A Visit from the “Honey Wagon”

By Cam Mather

WARNING: This blog may gross some people out. But I thought I’d write it anyway, since it’s a reality of country life. Well, it’s sort of reality for everyone, but in the city once the toilet is flushed, it’s pretty easy to not think about where stuff goes and how it’s treated.

In the country this isn’t the case. You have a fairly direct relationship with what gets flushed down the toilet. In our case, like many rural homes, we have a septic system. We have an underground septic tank not far from the house, which is a large concrete tank with two chambers. When the toilet is flushed, or a sink or bathtub is drained, the material flows into the first tank. Solids sink to the bottom. The liquid part flows into the second chamber where more solids can settle out, and then what’s left flows out into your leaching field or “weeping tiles.” (“Weeping Tiles” is also the name of the band that Sarah Harmer was in before she went solo.) The weeping tiles are perforated and the liquid flows out into the gravel then into the soil and is broken down by bacteria. In our case we have amazing sand that filters the liquids as they return to the water table.

The graphics below are from Bill Kemp’s “The Renewable Energy Handbook.”

This process can take a while, but ultimately anytime I flush anything down my drain or toilet, I assume it can end up back in my drinking water. So we’re careful. I clean the toilet with borax. We never use harsh cleaners and we keep this in mind when purchasing soaps, etc. We posted a video on YouTube where Bill Kemp attempts to explain this concept. He suggests that a few weeks after flushing the toilet they could be drinking that water, and some of comments posted under the video suggest that people are either appalled by the concept or don’t really get the concept. There is some filtration involved in the process. (The video is here;  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aansFzgV1SQ)

When we lived in a suburb of Toronto the exit pipe in Lake Ontario from the waste treatment plant was not far from the water inlet pipe for drinking water, so it’s the same concept.

In the country though, it just seems a little more immediate.

Bacteria work away at the solids in the tank, but every 3 or 4 years you need to get the tank pumped to remove waste that hasn’t broken down. There is a layer of scum that floats on top made up of grease and lighter wastes, but I don’t know how we’d get this since we never use any fats for cooking (I’m being sarcastic here).

So a couple of weeks ago I dug up the soil on top of the septic tank and removed the soil to expose the lids of the tanks. Then we called Greg Storring to come and pump the tank. Some people call these trucks “honey wagons.” Greg used to have a logo of Winnie the Pooh with a jar of honey on his truck, but his new truck is more serious and business-like and just has a logo. I can remember getting the tank pumped at my grandmother’s cottage and the slogan on the septic pumping truck was “We’re #1 in the #2 Business.” Gotta love a septic hauler with a sense of humor.

Greg belongs to The Ontario Association of Sewage Industry Services, which just had their yearly conference. The abbreviation of this group is OASIS. Not bad for septic haulers!

So Greg arrived and pried off the concrete lids of the two chambers and started pumping. I guess I’m kind of immature but I’m fascinated by the whole process. Nothing looks like anything you’d expect. In fact, the upper layer is black and looks like a nice dark loam that you might spread on your garden. But I resisted that temptation since I know there is more processing that needs to be done to it.

We like to invite Greg in for a cup of tea when he’s finished pumping to get the scoop on what’s happening at his place. He has 4 lagoons where he dumps the waste, which use the same process of allowing the liquid to gradually flow from one lagoon to the next to allow for more settling. The Ministry of the Environment regularly inspects Greg’s operation and his process works well. They find some chemicals and pharmaceuticals, just like when they test the waste treatment facilities in the city. The pharmaceuticals aren’t just from people flushing expired drugs; people’s bodies eliminate a lot of it.

I like having a septic tank. I like being aware of the implications of my actions. Greg tells people “If you can’t eat it, don’t flush it.” It’s a good philosophy. I do clean our toilets with borax, which I probably wouldn’t eat, but it is a pretty natural product, one that is naturally present in the soil. Some gardeners add it if their plants of showing signs of deficiency.

I deal with manure all the time. I get horse manure from Alyce whenever I can for the gardens. I deal with chicken manure daily now as I clean out our coop. People manure is a different thing. But as long as I live in the country I’m going to be vigilant about what ends up in my septic tank. Ultimately I could be drinking it.

Illustrations from “The Renewable Energy Handbook” by William Kemp. Photos by Cam Mather.

5 Responses to “A Visit from the “Honey Wagon””

  • Robert H:

    Another interesting article Cam. It got me wondering if there is any debate in the off grid / green community about alternatives to traditional black water systems.
    Something better than a backyard privy and pit.

    I’ve only “sampled” one in house composting system at a cottage and it was terrible but that could be due to the operators indifference and ignorance of how to operate an underused cottage system.

    What about the electrically powered drying systems? Any thoughts? I know you are not an expert in waste disposal but you do have a rampant curiosity and friends with a wide range of knowledge and interests.

    Inquiring minds need to know (and go).

  • Cathy:

    Urine is one the best natural ferilizers and it is delivered through an underground soaker hose, your lateral drain pipes. You can alway see where they are in a dry summer…the long green lines in the lawn. Extend your drain field to circle your garden and take advantage of the free water system…but don’t brag about it in the CSA brochure!

  • Cam thanks for the first hand insight into the actual process. I have often wondered how it all works together. It is a pretty simple process really. In Australia we used to have the “dunny-man” come and pick up the “dunny-can” from each “dunny” (out house) in the country in the middle of the night. This was a can that was fitted with a removable toilet seat and picked up like a garbage can to be emptied into a waiting truck. It makes the septic system seem quite attractive. My dream toilet will be a a composting one I think.

  • queen of string:

    If you added a humanure toilet, maybe outside for when you’re working in the garden, then you could be eating your own poop too in a couple of years’ time 😀 ! Loads of info on humanure, they even have a facebook page.

  • Tai Hewitt-Aberts:

    Teaching so near an Army base(Ft.Hood) I have alot of students who have lived in Germany. One day they were talking about the “Honey Wagons” so I chimed in with how lucky they were to have had fresh honey delivered! They all burst into laughter- and educated me on what a “Honey Wagon” was! I grew up with a septic but my dad just called it the “sep”! Loved the blog Cam! I will show it to my Agriculture class in the morning!!

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About Cam
Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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