Aztext Press

Life Off-the-Grid

A Visit from the Honey Wagon

By Cam Mather

WARNING: This blog may gross some people out. But I thought I’d write it anyway, since it’s a reality of country life. Well, it’s sort of reality for everyone, but in the city once the toilet is flushed, it’s pretty easy to not think about where stuff goes and how it’s treated.

In the country this isn’t the case. You have a fairly direct relationship with what gets flushed down the toilet. In our case, like many rural homes, we have a septic system. We have an underground septic tank not far from the house, which is a large concrete tank with two chambers. When the toilet is flushed, or a sink or bathtub is drained, the material flows into the first tank. Solids sink to the bottom. The liquid part flows into the second chamber where more solids can settle out, and then what’s left flows out into your leaching field or “weeping tiles.” (“Weeping Tiles” is also the name of the band that Sarah Harmer was in before she went solo.) The weeping tiles are perforated and the liquid flows out into the gravel then into the soil and is broken down by bacteria. In our case we have amazing sand that filters the liquids as they return to the water table.

The graphics below are from Bill Kemp’s “The Renewable Energy Handbook.”

This process can take a while, but ultimately anytime I flush anything down my drain or toilet, I assume it can end up back in my drinking water. So we’re careful. I clean the toilet with borax. We never use harsh cleaners and we keep this in mind when purchasing soaps, etc. We posted a video on YouTube where Bill Kemp attempts to explain this concept. He suggests that a few weeks after flushing the toilet they could be drinking that water, and some of comments posted under the video suggest that people are either appalled by the concept or don’t really get the concept. There is some filtration involved in the process. (The video is here;

When we lived in a suburb of Toronto the exit pipe in Lake Ontario from the waste treatment plant was not far from the water inlet pipe for drinking water, so it’s the same concept.

In the country though, it just seems a little more immediate.

Bacteria work away at the solids in the tank, but every 3 or 4 years you need to get the tank pumped to remove waste that hasn’t broken down. There is a layer of scum that floats on top made up of grease and lighter wastes, but I don’t know how we’d get this since we never use any fats for cooking (I’m being sarcastic here).

So a couple of weeks ago I dug up the soil on top of the septic tank and removed the soil to expose the lids of the tanks. Then we called Greg Storring to come and pump the tank. Some people call these trucks “honey wagons.” Greg used to have a logo of Winnie the Pooh with a jar of honey on his truck, but his new truck is more serious and business-like and just has a logo. I can remember getting the tank pumped at my grandmother’s cottage and the slogan on the septic pumping truck was “We’re #1 in the #2 Business.” Gotta love a septic hauler with a sense of humor.

Greg belongs to The Ontario Association of Sewage Industry Services, which just had their yearly conference. The abbreviation of this group is OASIS. Not bad for septic haulers!

So Greg arrived and pried off the concrete lids of the two chambers and started pumping. I guess I’m kind of immature but I’m fascinated by the whole process. Nothing looks like anything you’d expect. In fact, the upper layer is black and looks like a nice dark loam that you might spread on your garden. But I resisted that temptation since I know there is more processing that needs to be done to it.

We like to invite Greg in for a cup of tea when he’s finished pumping to get the scoop on what’s happening at his place. He has 4 lagoons where he dumps the waste, which use the same process of allowing the liquid to gradually flow from one lagoon to the next to allow for more settling. The Ministry of the Environment regularly inspects Greg’s operation and his process works well. They find some chemicals and pharmaceuticals, just like when they test the waste treatment facilities in the city. The pharmaceuticals aren’t just from people flushing expired drugs; people’s bodies eliminate a lot of it.

I like having a septic tank. I like being aware of the implications of my actions. Greg tells people “If you can’t eat it, don’t flush it.” It’s a good philosophy. I do clean our toilets with borax, which I probably wouldn’t eat, but it is a pretty natural product, one that is naturally present in the soil. Some gardeners add it if their plants of showing signs of deficiency.

I deal with manure all the time. I get horse manure from Alyce whenever I can for the gardens. I deal with chicken manure daily now as I clean out our coop. People manure is a different thing. But as long as I live in the country I’m going to be vigilant about what ends up in my septic tank. Ultimately I could be drinking it.

Illustrations from “The Renewable Energy Handbook” by William Kemp. Photos by Cam Mather.



  1. Dhruva

    Great article Cam! As gross as it is to read about septic tanks and “humanure”, I think it is important to be aware of the entire process.

  2. Thomas Gold

    So in general, you have to dig up to find the caps in order to have the septic pumped, Isn’t there a way to eliminate the digging etc with some kind of access at ground level. with an air tight cap ? any info will be helpful…… thanks.


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