When you decide to buy bare land to build an off-grid home, you’re literally starting with a blank slate- there is so much to do! It can be overwhelming to know where to start. We had to pick and choose what to work on first, even when it seemed that we needed it all. Of all things, we realized that we wanted our septic system installed by a contractor ASAP.
When we were preparing for our move to our bare land, we had an idea and a rough plan of how things would go once we arrived. We tried to prioritize as best as possible when it seemed that most everything was critical. After weighing the pros and cons of various temporary living situations such as renting an apartment, living in a yurt or buying a travel trailer, we settled on a 19’ travel trailer as that would be the most affordable as well as something that was self-contained in terms of power, water and septic.
As we had our RV that held up to 18 gallons each of black and gray water, we figured that we would be set for a while in terms of septic. We thought we could really ignore the issue with this “band-aid fix” and focus on more important things such as building our timber frame barn.
After we made it past the one-month mark living on our land, we realized that we needed to move the installation of a septic system to the top of the priority list. Not only that, but we wanted to hire a contractor to do it despite trying to do everything by ourselves with as little money as possible. We also decided to get a septic permit (click here to learn all about our permitting process + percolation test).
This decision may come as a shock to folks reading this blog and we don’t feel the need to defend ourselves per se, but we thought we’d share the thought process for others that are deciding whether or not to install a traditional septic system and whether or not to do it themselves or hire a contractor.
Below are the reasons why we moved our septic system up the priority list, why we got a permit and why we chose to not do it ourselves.
Romantics vs. Reality
Many people embark on this type of journey because they like how “romantic” it is. How romantic is it to say that you built 100% of your home from scratch with blood, sweat and tears? It’s pretty romantic to some!
That said, we personally aren’t trying to be superheroes. We know our strengths and weaknesses. While we do want to do the majority of things for ourselves (for education, personal satisfaction and financial reasons), we are well aware that we could easily get in over our heads.
With a journey like this, we’ve already stressed how important it is to start small and start with what you’re comfortable with (more or less… obviously this journey is a huge jump from what we’re accustomed to!). We simply can’t do it all, especially if we want to get it all done in a reasonable amount of time. We can’t run before we can crawl and we’re still learning how to crawl with this lifestyle.
We do want to install our next septic system, but for reasons mentioned next, we thought that we should just get it done ASAP by professionals.
Why We Got a Permit
If you have been following this blog, then you know that we were really on the fence on whether or not to get a septic permit. We went into the state health department to inquire what the logical reason was to get a permit and the best answer they had was simply “well, it’s illegal if you don’t” which isn’t an educated answer in our opinion.
We won’t go TOO much into the permit issue but we’ll just share a few things.
- Septic permits are public record: This is one thing that we realized, and it can be really handy to know the history of not only the septic systems on your property, but on neighboring properties as well. If you drilled a well too close to an unknown, unpermitted septic system, I’d bet that you’d be pretty unhappy! If a property is bought and sold a couple times, there’s a chance that there could be an unknown septic system on it. So while we hate the idea of a permit, we do see the good in this type of information being public as you do have the potential to pollute property and health other than your own.
- Many licensed contractors won’t install without a permit: Another thing note is that our contractor of choice wouldn’t install a septic system without a permit, and we were fairly confident that we didn’t want to install it on our own on such a short time frame.
- Advice from our inspector was helpful and saved us headaches: While we still don’t agree with the permit, we did appreciate the advice and feedback from our inspector during our percolation test. She helped us to understand setbacks, sizing, soil composition and more. If it weren’t for her help, we likely would have ended up installing the septic system at the base of our hill and due to runoff, that could have resulted in a failed septic system. That advice alone was worth the cost of the permit. We also shared with her our short and long-term plans and she was able to work with us on various options.
Our Time Frame & Rapidly-Approaching Winter
In our neck of the woods, winter is rapidly approaching. It is early November and any day now we should see our first snow sprinkle in the forecast. It’s almost pitch black by 5pm and nighttime temperatures are already hitting below freezing. We have so much to do before winter strikes in full-force such as finishing our hot tub deck, collecting firewood and winterizing our trailer.
Getting in our septic before winter is important to us as we really don’t want to move the trailer on icy roads or in poor weather. No part of that sounds enjoyable.
Also, winterizing our trailer will likely include insulating with hay bales, building some sort of enclosure with false walls, and it won’t be ideal to move the trailer every 4-5 days to dump the septic. We also may come into the trailer cold and want to take a longer, warm shower (longer than 10 seconds at least) which means that our gray water tank would fill up much quicker than in 4-5 days.
Some projects don’t make sense to get help on such as the building of our hot tub deck or the winterizing of our trailer. We can do that and would rather do that, but septic seems to be a logical thing to outsource.
Education is Priceless
Next, Jesse and I are huge fans of education. Information from people that know what they’re doing can be priceless. We’ve never installed a septic system before and we were interested in the idea of watching over the shoulders of seasoned installers so that we could take notes and ask questions about the process.
In doing this, we feel that we now have a fairly good understanding of at least our specific septic system and feel confident that we could design one in the future. We understand tank size, leach field size, placement, setbacks, elevation drop, components, materials and more. While we could research this on the internet, it does help to see it in person every step of the way.
Weighing the Risks
The next thing we realized is that in doing things yourself as a first-timer, there is always some amount of risk involved. Most of the time, we’re okay with the risk of doing things ourselves because the risks are minimal.
In the case of a septic system, if we made a mistake, we may not know for a year or two and the consequences could be catastrophic. If our newbie mistake resulted in a failed septic system, that could be thousands of dollars to fix or replace.
During our septic system installation, a large rock fell on the newly installed tank and cracked the thing. They had to go get a new tank (valued at $1,000+). This was a mistake that could have happened to anybody, and we’re somewhat happy that we weren’t the ones responsible! Even if you install a septic system yourself, there is still a significant material cost if things are done completely right.
The True Cost
That leads us to our next point of cost. Our septic system ended up costing us around $3,500 or so including both parts and labor. We priced out the components of the system and the components alone are fairly pricey. The labor is really a fairly minimal cost.
If we would have done the labor ourselves, this may have saved us $1,500 we’re guessing if everything went right. However, things rarely go right the first time, and one mistake such as breaking the tank upon installation, would have cost us $1,000+. An extra day in excavator fees would cost $300+. This means that if we made one mistake, it could end up costing more than it would to just have a professional install it, leaving us with no liability.
This all ties back to romantics, time and risk-assessment. When it comes time to installing your septic system, really consider all the factors.
Alternative Septic & Gray Water Solutions
Many people who are interested in an off-grid lifestyle are interested in alternative septic and gray water disposal systems, as are we. One reason we were hesitant to install a septic system immediately was because we wanted to entertain these alternative ideas such as composting.
Let’s be clear about one thing: Just because we installed a septic system doesn’t mean that we closed the doors on alternative systems down the road. We couldn’t be more excited to learn about composting and waste management in a way that really benefits our land. This just goes back to the fact that we aren’t superheroes and really need to tiptoe into this lifestyle; we simply don’t have time to do it all right now.
Developing an off-grid, sustainable property isn’t something that happens in a year. It’s something that takes multiple years if not a lifestyle to master. We all need to start somewhere.
To sum up this blog post, we are SO HAPPY that we have our septic system installed before the winter! Instead of taking 1.5 to 2 hours of our day every 4-5 days to empty our travel trailer, we only have to pull the tank levers open to dump and it takes 3 minutes tops! This allows us to spend our energy on winterizing our trailer, finishing our hot tub deck and building our barn.
If you are on, or will be embarking on, a similar journey, we hope this blog post helps you our if you have yet to get to the septic crossroads. All you can do is do your research, prioritize, do your best and walk confidently in the path you choose. Part of this journey is alleviating one headache at a time in the way that makes the most sense while also weighing the decision against your long-term goals.
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Karl Micheal says
I just watched your video about installing your septic system and the reasoning behind choosing to have a contractor do the job rather than trying to do it yourself. Personally, I believe you made the right choice for just the reasons you stated. I just found your blog tonight as a result of a facebook posting about how you were able to obtain tin roof sheeting and other building materials for a small cost. I look forward to following you folks on this journey. On a little lighter side note…towards the end of the septic system video, your cat began meowing. I have a cat that meows when he is not being paid attention to. So, each time your cat was meowing, I thought it was my cat and I was talking with him trying to figure out what he was hollering about. Then I saw him lying fast asleep on the floor next to me and looked up at the screen and saw your cat and you began talking about him/her. So, based on this..I really look forward to your next video and the next blog post so I can began following this journey of yours more closely. Bless you folks and best wishes on this endeavor!!
That’s so funny about your cat! Yea, every time our video camera comes out it seems that the cats show up out of NOWHERE and meow, non-stop. We try to just roll with it as we often don’t have time to do a reshoot. Glad you found our blog and enjoy our blog posts to come, and thanks for the good wishes!
Ah yuppies. Learning what every 16 year old farm kid already knows. Next you’ll learn all about northern winters. By January you’ll spell it WINTER. By May you’ll be …………..
It takes courage and faith in the future to take the steps you are taking, this inspires me to get out of my own comfort zone and do more. I am farther north than you two and our winters have more snow and much colder weather, presently heat with baseboard electric heaters and have had several heating contractors for estimates of a high efficiency propane hot air furnace afue 96~97% $9,500~$11,500 and it scares the dickens out of me.
So in respect of the septic system I totally agree, it would be minimal $8,000 here incidentally. So thanks guys and I enjoy each episode. Enjoy and love life as you are as life is short…
PS. Try Belgian dark beer for a change its marvelous…
Hey Plinker! That does sound like a monster purchase with the furnace. Big purchases never get easier I don’t think. I remember the first time I wrote a $20k check. Scared me to death. I’ve written many in the past decade. It never gets easier.
Is there a chance you could open the conversation with a contractor and ask what parts of the process you might be able to do yourself to reduce expense like putting things together, removing old appliances etc? This is something we asked the septic contractor and in the end we had them complete the job entirely, but they were open to having us do some of the work to help gain experience and reduce overhead.
Hope that helps and thanks for the beer tip. We’ll check it out!
I am so glad you now have a septic tank. To think of how you were having to spend time, gas, daylight…..hauling water will be enough for now. Can’t wait to see how you handle fresh water. You know I take such things for granted, so seeing how you 2 work it all out is fascinating & I will appreciate flushing, & turning on my faucet each time I do so. Glad to see the purring Bengal fur baby, hope his Bro is keeping out of trouble. Can’t wait for the finished deck, those stars at night will be totally awesome and you are so far along on the deck! My pride & happiness overflows for you. Your 60+ Aunt
Oh my how we all take the simple things for granted. More of our generation needs to experience this lifestyle so those amenities have more meaning! We’ve both said when you have to carry your water you appreciate it more! It’s been nice getting things sealed up for winter, but I somehow still feel like a sissy as we’ve heard of several who have braved Montana and Dakota winters in RV’s with not much protection. We’d like to think their just smarter than us or something! The deck will be very rewarding indeed. Hope to enjoy it soon and when you two come up again it’ll be extra special as we’ll have the kinks worked out hopefully. Then there shall be hot tubbin to an excess! 🙂
I hope you got to keep the damaged septic tank , seems like you could put a permanent patch on it somehow , and repurpose it partially buried as a root cellar.
The contractors took the tank with them but it sounds like they’re going to try to find a use for it… hopefully they’re able to, or are at least able to get a refund on the tank!
Terry Hennessy says
I can imagine they will be able to repair w/ fiberglass or similar without too big an issue.
So what kind of material is that tank? Most septic tanks I have seen in the north basically concrete tanks. That looks like some poly type of tank… what is the estimated longevity of that material? It looks like it was easily punctured.
It’s a polycarbonate tank, estimated to last a lifetime! In all the years they’ve been installing these tanks, this is the first one that’s been damaged upon installation. We’ll see how it holds up over time!
Here in Michigan they’re concrete. I was surprised too, to see one that wasn’t.
Time is money. How much money are you going to save by not having to unhook, drive, dump, and reconnect your trailer a couple times a week. It probably won’t take long just from that perspective to pay for itself.
Enjoying watching your journey. Sometimes it just makes good sense to let someone else do some of the work. Something my wife is struggling to teach me and I am slow to learn. lol
We totally agree Ned. On this journey our goal of using time instead of money is easy to get carried away with. We’re learning, but it’s hard since we have to analyze each project and make a best guess. Of course afterward it’s easy to see how things turned out. I mean if we didn’t have money that would certainly be a done deal, but there are times to spend and times to save. The time it took to dump and such was quickly becoming a hinderance and a major inconvenience. Mainly because of showers. Who knew that even quick showers require so much water? With all the filth we generate nightly showers were mandatory and it just wasn’t feasible. What a great lesson we can pass on to others!
We’re pretty hardcore DIY’ers too and agree it’s hard letting go of the reigns not just due to cost, but the pleasure and satisfaction of completing projects. With this one behind us we don’t have any regrets. It hit us hard in the pocket book, but we’re hoping to make up for it (already have with all the material collection) in other lesson urgent areas.
I am closing on my property Friday and was thinking about the composting waste as well. Thanks for the advise. I am being told by the county that I can’t use a camper to live in until I get my house built. That has me scrambling to figure out how to move forward without a start. Any thoughts?
Hey Linda, can you elaborate more on why the county is denying you using an RV for living temporarily? Perhaps it’s simply how the conversation is being approached. Feel free to send us a message on our contact form our email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll see if we can help in any way.
It could be that it is on wheels. Do they allow permanent mobile homes? Otherwise there are options of a prefab tiny home. Get a hold of the all the zoning ordinances for the county and/or township as they both will govern the land and how it is developed.
It might be as simple as removing the axle, getting your septic hooked up and your water hooked up and eliminating the ability to drive it away. If it is about aesthetics then they probably don’t allow manufactured homes that are of the ‘mobile home’ variety. (My neighbor has a manufactured modular home, so not all look like they can be driven away.)
Found your story/blog on M.E.N., and LOVE what you’e doing!
Would like to definitely follow in your footsteps and get out of the city.
Looking forward to more of your adventure.
Thanks so much for sharing. Be safe, and enjoy the New Year!
Just started reading your blog…I don’t spend much time on line.
Hello both! Good on you for this adventure! You will look back with smiles…I promise! My husband and I live in Alberta, Canada (near the mountains).
Years ago, we went down to Seattle and learned how to build log homes.
We have chickens, goats, herd dogs and horses. We became educated as we went along. We love every minute of it! Part of what makes it so satisfying, is that you create it! We’ve even made our own log bed! If we really want it or need it…we make it! I wanted a hottub, which my husband found alittle ridiculous. So, I set to making one. I made a woodburning hottub out of a lightly used huge (4′ tall by 5′ round) planter made of fibreglass that I purchased for $20. I wrapped the planter with cedar(purely for looks) and purchased online a top feeding wood submergible stove. I sit in our hottub with wine, listening to the crackle of the fire and watch the northern lights! Life is better than I ever could have imagined. Initially giving up the regular life is jarring, but we can’t imagine life any other way now! All the best!
Good for you and your husband, Kat! That sounds like a very satisfying life indeed. We can’t wait to build our home and even our own furniture when the time comes… I suppose there will always be projects to look forward to. We hope to do something similar for our hot tub (hoped to have it completed by now but maybe we’ll get it done in spring). You’re right… now that we are living it, it’s hard to imagine going back to our old lifestyle. Thanks for stopping by and saying hello!
Have checked out Earthship yet? It is really a good site to help you see the ins and outs of different systems. Mike Reynolds seems to have run the gauntlet of problems, sometimes I wonder how he continued, that said he says that mistakes are good. It’s how one learns. I can see that point, but most people don’t. Thanks for you site. At 68 going on 39 I can’t consider leaving the conveniences of starting my life the way I would like it to be. It is what it is, but it is fun watching you learn the lessons I have learned.
Hello to the kitties!
That septic tank is going to pay for itself the first time you use it, in convenience alone, lol. 🙂
Couple of questions that i didn’t see addressed in the post, but maybe i missed them?
1. I don’t know that you guys have chosen the location for the home yet, or have you? What plans do you have for this septic tank once the house goes in? Do you plan to try and re-route it for the house or will you put in a new one and run this one off a barn or something? If you do want to use it for the house, is it large enough for 2+ bedrooms? (Here in Michigan, the size of the septic is based on the number of bedrooms, not bathrooms).
2. Given the excellent reasons for a permit, why are you guys still against them? (Even though you’re glad you got one, the post implies that you wouldn’t have if you didn’t have to). Is that like an anti-government thing? Or extra cost thing?
Keep up the good work! A lot of homesteading blogs tend to be lacking in details, and yours isn’t, so it’s so much fun to read!
Some great questions Megan! Almost every day it crosses our minds that we are thankful for our septic system. I don’t know what we would have done if we didn’t have it in by now, but it wouldn’t be pretty. I’ll do my best to answer your questions:
1. We plan to reroute this septic tank to where our barn will be as that’s what we’ll be building first. Our septic tanks are also supposed to be sized by bedrooms in the home, and has a minimum size for each home. So if we have a barn / apartment with 1 bedroom and then a house with three bedrooms, we would need a HUGEEEEE septic tank (or two of them) and a large drain field. Even if the barn is 100% unoccupied, unless maybe we tear our the kitchen because i think that is technically what makes it a livable home… which is dumb. Obviously if both dwellings were filled with people you’d need a larger septic system, but in our case, it’s just the two of us and we would have two dwellings.
2. For the reason above, having a strict set of rules to follow is dumb because obviously our system would be overkill. We aren’t anit-government at all, but we don’t feel that we should need a permit to poop on our own property. If we endanger the surrounding water supply or hurt the health of another human being, then we would be okay having someone come after us. That said, it’s wise to consult with people that know what they’re doing so that you don’t potentially hurt someone else (in the sake of water as it seems that you can contaminate someone else’s property or a water supply if you don’t know what you’re doing). Even though we don’t need a building permit, that doesn’t mean that we want to build a shack that will fall over. We want to build a lovely home and will probably have an engineer or an architect look over our plans for us and maybe draw them up professionally. The hesitation to permits has nothing to do with extra costs… we wouldn’t like it if we were paid to get a permit. They seem innocent enough and many permits seem like a good public service for the good of society which is why nobody fights them, but there is a lot more to them than meets the eye and that’s a topic probably beyond the depth of this blog.
Thanks for the compliment on the blog… we try to include these details that many other blogs don’t cover. There is a lot of confusion on what this process looks like and most of the things we talk about, most people never have to think about because they buy their homes with a mortgage! Let us know if you have more questions – happy to elaborate where we can!
Terry Hennessy says
Of consideration also is that you someday may want to sell, and it can be extremely difficult/ expensive to sell unpermitted structures/ systems. Even if everything done 100% right, buyers would be concerned to the effect of lowering any price substantially, and their ability to mortgage also affected.
Extremely, extremely true.
Truly enjoy reading your blog. I appreciate your determination and believe you have made some great choices on infrastructure for moving forward with the homestead. Thanks for sharing. I think the biggest mistake is to do nothing. And your past that point. I’m looking to do something like this, only in a warmer climate. congratulations on the move
Dieter Dittrich says
I am glad you were able to steal your septic system for $3,500. Our septic plan alone cost us a little over $8,000 when our dollar was on par with yours. The plan took 5 years to complete. The installation would have cost another $25,000 with 2 concrete tanks and a pump, We live on 40 acres of pure sand and only the 2 of us in a 1 bedroom Yurt. Gauging people by over-designing system to line their own pockets. In the meantime we had already decided on a composting toilet and our grey water goes into our 2 greenhouses. Our well is 850′ away from the dwelling, so septic would have been no problem.
Linda stated that they can’t live in their camper while building their house, maybe they shouldn’t tell anybody that they are living in it. Camping would not be illegal. Composting toilet such as by Separet are very economical and use plain sawdust, can$125. A wood fired hot tub is a must off grid.
Enjoy your posts.
Gordon Deisting says
Well thumbs up for you folks.You are lucky to put a plastic tank in for septic.Up here in the Northern part of Alberta,I asked around and questioned about the septic tanks.Well a lot of ‘Nay’s’, to plastic.And more ‘Yeas’ to concrete tanks.And we also got a person install & deliver the concrete tank.But I was able to save some cost by doing the work of building a hole to set the tank into.And getting the gravel delivered was also a cost that worked out for us also.Cause we were close to a gravel pit owner.We were told that pastil tanks were a waste money for us cause of pastic collapses with the weight of the soil & snow.So also we found that plastic tanks cost more than the concrete tank.Also when we paid for it in advance we did not worry damages,Cause the delivery people were responsible.We also have a nieghbour that money couldn’t buy.We were able to do some horse-trading 😉 for the work also.Me & my better half are from the country style of life,So we are more knowledgeable about things that city folks.But no offence to to city folks,But it does help to have been brought in the country way of life.Also we tried the city life when we were younger years,But that was not for us so we moved out of the city life and and then we met a country dance some years ago.We want to do a lot of things but we 2 are not super heroes also.So MUST say you folks have our blessings and wish greatest luck at the game.Don’t Quit,don’t ever give up with out a good fight.Keep going & I truly love your blog site.It gives me a incentive to carry on.I just wish I was still young as you folks.But that’s life.Thank you folks for the enjoyable reading and keep up the good life.
Just a for what it’s worth to anyone considering installing a septic system without a permit. If they (the authorities) discover that you did this they can make you remove it and fine you thousands. If you don’t do it or refuse to do it they will attach your property with a lien and after a couple years they will own it. Happened to one of my neighbors and when we go out on a walk we walk by his abandoned cabin that the county now owns.
they have both concrete and composite here in missouri concrete are stronger and cheaper. I was in the septic bussines for a few years and you were wise to have it done. the latt lines need to run fairly level and a few other things. the sandy rocky soil there should work wonderful.
For a marginal difference of only about a $1000 sounds like absolutely the right choice! For where we’re building it’s more than $10K difference, so we’re studying up, passing county exams and doing it ourselves. We don’t get a choice on permits.
Best of luck on your beautiful project!
Joe Armstrong says
Can’t press your grey water into use?
Would take a load off your leach field.
Bob C says
We live off grid as well. But we don’t do the septic thing. The problem with registering with the county is that it puts you under their scope. We use a composting toilet, homemade. And we run our gray water into a small man made “lagoon” with trees and plants that love it. This keeps it confined. Considering there isn’t much there all at once, it has a chance to not go very far anyway.
Additionally. We also declare out property as agricultural. Which essentially means its a non residential. Our home is a “barn”. Which is actually a pole barn home. It is best to bypass the bureaucracy of government. If more people did that, it would make for a better future for the kids. And the golden rule in these parts? The less the government knows the better. Good luck.