for People with a Passion for Period Property

Septic tanks and cesspools - Nature's Way

Many of us dream of owning a cottage in the countryside, peace and quite, larger than average gardens with privacy thrown in as a bonus. Indeed, the last thing on our minds as we stroll round our wonderful future home is drainage and sewage disposal.

Why, because we take it for granted, and in some cases we actually believe that all homes are connected up to mains drains. But in some villages where mains drains are uneconomical for utility companies to install homeowners live in the world of septic tanks or cesspools. But what are they, how do they work and what problems do people encounter.

Firstly, 50 or 60 years ago when a property's brick septic tank or cesspool was built water consumption compared to the needs of a modern home was incredibly low. No washing machines, dishwashers or daily baths for all the family. Therefore its size is unlikely to meet the needs of a modern family. So as times and human behaviour changes do we update the system. No of course we don't, out of sight out of mind. It seems that the last thing anybody wants to spend money on are drains and sewage disposal.

But then catastrophe strikes. Once the little old lady moves out and your water-hungry family move in, water consumption increases dramatically. Then one quiet Sunday afternoon when you have invited the neighbours round for drinks, the loo's flushed, and bingo, instead of draining away freely it simple fills and overflows. The water has simply filled the tank and progressively backfilled the pipework leading from the tank to your loo.

How often does this happen. It is a lot more common than you think. Do you think anybody confesses to having inadequate sewage disposal while they occupy a property or show prospective buyers around the house?

Septic Tanks

Septic tanks whether they are brick build or one of the modern day onion-shaped plastic/fibre glass types essentially work on the same principle. The waste flows into the chamber where bacteria breaks down and digests the waste. The fragrant water is discharged into what is commonly called a 'leaching field' which consists of metres of perforated pipes laid under the back garden. To allow the waste water to drain away efficiently a sizeable garden is preferred and a soil type which actually allows the water to soak away. For this reason the siting of a septic tank in heavy clay soil may not be suitable.

On the plus size, there are huge savings to be made if the your system works efficiently. Emptying the tank annually, although I have friends who haven't had their tanks emptied for 2 to 3 year, presently costs around 60. This compares favourably with paying sewage charges to your local water company.


In contrast to Septic tanks where the water is discharged into the surrounding garden, a cesspool simply collects all water and waste. Because of this they need emptying on a regular basis - every week in some cases, or with modern versions perhaps 10 times per year. This is expensive. But, if you live in a rural location without mains drains, with the house built on clay, this may be the only environmentally sound solution available to you.

Things to watch out for

If your period home has a septic tank or cesspool which has not been updated with a modern system. The likelihood of it being unsuitable to meet the needs of modern living are high. So how do people cheat unsuspecting buyers into thinking everything is okay. Simple, they purchase a submersible pump with a float operated switch which pumps away all of the excess water. Some people - illegally - discharge the water into drainage ditches which surrounds fields. Others take the more practical solution of pumping the water into a newly constructed soakaway. So watch out for that extension lead.

Secondly, does the bath water or kitchen water drain into the septic tank. You would think so. But, you could be wrong. In some circumstances clay drainage pipes were laid into field ditches. This may have been okay for our grand parents but it is illegal to discharge untreated water because of the possible pollution of water courses. The problem is also compounded by the tendency for farmers to fill in drainage ditches, and lay land drains. I can assure you they do not take the time connect your discharge pipe to their land drain. Therefore in a short space of time the drain is blocked and an alternative has to be found. In this case connecting it up to your overworked septic tank!

The way ahead

When looking round a property turn those taps on. Ensure all the water drains away freely. Look for signs of the use of a pump to discharge water. You may even have the unpleasant task of lifting the main tank cover to check if a pump is positioned in the chamber. But, the safest course of action, particularly if the septic tank is the original brick one, is to replace it with a larger tank and correctly laid drainage pipes. In an uncomplicated standard installation the costs are 2,000 plus. This of course, could be discounted off of the asking price of the property. But in today's market with decent properties in short supply this may be just one of those compromises you have to live with until a replacement is installed.


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