Do-It-Yourself Culture and a Dig in the Backyard

I just spent an hour digging in my back yard. In the summertime, I love gardening and puttering around in the dirt because first, it’s therapeutic and second, it makes my yard look good. Today’s effort, however, wasn’t one of those days.

I was digging up the dirt trying to locate the lid of my septic tank. What’s a septic tank, you might ask? Well, houses in the U.S. have two options for getting rid of dirty water. Urban residents already have their homes hooked up to city sewers. The clean water comes in from the city (and you pay a yearly fee for that). The dirty water goes out another pipe line to the city’s wastewater treatment plant.

Country residents–us included–have the second kind of wastewater disposal: the backyard septic tank. Water goes out the kitchen and bathroom pipes into a cement tank in the ground where the solids are deposited at the bottom. The fluids eventually rise to the top and flow out escape pipes into a grid spread across your backyard, a little below the surface. The idea is a little gross when you stop to think about it, but I guess the water is just absorbed and filtered into the ground while the solid waste collects at the bottom of the tank, waiting for a pumping truck to come suck it out.

 Roto-Rooter is one of many U.S. companies that pump out septic tanks.

Roto-Rooter is one of many U.S. companies that pump out septic tanks.

Well, every 3-5 years you are supposed to have the tank cleaned out. When our toilets started backing up last month (refusing to flush down) and the sinks began gurgling every time we ran the dishwasher or washing machine, we figured something was wrong. It turns out we hadn’t had the septic tank cleaned out in seven years. Yikes!

Research showed local companies charge in the neighborhood of $300 to clean out a septic tank. One company charged $270 and had a $10-off online coupon. I also found out they’d discount you another $40 if you dug up access to the lid yourself. Figuring it couldn’t be too hard, I went out to dig it up. There was good news and bad news.

• Luckily, it was warm outside on this 3rd of December–no snow!
• Unfortunately, I had never done this before.
• Luckily, the location was easy enough to spot. (Grass is greener over the septic tank!)
• Unhappily, I didn’t know how deeply the tank was buried.
• Luckily, my shovel hit the concrete roof at a depth of only 6-8 inches.
• Unfortunately, it took me an hour of turning over sod before I located the lid.

When I have to do this five years from now, I’ll be better prepared. I took a photo of the location (see below). Shockingly, the end of the tank is aligned directly out from our master bathroom. Go figure!

Are you a do-it-yourselfer? Do people in your home country do home improvement jobs themselves? From a recent news story, I learned that Home Depot is closing its stores in China. Apparently, most Chinese don’t like D-I-Y home projects and would rather pay someone to do them. I grew up on 10 acres of land in the country, and my dad was a firm believer in teaching his kids how to be self-sufficient: sewing, housekeeping, and yard maintenance. This was even though he was a businessman who could afford to pay workers to do these jobs.

This afternoon, I was grumbling because the digging took a lot longer than I thought, and I had other things to do in my office. But there is an odd satisfaction of having done it myself. And I did save 40 bucks. Tell me about the extent of your home repair projects. Do you cut your grass? Shovel your driveway? Paint walls? Would you install a ceiling light? Build a deck? Put in a garden? Install a new toilet? Lay tile and grout?

I look forward to hearing from you. The truck comes here on Thursday.

 Lid to my septic tank, newly exposed, waiting for the truck to come and pump it out.

Lid to my septic tank, newly exposed, waiting for the truck to come and pump it out.

New vocabulary

puttering = keeping busy, sometimes doing a little work

gurgling = making deep, bubbling water noises

in the neighborhood of = approximately

gross = [slang] disgusting, unpleasant

easy to spot = easy to see (or find)

Go figure! = How could this be true? [sarcasm]

Duh! = Why didn’t I figure this out before now?

Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.