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By Staff | Apr 23, 2010

The story has it that an architect was once asked to draw up plans for a major overhaul of the Vatican. After reviewing the blueprints, the pope sent the architect a note, written in Latin, that read “nos es non angelus” which translates to “we are not angels.”

Turns out the architect had forgotten to include even a single bathroom in his plans.

Indoor bathrooms and their underground cohort, the sewer system, are important components of modern life. A person doesn’t realize just how critical these things are until they act up by backing up.

Our house is nearly fifty years old, which means its septic system may have been designed by Fred Flintstone. Our septic tank gave us few problems during the first years, but lately has grown more and more cantankerous.

Nothing makes your heart drop into your shoes like discovering that the basement floor is covered with water. Except for it isn’t all water.

I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent in the basement, furiously plunging away at the floor drain or trying to convince a sewer snake that it should take a journey through our drainpipes! These experiences have been both frustrating and icky beyond words.

And educational. For instance, I once found a penny in the drain, which was my first clue that my wife was going through the change. Another time a fully intact, totally undigested vitamin pill was found on the basement floor after the water receded. Unlike the penny, I chose not to recycle the vitamin pill.

We tried all the popular septic system potions and cure-alls. Our septic tank simply laughed at these feeble efforts.

All food begins with plants. The indigestible stuff – our output, as it were – goes to the sewer system where it becomes food for gazillions of bacteria. Their output, in turn, eventually becomes food for plants. The lesson here is that everyone eventually eats poop.

We knew that something had to be done with our septic system; the question was, what? In essence, how much were we willing to spend?

My wife’s attitude regarding this was “whatever it takes!” I found it difficult to disagree with her, but didn’t want to toss a ton of money into what is literally a hole in the ground.

So I consulted an expert in the field of drain fields, a recently retired sewer specialist named Plumber Bob. Just as you wouldn’t trust a 20-year-old to repair a carburetor, you don’t call a newbie plumber for advice regarding a 50-year-old septic system.

Plumber Bob recommended that I do some spade work to ascertain what, exactly, was going on. I did so and quickly discovered two things.

First was that a collapsed pipe at the bottom end was trying to make our effluent run uphill. Second was that sewage sludge is much, much nastier than anything I had ever dealt with in the basement.

After further consultation, we decided to rent an excavator and commit some serious digging. By “we” I mean me and our youngest son, Illinois Boy, who was home for a few weeks.

So we drove to town and rented an excavator from our local Rent-All place. This wasn’t one of those humungous, dinosaur-like machines that has the appetite of a T. rex. The excavator we got was relatively small, a mere hatchling.

With Illinois Boy piloting the excavator, we quickly uncovered a major problem: we didn’t have an actual drain field! The plumber who originally installed our sewer system had simply created an outlet at the bottom and said “that oughta work.” Which it did, for a while.

It took us the entire forenoon to create a proper drain field and reseal the gash in the earth. With time left on the clock, I took the opportunity to hop onto the excavator and see what it’s like to operate the thing.

It was just as much fun as it looks. With enough practice, I bet a guy could use such a machine to pick up a dime or change a baby’s diaper – although I wouldn’t recommend actually attempting the latter.

Every homeowner should own an excavator, even if it’s just to make him feel manly and powerful. Besides, you never know when an extra-annoying traveling salesman might stop by and he just won’t leave and before you know it you’re in the market for a very deep hole.

After we finished our repairs, we naturally had to test our rejuvenated septic system. We ran a bunch of water and soon began to hear the glorious gurgle of H2O percolating through the pipes of our drain field.

I nearly wept for joy. Because it sounded just like a chorus of angels.

Nelson is a freelance writer from Volga, S.D. Reach him by e-mail at jjpcnels@itctel.com

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