Sunday, April 22, 2007

Happy Earth Day

I just calculated my eco footprint. It came up as 20 acres, but I only have 4.6 acres. Ug! The biggest problem is lack of public transportation and my love of a good hunk of beef. Not that I used public transport in DC. My "living in DC" footprint was 22 acres. My overall commute has gone down, but I am traveling more.

More on septics - specifically ours

During our home inspection, the septic system backed up, indicating some problems. We asked to have it pumped, repaired, or replaced. Last Friday, we went out to meet with the seller, the seller's agent, and the septic man. We got a detailed "Septic 101" lecture from a man who married his wife in a port-a-potty. He found some roots in the main pipe leading from the tank to the drainfield. The guy with the bob cat was going to dig up and replace the pipe out to the drainfield.

On Saturday, we got the call saying the drainfield had problems, too, but not to worry about it. We have not further details, other than there is a problem with the drainfield, they will be remedied, and closing will be delayed. As of now, we do not know when we will close, but we hope to hear more tommorow.

We see some bright points to this
(1) they let us know immediatly
(2) they volunteered to fix it
(3) it looks like we will be getting a brand new septic system out of the deal. So we should be good for another 40 years.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

13 Things About Septic Systems

The house has a private sewage treatment system - a fancy name for a septic system. Although I have lived several houses with septic systems, I have never be the property owner. Wirenut, on the other hand, has never lived with one at all. So we have been doing a lot of research on them. Here is what have learned:

1) The lifespan on a concrete tank is about 50 years (ours is 23).

2) For two people who conserve water, it could go 20 years between pumpings. It is, however, better to pump at least every 5 years.

3) Septic systems contribute to groundwater, which can be useful during times of drought.

4) Trees and shrubs should not be planted in the drain field, as their roots can cause the drain field to clog and fail.

5) Nitrates are the biggest pollution concern with a properly operating septic system. According to the Chesapeake Bay Journal, "In Maryland, the Office of Planning has calculated that — on average — 65 percent of the nitrogen that leaves a septic drainfield reaches the groundwater, and that 75 percent of the nitrogen reaching the groundwater ultimately reaches surface water." Nitrogen pollution is a big concern in The Bay, and since we are within the watershed area, this is a concern for us.

6) There are newer septic systems that can reduce nitrogen levels, but they are generally only installed in new systems. It will cost a lot to retrofit an older system, so its generally acceptable to wait until it fails and then upgrade to the newer systems.

7) Phosphorus is also a byproduct of septic systems and a concern to water quality, but since it tends to bind to the soil, its not a large concern.

8) Bacteria and virus can also flow from the septic system into the ground. After years of use, a "bio-mat" forms and removes these pollutants. Our septic system is almost 40 years old. I think we have a bio-mat.

9) Never use commercial additives in the septic system. Despite what they say, they are bad for the organisms that live in the tank.

10) Garbage disposals are not good for septic systems. If you use one, you should pump the tank more often. In our county, garbage disposals are against code when you have a septic system. Wirenut is very uphappy about this point. It will force us to compost more.

10) Septic systems are happier when your sump pump and laundry water is not pumped into them. Too much water coming in at once can flood the tank, causing the sludge to run down the pips into the drain field. This is bad. These should go into a drywell. But, there are phosphorus concers from that too. This demands more research by me.

11) The tank is pretty gross. My father fell into one once. I hope that never happens to me. I hope Wirenut never falls in either.

12) Its not good to have a "laundry day" when you have a septic system (assuming the washer empties into it). This can flood your tank, which is a bad thing. So we will have to spread out our laundry. We will also have a front-load washer. Since these use a lot less water than top-load washers, this will reduce the water loads.

13) A septic system is a temporary solution, albeit a 50+ year long one, to a permanent problem. Someday, it will need to be replaced.

Summary: Having a septic system is not a bad thing in general. It requires more homeowner maintainence than a public system, but it also makes the homeowner more aware of their impact. The environmental impacts of a septic system are really not that bad. Yes, you are releasing nitrogen into the groundwater, but this can be controled in new systems. You are replenishing groundwater, which is a good thing. And public sewer systems dump waste water into our rivers and streams at a single point. Like anything, there are tradeoffs. But after doing this research, I believe the septic is not the horrible environmental polluter I feared, and with a little water convervation and awareness, it no worse than public sewer. It puts us in control of our waste water pollution, rather than our impact being clouded by whatever other crap our fellow citizens flush down their drains.

sources: Wikipedia, Chesapeake Bay Journal, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Michigan State University Deparment of Agricultual Engineering, Thomas Miller with the MD Cooperative Extension Office.

Our remodeling rules

We like to work on the house for several reasons: its a hobby we can enjoy together, it makes our house something we really love, and, ideally, it is an investment that will see financial returns. We also want our remodeling hobby to fit in with our beliefs, which lean toward environmentally conscious, socially responsible, and frugal. With that in mind, we set the following "rules" we will try to follow with the house. Like all rules, they will probably be broken from time to time. But, I am hoping that by setting them ahead of time, we will me more likely to follow them.

Our 7 Remodeling Rules (and their origin)
1) Look at salvage and used stores for supplies (frugal and green).
2) New supplies are most acceptable when purchased as overstock (frugal), scratch-n-dent (frugal), or when purchased from a non-profit who received the supplies as a donation (socially conscious).
3) Choose energy-star appliances (green).
4) Use renewable resources when possible (green).
5) Choose the eco-friendly alternative when the cost difference is less than a 10% premium (green).
6) Use native landscaping (green).
7) Garden organically (green).

note: I am using the term "green" to label things that I feel fit with general environmentally conscious ideas such as reduce, reuse, recycle, minimize pollution, renewable resources, etc. I do not claim my verion fits perfectly with the eco movement, and there are some ways where I know it specifically doesn't. For example, we love real stone.

About the house

The house we are about to buy is a 1968 split foyer home that sits on about 3/4 acre. There are 4 bedrooms and 2 baths (3/1 upstairs, 1/1 downstairs), and it also has a one car gargae, a fairly large kitchen, hardwood floors (some covered by carpet), and a small deck.

Water is supplied by a well.
Sewage is a private system (i.e. septic system).
Heating is force air furnace fueled by heating oil.
Air condition is central a/c through the force air system.
Hot water is also heating oil fueled.

The house is located approximatly 3 miles from the main entrance to where Ruby works; unfortunatly, there are another 4 miles from the gate to her office. 7 miles, however, is a vast improvement over the 31 mile one-way commute she had a mere 4 months ago.

About our individual skills

As could likely be expected, our skills do follow general gender stereotypes.

Ruby - The designer. Watches far too much HGTV and house shows. Specifically, a fan of Flip This House (especially episodes with Richard Davis and Trademark Properties, soon to be on The Real Deal), Property Ladder, Designed to Sell, and Curb Appeal. Loves to find new projects and ideas. Not so good on the follow-through. ADD tends to let her get 80-90% through a project, then lose interest. Specific skills include painting (walls & decorations), crafting, sewing, and drywall.

Wirenut - The worker. Trained as an electrician, with prior work in flooring. Skilled with a hammer, saw (as long as its powered), and a fish tape. Makes sure every room has the best lighting and a dimmer. Not a fan of finish carpentry. Is very tolerating of Ruby's endless ideas and her lack of follow-through. Slightly less tolerating of her Tivo-ing every possible home improvement show. Prefers Tivo-ing Mad Money, Countdown with Keith Olbermann, The Daily Show, and The Simpsons. Specific skills include electrical work, landscaping and gardening, general manual labor, and cooking.

Bugsy and Gandy - The cats. Fans of mice, both real and toy. Trained as hunters. Specific skills include rodent extermination, sleeping, and leaving fur everywhere.

About our skills in general

Our first home was a small townhouse built in 1985. When we moved in, it had all the charm and charecter of a developer built spec home of 1985. The original dusty rose and sage green country duck themed border was the highlight of the bisque colored kitchen. Over the course of the 4 years we lived there, we did a lot of updating including:
* Updating the full bath
* Adding a half bath in a closet
* Putting down laminate floors
* Repainting all the walls
* Expanding the brick patio
* Adding a water feature to the back "yard"
* Remodeling the kitchen
* Replacing a sliding glass door

Over course of these projects, we learned quite a bit as many of these projects were not as simple as they appeared. For example, our upstairs bathroom had a back outlet toilet, the wonders of which I hope I never, ever, ever encounter again. Since the unit had been a rental for 10+ year, said toilet was not maintained. Now normally, toilets require little maintainence, but a back outlet toilet, especially when used on a non-solid floor (i.e. a second story over wooden subflooring) requires some attention to ensure the wax seal is not compromised. And if it is compromised, gravity is not kind. So after owning the house less than one week, we were replacing subflooring. Joy.

Other valuable lessons of home ownership include:
* How to recognize a load bearing wall that, according to basic rules of construction, should NOT have been loadbearing.
* How to gain 3/4" of room along a wall so that the cabinets and the dishwasher fit.
* Why the sink drain must be higher than the exit end of the p-trap.
* The joys of finish carpentry
* Hot peppers and green peppers cross pollinate
* 20 year old Bradford Pears land fairly softly when they fall into your house (we can thank my neighbor's tree and Hurrican Isabel for this lesson)

I'd say the biggest lesson from the townhome projects was that we learned when to do it ourselves and when to call in pros. Even with his training as an electrician, there are a few things Wirenut and I agree is better left to a pro.

About us

Wirenut and I have been married for 18 months, but we have known each other for 16 years now. We dated in high school in the deep south, went our seperate ways, then reconnected in 2001 when we were both living near Washington, D.C. Wirenut has been a restraunt manager, floor service technicial, and is now an electrician. When we lived near D.C., he worked in the residential market. I am an Industrial Engineer by training, with a strong focus on occupational and consumer safety along with human factors psychology. I've been a software developer, engineering psychologist, and am currently working for DOD as an industrial engineer. We are the proud parents of two spoiled kitties.

The combination of my occupational safety background and his labor background means we discuss safety a lot. Mostly the scene goes like this:
Ruby: Don't forget your safety glasses.
Wirenut: I'm fine.
Ruby: But something could fly up into your eyes.
Wirenut rolls his eyes
Ruby runs to the shed to find safety glasses and hands them to Wirenut.
Wirenut laughs and may put them on.

The scene doesn't play out nearly as well (from my perspective) when it comes to ladders, hard hats, safety shoes, and table saws.