Welcome to a special New Year’s edition of The Handyman’s Guide To Doing Stuff. This week we’ll explore the finer points of searching for a long-lost septic tank lid and digging holes while the ground is frozen solid.
Unearthing a reservoir of waste matter hidden beneath snow and ice combines the thrill of the chase with a high degree of technical digging difficulty. Truly a challenge to relish.
My recent scavenger hunt for access to something you don’t normally desire to find was made even more intriguing thanks to a metal building that had been built directly on top of where the lid turned out to be. Really added a nice element of challenge to the whole adventure.
I had not kept up on technological advances in locating septic systems. The last publication I’d read on the topic was the 1976 treatise by Erma Bombeck, “The Grass Is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank.” A classic, certainly, but Bombeck’s research did not encompass snow and ice.
Three test holes later, imagine my delight when Rahn’s Sanitary revealed they possess high-tech wireless poop-finding gadgetry. They flush a little transmitter down the pipe and track it with a beeping science fiction device that reveals where to dig. Somebody better have gotten a shiny award for this invention.
Safety Tip: Definitely wear safety glasses while swinging a miner’s pick into icy ground. Frozen dirt shards propelled by a pick axe are extremely sharp and pointy. Seriously, wear safety glasses if you have to do this.
A backhoe, excavator or steam shovel was not really an option because of that metal building being in the way. So it was slow going, literally chip-chip-chipping away a little at a time, driven by the promise of hopefully finding sewage.
But that was OK. My alternative was writing an earlier draft of this column, where I was trying to do a mix of The Year In Review along with some Bold Predictions for 2018, that kind of thing. Hoo boy.
It was not going well at all. I’m the reverse of a political junkie and gladly leave that stuff for others to examine and come up with theories about. But, man. As a barometer of my own experience attempting to review 2017 and think on what 2018 might bring personally, I found that I much, much preferred kneeling on ice slowly chipping away frozen rocks, gravel and dirt hoping to find a payload of feces.
So the best technique, in my limited experience, is to tough it out until you finally get beneath the frost layer, then mine away the softer material underneath by poking around with your shovel or breaker bar. Scoop that stuff out until you have a nice overhanging ledge of frozen ground.
Then stomp or smash that ledge until it breaks away. Without the support of the softer matter propping it up, the brittle nature of the problematic top layer now works against itself by snapping off in a clean break. Very satisfying.
I finally did uncover the lid, got it open and had a thousand gallons of yucky stuff removed. Recommendations on how often to have your septic tank pumped vary, depending on different factors, but some say a good general timeline is every four years.
An election cycle. Hmmm. To help me remember to assess the need to clean out a potentially problematic buildup of ... let’s go with “doody” ... in the future, I’m going to associate septic service with elections, just as a mnemonic device. I think I can remember that.
That’s not to say you have to wait four years. Take my recent experience, as an example. Things were spilling over. It was just going to get worse. Dealing with it was certainly not pleasant. Not at all. But the alternative, well, I didn’t want to think about that.
Jon Rombach is a treasure hunter specializing in lost septic tank lids and a Wallowa County-based columnist for the Chieftain.