The Case of the Surfacing Effluent

We bought an old house in the country in 2009. The septic system was so old that no documents could be found describing the locations of its underground components. A professional inspector found one small tank and assumed that the drain field must be close by in the general direction of the outlet pipe. The system passed a flow test which the bank found reassuring enough that they issued us a mortgage to buy the house.

Recently we noticed a small puddle near the septic tank. This was surfacing effluent. Effluent–the watery discharge that normally flows from the tank into the drain field for natural purification by the soil–had stopped flowing through the underground pipes and found its way to the surface.

Yesterday we had the septic company come out to pump the tank so we could begin working on the problem. The technician found a surprise. The inspector had gotten it wrong. The tank he found was only the first of two. The effluent had been coming up through a gap in the lid of the second tank which was set slightly lower than the first.

We still don’t know what is causing the stoppage. It could be a collapsed line, some other kind of blockage in the pipes such as tree roots, or the soil may be suffering from reduced hydraulic capacity for any number of reasons. Not only is the cause a mystery but we don’t even know where the drain field is. I suspected there might be one about 60 feet away where two or three strips of grass thrived even during last year’s drought. However, that area was not in the direction that the outlet pointed. I decided to dig in and see what I could find before asking for professional help. Here is the hole I dug:

pipes
Septic pipes

Of interest are the terra cotta fitting, the gaps and loose joints, and the 90ยบ elbow. (Incidentally, near the surface in the corner of the hole I found a dented wheel hub. I have no intention of moving it. Knowing this property, it would not surprise me to find it attached to a complete automobile buried upside-down.) The elbow turns the flow in the direction of the grassy patch, suggesting that our drain field actually is all the way out there.

After all of that digging by hand, I threw up my hands and called the professionals back. Tomorrow we should have a digging crew to unearth and inspect enough of the line to confirm the cause of the problem. If we get our wish, they’ll be able to fix it on sight and leave us with a reasonable bill. We really don’t want to pay for a new drain field or anything more major than a bit of digging and 4″ PVC.

Wish us luck.

How to Read Tech News

News should be read with global context and broad perspective. When you blend Techmeme headlines with Voice Of America it’s hard to get so excited about rounded corners and iPads. Try it:

Techmeme & Voice Of America

Too often we configure our news experience to focus on the safe and the comfortable. Blinders are fine until you forget that you put them on yourself. Remember to take them off sometimes and look around.

Emacs on Mac OS X

During the weekend I spent a few hours setting up a new hacking environment for my latest curiosity, Lisp. Evidently all the cool kids use Emacs for hacking in Lisp so I invested the time to revisit my Emacs setup.

Previously I would SSH into each server on which I had files to edit and run Emacs in each shell. This forced me to maintain .emacs files everywhere and exposed me to network breaks. (I tried screen but OSX+screen+Emacs is the deadly triad of configuration hell.)

Now I use GNU Emacs for Mac OS X, a universal binary compiled just days ago from the GNU source. Instead of running Emacs on a remote server, I use TRAMP to connect and edit remote files. When I want to open a remote file, I prefix the path with /ssh:hostname: or /scp:hostname:. TRAMP can browse and autocomplete in remote directories just as well as in local directories.

I already keep my most used servers in my .ssh/ssh_config file and I use shell scripts to start master connections with logs tailing in terminal windows. Master connections cut down on TRAMP connection times. TRAMP reads ssh_config for hostname autocompletion, so I can open remote files in fewer keystrokes than ever before.

There so many benefits to using Cocoa Emacs instead of Terminal+SSH+Emacs. I don’t have to mess with Terminal’s key maps and then fix them in every remote .emacs file. I don’t even need to install Emacs on remote servers. The kill ring integrates with the clipboard and works across all remote hosts. The network can’t lag my keystrokes or kill my editing session. Frames. Menus. Scroll bars.

I must stop blogging and get back to work. But first I must thank David Caldwell for setting up emacsformacosx.com. Of all the major hacking environment shifts I’ve made, this was the easiest and most powerful.