October 8, 2013 Updated: October 8, 2013 at 8:50 am
Bryce Tallent calls it "the big pipe dream" - the belief by some that country folk flush their toilets and the waste travels through a long pipeline to the city's wastewater treatment system.
In reality, that human waste stays a lot closer to home.
Your septic system - what El Paso County Public Health says "may be the most overlooked and undervalued utility in your home" - takes care of that waste. According to the American Ground Water Trust, about a third of U.S. homes have a septic system or a similar onsite wastewater disposal system.
There are normally two parts: the underground septic tank, where the wastewater first goes, and the leach field, where the wastewater trickles through a filtering system and enters the soil. Naturally occurring bacteria break down the sludge and scum that stay behind in the septic tank, but the tank still needs to be pumped out at some point, typically every few years.
Which is why the other week I spent hours digging up the back yard, looking to uncover our septic tank. (I found it about 3 feet down; when I discovered the first of two inspection ports into the tank, I was sure I'd found the hatch from TV's "Lost.") Once I had the tank exposed, Tallent, of Colorado Springs-based Arrowhead Septic & Grease Traps, came to pump it out. It took only minutes, his pump truck and a large hose combining to create the equivalent of a monster Shop-Vac.
It falls under the category of "It's a dirty job, but somebody's got to do it." As I was born, it seems, with no sense of smell, perhaps it should have been my calling.
Pumping out the septic tank isn't the worst part of the job for Tallent, though. Emptying the truck is an even dirtier chore, he says. So is cleaning out pit toilets for the Forest Service.
It's not just toilets that empty into the septic tank; water from the washer, the shower, etc., drains there as well. So there's a lot more water than human waste in a septic tank. Not so with the pit toilets.
"Getting up to your elbows in that stuff is pretty nasty," Tallent says.
Water conservation is important in the country, because overloading your septic tank with water can cause solids to pass into the leach field, straining the filtration system. That's why El Paso County Public Health, in its "Maintaining Your Septic System" guide (online at elpasocountyhealth.org) advises against activities like long showers or doing more than two laundry loads per day. It's also a good idea not to have a garbage disposal, which adds to both the solids and water sides of things. Happily for us, our goats, chickens and rabbits do a pretty good job of garbage disposal.
As far as the toilet, the health department urges a "common-sense approach." "Only body waste and toilet paper should be flushed down the toilet," it advises - not dental floss, disposable diapers, cigarette butts, etc. Items that Tallent says he and others have found in septic tanks include rings, wallets, sunglasses, cellphones - "all that good stuff." If something is salvagable, like a ring, he'll try to get it back to the owner. You can kiss that cellphone good-bye, though. (Although I wouldn't actually, uh, kiss it.)
Three feet of dirt again covers our septic tank; it shouldn't need another cleaning for three years or longer. And we've marked its location above ground, so no exploring next time.
Our old saying was that "Happiness is a full hay barn." We've now added "and an empty septic tank."
Bill Radford and his wife live in the countryside east of Colorado Springs with a menagerie that includes three horses, two goats, two dogs, two cats, a half-dozen chickens, two rabbits, two guinea pigs and two parrots. Contact him: Twitter @billradfordiii, gazettebillradford on Facebook. Follow his blog at blogs.gazette.com