Getting Myself Into Another Shitty Situation - Building my very first Septic Tank
Don't Panic - I've got this...
I have seen some really bad shit in my life, but when I just started working on a maintenance contract at a school in KZN South Africa, very few things could prepare me for what I was about to encounter...
I have spared my readers from the really gory pictures that were taken on sight, and added only some of the less disturbing ones, just enough to give you an idea of what I was dealing with.
Lets start by having a look at the problem:
One of the very first things that could be noted at the school was that their current sewage system was in need of drastic repair. Initially we started off trying to clear out the pipelines, however, we pretty much got nowhere slowly, and at this stage we realised that the problem was a bit bigger than just blocked pipes, the entire septic system on the one wing of the school was completely beyond repair, and this combined with complete and utter disregard for what a septic tank is supposed to do as well as the fact that the existing piping was laid over 100 years ago, didn't make our task an easy one.
The first very obvious issue was the fact that the children were throwing all of their food scraps down the drains at once they were done with breakfast, lunch and dinner, and with absolutely no guidance to do otherwise, this became a huge problem. One of the first things that I implemented at the school was a waste bin system, where kids could discard their left over food before washing their plates after meals. But that simply did not seem to work, and the kids continued to put rubbish and food scraps in the bins, even after I spoke to the Hostel masters asking them to help the kids understand the importance, there was no discipline structure in place to help with this. Eventually I went as far as labelling everything in the dining hall scullery.
The sign above the basin read "this is a washbasin, not a garbage bin, please use the disposal bins provided"
The garbage and food waste bins were also clearly marked, and labelled with instructions, which seemed to help and eventually we managed to get the worst of the matter under control. The pictures of the basins above were those that were taken after these systems were put into place, and we were left with a more manageable mess to deal with daily.
But that was definitely not the only contributing factor.
Another scary reality was the kitchen drain where the children food was being prepared. Which I am hesitant to say is run by adults...
Firstly there were no grease traps in the kitchen run off, and it turns out that the kitchen staff was just as bad as the kids when it came to discarding food. And as we were in the process of cleaning out the kitchen drains we came across a rusted old coffee can, which served as a make shift solids trap - at least they tried, at some point, a few years ago I guess.
However the can had been so overfull that it spilt over into the drain in any case clogging the system up even more, out of the can, we retrieved a lot of fun items, such as string, a tennis ball and a few used condoms - hard to say that this is a place that works with children - right?
Once we got the worst of that cleared out, it was time to move on to the next issues
As we worked our way through this specific wing of the school drain for gory drain, we came across a similar problem every time. Everything from the shower drains to the toilet drains were completely backed up and pushing up to the surface, where the kids were left to blissfully trod through the crap on a daily basis (literally), even worse than that, in stead resolving this issue, the school simply dug a very shallow trench from the overflowing drains behind the school to the closest rain water pipes, because, out of sight out of mind right?
(I spared you the pictures of the above mentioned drains as well as the sewage/drain water run off as that was a bit more gory and graphic.) But I decided to leave you with this entertaining little tid-bit below, where you can see some maggots dragging around a q-tip...
The last section of the drainage we had to tend to, was the outlet of the dining hall drains - those pipes were so bocked that we could not get them opened up, and after digging sections of the pipes open, it became predominantly clear that the septic system that was in place was highly overloaded, and that the pipes that were currently in use had no more going left to give, and as such would need to be replaced.
But lets have a look at the drains at the back first.
In the pictures below, you can see all the food pushing back up towards the drain from the backed up pipes... still wonder why drainage is an issue here?
Because of the old piping and the fact that there were no sewage plans to tell us what pipes were running where, we decided tot to rush in with spades and or heavier equipment at first, so we decided to rake the worst of the solids out of the way for the sake of some visibility - but the more we raked, the deeper the puss flowed. Eventually we started scooping it out with buckets and small hand spades. Let me tell you one thing - this adventure sure helped my diet along quite effectively, if you know what I mean.
After long and tedious meetings with the school management - we finally agreed that an additional septic tank would need to be put into place along with functioning pipelines. But before we even started working on that, we placed filtration systems in all of the basins in the kitchen as well as the dining hall. Then placed drain sieves over the open shower drain outlets. And then promptly started work on the additional septic tank.
Luckily we managed to get in some extra muscle, in the form of a bobcat to help us dig the placement holes for both the septic tank as well as the soak away pit, but sadly all the trenches had to be dug out manually due to crossing pipelines as well as underground power-cables intercepting our route.
The length of the trenches dug was a total of 52 meters, with the deepest point of the flow being more than 2.2m - that is a fuck ton of soil to move manually in other words. The septic tank has five interlinking chambers, that was delivered to us in loose panels for assembly on site. But first a concrete foundation had to be poured into the placement hole and left to cure for a few days. So while we waited for that we started working on the soak away pit - this was lined with layers of biddem and then filled with stones and building rubble. at this stage the bobcat had already left, and we were left to do this by hand. (School budget and all that you know...)
Once the tank panels were assembled and cemented into place, we had to give it some time to cure yet again before we could fit the connecting joins that comprised of vertical t-joins with a down-drop 110mm pipe clearing the floor of the tank by 200mm - but this gave us some time to get back to the trenches levelling it out (a few times); you see the intersecting pipes forced us to drop down our initial level and level out our trenches for the correct downward flow appropriately from scratch. This in itself took a lot more time and effort that what I had bargained for - but the job had to be done, schools were scheduled to reopen in a few days after they were shut down due to the corona threat - and that left us with just a week after getting the final go-ahead from the school in total to get the entire system up and running.
Once the cement on the tanks had dried we started filling in the soil on the sides of the tanks, then installed the tank lids, cementing them into place, and lastly we covered the lids with the access hole covers for the lids - again we waited for the cement to dry while we started connecting up the 110mm pipes from the drain outlet all the way to the septic tank.
Finally, we flushed the entire system through before covering it all up.
And although I am happy with the progress that we have made, I can honestly not say that our work is done, as there is still a great deal of water issues that needs to be dealt with.
Like the one burst pipe that we managed to locate and cut open. This water leak has been a part of the school since they tarred their hostel entrance about 6 years ago. The water pipe was cut open while levelling the terrain, however the repair of said water pipe is what fascinated me the most. Whoever was working there simply taped the hole in the high pressure pipe closed with some yellow construction tape, and then tarred right over it - again, out of sight out of mind... Since then, the school has had water slowly bubbling up through the tar, but has never questioned anything except their high water bill.
But that was just one of many major water issues that we still have to get working on, but like I said - don't panic, I've got this...at least I think I do.
Because after all, I am the little farm girl that could... toungue in cheeck
But I must admit, the more I see at this school and how the children here are allowed to function on a daily basis, the more I start missing my own life back on the farm. I miss the peacefulness of my plants and my animals, I miss functional structures that makes sense as well as the untamed beauty of the bush.
Hopefully some day soon I will be able to return.