Book Review
from Fine Homebuilding Magazine

Subterranean Mysteries Revealed

I probably shoudn’t tell you this, but I don’t have a septic system. I’m not connected to a municipal system either. The remote mountain cabin where I live has an outhouse out back and a bathtub on the front porch. But for the past year, I’ve been thinking about putting in a septic system. While the outhouse doesn’t bother me, I’ve been wishing for a little more “tender company,” and a flush toilet might go a long way in making that happen.

Unlike me, 24 million other American homes—nearly a quarter of all US households—do have some sort of septic system. This book is a long-overdue guide to how and why these systems work—or don’t. Although I’ve been a plumber for 30 years and have connected plenty of buildings to their septic systems, I’ve done little to concern myself with fully understanding them. But The Septic System Owner’s Manual has changed that. Believe it or not, it is an entertaining discussion of a highly technical—but elegantly simple—process. Not only does it illuminate all the hidden workings of conventional septic systems, composting toilet systems and alternative systems that can be used in marginal conditions. There is even a short but readable history of water disposal.

Of course, treating human waste is serious business. As the authors point out, the improper procedure for treating human waste has cost many of our ancestors their lives. But although this discussion is lucid and comprehensive, it isn’t heavy-handed, thanks in part to the inspired artwork of illustrator Peter Aschwanden. He has done a fine job of supporting the text technically with clear illustrations while at the same time injecting his own humor.

I think chapter four—“Down the Drain”—should be mandatory reading for all operators of plumbing fixtures, whether they are connected to a septic system or a municipal sewer system. Besides its eye-opening look at our water-wasting American lifestyle, it offers practical suggestions on how to promote healthy septic systems. The basic principles aren’t difficult: Minimize liquid and solid loads, and be careful about what goes down the drain. If you have a septic system or—like me—are thinking about getting one, this volume deserves to be on your bookshelf.

–Peter Hemp
Fine Homebuilding Magazine