MicroFASTAmongst all the other things I’d like to have been doing in my free time, this last week I had two unavoidable household repair chores. The first was the septic tank. We have a Bio-Microbics MicroFAST system. It is kind of a fancy septic tank design, owing to the fact that our drain field is in the flood plain. And as far as septic tanks go, you might equate fancy to finicky, because it is!

I’ve had multiple tangles with this thing. The first being that the installer put the wrong floats in it, and then threw up his hands when it wouldn’t turn on the pump to the drainfield. A cold November evening found my dad and me wrestling a garden hose and puzzling over downloaded manuals and wiring diagrams before discovering the problem, such that the right floats could be ordered and installed. But that early intimacy with the system (while it still had water in it! Winking smile) has turned out to be beneficial,  because now I really know inside and out how the thing works.

It has two tanks, each with two chambers. “Stuff” comes in the first tank from the house tight line, the solid stuff settles in the bottom. Liquid flows off the top into the second chamber, and then off the top of that chamber into chamber #3 of the second tank. And that’s where some magic happens: that chamber has a big, plastic honeycomb in it, and an air compressor blows air through that 24/7. The idea is that bacteria affix to the honeycomb, and enjoy bacteria utopia in being fed a constant supply of oxygen and nutrient, without having to even get off the couch. These bacteria, housed and coddled like you would honey bees, or adult children still living at home, provide the service of material breakdown and consumption. This is supposed to cut down on how often you have to have the tank pumped. (A cost reduction which does not offset the number of times I have to open the lids and view our septic effluent, however. At least, I will grant, Bio-Microbics is right, the smell is merely “compost-ey”.)

And the technological wizardry doesn’t stop there. Here is the command center for the system. It’s a virtual Lassie Dog, set to bark  and flash if anything goes awry: power loss, pump failure, compressor death, light bulb demise, Timmy in the well (no, wait, not that). I think our septic system has better vitals-monitoring than most hospitals.


After liquid flows off the top of the third chamber, it trickles by a UV light (to disinfect) before entering the fourth chamber, where a pump awaits to send sanitized gray water out to our pasture drain field in full tank-sized rushes (to alternately flood, and let it rest). And it’s in this little tunnel of light where we have some kind of a problem nobody can explain: it tends to clog. This backs up chamber number three, which makes it too hard for the air compressor to pump air into there. The compressor overheats and periodically shuts itself off to take a break.

I am programmed to listen for the sound of the air compressor operating normally and the sound of cheerful bubbling in chamber #3 every time I walk by that thing. They are very quiet and probably not even noticeable to a bystander. But I: I am perfectly attuned to our septic system’s moods. So I’m quick to notice when something is amiss.

Usually when I hear the compressor strain and the bubbling stop, I can just pull out the UV light momentarily, and a whoosh, a bunch of water will break free, and all will right itself. But this time that didn’t seem to have any affect. We noticed the water level was a bit high in the first chamber while working on the barn plumbing. And the septic had actually backed up into the bathtub a few weeks ago. But we had resolved that by hosing a grease blockage out of the tank entrance (ugh, we try hard not to let grease go down the drain, and we have a Fat Trapper, but still, we cook a lot…). So on Monday when I was doing some raking, and I heard that compressor shut off its overheated self, I lifted all the lids again.

Poor chamber #3 was way too full, and no bubbly. I fiddled with the light, and practically nothing: only the tiniest trickle of water seemed to be coming by. I got out The Snake. I wasn’t sure I could navigate The Snake up the light tunnel, I thought it might just want to exit into chamber #4. But it didn’t, it went right where I wanted it to go. I was careful not to break the very expensive UV light wand with The Snake. And then… it unblocked something. In the rush of water passing I did not see what it was. The Loch Ness? A troll? A beaver dam? A 4” blob of algae? I may never know. Whatever it was, it was probably unhappy to be dislodged out of its tanning bed.  But it’s fixed again. That Jacuzzi of septic action is music to my ears. It’s the little things in life you appreciate, like a working septic system, and saving a bill from the Septic Repair Man.