Running a French Holiday Gite in Rural Brittany

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Emptying the old septic tank and plans for the new one

As I wrote earlier we're due to have a new septic tank installed in our holiday cottage in France.

You might think that the fosse septique (septic tank) is a horribly smelly and disgusting place and definitely not something you ever want to venture near. I also had the same opinion until a couple of years ago we decided to get it cleaned and emptied out (something you're supposed to do every few years depending on usage, mainly to remove the layer of indigestible material that builds up on a crust at the top).

You can pay a fortune (€200 or so) for a company to come and clean it out, or you can do like I did and pay a local farmer. He came round the next day with a massive agricultural tanker connected to his tractor, had a lot of trouble getting it into the drive, and then proceeded to suck the contents of the fosse out in about 1/2 hour.

The most surprising thing for me was that it didn't really smell at all - probably due to all the microbacterial processes that break down the waste.

So one of the first things I need to do when we go over next week is to get the farmer to come and empty it again as we'll need it clean so that the builder can connect the new fosse onto the existing pipework.

The French like to size their fosse's based on the number of bedrooms in the property and allow 1000 litres fosse capacity for each bedroom. Right now our holiday home has 3 bedrooms so that'd be a 3000 litre fosse I need.

Ah but no, we're in the process of converting the second house into a Gite, also with 3 bedrooms, so that's a 6000 litre system I need.

And it could get worse, the really long term plan is to convert the hay loft and stables at the end into a 3rd Gite, so that could mean requiring a 9000 litre system.

At this stage I had visions of a swimming pool size installation and the entire garden disappearing under a mountain of soil and pipework. We spent ages agonising about what size to put in, the fact that the house is only occupied about half the year lead me to think of not putting in such a big system, but then I started being worried about what if we did eventually convert the 3rd house and then came to sell and couldn't because of an inadequately sized fosse.

In the end we settled on a 6000 litre system which is what's being installed next week. Once I'd decided on the fosse size I had to pay €350 to the water company who come and do soil samples around the garden, work out what type of fosse is suitable, and then design it so that it meets all the regulations.

The plan is the official cadastre for our house and shows the roughly L shaped garden, the separate barn and the L shaped house.

I was hoping that we could put both the 6000 litre tank and the settlement bed in the garden to the right of the plans which is slightly downhill and would mean that the final remaining (cleaned) output from the fosse could run into the drainage ditch beside the roadway.

Unfortunately it was not to be. The size of the (sand filled) settlement bed is determined by the size of the tank, so worked out needing to be 35m2. Then there are strict regulations about separation from the house (minimum 5m), neighbouring properties (3m) and boundary walls (3m). There simply wasn't enough room to get the required size fosse into that area of garden.

So we've ended up with the fosse going into that garden area and the settlement bed going behind the barn (just about the number '51' on the plan). This means running 34m pipework all up the back of the house from the tank to the settlement bed, installation of an electric pump (as this part of the garden is about 2m higher than the tank) to pump the waste along and up the pipework, then a whole set of return pipework to get back down to the drainage ditch.

There's also the small matter of where the 40m2 or so of excavated earth is going to go. I'm hoping to spread it over the existing garden, take out some of the slopes and raise the level a bit (raise them a lot probably). Whether this works out remains to be seen.

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