Monday 28 September 2015

Septic Tanks part two: dos and don'ts

So having worked out what the Septic tank is actually doing, the next step was to work out how to maintain it, and make sure it carries on happily doing it's thing.

We knew from general hearsay that it's recommended that the tank is emptied once a year, but beyond that we knew nothing. A hefty amount of research later and we came up with a list of dos and don'ts.
  • Regular emptying:
The reason for regular emptying has very little to do with how full or empty the tank looks. As we learnt in the previous post, the anaerobic bacteria is busy doing it's thing, processing your waste. As the processed waste (the sludge layer) builds up, if not cleared out it can cause blockages and interfere with the drain field. So given that a garden full of sewage is nobody's idea of fun, it's best to keep on top of it!
  • Anti-bacterial products:
The next big thing to look after is the bacteria in the tank. Without it, the system won't work. So it may sound obvious, but avoid using 'anti-bacterial' products like 'anti-bacterial hand wash'. We don't want to kill this particular bacteria!
  • Bleach:
I was worried about using bleach, for the same reasons as anti-bacterial products, but it turns out that although bleach is a chemical that kills bacteria, as long as you don't overdo it you shouldn't cause much harm. This is because when it's diluted with water, it isn't powerful enough to kill all the bacteria inside the tank. Only a high concentration of bleach will damage the septic system.

The alternative, particularly if you're an OCD cleaning type and therefore likely to use loads of bleach, is to use products that are suitable for use with septic tanks. Parozone bleach and Ecover are two pretty easily accessible examples (check the Safety Warning section of the label – it should say ‘suitable for use with septic tanks’).
  • Non-biological waste (wipes, sanitary products, etc):
Girls in particular need to pay attention to this one. The only things going into your septic tank should be the three P's: pee, poo and paper. 
My dad would say 'if you didn't eat it, it shouldn't go down the toilet', but I don't generally snack on loo roll, so that doesn't quite work.

So, to be absolutely clear, sanitary products, wipes, etc, need to be binned. If they go into the tank, they can cause blockages in the drain field. The symptoms of that (garden/sewage interface) won't be fun, and neither will be trying to rectify it (digging up pipes). You can apparently get bio-degradable tampons, but I won't be risking it!
  • Grease and fat:

Fat, glorious fat.
Grease and fat can coat your drainage pipes (and soakaways if you have one), and that will effectively waterproof them, making it impossible for your soil to absorb the liquid effluent. If that happens, you'll need to replace those parts of your drainage system.

So, no draining your cooking fat (or oil, or anything else of that ilk!) down the sink. I keep old jam jars etc and drain the fat into those instead.

  • Food and coffee grounds:
Don't use your septic tank as a bin. Food scraps can cause the sludge layer to build up more quickly, and vegetable peelings etc are unlikely to degrade. Coffee grounds seem to be a bit of a septic tank myth - they take a long time to decompose and could in theory interfere with the filtration system, but only if left to dry out and solidify, and only if there was a large amount of them, so for domestic use at least this seems fairly low risk.
  • Chemicals:
White spirit, varnish, paint thinners, engine oil, petrol, diesel and any other similar chemicals will ruin your septic system. They also are not easily broken down by soil bacteria and are therefore likely to pollute groundwater.
  • Condensate:
Condensate from condensing boilers is surprisingly (to me at least!) very acidic and so must not go into your septic tank.
  • Excess water:
The liquid layer in the tank is displaced into the drainfield as more waste water enters the tank. If too much water enters the tank in a short period of time, the original liquid can flow out of the tank before it has had time to settle and separate. 

This can happen when water use is unusually high, so spacing out washing and dishwasher loads will help to avoid too much water travelling through the system in one go.

Dripping taps can really add to the volume of water unnecessarily heading into your tank. So replace washers sharpish! In our case The Lodge was tenanted for years, and every single tap in the property was dripping when we moved in, so that was a cheap quick fix.

Rainwater – rainwater shouldn't be going into any kind of foul drainage - it's basically clean, so is a total waste of any cleaning process. For a septic tank, it can again cause flushing through of unsettled liquid. The Lodge rainwater drainage is a bit of a mystery at the moment, but some of it is definitely diverted into the tank, so water butt installations are imminent!

Water saving devices are another good thing to investigate. One thing that we've invested in so far is a shower head aerator. These are designed to mix air into the water flow, so the pressure doesn't reduce, but the waterflow does. There are various types available (we went for an EcoCamel Jetstorm, and it does seem pretty good), they're also good if you have low flow/pressure!  

To reduce water usage in toilets you can look at fitting an interflush, which works differently to a traditional toilet flush - it only flushes when the handle is held down, so only uses the exact amount of water required.
  • Love your bacteria:
You can buy tablets of bacteria to boost your septic system. Something to consider if things start to get whiffy!
  • External environment:
Don't let tree roots get near your system. The roots can damage your drainage field and the tank itself.
Don’t drive over or add any kind of hardstanding such as paving over the drainage field. It is an ecosystem designed to work with grass and other plants, and evaporation is also a key part of the cycle. Given that most of The Lodge's garden is currently hardstanding, this is going to be an interesting challenge for us!

Septic Tanks part one: How septic tanks work

The Lodge is on mains water but not mains sewerage, instead all our waste ‘disappears’ into a septic tank. The plus side of this means you don’t have to pay the water company for drainage, but that’s countered by paying for a person with a ‘honey wagon’ to come and empty it once a year instead.

Having previously only ever had to ‘flush and forget’, I decided that some research was in order. Firstly into how septic tanks actually work…

Older septic tanks can be made out of brick, block, concrete, and/or any kind of receptacle that happened to be lying around at the time. More modern tanks are usually constructed out of fibreglass or plastic. Ours is brick.

To find your septic tank, look around for some kind of manhole cover or two. Ours was pretty easy to spot, given that our ‘garden’ is currently made up of a variety of types of hardstanding, and it also has a vent that stands proud of ground level.

There are between one and three chambers in a typical septic tank. Ours has two, which is fairly typical for modern tanks - one holding chamber and one filtration chamber. Other tanks could have more than one holding chamber, or no filtration chamber. Some even discharge straight into a nearby watercourse (which is illegal in the UK).

The settlement or holding chamber is where the waste water enters the tank. 
Here anaerobic bacteria (hence the term ‘septic’), start to decompose the biodegradable waste, reducing the volume of solids and converting that into a sludge layer at the base of the tank. 

Fat, grease and floating solids form a scum layer at the top of the tank, leaving a liquid area in the middle that will still contain some suspended solids. Nice.

The liquid then naturally passes into the filtration tank over time, via H-pipes or gaps in bricks/blockwork referred to as baffle walls, and further settling takes place. 

Finally the liquid passes out through a filter of some description via into a soakaway or drain field (also referred to as a leach field), where the remaining impurities are dealt with by aerobic soil bacteria.

Poor John. Sh*t shoveller.
Because the sludge and scum layers build up over time, you need to get your tank emptied once a year by a man in a tanker. We had no idea how long it had been since ours was emptied, and the very nice lady on the phone warned us that sometimes, in a tank that has been not been emptied for a long time, the sludge layer solidifies so much that they can't empty it. Grim.

Luckily for us they had no problems, and a mere 15 minutes and 450 gallons later they were on their way. 

Wikipedia has a great entry on the science of how the bacteria in the tank works hereIn summary, the microorganisms present in the tank break down any biodegradable material via a series of processes. It's called anaerobic because it's done in an environment without oxygen:

These processes produce a 'digestage', i.e. the sludge, and also a biogas, which consists of "methane, carbon dioxide and traces of other ‘contaminant’ gases". This biogas is one reason why there are dire warnings about opening and/or entering your septic tank.
We lifted the lid on ours to have a look and didn't die, but don't take that as advice! Apparently the gases in the tank can overcome you very quickly and the bacteria are dangerous.

And besides, why the hell would you want to go in to your septic tank anyway?

Tuesday 8 September 2015

Removing Artex and cleaning quarry tiles - dull, dull, dull

Until this last two or three weeks motivation hasn't been an issue for me because we have been in the destruction and investigation stage of the renovation, which has proved to be quite exciting.

But in my heart of hearts I knew it wouldn't last because rollercoasters have to head downhill now and then before they can climb back up. And after taking a little while off to recharge my batteries that's where we are now, four-and-a-half months in to the project.

There are a few reasons for this, mainly because the trades have upped and left, the weather is deteriorating and the nights are beginning to draw in as winter approaches. On top of that the tedious work inside The Lodge has begun, and only a fool would describe that as exciting.

With the plan being to get two rooms ready so we can actually move in to the house before the snow comes, rather than living in the drafty, cold shed, we have been focusing solely on the Living Room and Bedroom 1, both of which need a lot of work doing to them before we can get a lime plasterer in.

Living Room

All of the gypsum-and-plastic-lined walls were stripped back to the bricks a little while ago, ready(ish) to be plastered if we can eventually get someone on board. With that in mind we have been reassured that although there is an ideal window of opportunity (usually spring to September) to get the plastering done so it can set properly in decent weather, this isn't such a strict thing when it comes to doing the lime internally because the atmosphere can be managed better. Also, with the Living Room still suffering reasonably high humidity this will help slow the 'going-off' process, meaning that it will all set better in the long-term.

So with the walls more-or-less ready it was time to concentrate on the ceiling, which may or may not need lime plastering too.

Artex. Invented by a buffoon.
The ceiling.
The badly-cracked and Artexed ceiling.
The huge badly-cracked and Artexed ceiling with a great big gap in it as it becomes the dog-leg nook.

I don't know a great deal about Artex other than despite its swirly, pointy ugliness it was ludicrously-popular in the tasteless 70s, contains asbestos and people say it's a pain in the backside to remove.
But how hard can it really be?
Armed with overalls, a mask, stepladders and a chisel I soon found out why Artex has such a poor reputation.
Despite being only two or three mm thick and feather-light, this stuff only chips off in the tiniest of shards, floating to the floor like snow, and can swallow an entire day just to do a few square feet. It's a mind-numbing process. Chip chip chip chip chip.

The good news so far is that despite my certainty that the original lime ceiling would collapse because the cracks are so bad and widespread, it has stayed exactly where it should be and although there are a couple of holes here and there it all looks surprisingly solid despite a bit of sagging above the fireplace, caused by the tiled hearth above in Bedroom 1.

Cracks, the blue/white layer (PVA?) that could spell disaster
and a bloody great gap which'll need lathing-up
before it can be lime plastered
But there's a fly in the ointment.

Having removed about a quarter of the surface layer of Artex I have revealed a thin bluey-white layer that I can neither identify nor scrape off, but is likely to be some kind of PVA bonding coat. Once we get a plasterer sorted out I'll be asking for advice, but the pessimist in me has concluded that if it is indeed PVA - which will have been applied wet - the lime will have absorbed a great deal of it, making the ceiling impermeable to moisture which is exactly what we don't want and why I have been removing the bloody stuff to begin with.
So despite the ceiling staying in place regardless of the cracking, it might all have to come down and be re-limed anyway, probably at terrific expense. It's such a concern that I have abandoned the job for now until we can get an expert to take a look at it. It's pointless wasting energy on it in the meantime.

There are quarry tiles under all of that crap
And so I moved on to the floor.
The floor.
The quarry-tiled floor.
The huge filthy quarry-tiled floor.

During our time here it has become apparent that the floor is the source of the humidity in the room, primarily because everything else has been stripped and is bone dry. It's the only possibility left.

I might have mentioned this before, but we suspect that there are quite a large number of natural springs in the area (some tiny ones emerge underneath the shed in the front garden close to the well), so we're guessing that these are the cause.
The quarry tiles, which are original to the single-storey cottage that was the forerunner to The Lodge, are probably laid directly on top of earth or ash, so it's natural that some moisture will breathe up through them. We could pull some up to take a look and although I'm keen to do that I have been dissuaded by Dawn and one or two other people for a couple of reasons:

1. Despite its age the floor is solid and reasonably level. Pulling it up and re-laying would be very time-consuming and could cause significant future problems.
2. If they are laid directly on damp earth, what could we do about it? The only reasonable course of action would be to tank it with plastic sheeting or something but that would prevent the floor breathing and would create stale water beneath that would eventually start to stink. Besides, the water will always find a way out - probably up the walls - which could also cause future problems.

That's why, for now, we're looking to leave it as it is and give it a damn good clean.

Not the runaway success I was hoping for, and this took about 10 hours.
Not only that but I kicked the brick acid over. Note the 'clean'
patch in the middle of the floor on which you can still see the
stripes where the underlay was glued down.
Which is another ongoing tedious job.
When we first pulled the damp, mouldy carpet up in the Living Room we found that the rotten rubber underlay had been glued directly on top of the tiles. Not just in dabs here and there, but across the entire surface and in to the small hallway outside the door. Every square millimeter. 
As well as the rock-solid glue reside that was left we also found a layer of salts from years of trapped moisture, a layer of utter filth and grime and something unidentifiable. One theory offered (with a worrying degree of certainty) by a local tradesman was that the previous gamekeeper had a lot of dogs which he let run around unchecked, peeing all over the place. So he reckoned it could be a layer of dried urea.
It doesn't bear thinking about, to be honest. I wish he'd kept it to himself.

A straight wash-and-scrub on a test patch a couple of months ago did very little, so I dug out a variety of scrapers and bought some brick acid to dissolve as much as possible before taking to my hands and knees.

In the end it has turned out to be a labour-intensive mix of both removal methods at the same time, neither of which is doing a job I'm particularly pleased with. Although much of the white glue-and-pee (and red paint, as it turns out) layer is disappearing there is still a lot remaining that I just can't shift, no matter how much elbow grease is applied.
Nevertheless it's only a first attempt, so if I can get the majority of it off to begin with we can look at it again later with fresh eyes.

So there's another job that hasn't been finished, and I hate leaving things like that.

But with our second skip sitting outside waiting to be filled, I had one more job to get on with...

Bedroom 1

The west wall appears to have featured a
beam poking through at some stage
This is a much simpler room to deal with, in that there's no damp to be concerned about (the mouldy wallpaper when we first got here seems to have simply been caused by low airflow, condensation and gypsum plaster) and the original floorboards will be restored further down the line.

The west and south external walls featured a thick layer of very hard and impermeable cement bonding coat with a thin gypsum skim and foil-and-tar-backed wallpaper on top. The internal east wall that backs on to the Bathroom, despite being lime, had been extensively repaired with cement/gypsum and the internal wall to the north - also the south wall of Bedroom 3 - is original lath and lime plaster with a gypsum skim and wallpaper applied on top.

For financial reasons (and practical ones - we could end up damaging the laths), we have decided to leave this north wall as it is for now, despite the gypsum, because being an internal upstairs wall breatheability isn't such an issue. Moisture should be able to get in and out of the wall through the floor/loft so there's no necessity for it to breathe through the surface.
Which left three other walls in need of taking back to the brick, just like in the Living Room.

The thick cement bonding coat not only stopped
the external wall from breathing but was so solid
that removing it also pulled the faces off all
the original brickwork. Horrible stuff.
There's nothing exciting to report here either other than it took a great deal of tedious chiseling and skip-filling but - barring the wall behind the radiator, which will be removed shortly - it's finally done.
In the process I've discovered a herringbone-esque design in the bricks above the stone window lintel (apparently known as a Jack Arch - much like those above the bedroom fireplaces) which when the plastering is done we might try to leave as a feature, and for the moment we're planning to leave the east and west walls as bare brick which will not only save a bit more money but should look lovely when cleaned-up and coupled with a pale wooden floor and log burner.

There's also the cracked lime-and-Artex ceiling but I'm not touching that until I learn what the deal is with the ceiling in the Living Room.

So there you have it.
It's all really boring stuff, admittedly, but it has to be done. It can't all be about hunting for a forgotten fortune in the house's nooks and crannies, but I'm not giving up hope yet.

We still plan to pay the lime plasterer in doubloons whether he likes it or not.

The Jack Arch above the window. Aka a Flat Arch or Straight Arch. Thank you Google.

Wednesday 2 September 2015

Farewell to a friend

The early days of The Lodge project, before we built the shed (in which we're still living), were logistically difficult because the building was uninhabitable.
We had sold our bungalow a few miles away and were technically without a roof over our heads so we needed somewhere to stay while we found our feet.

This is where Christine Williams, who had been our neighbour for around eight years - moving next door after the death of her mum, became a crucial part of the renovation. Ages before we bought this place she promised to ease our journey by allowing us to sleep, shower, stuff our faces and abuse the wi-fi at her house for as long as we needed to. And we did just that for a little under two weeks, for which we will be forever grateful.

The party conga was a breeze for Chris and Mickey
I briefly mentioned our initial living arrangements somewhere in this blog at the time, but what I didn't say was that Chris wasn't at home because she was more-or-less permanently in hospital where she was receiving treatment for acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) which, for those not exposed to the condition before, is cancer of the blood.

Cutting a long story short, she was in hospital for a tremendous amount of time and saw good and bad days. She was only strong enough to breathe fresh air once in a while and I'm honoured to say that she sacrificed one of those rare opportunities to pop over to The Lodge. Although she had to wear a builders' respirator during her visit to help ward off the mould spores in the air, and although the house was damp and grotty, it stoked the boundless enthusiasm she had been building up for many months since she first saw the estate agent pictures online and before we had even put an offer in. She even started passing the time in hospital by writing a fictional crime novel around The Lodge called Pussy's In The Well. The fact that the title actually gave away the planned ending didn't phase her...

But the treatment didn't work.
Chris was allowed home to sort out her affairs and, as it turned out, spend money like it was going out of fashion, and in mid-July she threw a glitzy black-tie party at a posh country house down the road with food, fireworks and terrible disco music so she could see family, friends and those who had cared for her in hospital before she got too poorly to say goodbye properly.

Chris died at 2am today, aged 59.

I'm not one for soppy clich├ęs about bravery and dignity in the face of death, but both Dawn and I are extremely thankful for her help, humour and generosity, especially during those difficult final few months.

Hula Hoops... I don't even like 'em
I'm sure that during her lowest private moments things were different, but Chris has taught us that there's no point in wallowing over the inevitable and it's better to have a chuckle about it now and then. For instance, when she tearfully broke the news to us about her illness I told her I was going to stick Post-it notes around her house on everything that we wanted from her estate, which was just enough to replace the crying with laughter. Just last week she mischievously bought a new mobile phone on a two-year contract, and when she said she wanted her ashes scattered on her beloved Skye in Scotland - and I suggested she leave some petrol money - she rolled her eyes and laughed along. Thankfully she seemed to appreciate my sarcasm.

And although Chris didn't believe in an afterlife I convinced her that she has to give us a sign if she ends up hanging around unseen. We went through the usual things such as unexpected and inexplicable noises, ethereal voices and rattling chains in the dead of night but she decided that something less ambiguous was required. So a single Hula Hoop crisp left on the back window of my car it is. Random, but necessary.

Technically a Herb & Strawberry Trug
Also, because she had been keeping up with this blog, Chris knew that she'd never be able to help with our work here so she told us to raid her unbelievably-cluttered garage and take whatever tools we needed, and with her late dad being a right old handyman there was plenty of stuff that we could use. In fact I've just taken a break from scraping the Living Room floor with her chisel knife to write this post.

Inside the garage we also discovered a brand new wooden vegetable trug which Chris insisted we liberate when we saw her for what turned out to be the last time on Thursday. I put it together on Sunday and it is now nurturing a host of herbs and wotnot in the Courtyard, courtesy of Dawn's green fingers. So technically Chris is even helping us to eat a little bit better.

I'm not really sure how to end this post, so I'll just say this:
Thank you from both of us, Christine. You were the best neighbour and friend that anyone could hope for. Dawn has lost a wine buddy and I'll miss your awesome chocolate cakes.

This post is, of course, dedicated to you.

I'm off to check the car now. You never know...