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Septic Systems: A Personal Voyage of Discovery

I recently sat in on the seminar that Barrett & Company held for its agents on septic systems and Massachusetts Title 5 requirements. Knowledge is power, and as the septic professional said, "When you are selling your house, you are also selling its septic system." The session was informative and technical but it got me thinking of all the fond memories my family has about septic systems. Yes, I am experiencing "septic nostalgia".

You Never Know When Luck will Strike My husband likes to share a thrilling story from his childhood in New Hampshire. When he was eight years old, he entered a raffle at the local hardware store and he won! Imagine the thrill of winning a store raffle as a child. To this day, he says it is the only thing that he has ever won. The problem was that he won a free bottle of bacteria. It was an additive intended to enhance the health of a home septic system. What a bitter disappointment to a small boy. Who wants to brag about winning a bottle of bacteria? The added insult was that his family's house was on town sewer. Helpful Hint:  The presenter on septic systems said that most additives are unnecessary and can even be harmful to systems. In most cases, they should be avoided.

A Surprising Environmental Impact I had never lived in a house with a septic system until we moved out of the city. The first time I was home for a septic clean out/inspection, I was a little nervous. Would it be gross? Would we fail? The man arrived and pulled off the cover that led to the septic tank. I peered nervously in and saw...a second cover about three feet below the first one. That creates a sort of buffer chamber called a riser. But before he could remove the second metal cover, we saw the yellow-spotted salamander. It was just sitting in the riser.

"Oh, those are endangered," the man said. He shook his head. "We can't harm those."

We both marveled at why the salamander had set up housekeeping in the riser. But the man needed to get the second manhole cover off to actually peer into the septic tank. So I grabbed a bucket, and we carefully put Mr. Salamander in it. "Spotty" seemed calm.

The man removed the second cover and I finally got a full view of my household waste now layered as scum, waste water, and sludge. Actually it wasn't that bad. The man pointed out some frothy stuff floating around. "See those," he said. "Those are floating islands of bacteria. That is a sign of a very healthy system. You have terrific bacteria."

He said this with such excitement that I actually puffed up with pride. No bacteria additives needed here! The words "very healthy" and "terrific" kept repeating in my brain. It was as if I had won a contest. It was the same feeling as hearing great news from a doctor. I wondered if I should call my mom to tell her. I came back to reality and decided to go inside the house while he and his crew did the real work (which my dad who grew up in western Pennsylvania quaintly referred to as "honey dipping.")

But what about the salamander? When the cleanout was complete, we put him back in the riser chamber. I hoped we did the right thing environmentally.

Four years later, when we sold our house and moved, we did our Title 5 inspection. A different company came out (just because we'd forgotten the name of the first company). The man again removed the cover to the riser, and there was the spotted salamander, alive and well -- four years later. The lesson I learned between the bacteria islands and the salamander habitat is that a well-functioning septic system is definitely a world unto itself.