits

You’ll need to get all your paperwork done and permit in hand before you even talk with contractors. They get a lot of calls so they often won’t work with someone until you have that permit. Getting a permit can take time: between wait times, scheduling a perk test and going rounds with officials, it took me about 60 days.

One word of caution I’d offer is don’t take anyone’s word that a permit has been issued, have the county provide you an official copy of the permit directly. I learned this the hard way, another story for another day.

Talk With Local Contractors

talk with local contractors

Follow my advice about choosing a certified septic installer (I talked about this above [hop link]). You want to get at least three quotes from people who seem like they’d be good to work with and have actually come to the location.

Get Clarity On The Process

get clarity on the process

Ask your installer these questions and then reach out to the health department and verify the process.

  • When do you plan to start work?
  • How long will the work take?
  • What things would cause a delay?
  • What things could you encounter that would increase the price? (rocks etc.)
  • When will the inspection happen?
  • How and who will trigger the county to schedule the inspection?
  • What happens if we fail the inspection?
  • What happens if we pass the inspection?
  • What do I need to get from the county after this is done?

Set Expectations Up Front With Contractor

set expectations up front with contractor

An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure, so getting crystal clear up front with your installer is important. Have a conversation about these items below so you know what will happen, when it will happen and what happens if it all goes wrong.

  • Can you provide copies of your profession licenses, copy of your insurance policy etc.?
  • Can you provide a basic contract/warranty info ahead of time?
  • What is the best way to communicate with you?
  • What’s a reasonable turnaround time to expect a call back?
  • How much notice will I get when you’ve finalized a date to start work?
  • Do you want to be present during the work or not? Make that clear
  • When and how will payments be made?
  • Who is paying for materials? Equipment Rentals?
TIP: Some counties have systems that you can search by contractor’s name or license number. Search theirs to see how many permits are in their name and look for any liens, fines or other red flags.

Septic System Layout

septic system layout

The day of the installation should go pretty smoothly. Most of these installers are busy and they have the process down pat. Usually they’ll start by laying out the runs with a laser level, it’s technically possible to do it without one, but any professional should be using a level like this.

laser level
marking drain field

The goal here is to run the lines along the contour line of the land, so that the lines are running 1/8th to 1/4th of an inch downward slope per foot. This is all going to be oriented and placed to where you want your future home to be, so make sure you are clear on that. You usually need to be 15 feet from the house, but it varies by local codes.

Digging The Septic Tank Pit

digging septic tank pit

Next, they’re going to start digging the hole to drop your tank into, this should be above the leach field unless you have a pump or more complicated system. This hole will depend on the size of your tank, but usually about 8-10 feet deep. You want to watch the installers to make sure they check that the pit bottom is level once they’ve removed the material. The goal here is to have a reasonably level tank when they drop in the concrete or plastic tank. I think if I could do it all again, I’d ask them to have some sand or gravel to put as a base at the bottom, but that might be overkill.

digging hole for septic tank
hole for septic tank

Digging The Leach Field Trenches

digging the leech field trenches

Depending on several factors, they will either drop the tank in right then or start digging the trenches. During my installation, the tank delivery truck wasn’t coming for a few more hours so they kept digging.

digging trernches for leech field
septic tank leech field trench

This is where my contractors really showed their skill. The little backhoe they ran was a decent sized machine and the guy running it was able to get that slope of ¼ inch per foot with impressive accuracy. The other guy used the laser level and a grade rod to check the trench the entire way.

He also picked out larger rocks to prevent damage to the drain lines and used a hand shovel to smooth the bottom of the trench to be a consistent down slope.

Repeat For Each Of Your Lines

repeat for each of your lines

Next, they created additional trenches to get the required length, all the while picking out rocks, smoothing the trench floor and checking for the slope all along the length.

Install The Septic Tank

install a septic tank

At that point the delivery truck showed up with the tank and the drain lines. The truck had a built-in trestle arm that extended off the back of the truck to lower the tank into place.

delivery truck
trestle arm

They lowered the septic tank into the ground and checked the level of each corner with the laser level again.

septic tank in hole
laser level check

Installing The Drain Lines

installing the drain lines

The drain lines were an EZ-Flow or EZ-Drain style line. Basically, a corrugated drain line with perforations in it, surrounded by packing peanuts and held tight with a netting cover. After talking with a lot of people, this style has a pretty good track record and makes for quick installation. I’ve heard some bad reviews of the EZ-Flow style lines, but they were pretty few and far between, often with some other mitigating circumstances.

ez flow lines
ez flow drain line

EZFLOW drain lines – Note: remove white cover before installing

It’s important to make sure your installers put the lines in the correct way. The little sausages have a filter fabric cover the top half of the line, you want that on top so it screens dirt from getting into the lines and clogging it. The bottom half is not covered to allow for better drainage. Make sure that filter fabric is on top!

The lines come in a bundle as a set of three: a center drain line and two buffers on either side of it. This helps keep the dirt from getting in too close, allowing for increased drainage once buried.

drain lines in place
drain line coupler

This process went really fast. The sections were very light and they connected easily with the drain line couplers. Only the middle line needs to be connected because the two outside tubes are just spacers.

One final note is the importance of not driving any heavy equipment over these lines. A smaller truck or a smaller bobcat is fine, but nothing bigger or you’ll crush the lines. Make sure you know where they are and have the area fenced off during construction.

Connecting The Tank And Drain Lines

Connecting The Tank And Drain Lines

Once everything was laid out, they moved on to connecting it all up. It was a mix of semi flexible lines and PVC pipes. They again ensured the lines had the right slope to make sure the liquids flowed correctly.

connecting drain line to tank
drain line connections for a septic tank

It’s important to note that at this point everything should be totally open because the inspection requires an open pit. The inspector showed up at this point for me, so some of the photos are after the inspection and partially buried.

septic line connections
septic tank drain lines

Install The Septic Filter

install the septic filter

Inside the tank there is a hard-plastic filter that screens out solids of a certain size from entering the drain lines. You’re aiming to only have liquids flow out of the system into the lines. This should be pulled out and cleaned off each time you have your tank cleaned, roughly every 3 years.

installing a septic filter
septic tank filter

Get Inspected

get install inspected

This process was pretty painless. The inspector showed up and used the laser level to check the slope, looked at the connections, reviewed the permit and plot map, then signed off on everything. My installer informed me that the inspector doesn’t rake them over the coals as much as he used to when they first started. Your inspection might be more involved, my inspector told me he never had any issues with the systems these guys installed, even years later.

Mark The Tank Inlet

mark the septic tank location

I hadn’t thought about this, but when I build my house, I’ll need to actually connect the tank. My installer used a board to cover the opening of the tank to block dirt from getting in and also to make it really easy to find the opening when it came time to connect. This simple thing saves a lot of digging in the future.

septic tank
marking septic tank install

Fill in the Holes

fill in the holes

Next was putting all the dirt back in, but only after your inspection is complete! This part is pretty simple, but as you do it, make sure you don’t have any large rocks sitting on the lines. My installer followed the bucket and picked out rocks as they went. I was glad to see their attention to these details.

filling in holes
backfilling septic line trenches

Smooth Out And Final Grading

final grading

You most likely will have some left-over dirt, so I had them just spread it out over the space. Figuring that the soil will settle a little bit over time, I figured adding a little on top would be just about right.

grading out area
smoothing leech field dirt

Get Your Documentation From The County

documentation

The last step is to make sure you get everything you need for the septic for future use. This usually takes a few days to a few weeks, but it’s really important to get the documents.

Septic System FAQs

septic system faqs

Concrete Vs. Plastic Septic Tanks

Plastic tanks may be used in some areas and are sometimes preferred because they’re lighter. This makes them easier to install. The downside is they can be more easily damaged during installation and have been known to sometimes “float” up. Concrete tanks are heavy and stay in place. The delivery truck used for mine came with an arm to lower the tank in, so installing my concrete tank wasn’t too difficult.

How Long Will A Septic Last?

Typically, septic tanks will last 40+ years if installed correctly and properly maintained. Your mileage may vary depending on a lot of circumstances.

How Much Is A Septic Permit?

Permits typically start at $300 and can go into the thousands. Areas with high cost of living, more environmental review and tricky soils will cost more.

Will A Septic Tank Work Without Power?

In general, yes unless you have a pump as part of the system. Most systems rely on gravity, so the draining is a passive process.

Can You Use Bleach In Your Septic Tank?

In moderation, it’s possible to use bleach, but not highly recommended. A Septic tank operates on live bacteria cultures breaking things down. Bleach can kill those cultures. A small amount of bleach diluted among thousands of gallons will not be a big deal, but it should be used sparingly. Try to space out the use of bleach and use alternatives, like baking soda mixed with bleach.

How Often Should I Get my Septic Tank Pumped/Cleaned?

In general, you should get your septic tank cleaned every 2-3 years based on use and assuming proper design. If your septic tank is under sized then you should consider doing this more frequently.

How Much Does It Cost To Clean A Septic Tank?

Typically, you can expect to pay between $300 and $500 to have your tank cleaned.

Can You Install Your Own Septic Tank – DIY Options

Yes! In some cases, municipalities allow for owners to install their own, but realize you’re still subject to inspections etc. Some places will not allow it unless you’re licensed/certified. Installing your own system shouldn’t be taken lightly and speaking frankly, unless you have done them before or do similar work, I wouldn’t suggest it. Running the equipment to dig, getting the slopes just right, connecting things up and using the right materials are all important.

Your Turn!

  • How much was your system? Include size, run length, location, bedrooms, and year installed.
  • What tips do you have for getting a septic system installed?

Simple Greywater Systems For Your Home

Simple Greywater Systems For Your Home

What are grey water systems and how can you set up a system for your home?  Most people living in the average American household have no reason to contemplate disposal of the water that enters and leaves their homes, but more and more people are looking for a simple way to do a greywater system for their home.

simple grey water system for your home

What Is A Greywater System Used For?

A greywater system is used to take water that has already been used from places like your laundry, shower and sink and divert it to use in another purpose like watering gardens or landscaping instead of flushing it down into the sewer. Greywater is different from blackwater (aka sewage) because while it may have some residuals like dirt, hair, grease, etc from it’s first use, they aren’t toxic to the environment and the water can be reused in some applications.

what is grey water and how to recycle water

With greywater systems you are careful about what you put down your drain when diverting it to your garden or flower beds, but I’ve found that after your figure out some cleaning products that work for you, it’s quite simple.

How Do Grey Water Systems Work?

The concept is simple in principal: you want capture all the water from your sinks, showers and other drains into one place called a “surge tank” which is a fancy way of saying a tank that can take a lot of water at once and then slow down the flow. From there you want to allow the water to slow down just enough so any solids can settle out to the bottom and then let the cleaner water move on.

Grey Water System Diagram

In the below diagram you can see the basics of a system. You’ll see how the washer can be switched with a branched valve to either go to the sewer or the outside irrigation. The water then travels outside, into the garden and finally into drip points above mulch beds.

system diagram of a grey water system

Our Simple Greywater Setup For Our Tiny House

I certainly had never considered such things until Cedric and I went volunteering on organic farms. In the south of Spain a small olive farm where water is scarce and they were watering their flower garden with the water from their sinks and showers. It was the first time I’d ever seen a greywater system in action. As aquifers run dry and water becomes a scarcer resource, I see the proper recycling of it essential to transitioning our treatment of water to a more sustainable system and tiny house dwellers are on the front lines of this transition.

grey water in my garden

Living in a tiny house we have had to face the challenge of disposing our water safely since we weren’t hooked up to the city’s system. Our initial introduction at that farm inspired us to try a simple, DIY system that would use our greywater to irrigate a small garden.

We took 1 1/2″ pvc pipe, attached it to the plumbing of the house and buried it in the garden. Since we didn’t put in a filter we did not put any solids of any kind down the drain. We also carefully chose our bath soaps, used homemade shampoos and biodegradable dish soap so as not to damage the soil, plants or watershed. The PVC pipe was placed in a 2 foot deep ditch that had been lined with gravel and landscape fabric. Along the pipe we drilled many little holes to allow the water to escape. This technique is very similar to a french drain.

Are Grey Water Systems Legal?

is greywater legal

Depending on your city, county and state you’ll have different rules that govern the use of greywater systems. Building codes, zoning laws and the public health department all come into play here, so develop a rough idea of what kind of greywater system you want to build and then have a conversation with your local city hall. Alternatively you can do this under the radar, but understand you assume all risk.

In some cases you’ll need to install a branched drain system so you can turn the greywater on and off based on what your use is.

How Much Does A Greywater System Cost To Install?

grey water system install cost

Installing a greywater system depends on your needs, how your plumping is setup in your house and how much of the work you’re going to do yourself. For a rough estimate you can plan on spending $500 to $2,500 to install a greywater system in your home. Most of the cost will be labor as the materials are cheap, but the labor can be expensive. Often it requires a plumber which can run between $50-$150 per hour and then someone to run ditches to your beds which can cost between $20-$75 per hour.

Common materials are PVC pipes, gravel, landscape fabric, a capture tank and plumbing fittings.

How To Design Your Grey Water System

grey water system design

Here are some of the key steps to consider for your grey water system design:

  1. Locate all your main drain points and plan how you will tap into each
  2. Determine where you’re going to drain your system to
  3. Check that your drains are at least 5 feet higher than your destination
  4. Mark where you are going to bury your drain lines with spray paint
  5. Install a valve at each drain sources or at the main drain pipe
  6. Pipe from valves to exterior of home
  7. Dig ditches below your frost line
  8. Fill bottom with 6 inches of loose gravel
  9. Place your drain lines and perforated lines and check all connections
  10. Cover pipes with another 4 inches of loose gravel
  11. Cover gravel with landscape fabric to prevent dirt clogging lines.
  12. Replace dirt or carry the gravel all the way to surface (best method)

Best Filtering Options For Grey Water

grey water filter options

In some cases people will put a basic filter to screen out particles like food or hair mainly to prevent clogs in the rest of the system.Once the water is free of most of the larger debris, you can then pipe it underground to where you want to deposit it, making sure you spread out the volume of water over a large enough area to allow the soil to soak up the water quickly enough that it doesn’t get water logged.

You have a filter options:

  • Filter bag before it enters into surge tank
  • In line water filter
  • Settling tank
  • Constructed wetland or reed bed
  • Setting pond or bog

Here are my two favorite ways to filter out grey water

filter options for a grey water system

Tips For Your DIY Grey Water System

diy grey water systems

The biggest challenge people have when making their own system is getting your drain pipes clogged with food particles and hair from your drains. To combat that you want to employ two features in your system: a surge tank to settle out particles and a simple filter.

When the water from your drains comes from your house it’s carrying a lot of stuff like dirt, hair, skin cells, food particles and it’s moving pretty fast. We want to slow that water down and allow those things to settle out before moving on in the process. We don’t want that water to sit too long, no more than 24 hrs, but it’s a critical step.

From there we want to use a basic filter to grab any left over things that might be floating along. These don’t need to be a high grade filter that cleans the water, just enough to catch the particles big enough to clog things down the line.

The last tip I’ll give is make sure you consider how your drain lines will work in the winter. Freezing pipes can lead to major problems, so make sure your lines are draining to pipes buried below the frost line. You can consider putting in a valve at your branched piping inside so you can turn off this during the winter.

Grey Water Systems For Off Grid Living

grey water system for a off grid cabin

Grey water is the perfect solution for dealing with waste water at your off grid home, cabin or tiny house. I use this on my off grid tiny home into a modified french drain system since I don’t produce much water waste to begin with. Don’t forget to pair your system with a rain catchment system to collect more water for your garden.

The biggest tips I can give you is to make sure your soil drains well, you can do this by doing a simple perk test (a water infiltration test) on your soil. If you soil drains well, figure out about how many gallons of grey water you will produce in a given day and design the system to handle that plus a 25% margin.

Make sure you plan it so your drain lines are down hill from your point of use, digging ditches deeper and deeper if you need to get a steep slope for proper drainage. Having the water move away from your house is critical, so make plans to drain at least 30 feet away to avoid moisture issues.

I wouldn’t spend time trying to figure out how to treat the grey water or how to make it drinkable, it’s better to use it effciently at the source, then repurpose it into your gardens for food production.

My Favorite Grey Water Friendly Products

When you make the switch to grey water, you’ll need to control what goes down your drain and that includes things like soaps, shampoo, cleaners and more. Anything that goes down the drain needs to be environmentally safe when it hits your garden.

Aubrey Men’s Stock Shampoo

grey water shampoo

This was the hardest item to find for me, a lot of shampoos that are grey water friendly don’t clean that well. Many shampoos left my hair looking greasy, but this one cleaned well and didn’t smell too “earthy”. The smell is pretty neutral, a minty smell that could easily be used by men or women. It’s a little pricey, but it’s the only thing that I found that actually works.

Amazon is the only place I’ve been able to find this Aubrey Men’s Stock Shampoo.

 

Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Liquid Soap

Dr. Bronner's Pure-Castile Liquid Soap

This is an obvious and very popular option for those who want soap that is easy on the environment and just works well. Dr. Bronners is great for washing your hands, doing dishes, cleaning around the house, etc.

You can even bath with it and I found it to be good for body wash, but as I noted above, while it works for hair, it left my hair looking greasy. A lot of people use it as shampoo and it works well for them, so it’s worth a try. It’s also not terribly expensive and a little goes a long way.

This is where I get mine, click here.

Final Thoughts On Grey Water Systems

The majority of folks don’t think twice about these things and it’s wonderfully convenient to not have to. However, I’ve learned a lot about sustainable water practices by living with this system and I prefer it to sending this precious resource to a facility with black water where it becomes much more polluted and takes a lot of energy to introduce safely back in to the water cycle. It’s also a major plus for dry environments that see little rainfall and who at times must rely on their aquifers for water, as we experienced in Spain.

grey water system installed

To sustain and maintain these deep fonts of water we need to replenish them. Allowing greywater to be filtered by plants back in to the ground recharges the aquifers and keeps them from drying out. The beauty of greywater systems is they can be incredible simple to construct, use and maintain. The collaborative group Greywater Action For A Sustainable Water Culture is an incredible resource not only for learning to construct and maint these systems, they also have a wealth of information on composting toilets, rainwater catchment and pedal-powered washing machines!

As we prepare to move La Casita once again, we plan to build a more elaborate system that can withstand the Vermont winters. The Greywater Action website also has great reviews of projects and useful tips for winterizing these systems. In the South it was much easier to manage it and although it will be more of a challenge it is another opportunity to learn and create a regenerative system. I’ll be posting details of our next greywater project so check-in with the tiny life over the next few weeks to see the details of construction!

Your Turn!

  • Have any tips on water disposal in a tiny house?
  • How do you feel about the current disposal and treatment of water?
  • Do you think greywater systems are viable project towards changing how we think about water disposal?

How to Homestead: Tackling the Challenges of Going Off-Grid

Living off the land, growing your own food and taking life back to simpler times—for many this sounds like the ultimate dream. In the hustle-bustle craziness of modern life, it’s no wonder people are ready to forget their commute, stop shopping, turn off their TV and learn how to homestead.

living off grid

Homesteading takes us back to simpler times. The idea of self-sufficiency, independence and forging your own way? Well, that’s the very fabric of the American dream. But the reality of homesteading—living off the grid, growing your own food supply, being self-reliant—is a lot to take on, especially all at once. Before you quit your day job and buy a brood of chickens, you’ll want to be certain you’ve planned for the many challenges of going off-grid.

If you’re hoping to learn the logistics of how to homestead, these are the challenges you’ll need to tackle.

1. Setup

The biggest conundrum when going off-grid is the cost. Living truly off-grid is romanticized and when you combine it with setting up a homestead, expectations may further exceed reality. I’ll be honest, with enough money anything’s possible of course, but realistically I would say choose one or the other to start.

inverter, charge controller, panel

I hear from off-grid newbies (grid muggles, as I like to call them) they think they’re going to go into the woods, build a cabin and live off the land. For most of us, it’s not so simple. To feed a family of four, you’d need at least two acres of land for food. You would also need roughly 25 average-sized solar panels to sustain enough electricity for four people, possibly more (you can read about my solar panel setup here). That’s not even considering the additional concerns of water, sewer, shelter, animal husbandry, gardening, food storage and more.

After living off the grid for the last few years, I can say there are quite a few considerations without growing my own food. The best method for living out your homesteading dreams is to take your setup in steps and plan on a decent upfront investment.

2. Electricity

Solar electricity is the biggest component of going off the grid. After all, that’s literally what the “grid” refers to. Homesteaders and anyone who plans to live off the grid will need to research exactly what sort of electric wiring and solar panel system you’ll require for your particular situation. I have a great guide: Shockingly Simple Electric if you’re looking for a resource to get started.
solar panels for homestead

I have 15 solar panels installed, which is enough to run everything I need in my place. My setup cost around $20,000. However, if you plan to run an electric water heater, a microwave, washer or other large appliance—or if you have a larger home—you’re going to need more than just a basic solar panel system. Forget those systems you see at home improvement stores—these small solar panel systems offer only enough power to charge your phone and laptop.

As I said above, for a family of four, expect at least 25 solar panels. You’ll also need a generator or two if you expect less than 8 hours per day of southern sun. This is especially important in the winter. Calculate your electricity needs based on the times when you get the least amount of sun. In the summer, you may generate more electricity than you require, but in the winter, you’ll be prepared.

3. Finding Land

Back in the day, true homesteading involved laying your claim to land by setting up a sustainable farm plot. In 1976, the federal government ended homesteading in the continental United States. Homesteading continued in Alaska for ten more years—but since 1986, if you want to live on a plot of land, you’ll need to purchase it.

The biggest challenge of homesteading involves the initial cost of land and setting it up, but there are also costs to maintain your homestead. Even with the smallest home possible, there are plenty of expenses involved. How will you access the land, install your well and septic, and clear land or setting up planting beds?

Minimally, if you plan to house livestock such as chickens or goats, you’ll have several things to consider.  They will need a shelter for to protect them from the elements, a place to store feed and bedding, as well as fencing to keep them in and predators out.

For your garden you’ll also need seeds, seedlings and basic gardening supplies. The easiest route is to purchase land and set up your small house. Slowly adjust to off-the-grid living and take baby steps as you start to get into homesteading.

4. Legality

I’ve written before about the laws involved with living off the grid. The habitable structure definitions included in most municipal ordinances will exclude several factors of off-the-grid living. Many tiny house dwellers skirt this issue by putting their house on a trailer, but this only gets you out of some of the legal requirements. When you involve livestock, you’re also looking at additional legal concerns.

tiny house planning

Again, my big disclaimer is to do your research before you start. Look into all the laws involved and restrictions in your living area. (You can check Municode here for a guide for most but not all municipal coding and government sites.) Going against the rules may result in fines or worse, so make your choices wisely. This is again where baby-steps come into play (you may be sensing a theme here). Thinking you’ll build an off-the-grid hobby farm tomorrow just isn’t realistic.

However, most of us can start a garden on our plot of land, grow a few vegetables and possibly keep chickens. Bite off what you can chew and always study local restrictions first. Don’t underestimate the power of a friendly appeal to your zoning board and code enforcement. You may also need the expertise of a contractor as well as a lawyer.

5. Shelter

cabin in woodsIf your plot of land already contains a shelter, taking it off-grid may be a matter of adapting by installing solar, heating and on-site water solutions. Honestly, it’s often easier to get around the legal issues if your plot already has a dwelling on-site. Many ordinances require an on-site dwelling of a certain size. So, in theory you could turn an existing structure into a barn or storage, while heating and powering a smaller, more sustainable house on the same plot of land.

If you have a family to consider, you may need more space than I (a single guy) requires. Then again, the extra help with your homestead may be welcome. If you plan to raise animals, you’ll also need shelter considerations for your livestock.

The shelter requirements are obviously very different depending on your climate. A desert yurt in California may not require a heat source like a cabin in Montana. If you plan to homestead, the climate is a huge factor as well. Growing seasons and weather are vital factors for producing enough food.

6. Water & Sewer

catchment tanksMany grid muggles think living off the grid applies to power. Throw up a few solar panels and you’re set, right? Living off the grid also applies to water and sewer as well. When it comes to the issue of water, this is one of the other big logistical challenges.

If you live near a water source, you may be able to carry in enough water for daily use. But you need to realize that water is 8.5 lbs. per gallon, so huffing buckets of water will get old really fast.  My suggestion is always spend the money to build out a high quality water system– one that brings clean drinking water to your home and the other areas of your farmstead. If you’re also hoping to grow your own food, water is more of a concern. For hundreds of years, farmers have worked with well water and irrigation systems. After the initial cost of setup, these are viable options and fairly easy to maintain.  Water is one thing not to skimp on.

Your shower and sink drains can be made to be “grey water”, but it requires the use of sustainable soaps that won’t harm crops or the land with runoff. Your sewerage or “black water” may require a more in-depth system (like septic). There’s also the possibility of incineration or using humanure but there are many restrictions, so certainly explore what’s allowed in your area. While you can conserve your water usage, chances are you’ll need a system and longer-term plan, especially for a homestead.

7. Heat

wood stovePart of the homesteading mystique is the idea you’ll chop enough wood to heat your home. If this is your plan, be sure you really, REALLY enjoy chopping wood, because you’re about to spend a large portion of your day doing it. You should also plan on having a fairly endless supply of forest.

Alternatively, you could do what I do, which is rely on some propane for heating. Let me tell you, although it may seem like “cheating,” investing in propane and gas is well worth your time. You can use propane for your stove and water heater as well which will save you a lot of money.

Unless you have an extra $50,000 to invest in solar panels or a robust hydropower turbine (flowing water and a drop on your land), you’re going to need to rely on fossil fuels. Fortunately, propane is relatively inexpensive.

8. Food

When people dream of making the leap to homesteading, they’re most likely referring to food and farming. This is an area where homesteading is fun, satisfying and really shines. If you’re on the grid and in a temperate climate, growing some of your fruits and vegetables for the year is a realistic endeavor.

If you’re off the grid or live in a less-temperate climate, then you’ll probably need to supplement some of your food supply with trade or purchase. Using storage solutions such as a root cellar (much cheaper than refrigeration), canning and preservation will make sure your family eats healthy and saves money in the process.

Growing a garden requires less land and fewer resources than livestock, so carefully measure your costs and expectations. For example, to raise chickens, your coop may require an initial investment of $500-$1,000 and around $15/month to feed. So, measure it against the cost and your need for eggs before you jump in.

9. Health

A homesteader I know lives about four hours away from town in Montana. While working on clearing her property, she dropped a rock on her hand, slicing off a finger. After weighing her driving distance from the hospital, she realized she wouldn’t make it in time to save her digit and now lives with nine fingers.

first aid medical kit

This story isn’t to scare you off from homesteading, but just a reminder, the further off-grid you go, the less access you will have to necessities in case of an emergency. Because I still live relatively close to the city, I can get what I need any time. This may not be the case in rural areas.

Homesteaders benefit from basic first-aid training and from stocking up on medical supplies. While you don’t need a whole pharmacy on-hand, be prepared to deal with stings, scrapes, burns, cuts and contusions. When you live far off from the city, an ambulance might be hours away, so think worst-case scenario and take precautions.

10. Neighbors

As homesteaders we need to consider our neighbors, because not everyone thinks this life is as great as we do.  In the country we may have enough land that we don’t have to worry much, but if we are homesteading on an urban or suburban lot, we need to consider the people around us.

Obviously, making sure you’re respectful and adhering to your zoning laws and ordinances will help you keep the peace. Not every neighbor is thrilled when a beekeeper moves in next door, smoke from your wood stove drifts over to their yard, or your loud generator is running at 3am.

neighbors meeting

A benefit of living in a small home or relying on your land to grow your own food is that your life is simplified. No longer are you tied to the social constraints and obligations of society. You may choose to live in a rural area where you’re more isolated from others. As long as you’re happy with solace, this setup works great. However, there’s no shooting the breeze with your buddy across the fence or knocking on the door for a cup of sugar. Self-sufficiency has positives and drawbacks.

Ultimately, if your sights are set on homesteading, it’s certainly possible. Be realistic about your expectations when you begin. The first step is planning, doing your research and setting a realistic budget. I’ve found it best to take the homesteading setup process one step at a time. Before you know it, you’ll be living the life you dream of!

Your Turn!

  • What do you see as your biggest challenge?

Winter is coming: How to winterize your tiny house

The one trick to tiny houses in the winter is keeping your water connection from freezing.  In past years I have been too lazy to actually get my pipes ready for winter, but this year I decided I’d take the time to do it up right.

I should start out by saying that I live in NC, where it doesn’t get crazy cold and we get very little snow.  On average I think we’ll have around fifty nights that drop to 32 degrees or below in a given year.  In many cases it just hits 32 degrees for a few hours in the early morning, which isn’t long enough for my water lines to freeze at all.

This year I decided to do a little more winter prep than normal and insulate my lines.  I haven’t taken the step of putting heat tape along the water line yet because I’m running on solar and a heating element such as that would drain my batteries in a heart beat.  IF I was on the grid, I’d be hooking that heat tape up too.

hook up water to tiny house

My tiny house is connect to city water which I ran to my house.  Since I had to run all the underground lines before the house ever was on the property I opted to use a traditional RV setup.  A frost proof hydrant connects to my tiny house via a drinking safe hose (really important to have a potable water hose!).  The inlet is a RV water inlet that installed on the side of my house.

insulate water lines tiny home

I thought about making something more elaborate, requiring wood working, etc. But when I started to price things out I realized that I was looking at spending $100-$200 which was more than I wanted to spend and honestly it would have taken a good bit of time.  I’ve not done this in the past because I was being lazy, so I knew I needed something that was quick and dirty.

That lead me to this method. I got a single roll of insulation for $13 and already had the trash bags and duct tape. This way I wouldn’t have to pull out any power tools and the entire job took about 20 minutes.

Price: Check.  Lazy factor: Check.

I wrapped the batts like this so that I could get the insulation to snug up against the ground nicely while keeping the backing outward for a bit of durability.  Some duct tape to hold it all together and I was done.

no freeze pipe

Next I wrapped the water hose in rubberized foam which was the highest r-value I could find.  I added some duct tape on the outside to make sure it held together nicely and then bagged the whole thing.

So it isn’t a perfect solution, but the black bag is nice way to keep the water out and the outside looking somewhat presentable.  We’ll see how it goes this winter!

 

Your Turn!

  • What seasonal preparations do you need to consider?

Common Off Grid Living Misconceptions

It’s been a full year since I moved out of my apartment and into my tiny house, with that came the shift to living off grid.  Many of you have read my tiny house solar posts which talks about all the nitty gritty details of my solar panel system, if not, check it out because I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback on it.  Now that I’ve done this for a while it’s become very clear what I got wrong and what others non-off-griders (grid muggles?) about off grid living.  I can now spot a grid muggle a mile away when they start talking about living off the grid.  Here are some of the misconceptions you learn about when you go off grid.

Harbor Freight solar kits is all I need!

I hear this all the time from folks, “I’m going to get one of those Harbor Freight solar kits to power my house”.  These kits are great, if you only need 45 watts, which really is only good for changing a laptop (30 watts) and cell phone (5 watts), maybe some power drill batteries; all of these things are insanely lower power consumption.  If you need to run much more, these system will leave you very disappointed, cold, hungry, and in the dark.

Clothes washing is easy… right?

Time and time again people geek out over various contraptions for washing your clothes.  I’ve seen them all, the plunger looking things, fancy peddle powered spinning ball gyros, and  hand crank counter top tumblers.  The truth is hand washing clothes isn’t terribly difficult; sure a normal washer is easier, but barring that, I’ve found a tub or large sink really works great.  You can always spot the people who’ve never actually done it because they talk about washing clothes while true off gridders talk about drying clothes.

Drying clothes in an off grid setting in a tiny house is a royal pain.  It’s fine if the weather is nice out, but if it’s really humid, or freezing cold, or worse, raining, you can forget about having dry clothes.  What it really means is for about half the year you get dry clothes, the rest of the year you’ll have mostly dry clothes that you’ll give up and put on because everything is still damp and you need to leave the house.

Drying racks are great if you have just a few things to dry because you can rig something in your shower.  But when you’re talking about a full load, it means you have to setup your drying rack inside your tiny house, which takes up most of your living space, then you need to let it dry in a day or two.  This typically translates into perpetually having your drying rack out, which makes the tiny house much less livable.

The ideal option would be to have a small outbuilding where you could setup a clothes line and have a wood stove in the corner.  You could also do what I do, head to a laundry mat or pay a laundry service.  After doing laundry by hand for 3 months while living in Croatia, I’ve since transitioned to doing my laundry in a normal washer and dryer.  Here in Charlotte I can have my laundry washed, dried and folded for $2.50 a lb, which as someone who loathes folding clothes, is so worth it.

Roof top mounted solar panels

The weird thing about solar is mounting on the panels on the roof is one the worst places you could put them.  By their nature roofs are hot, which heat decreases the efficiency of solar panels.  They are high up, so they are hard to get to in order to maintain, brush off snow and clean grime that builds up over time. Finally, on a tiny house the space you have to deal with is very small, because tiny houses have tiny roofs.

If you’re going to be traveling a lot with your tiny house, roof top is very practical, but you’re going to be hard pressed to do any sort of heating or cooling with that few panels.  The best option is ground mount if you can swing it.  You can access it easily to clean off snow and grime, you can easily inspect it and fix things for maintenance.

Not having backups… for everything

When you are your own power source, there is no power company to call when things go wrong.  In most cases that’s a good thing because you often find yourself at their mercy and if you’re in a remote location, at the bottom of the priority list.

It also means that if something goes wrong, say the morning you have an important meeting to get to, you still need to make breakfast, take a shower, and do what you need to do.  To this end I have backups for each of my main systems:

Thinking you can live off grid with no propane

I hate the fact that I need to use propane, but its an absolute necessity.  Of course if you have $50,000 to spend on your solar system, you wouldn’t need propane, but most folks don’t.  Even my system, which is around $20,000, couldn’t come close to powering a hot water heater or stove/oven.  The one exception to this might be if you have a really good hydro power turbine, then maybe, but that’s dependent on you having flowing water and a large drop, very difficult to find when buying land.

The one thing with all of this is how appreciative and grateful I have become for fossil fuels, they are a true miracle.  They don’t come without their consequences, but the fact that I can pay $2.50 for a liquid, put it into my car and it takes me 50 miles in less than an hour… have you ever had to walk 50 miles?  I have gone on multi night backpacking trips over 50 miles, fossil fuels are a true small miracle.

You could potentially get away with no propane if you did wood heat and had a water heater exchange on it, but honestly the idea of waking up 2 hours before I need to leave every day to make a fire, heat water to shower and cook on, isn’t in the cards.  Even if I had the time to do that, I wouldn’t, I don’t want to spend me entire life chopping wood and stoking a fire, life is way too short.

A wood stove is the dream

This is something that many off gridders have in their cabins, but I personally can’t get into.  When I grew up, I had a wood stove, everyone did when I lived in NH in the 80’s.  I distinctly remember going over to my friend Jimmy’s house and his mother telling us we needed to go chop some wood so we had enough for the night.  Chopping wood, stacking wood, moving wood, building up the fire in the morning: it was just a part of life.

The part that no one talks about how much work it all is. Here’s what every day would be like:

You wake up to a pretty cold house every morning in the winter, dash out of bed to rekindle the fire and put a few logs on the fire.  About an hour later, you can finally take a shower without freezing.  But oh wait, you forgot to fully close the stove and some smoke came back into the house, your work clothes smell like a camp fire.  You head off to work and then come home to a cool home, time to add more wood, but wait you’re out of wood inside.  So you get dressed again to go into the snow, you head to your wood pile and start stacking wood into a wheel barrel.  While you’re loading up, you pull a log to find a snake making it’s move to bite your hand.  You take care of the snake and keep stacking.  Wheel the wood to the door and start carrying it in.  You finally get wood stacked and fire roaring, to turn around and see a trail of destruction where you tracked in mud and dirt from the wood.  You spend the next 15 minutes cleaning the floors.  

Compare that to me:  I walk it, press one button and in three minutes my house is super comfy.  I kick off my shoes, grab a drink and start reading a good book.

Solar tracking is really important

This is another one that I can spot a solar newbie a mile away.  They talk about a pole mounted tracking system, which allows your panels to follow the sun.  But here’s the dirty little secret:  You add one more panel to your system and you’ll make more power and save a lot of money!

Typically solar trackers improve solar gain by about 15-20%, so if your system were to generate 1 KW fixed, it now might do 1.2 KW.  But here’s where it all falls apart.  A solar tracker usually is at least $1000 extra dollars in equipment and you need to pour a large concrete footing for a couple hundred bucks.  Let’s call it $1500 for the whole thing if you do it all yourself.  But if we were to just use a fixed system and buy one or two more panels ($250 a pop) we could increase our system to 1.5 KW in a day.  So for 33% less money I can get around 30% more power AND have no moving parts to break.

DC appliances and propane fridges are worth the money

It is absolutely true that DC is much more efficient and inverting DC to AC takes up some power, but it’s not the only thing to consider.  There is a major myth that is perpetuated from information that was once true, but is now no longer.  The problem is that there are a lot of websites out there with old information.  With recent advances in inverter technology and lower costs for panels, the gap has dramatically decreased.  While it is inefficient to change from DC to AC, you can make up the difference completely by the addition of one or two solar panels.

When you weigh the cost of specialty made DC appliances, for example a Sun Danzer Fridge for $1100, against going regular AC fridge, mine was $130, plus an extra panel, mine are $290 each, the math is simple.  I can add one more panel and save hundreds.

The other part of the story is that a lot of electricians are hesitant to work on DC systems, many won’t.  In addition to that, the market for DC appliances is small; this means less options for a higher price tag.  Going AC give you lots of options, easily sourced electricians and all at a lower price.

My recommendation is to go full AC power and then just add a panel or two to your array.

 

Those are my thoughts on common misconceptions about going off grid

Your Turn!

  • What things have you thought about when going off grid?
  • What surprised you about this list?