Tales from The Money Pit: W(hole)-ly Surprising

It’s amazing what surprises Mother Earth (and I mean that literally this time) can spring on us at times. And it’s also amazing how often ‘experts’ can be not quite so expert. Herewith follows the story of the recent Big Dig (with apologies to Boston) here at The Money Pit.

I may have mentioned in passing that one of the items on the Money Pit To-Do List was to replace the cesspool. Mercifully-quick background: in my region of New York state, most localities do not have sewers. There are a few communities that do, but the norm for sewage disposal has always been a cesspool. The original ones (circa 1940s-1960s) were constructed of individual ‘perforated’ cinderblocks. Over the decades these cesspools develop an unfortunate tendency to collapse, usually without warning, leaving a large gaping odiferous pit in one’s yard. The lifespan of a typical “block” cesspool is about 30 years depending on usage and the site’s soil characteristics. (That said, I vividly recall my family returning from an August vacation in Florida during the early 1960s to find that our circa-1950 pool had collapsed and was stinking up the entire neighborhood unbearably. So you never know.) Any block cesspool still in use nowadays has been living on borrowed time for quite a while. The installation of block cesspools was banned here in the early 1970s in favor of precast ones but there are plenty of older homes still gambling on their ‘block pools.’

Of course the Money Pit was one of these. I determined that before purchase by hiring a cesspool service company to stick a camera down the access cover and look around. So I knew it would need to be replaced. What was not typical was that it was located in the back yard instead of the front yard. When I was still looking to move, I just crossed my fingers that the cesspool wouldn’t collapse until I found another house (with a precast pool in the front yard) and sold this one. But when I decided last December to commit to staying, I knew the cesspool replacement had to be one of the first priorities.

The new pool had to go into the front yard. No question. Of course that meant the entire waste plumbing in the basement had to be replaced because it was all currently going out the back foundation wall instead of the front. ($$$) The plumber also had to coordinate his schedule with that of the cesspool company so that everyone would be here doing their thing on the same day. This sounds simple. It isn’t. Long story short, I began trying to schedule this as soon as the snows disappeared in late March. The final set date for the job: July 11th.

This is what the chosen site, just in front of the brick walkway, looked like on July 10th. I had been able to get someone to come by in early June to remove the hedge of Chamaecyparis pisifera along the front. That’s the area shown here as bare soil. I wasn’t sorry to see that hedge go.

The crew showed up bright and early the next morning to start digging. Enough of the removed soil had to be wheelbarrowed to the backyard and shoveled into the old cesspool which had been opened up and pumped out, to fill it up. It took a long time and cost a bunch of extra money ($$$$) but the alternative was to have my entire side yard ripped out so that equipment could get back there. Not an option.

This is what the site looked like at 5 p.m. that day. According to the cesspool company I’d “just need to bring in some topsoil” in order to do whatever I might want with the area. I figured on replacing part of the original planting bed with something low and shallow-rooted like evergreen azaleas and Ceratostigma plumbaginoides but leave an unplanted area directly atop the cesspool’s cover in case any maintenance (chemicals) was needed in the future. It was mentioned that “the area will probably settle a bit over the next couple of weeks”. Well, of course. It doesn’t look all that bad, does it? Better than I’d anticipated, in fact.  Very neat.

July passed. So did August. We had some heavy rains and thunderstorms now and again and there was a bit of settling but nothing dramatic. Weeds began to grow in abundance on the dirt and I was perpetually spraying them with herbicide, awaiting the time when the area could be graded and “topped.” I knew it had to wait until the porch and siding work could be done, and that too had been unexpectedly delayed (hint: It’s not begun yet. Long story there.) In the meantime I began getting estimates from landscape and masonry contractors for re-doing the partly-removed walkway plus additional hardscape on the side of the house (the “courtyard” seen in my recent post.)

I asked all of them about working on the cesspool site as part of their masonry job bid. They all assured me that it was “no problem” and that the area had “settled just fine.” It could be worked on at any time, because the work had been done “a good two months ago.” Well, all except one fellow named Eddie who I ended up hiring for the job even though his was the highest estimate; turns out he is ex-Army Corps of Engineers and I was impressed by his expertise and novel approach to the proposed work. His methods made sense to me. When I asked him about having the adjacent cesspool area finished off, he looked at the soil surface, shook his head and said “It’s not remotely settled yet, not even close.” “But it’s been two months and it feels perfectly solid.” He said “Trust me, it isn’t.” I put it down to him erring on the far side of caution. After all, four other people who do this sort of work all the time had assured me it was just fine.

And after all, when the lawn cutting guys came every Thursday they drove their heavy riding mower right across this area, leaving ‘interesting’ tire track patterns but no other ill effects. Good ol’ Mother Earth. Solid as the proverbial rock.

Five days ago (the 24th) I decided to finally plant my tree peony which has been unhappily existing in a grow-bag for a year. I chose the only poison-ivy-free, weed-free spot that would not be anywhere within range of the upcoming exterior renovation work. I made a lot of trips back and forth over that dirt, because it’s the most direct route between there and the garage and the water source. Finished at 5 pm with a sense of a job well done and happy that the forecast was for an overnight rain that would settle the peony right into its new spot.

When I stepped out the next morning to see how the peony had fared, this is what I saw.

Suddenly there were huge depressions. Large deep cracks. There were holes; big ones. And there was a not so miniature version of the Grand Canyon in the exact area over which I had been blithely walking back and forth not twelve  hours before. *gulp*

This is deeper than it looks. I was not about to stand closer in order to get a better camera angle.

This large area looks like its underpinnings are starting to come “unpinned” as well.

This interesting miniature river valley/Brown Cliffs of Dover is being helped along by the runoff from the badly-installed gutters by the roofing company last December. Because the removed section of the brick walkway that was also excavated for the pipe leading from house to cesspool is also suddenly settling, the water is running along under there and outward, merrily carving away soil as it goes. I’d done a fair job of temporarily replacing the removed bricks so that at least there’d be a mud-free path between garage and front door when (rarely) needed. Until the 25th it was almost level. Now it looks like a fallen souffle. Charming.

Of course Eddie’s words immediately echoed in my head: “It’s not settled yet, not remotely close, trust me.” The man knew whereof he spoke, that’s for sure. Those other guys? Pfffft.

I also had a mental picture of the lawn cutting crew, man and/or machine, suddenly dropping wheels-deep into a junior version of the Black Hole of Calcutta as they drove across. Yikes! (I have no idea how they ‘drove’ the mower into the front yard on Thursday because I wasn’t home at the time. Obviously there were no new tire tracks in the dirt.)

So from now until… November? December?? March??? April??? I will be closely watching what happens with this area. Will it drop even more? Will new holes appear? Will my mini Grand Canyon get larger and deeper? How many yards of fill and topsoil will I end up needing? ($$$$$) And most importantly, how the heck am I supposed to zap any new weeds? That should be very interesting, because my battery-operated sprayer has a whopping 4-foot reach at most. But I sure as heck am not going to be stepping onto this particular Surprise Package area to pull any out by hand! 🙂

More Tales from The Money Pit

  8 comments for “Tales from The Money Pit: W(hole)-ly Surprising

  1. September 29, 2018 at 6:52 pm

    Egads! Almost all of the many cabins that my colleagues maintain are equipped with their own septic systems. The problems are not serious, but they are endless. By the time one gets repaired, another acts up. So far, none of them have collapsed. They use leach fields, so the septic tanks are not very big.

    • September 29, 2018 at 7:25 pm

      The reason septic systems are uncommon here is because of average plot size. The majority of homes sit on only 1/4 or 1/3 acre. Some areas are only 1/8 acre zoned and in general a 1/2 acre lot is larger than average. A “large” lot is 1 acre and for anything larger than that you’re talking $2mil+ and up. There just isn’t all that much room for leaching fields, especially since many people choose to add an inground pool (there goes the backyard as an option) or if the lot isn’t more or less level. A paved driveway takes up yet more of the already-small lot. Then there’s soil conditions. A good 1/3 of this region is extremely sandy and the other 1/3 is very heavy rocky clay. So on a best-use-of-land basis, the cesspool, having the smallest footprint, was the best choice when the developers came in during the post-war decades.

      • September 30, 2018 at 2:00 am

        Some of the leach fields here are substandard for the homes they are affiliated with because the homes were originally built as summer cabins, but are now occupied throughout the year. Some of the septic systems are downright silly. Yet, many are impressive in that they still function!

  2. Adine Gnekow
    September 29, 2018 at 7:13 pm

    And you still have a sense of humor after all this??? I would be sitting on my front porch, crying and asking: “Why me??” Yikes. You keep that fellow who knew what was going to happen. He is “one of a kind”…a gem. May you not see any more forthcoming troubles with your new home.

    • September 29, 2018 at 7:29 pm

      I actually hired him before the ‘great collapse’ happened, so am feeling even better about that decision despite the higher cost of what he’ll be doing. He also diagnosed a different problem that several other experts had completely failed to even think of. He was able to give me his final job-timeslot of this season which is early November but if the other work (porch and siding) isn’t done by then, it may need to wait until the spring. In cold winter areas like ours, there’s a cutoff date (mid November) after which it is not optimal to be doing masonry work. Greedy masons try to squeeze additional jobs into their schedule by adding antifreeze to their mortar mix but that’s just setting up for more problems over time. This fellow does not do that.

  3. October 1, 2018 at 4:13 pm

    Eeeeeek! You are a woman of great tolerance, it seems to be one thing after another. Your time is definitely due to come very, very soon.

  4. October 3, 2018 at 9:02 pm

    heh heh, nice to see the parade of disasters is progressing nicely! At least you seem to be getting rid of some of the most irritating things on your list. Surely there must be a light somewhere that might possibly be coming from the end of the tunnel?
    Maybe you’ll at least get to enjoy fewer leaves this fall…

  5. October 6, 2018 at 9:26 pm

    Yikes. Makes me very grateful to be connected to the city sewer system. Your story also reinforces a painful lesson that we keep relearning. Namely, that contractors often do not know what they are talking about.

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