Shangri La

Shangri La

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Perk Test

I'm walking though the property with the environmental engineer. We've discussed the location I had wanted for the cabin - on the southern tip of the property where we can see the old meetinghouse. From there looking north the land forms a thin triangle of about 3 acres, heading uphill on a dead-end road on one side, and staying level beside a state road on the other. Both roads are dirt, and I have visions of clearing the southern tip to make a small field at the crossroads for the cabin to look out on. Besides the meetinghouse, there are are 2 old farmhouses across from the tip, and the rest of the land is wooded. If feels remote but cozy - a small huddle of humanity in a wilderness.

"This area looks wet. See these?" He holds up a weed. "I don't know what they are, but we always find them in damp areas." He gives the signal and the excavator begins digging a 5-foot-deep hole. The wall of dirt clearly reveals layers - rich brown soil bisected by bands of red and then grayer soils with darker bands below.
"See this?" he asks, handing me up a chunk of soil. "That's what you don't want to see - the red there is rust, just like on your car. You get that when the water table is high and consistently wet."
The rusty soil was less than 8 inches below the surface. I've been told we need at least 4 feet of soil above the water table to be able to put in a conventional in-ground septic system. "Let's head uphill - there are pines up there." He indicates a stand of trees about 100 feet ahead. "They don't like wet feet, so we might have some luck there."

We're doing a 'perk test', to see where a septic system might work, and what kind it will be. I've been warned that 'mound' systems are much more common in Vermont than in-ground, due to the high water tables as moisture travels over hard rock beneath shallow soils. I had thought these tests involved digging holes, filling them with water, and seeing how long it took to drain. Turns out the texture and coloring of the soil tell the engineer almost everything he needs to know.

We dug a total of four test holes along the dead-end road from the lowest to the highest point on the property. Unfortunately, the water table was never more than 3 feet below the surface. I'd have to have a mound system, which, at $10,000 - $13,000, would be double the price of an in-ground. "I've only found sites for 2 conventional systems in the last year," he tells me.

I'm just glad the property will take septic at all.

Turns out there's hope, though. If I want to do additional tests this spring, we can determine conclusively if the water-table banding is the result of an occasionally high water table or maybe standing water from the Jurassic era. If so, we might still be able to go conventional. The additional test would be another $1,000 (plus $500 for a revised design, but the savings could be 4 times that. Of course, we might find that the water table is consistently high, and it would be bad money after good.

But I got a bonus: The engineer and the excavator both had a wealth of information on the area and the land, which they freely shared over the course of 2 hours. They had excellent insight on where and how a house should be situated, and what I might expect to spend on a well ("You won't have any issue with water here - they'll only need to go down about 300 feet"), land clearing, and a foundation. "This is a nice piece," they both commented more than once, and offered suggestions on what could be done to make it nicer. Higher up on the land, the removal of a few trees would provide a view of the ridge line to the west; a few more trees, and I could overlook both the meetinghouse and the ridge line to the south.

All the while, the realtor hovered near us on the road, waiting to hear if I planned to use the septic contingency I put in the contract to back out of the deal. "We're good," I told her. "It may have to be a mound, but I still want it." When everyone had gone, I walked the land one last time as a light snow was falling, taking in the view of the ridge line through the trees by test hole #3, high above the original site. I was freezing after being under-dressed in 37 degrees for over 2 hours, but be damned if I didn't have a hard time leaving.

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