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laureth's avatar

What's it like to have a well/septic instead of city hookups?

Asked by laureth (27133points) July 28th, 2011

I’ve always lived in places that are hooked up to city water and sewer systems. However, we’re looking at places in the country that only have a well and a septic system.

I understand, in general, what they are, but I would like to hear more about what it’s like to live with them. For instance, do these things have to be maintained often, and/or at great cost? What happens if your well runs out of water? How does a power outage or freezing weather affect them? What are the inconvenient things about them? Are there limits to what you can do to the land above the septic area? Are there pros and cons that a city girl ought to know about? What do you recommend?


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20 Answers

Bellatrix's avatar

If you have septic trenches and can get them checked before you move in (not sure if you can do this or not before you buy) it would be worthwhile. Check the council regs too. Here, I just had to replace our septic trenches and it cost about $4000 and a lot of dealing with councils. Never fun. They were insisting we put in a bio system that would have cost us over $10,000. As it turned out, our plumber knew what he was doing and were able to argue that we should be able to just redo our trenches.

If they work though, no difference. Press the button… the water flushes away anything needing to be flushed and we don’t think about it. Only other thing I can think of is I want to put in a pool and we have to think about where we can site it so as not to interfere with the trenches.

(hello Mr Blueiznh posting next.

laureth's avatar

From what I understand, the “septic tank” is a big container underground that holds, um, flushed matter until it rots away, but that sometimes you need to get that rotted stuff cleaned out. Is this basically what happens? What are trenches, in this context?

blueiiznh's avatar

I grew up a city boy and when I moved to my current house and property, well water and septic was a very foreign thing to me.

The types of TP you use is more important and I would not put a sink garbage disposal system on a septic based system even if they say you can.

You can’t develope of dig or drive heavy machinery over the leaching field that the septic exports to. It however does mak a plush green lawn above it.

Depending on the amount of people in the house and the spec’s of the septic tank will dictate how often you may need to perform maintenance on it.

They pumped it out when I moved in and recommended to do it every 2 years. The cost was $200 when I had it done about 9 years ago. I have not done it since. It is just my daughter and I, but I will get it pumped to make sure. Better that than waking to a backep up septic. I do flush in septic tablets to assist in the breakdown.

The(drainfield) leach field can have troubles if the pipes clog of get crushed. That is a huge cost to get redone ($5–10K US).

homeowners guide to septic

Well pumps are an issue when you loose power as you potentially have to prime the line again if it is a long outage.

Depending on the well, it could go dry or you could have capacity issues with low pressure and flow durring certain times of the year.

jaytkay's avatar

The one thing I recall from my childhood was that we had a water softener. Oh wait, two things, there was a noisy sump pump in the basement that was no longer necessary the sewer came to our neighborhood.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

You know that saying, “the grass greener on the other side”? Those people have septic tanks.

SpatzieLover's avatar

Funny you should ask: Our community well 100 homes has needed repairs, so for the past two weeks, we’ve had our water shut on/off over and over again.

Lots of people have private wells by me: Their water is horrible. They need softeners/conditioners and most still use a water company for their drinking/cooking water.

A property I managed 170 units had a well that needed lots of repairs.

My opinion is, well water isn’t always tasty, in our region it has lots of iron and fertilizer and is unreliable…but it’s nearly “free” unless you have to pay a hefty price for a repair

Septic? Well it smells like sh$! if you don’t have it pumped out soon enough, and clogs when the incorrect cleaning products are used.

jerv's avatar

When I lived in NH, we had a septic system that was somewhat undersized as our place was not originally designed for year-round occupancy. As a result, we had to get it pumped every year for ~$180 a shot. I was also warned to never drive on a certain part of the yard, for reasons that @blueiiznh points out. Of course, that cost was offset by the fact that we didn’t have a water bill at all due to our 250-foot well.

You don’t want to pour stuff like many soaps or bacon grease down the drain as those will screw things up pretty quick. You have to watch what dish soaps and toilet paper you use, and how much.

A dishwasher and/or a washer and dryer are iffy at best, and a water-saver showerhead is a wise thing to have so as to avoid flooding the septic tank with more water than it can deal with in a timely manner.

As for the well, we only had a small water tank (~50 gallons) so a long shower could actually cause the water pressure to drop down to where the toilet wouldn’t flush for an hour afterwards. The place you’re looking at may have a higher capacity system than our little cabin did, but expect to use less water.

Bellatrix's avatar

Here black water (sewage) and grey water (washing waster and kitchen sink water) go into a different system.

Here the black water (from your toilets) waste goes into a septic tank, organisms break down the waste and then the liquids go into the absorption trenches and are absorbed by evaporation by the sun and into the ground.

You then have to consider the sort of chemicals you use in your toilet, because certain chemicals can kill the organisms in your septic tank.

The grey water goes out of the kitchen sink, into a grease trap which then feeds into sullage water holding system and can then be pumped out onto the lawn or your gardens. Every now and again you might have to clean out the grease trap (see below).

Every few years here, you have to get your septic tank pumped out and the contractor who does this would normally clean out the grease trap on the grey water system.

I had to ring my husband to explain how our ‘waste’ is processed. He said “you are fluthering and not working aren’t you?” Drat. Caught. Hope this helps @Laureth, You may have different council regs there or systems of course.

jerv's avatar

@Bellatrix Not all places are set up that way though. Many put grey water into the septic tank.

Bellatrix's avatar

@jerv, that’s why I qualified what I said with “here” and all regulations and systems are not like this and to check locally. It gives an overview of how systems may work though. Thanks for the additional clarification though.

SpatzieLover's avatar

Yeah, here gray water must go into the sewer or septic

woodcutter's avatar

Rid-x is your friend when you live off the grid

gailcalled's avatar

I bought this house new 26 years ago so started with a pristine septic system. Since I live alone (and Milo uses the litter box) I have the system pumped out every 5 years.

After 22 years, I had to have the pipe going from the house to the septic tank replaced, $400 dollars but I have another 20 years with no worries. We replaced the pipe before it cracked so the job wasn’t too costly or onerous.

You must be scrupulous about what you flush or don’t flush. Single ply toilet paper and human waste only…no match sticks, tampons, or secret documents.

My septic system guy is, like my plumber and electrician, a treasured partner in my life in the country. This is a very rural area, and most of us don’t have town sewer pipes.

CWOTUS's avatar

I grew up with (mostly) “city water” and septic systems. But I’ve also owned homes in the country with wells and septic systems, and I had a house in Michigan with a well… and municipal sewer system. So I know a bit about these things.

The septic tank is where “black water” goes from toilets. The tank itself has a series of baffles that make sure that solid matter stays in each section until it breaks down enough to clear the next baffle. There has to be a place for water to go, obviously, so when the tank is “full” (its normal condition) each incoming flush of the toilet runs an equivalent volume of water out to the tank’s leach field. This is a coarse gravel bed buried “downstream” from the tank where water can percolate into the ground underneath.

If you have the inclination (and a plumbing system that allows it) you can also have a “dry well”, which is where “gray water” from sinks, showers, laundry, etc. will go. This doesn’t require the same treatment. Even though this isn’t sanitary water, it also doesn’t need the treatment that black water requires. This can enable you to have a smaller septic system. Essentially, the dry well is a pit with a gravel bottom covered by a concrete cap and all buried in the yard. You won’t even be aware of its existence… until something happens to require its pumping out, in case it’s flooded or otherwise fails to drain. My father opened up our dry well at our home in Massachusetts once to have it pumped out, and I have never smelled anything so foul.

Septic systems can require occasional pumping as well, especially if you don’t have the dry well, because that means that all drains run to it, so it can clog as solids are pushed too quickly to the leach field outlets, making the whole system less effective.

Wells, if properly sited and equipped, can be pretty trouble-free. If you’re putting in a new well, then of course you’ll want to plan carefully where it goes: as near the dwelling as possible to minimize external piping and electricity runs, and upstream / upland from the septic system. However, with modern drilled wells, you’ll be drilling (in most cases) much deeper than any drainage from the septic system will see in many, many years, so that’s not so much of a consideration – as long as the well is properly cased. You do not want a shallow “dug well”, which essentially gives you near-surface water, which is generally not of sanitary quality. That kind of well would be fine for agriculture and irrigation, but not for potability.

Assuming you opt for the drilled well, then you want to get recommendations from locals in your area about who gets best results. They’ll know the conditions of the area, and about how far they’ll have to drill for “good” water. “Good” water in this case means “volume” and “purity” first, and “mineral content” second. If the water in your area is hard, then you’ll have to treat that with a water softening system. The well will generally be drilled with a 4” (or larger) casing, which is pipe all the way to the water source, and your “water pipe” will be inside that, with a submerged pump at the bottom. If the underground water source is in an area that requires it, then the well will have a “sand point” that does some gross filtration of the sand particles that may be encountered.

Your well driller will need to know the number of people expected in the home and any additional water uses you may have, and he can tell you what’s going to be an adequate flow for you. When he drills and hits water he will run a test (wasting a lot of water, it will appear) to check out its flow and recharge rates, before he knows that he’s done.

After you have the well installed, then you’ll have to have it plumbed into the house. You’ll lay a pipe underground (below the frost line for your area) to the house, and have an inlet valve (and any treatment equipment, and a pump shutoff) installed there, and then you’ll be good to go.

Just bring cash, and your contractors can handle it all for you. The trick is

CWOTUS's avatar


Yeah, that reminds me: I once lived at a small mobile home park in North Carolina that had to have the septic system opened. Since it was being done in the evening when I was home, I wandered over to watch. The backhoe operator cleared off the cover quickly enough, hooked a chain to his bucket, and pulled the concrete cover off. (Contrary to what many people think, this doesn’t smell particularly bad.) As I looked, all of a sudden all kinds of “balloons” popped to the surface of the muck in the tank. Don’t flush condoms.

dappled_leaves's avatar

The well water at my parents’ house (where I grew up) is the best water I’ve ever tasted. The taste and hardness/softness is going to depend on where you’re living. If you’ve never had hard water, I don’t recommend trying it.

We were never careful about what we flushed into the septic system… though I think that was probably carelessness on my dad’s part. He had it pumped out, but rarely. Despite all that, there was never any smell or any backing up. As others have said, the lawn above was very happy…

laureth's avatar

Thanks everyone! This is good stuff. We’d probably be reusing grey water in the garden, or at the least to flush the toilet. Not having a dishwasher, though – I think Mr. Laureth would rebel!

CWOTUS's avatar

My parents’ house in Massachusetts had a dishwasher, 2–½ baths and laundry facilities – for a family of seven – and all seven of us lived there until we started to move out about 11 years later. If the system is designed and built for the use you expect – and if the results of the ground’s “percolation test” (which you will generally need to have in order to get a bank loan on property where you need to install a septic system) support the designed system – then you can do pretty much whatever you want.

incendiary_dan's avatar

My parents have a deep well. I got spoiled, and now I can’t stand any chlorine taste. If you have a good clean well, it’s great.

incendiary_dan's avatar

Also, being hooked up to city lines, it’s possible for them to back-up and overflow with various power outages and service disruptions. Something to consider.

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