Climate Change Creep – When Global Warming Equals Frozen Sewage

Climate changes causing failure of sewage systems in cold climate dragonflysolar.comHumans are an enterprising lot. Over the years, we study our surroundings and try to come up with “systems” that allow us to live our lives comfortably within the environment that we are presented with. I believe that for the most part, we underestimate just how narrow the windows are which allow our systems and solutions to remain functional and effective. Looking back years from now, it is my guess that the breakdown of our systems-solutions will be one of the consistent identifiers of the harm we are causing to the environment. Taken separately, they may cause us to pause for a moment…taken together, we will likely be very surprised at how we could have ever missed the clues to changes we are affecting to our own “system” on Earth.

I read about a prime example of this recently in my hometown newspaper, the Minneapolis Star and Tribune. The article entitled “Global Warming is a Load of Sewage”, was an account of a situation unfolding across our coldest climates in Northern Minnesota (read full article here). In places that pride themselves on the occasional but consistent 60 degree below zero (Fahrenheit) air temperature, the c**p is literally hitting the proverbial fan.

Many people who live in these areas are semi professional weather watchers. In the middle of winter, one has to pay some attention to what is going on or risk the lives of themselves and those they love. Blizzards and temperatures that can kill quickly are nothing to mess with this far north, but for many, the interest with local weather involves much more… it becomes a way of life.

Peter M. Leschak wrote a column which was printed in the Opinion section of Sunday, January 27, 2013 edition of the Star and Tribune.  Mr. Leschak is a long time resident of Side Lake Minnesota and an author…and like many of his fellow neighbors, more than a keen weather watcher, he keeps accurate records. Doing so offers us yet another glimpse into what I call “global climate change creep”…slow, methodical change in the same direction.

On ground hogs day 1996, a weather watcher in Tower Minnesota, a town 35 miles west of the home of Mr. Leschak, set a new state low temperature record at minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Mr Leschak’s thermometer registered a mere minus 50, but he understood that temperatures can vary a lot in that kind of cold depending on specific location. So, just before sunrise, he hiked down to a neighboring bog clutching a thermometer to see if he could better that mark. Once there, he pulled out the thermometer and watched as the mercury dropped to minus 65 then separated into chunks as it crawled to minus 70. That year, he recorded 74 days when the temperature dipped to zero or below.

He believes that the following year’s winter began a warming trend that continues today. That winter, he recorded a mere 25 days at or below zero with the coldest morning registering 25 below zero…quite a change, but a trend does not one year make.

During the 1970’s – 1990’s, a minus 30-degree reading at his house was routine. But beginning this century, we have passed 5 winters without hitting one minus 30-degree low temp. His firewood consumption was reduced by 25%.

The locals are not impressed with these tepid winters referring to them as “luke cold”. As a result of these changes, the winters are also shorter. Mr. Leschak used to be able to count on a strong 4.5 to 5 months of cross-country skiing, which usually began before Thanksgiving and ran into April 1st or beyond. For the last decade, 3.5 months has become the norm…shaving an entire month or more off of the season. This 20% to 25% reduction in season also includes shortening the use of long wilderness trails for snowmobilers and a considerable loss to the local tourism driven economy.

To understand the issue, we first need to make sure everyone is on board with a very important “system” developed decades ago to support rural living. A “qualifier” to what follows – I am not a plumber or a septic system designer-developer. The technical aspects of rural septic design, although thoroughly researched, is not my specialty. My goal is to deliver an understanding of how these systems work in general to provide enough background to understand the story. This article is based on my understanding and it well may have a few details that are not 100% right, but it does not matter. The details that are important to the reason for this post ARE all correct to the very best of my ability.

At 60 degrees below, outhouses were a very challenging solution to our way of life, so is running water for that matter. When man finally combined them both into homes that stayed heated throughout long winters, a number of solutions were devised to deal with the bi-products of our eating and living…human waste. Initially, most systems were comprised of large holding tanks, which similar to the hole in the ground of a frozen outhouse, when it started to get full, someone in a big truck came and pumped it out and took it away to a bigger outhouse of sorts. This of course was messy and expensive, so over time, what is today the most common solution of rural sewage treatment was designed. These systems combine some of the holding tank thinking along with a version of mother natures cure for dirty, yucky fluids – the drain field.

The idea is to have the solids separated from the fluids through a settling process in a large underground tank often capable of holding 1000 gallons of fluid and other “related” materials. The heavier solids settle and the fluids, now called “effluent”, reach a level where they run out into a drain field consisting of underground pipe with holes in it. These pipes release the fluids over an area covered with various layers of rock, pebbles, sand and soils to filter out ever smaller waste particles which bacteria eventually finish off… returning clean water to the deeper water tables and aquifers. (see image below) When built right, these systems can be a sustainable solution, which requires little to no maintenance…it just keeps doing what it does.

I have lived in houses off and on for the last 30 – 40 years in Minnesota with this type of system in operation without any problems.

On January 4th 1990, Mr. Leschak came home one day from work to a house with a basement filled with raw sewage. If you have ever experienced this, you understand just how vile it is. Prior to this, his system had worked flawlessly for 12 winters. He figures about 70 gallons of raw sewage was in his home based on the number of trips it took to portage the sewage outdoors with his 5 gallon bucket. I have had to deal with this once in a home I owned. Interestingly enough, it was a city home with city run sewer systems.

In my case, the drain pipes to the sewer underground had been broken and were infiltrated by roots from a large tree in the front yard which eventually became clogged causing the sewage to back up into the basement. This isn’t fun. In Mr. Leschak’s case, the drain field had frozen solid. With no place for the fluids to drain, they filled the tank and backed up into his house, which was its only path, just like in my case.

Now I know what you are thinking. You are reading an article about climate change which is most closely related to global warming in many minds and his drain field froze.

Since this was the first time it had happened, Mr. Leshack began to investigate but soon the motivation dropped as he did not a see a return of the problem again until 2002….but it has happened 5 times now in the last decade. According to records, in February of 2007, 80 percent of the septic systems in Itasca County were frozen….locked up, including his. Although the temperatures had been warming in between those years, the minimal snow pack of 6 to 8 inches to keep the ground from freezing at the drain field depth was maintained. The now normal warming then re-freezing cycles causing dramatically affected average snow pack which continues to feed the cycle. The first few times result in having the basements pumped out and sanitized, but since it has become a consistent problem that looks like it is hear to stay, a different solution needed to be found. Septic systems are not cheap and what modification do you make? Is the trend going to get worse so you dig them deeper? How much deeper? One can’t go too deep without losing the structures that are the passive components in the process.

Usually the first sign that a homeowner receives that his drain field has frozen is when it backs up into his house. At that point, the “system” is not working and if you do not have your holding tank pumped out, it too will freeze crippling the system beyond an easy or inexpensive repair. In his area, a septic system pump and haul away runs just under $200. (see table below) A typical family of 4 uses about 150 gallons of sewer water-fluids each day so if pumping the tanks is the solution, it would need pumping in as little as every 6 – 7 days.  Quite a dilemma.

 sewage tank and drain field graphic

Average Costs for Septic Services

Cost to Pump Out the Septic Tank:

$150 to $250

Cost of Septic System Testing with Dye:

$75 to $125

Cost to Remove Clog in Pipes to Tank:

$50 to $250 (or more, if it’s serious)

Cost of Complete Visual Inspection:

$300 to $600

Cost to Replace Pipe from to Tank:

$60 per foot

Cost of Permit to Repair Septic System:

$200 avg (low of $30, high of $444)

Cost of Permit to Install New System:

$350 avg (low of $180, high of $577)

Cost of Replacing Septic Tank Baffle:

$200 to $400

Cost to Pressure Clean Distribution Pipes:

$400 to $600

Cost of Replacing Distribution Box:

$600 to $800

Cost of Installing New Septic Tank:

$1,500 to $2,500

*Cost of Replacing Drain/Leach Field:

$3,000 to $10,000 to $15,000+

*NOTE: Frequently a homeowner builds a house and plans for the septic and drain-field in the layout of the lot and house. Land is cleared and excavated for the system, especially the drain-field. If a drain-field becomes an ongoing issue, and if there is available land, it may be cheaper to build a new drain field. However, often the site does not have a secondary area suitable for a new drain field, which then leaves removing the old drain-field and replacing it as an only solution which is much more costly.

This problem is new. You can find many old timers with these systems that never had one problem with these systems ever until the last decade. The depth for the drain-fields was/is based on all historical data available to us so no-one thought it would end up not being deep enough…until it is. It would be marginally much less expensive had we the foresight to think that climate change would suggest we hedge our bet and build these systems differently….deeper for example.

Everyone is looking for solutions. One of the more reasonable, at least at first glance, are electric septic system heaters. For about $1400 you can purchase a system, which claims to be easy to install, that forces heated air through the entire system. Mr. Leschak estimates it would add an additional 3000 kWh to his electric bill. He finds it more than ironic that while whether climate change is real is being debated as if there are any reasonable explanations to what we see happening around our world, in his back yard, in order to prevent drain field freezing caused by milder winters, he would have to increase his carbon footprint considerably thereby helping to accelerate more climate warming.

As I have said, this is climate change creep. Changes or shifts like this frequently appear first at the edges. Often what we all believe are robust systems which are predicated on what were considered strong and immovable premises…no one thought about this as a potential problem until it was.

For now, most have decided that they will need to treat their sewage as if there are no drain fields. Mr. Leschak has fashioned a sort of septic tank dipstick that has become part of his seasonal maintenance schedule. Throughout the winter, he regularly checks his tank levels and for now, will pay to pump the tank when it looks too close until he can figure out something better.

This is climate change at the fringe. It is always where changes are first noticeable. By itself it may not appear to have as big of an impact. But taken together with the other changes we are experiencing…to try to argue against climate change is just…..well, wrong.

Staggering amounts of money are being spent to convince us that the way we have always done it is the way we should continue to do it….energy use being at the top of the list…but they are wrong.

L eave                        global warming affects sewage systems from

E arth

G reener

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C oming….because

Y ou can!


The next generation may well be too late…

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