Low-Maintenance Appliances: Wastewater Systems

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Away go troubles down the drain—hopefully, but unfortunately, not always. Prevention is again the solution.


Hair is the main culprit in bathtub drains, but modem tubs handle the problem easily, with a screen in the drain. To get it out for cleaning, you maybe able to twist the drain plug, lift it out, and clean off the screen at the bottom of it. But today, usually, you have to remove the little lever above the faucet that turns on the shower. You then can lift out a longish rod with a coil spring and a screen on the end of it that catches the hairs. This should be done once or twice a year at least.

Children are the leading cause of toilet plug-ups. They are fascinated by the way things disappear down the bowl and are liable to try to get rid of everything from dirty pants to the family cat in this convenient manner. Plumbers looking for more work love such children, but nothing can tempt a parent more toward child abuse.

Garbage Disposals

At the kitchen sink, the garbage disposal is both bane and boon to plumbing maintenance. By grinding table scraps into a paste that water can carry away through the plumbing, disposals save many a clogged drain of yesteryear. However, as is so true of most modern technology, in solving one problem, they create others. Because it seems no longer necessary to be careful how much plate scrapings, etc., go down the drain, all sorts of things go down, including silverware and scouring pads, which plug or break the disposal. Plugging, say users and plumbers both, is most often caused by not using enough water to flush away the ground-up garbage. “On ours you have to have the faucet on full force when the disposal is running,” one homeowner told me. This, of course, is wasteful. Most disposals also require a larger than standard drainpipe—at least a 2-inch size rather than a 1 1/2 inch. Putting in the larger is definitely a wise way toward lower maintenance.

“A disposal seems fairly low cost, but by the time you make all the necessary plumbing and installation changes, I’m not so sure,” says an other householder. Banana skins, citrus rinds, onion skins, unpopped popcorn kernels, and bones are materials you are advised not to try to put through disposals. This fact greatly negates the claims for convenience that disposals enjoy; if you have to dispose of these things some other way, why not all the table scraps?

At least homeowners with land, a garden, chickens, etc., are better served composting or feeding or at least burying table scraps rather than putting up with the expense and high maintenance of garbage disposals. There is tremendous waste involved. If someday we can recycle sewage sludge back to the land handily, dumping garbage into the sewer system might make sense, but homeowners will pay dearly for the convenience, sooner or later.

Septic Systems

Flushing ground-up garbage into septic systems is another way to overload them before their time. Bacteria will digest garbage, however, as well as it will digest excrement, but as the list of rules that came with our septic system says: “Do not discharge excess grease or fatty materials into the system-- use garbage disposals sparingly.”

Other no-no’s listed are:

• backwash water from water softeners

• cigarette stubs

• cloth

• colored toilet paper; use only white toilet paper

• disposable diapers

• large amounts of acids or caustics like lye, cleaning materials that have a high or low pH factor; use low-suds detergents

• petroleum-base materials like motor oils, grease, kerosene, gaso line, paint thinner, etc.

• paper towels

• plastic materials

• rubber products

• sanitary napkins and tampons

• sump pump discharges

• tissues

When you add to the inevitable violations of these rules the typical family’s extravagant use of water, it is no wonder that so many septic systems ooze to lawn surfaces, especially in subdivisions where soil percolation just barely meets minimum standards to begin with. Then, of course, the septic tanks, which in these conditions are no more than cesspools, have to be pumped out every other year or sooner.

New septic systems that can be used where leach beds are impractical will produce an effluent, if the above rules are followed, suitable for discharge in accordance with Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations. These require an outlet for the effluent, of course, and so are applicable only in country areas. They are expensive (ours cost about $2,000 ten years ago) and are relatively high maintenance, since there is an agitator motor and an aerator motor and two timers that wear out over a period of five to ten years. Waste from the house is agitated regularly in the first chamber and the effluent aerated and filtered in the second chamber before it is released.

These units are serviced regularly by a company in that business, and you pay for the service, which is better than trying to do the repairs yourself. The pollution problems with these units are that if they malfunction, they can continue to discharge effluent, albeit not properly treated effluent, and there are homeowners who are careless enough to let such a condition continue as long as possible. Hence the twice yearly check by a service company. But homeowners should call the service company immediately upon a malfunction—it will save them money in the long run. We have had one of these units for 12 years now and by following the rules as much as we can, we have never had to clean out the tank, and never should have to, since theoretically, a biologically healthy septic tank will work forever.

One of the main problems with septic tanks is that they get over loaded—especially in crowded suburbs. Homeowners are then forced to plunk down a good amount of money for hooking up to a sewer, thereby pushing the problem onto city officials, who have to deal with all that wastewater. Another big problem with septic tanks is that many old ones in more rural areas are not working, or work only as cesspools, and the polluted effluent flows off in tile lines into streams and rivers. This is illegal, but the EPA can’t afford the monumental task of enforcing the rules. Eventually these cesspools have to be replaced, and then the EPA requires a proper system. It will take awhile, but eventually country streams should be reasonably clean again, at least of sewage.

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