Water Closet for 10-18-13 Septic Systems

Image #1 for 10-18-13 Septic Systems

Beneath these plastic hoods are the perforated pipes of a modern septic system’s leach field. Trillions of microorganisms in the porous soil make up the working parts.
Internet report photo

In last week’s Water Closet we mentioned the famous Crane Estate in Ipswich.  The Cranes of Chicago made their fortune manufacturing and selling plumbing supplies.  This week the Water Closet flushes an essay on its readers about home septic systems.

The houses in our semi-rural towns each have a pipe from the house to the ground where our wastes in water join bacteria hanging out in the soil. The collective surface areas of sand, silt and clay particles are astronomical resulting in enormous populations of bacteria in just a teaspoon of soil.  These microbes and the many other soil organisms that eat them need water and food as do we.  Our wastes provide.

When we old timers raised in the country were boys and girls, septic systems were simple affairs called cesspools.   Almost every backyard had one that was readily known by its smell.  They stunk, but it was a smell all were used to.  The trick was to avoid their overflow ditches and swales during games.  Sometimes when hide-and-seek and kick-the-can went on into twilight we’d forget and get a good dose of stinky feet and ankles to the delight of other participants.

Cesspools in many cases were simply holes dug in the ground and filled with rocks.  After awhile when they ceased to handle the waste water that flowed by gravity to them, they were abandoned and a new hole was dug nearby and filled with stones or sand.  With time and increasing populations, town and state boards of health promulgated rules that required systems with perforated distribution pipes over a much larger area.  These pipes of plastic are laid in layers of pebbles above sand. Each grain with its bacteria is a tiny septic system.  In Massachusetts the bottoms of these so called leach fields must be at least four feet above the level of ground water.  Between the house and leach field is a concrete tank that can be pumped out when clogged with sludge.  A large modern house may have a dozen sources, sinks and toilets, collecting wastes.

Speaking of many toilets, a well known old lady in Middleton told a developer, who lives in an enormous house, what she thought of him.  She grew up as did most of us with one indoor bathroom or just an outhouse.  She knew his previous mansion had six toilets.  She asked him how many his even larger new house had.  The story goes that he answered, “About a dozen.”  The sometimes salty talking lady shot back, “I always knew you were full of shit!”

Feces, urine, and table scraps, in a little more refined language, are what soil bacteria and fungus eat.  These organisms are the environment’s natural, necessary, systems.  It would be wise to have all our children study microorganisms in school.  Educators wisely tout the basic three Rs.  The Stream Team argues that three other basics, biology, chemistry, and physics be added.  Martin Karplus of Harvard, one of last week’s three winners of this year’s Noble Prize in chemistry, would urge that all three of these basics be studied together.  He, 84, has long done so using computers as tools.  His and winning colleagues’ studies advance our understanding of molecular interactions including those in septic systems and anywhere else bacteria are found, including on and in our bodies where many thousands of species live*.

Damp soil with all its passageways and surfaces lined with hungry microorganisms present waste particles with a labyrinthine gauntlet as its inhabitants soften and digest with enzymes, absorb, and ingest.  Water, food and right temperatures result in reproduction by cell division, some species doubling every half-hour.  In a few hours there may be millions from a few.  By the way, this not only happens in the soil, it is happening under your arms and in your mouth and gut right now.  Organic molecules are readily broken down to carbon dioxide, water, and other small useful molecules; the building blocks of new organisms.

Manmade human systems to facilitate clean water incoming and waste water outgoing require plumbing, which over time has become increasingly efficient.  Anyone who watches PBS’s This Old House’s crackerjack plumber Richard Tretheway knows how sophisticated plumbing systems have become.  He shows us how to bring in clean water and to expel rich water mixtures of excreted personal chemicals and hundreds of others from stores.  The latter sometimes cause problems. Some kill or adversely affect the microorganisms of our septic systems.

Now as this is being written, leaves fall to join the ground as will we someday.  Nothing sad in this passing, rather a kind of molecular immortality.  The spirit of each organism is gone or somewhere else.  The breakdown products of decomposition are in forms to be used again.  The decomposers will die too and be decomposed.  So it goes and has gone on our planet for over three billion years.  We are for awhile part of this marvelous evolution.  The next time you smell decay near septic systems or the pleasant ones in the woods with fallen leaves, think of past life and marvel about what might come if we behave and don’t throw too many poisons in the works.


* The Middleton Stream Team recommends “The Secret World of Microbes” in the 125th anniversary, special issue, of National Geographic Magazine, January 2013.


THE WATER CLOSET is provided by the Middleton Stream Team: www.middletonstreamteam.org or <MSTMiddletonMA@gmail.com>