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septic permit question ( VT ) - how to keep cost down  RSS feed

 
Susana Smith
Posts: 32
Location: northern VT
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This is my first post, but I hope not the last.

I intend to start building this year on land that I own in Lamoille County VT, a small strawbale timberframe lime-plastered house on rubble trench foundation, with a rocket mass heater.
(This weekend's intensive reading of permies is causing me to question whether I should look into raised foundations and light clay straw, but that's a whole different question.)

Though I'm usually pretty good at online research, I can't seem to find the answer to this question: How to keep costs down for septic permit and septic install?
Or maybe the question is, *is* there any way?

I intend to use a humanure toilet, and won't have an enormous amount of greywater (I've lived without running water, not that I'm eager to do that again), so I'd likely skip the septic altogether if that were allowed, and instead focus on processing greywater, but it seems there's no way around it, so, okay, having septic means I can put off the greywater research till after house building is finished. The more simple the building process, the better.

I've been told that I need to hire a soil engineer to do a perc test and a soil test (town permit just mentions perc test, but state permit specifies both).
And apparently a backhoe and backhoe operator will need to be hired to dig holes for the testing.
I looked at the websites of some local companies that do this, and the going rate looks like ~$1000 altogether.
I'm reluctant to talk to these businesses because they seem to be geared to McMansion homebuyers, and my budget is more like just above shack level.

I looked in the state permit database hoping to get some clues about how easily permits were issued and what companies people in my neighborhood were using, but I did not find any permits for new construction septic for any of my neighbors, though it seemed to me there should have been, the houses aren't that old.
I can't just go and talk to the neighbors who built most recently because I'm currently on the West Coast, and the only ones I have email/phone contact with bought a pre-existing house.
(Though I will talk to them about their experience in re-locating their well.)

My next step will be cold calling the companies on the list given to me by the town clerk's office. I was hoping I could be prepared with the right words or phrases that would help them treat this as the routine simple local job it ought to be. I've heard some horror stories from other states about innocents being forced into expensive septic alternatives.

Anyone got experience or expertise that can guide me in finding my way through this process?

Thanks for any constructive advice or suggestions.
 
Ron Helwig
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Location: New Hampshire
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I would try to do a little research on how well greywater is accepted by state regs. It makes sense to me to include the greywater system in the septic plans as that indicates lower septic usage and thus a smaller system needed.

I know that septic systems in neighboring NH are part of the critical path when building. That is, the government insists that it be done according to their specs and getting it installed and inspected can severely affect the schedule. I think states are getting better at accepting greywater, and I'd bet that Vermont is better than most. So I'd ask about it when calling.

That being said, for resale value it might make sense to have a full septic for a normal sized house put in. I remember the last house I built and the two worst pain & schedule points were the electric and septic. A future buyer of the property might want to tear down the house and rebuild (or you might realize you want something better later) and having an already inspected septic would be helpful there.
 
Brett Hammond
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Susana,

I wrote a very long detailed reply explaining how you could do this yourself, but the mobile version of this web site logged me out while I was writing it so it was all lost.

When I get time, I will try to reply again later, unless someone else jumps in to answer first.

Best of luck.
.
 
Dale Walker
Posts: 19
Location: Starksboro, Vermont
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Hi Susana

As of 7/2007 the state of VT has taken jurisdiction of all potable and wastewater permitting. So it's out of the towns hands... Getting a state permit does require soil tests and engineered wastewater plans. The last one that I got cost me around 2k. There are some "experimental system exceptions" but I choose to not go that route just because I believe the state is required to follow up with results of how that experimentation is being managed. Composting toilets are allowed, but only reduce the system size by 25%, so you still need to have the system installed. I'm not sure about grey water systems. I know that you can do them under a state permit, but I'm not sure the logistics.
Usually, the town will not issue a CO until the system has been installed per the permit.

PM me for more info
 
Travis Johnson
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There are various answers to some of your questions, but it really is hard to say which one applies where because it really depends. It is not a cop-out, its just if your house is tucked away an out of sight from the street, you can get by with more than the nosy neighbors that drive by everyday. I will explain some stuff regarding septic systems, but this is only in Maine and things are different in VT. (I do own a house on the NH/VT border however).

Often times here, a homeowner goes through the permitting process and has a septic system all designed, but never completes it. A simple "One piper" is set. The tank goes in, a trench is dug out the back, and perforated pipe is used the length of it set in stone. With common sense, a little understanding of what you have for soil and there is no pollution be generated. I know tons of houses with these types of systems. They got the paperwork to back everything up; but the designed system...nah, it does not exist. No one is the wiser.

Even if you do decide to go with the fully engineered system exactly as designed, there is no reason you cannot do it yourself. Today equipment can be rented of any size and you'll be way ahead of what a contractor would charge That is one way to save on costs.

Another is material itself. Shop around, not just for piping and a tank, but fill, gravel and rock. Can you use screen rock instead of crushed rock? The cost difference can be staggering. Where I live here in Maine the fields here are all former potato fields and so the rockwalls have these piles of rock about baseball sized what we call "potato rock"...perfect for drainage jobs.

The final way to save money is sometimes to use the concept that it is better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission. I have been told I had to rip up all the concrete on my house because I put the plumbing in before I got a permit. Yeah, like that would ever happen. I was nice about it, but the guy had a pretty big bark on the phone, but in person, with me being nice, calmed him down and and an after-the-fact permit cost me a bit more, but never set my house back in schedule.

As for the soil peculation test: a hole is a hole is a hole. Typically it is done with equipment, but if you are really out of funds there is no law that says the hole must be dig with equipment. It is not for the faint of heart, but a pick and shovel will work. So too will rented equipment. Or chatting it up with a neighbor who has a small Kubota tractor. This is New England where the barter system still occurs and goes back to the Mayflower.

 
Susana Smith
Posts: 32
Location: northern VT
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Thanks all for your responses, especially Travis who adressed the question I actually asked. I am going to think about that info as I go forward, talk to designers & contractors and make a plan.
Cheaper rock is something I wouldn't have thought to ask about, and I may be able to find someone other than a contractor who can dig an installation hole. It hadn't even occurred to me to have the work done by someone other than the company that made the design.

Brett, that was so kind of you to write up the do it yourself details, but don't worry, I think your info probably wouldn't help me, as I couldn't do much digging on my own, and the design and the soil analysis have to be done by a licensed person, and. Still it might help someone else if/when you get around to writing it again so I hope you do at some point.
(I feel for you, I just re-wrote an email for the 3rd time for a book discussion I've been having with a friend, and I can hardly describe how tired I am of my own ideas after re-phrasing them twice :-) )

I may have been freaking out a bit when I first realized how much this unnecessary-to-me septic was likely going to unavoidably cost, every bit of that coming out of the building budget which I had been hoping to spend on construction details that would actually benefit me, such as foundation, roof and walls. But I will settle for whatever I have to, so it will all be all right.


 
Brett Hammond
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Location: Maryland, USA
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Hi Susana,

Travis and Dale mentioned most of what I was going to say, I'll just add a few comments.

By far, the best advice I can give you is to tell you to stop by, in person, informally, to the department in your state/county, and talk to the person responsible for inspecting and approving new septic installations. It will save you a lot of time and money. I start by asking hypothetical questions, prior to giving my exact address. If you send them a letter or make a formal request, they may stop by and look at your property, so unless they ask, I would not draw attention to your property by giving a specific address or contact info until you are ready for permitting.

I like to always pop in to see the inspector unannounced. If they are out of the office (which they usually are), I stop by again another time. Keep it informal and casual. If you make an appointment, he may need to justify his time to his boss, which will just draw more attention to yourself.

Tell them you don't have much money, you are conscientious about the environment and don't want to pollute, but you need to install a septic as inexpensively as possible. They will tell you the process, what engineering or drawings you need, permits required, and inspections at various stages of completion.

Tell them you want to be "general contractor" to save money (if legal in your state). The general contractor will file all paperwork with the government, hire all contractors, and coordinate all inspections, which you can do yourself and save a lot of money. If you are very humble, almost always they will go out of their way to help you. I usually play stupid. The more local the government, the more responsive they are because you are more likely to go over their heads and get your local officials on your side that will call their boss if you have a problem (it is comparatively easy to get a local official voted out of office, so they are usually willing to help you cut through red tape). At the state level, you may find them less responsive, because they are union and can't ever get fired, and you have little influence in getting the governor kicked out of office, so they may not care.

If you are very humble and nice to them (don't ever tell them their business , they may tell you how to do the perc test yourself, give you copies of previously approved engineering drawings you can copy, recommend licensed contractors that are very inexpensive, walk you through every step of the process, and even look the other way if you do something wrong. They will also sometimes tell you how you can do something that is functional, but may skirt the law to save a ton of money.

For example, the size of your septic required may be based on the number of bedrooms in your house, so you may want to build a 1 BR house with a 1 BR septic, then add more BR to your house later (in some places you may not be able to list for sale for more than 1 BR, or get construction permits, without upgrading the septic, so it is always better to be legal if possible). The point is that they can give you money saving advice.

Call MISS UTILITY asap to mark any underground utilities so you can tell the contractor where they are before getting fixed price bids.

When you hire an engineer for drawings (if necessary) and later hire a contractor to dig the holes, install the tank, ditches and backfill the drain field, always get 3 or more FIXED-PRICE bids. No ESTIMATES, and never, ever pay a contractor by the hour or you will go broke. Obviously, if they start digging and find an unmarked utility, or spring, something that an experienced contractor has no way of knowing, there will be an additional charge, but they should know the type of soil and rock and should not charge you more than the fixed price bid except in vary unusual circumstances. When in doubt, call the state contractor licensing department, and ask them if what your contractor is doing is legal. Never pay more than 30% up front to any contractor prior to meeting a milestone, and always withhold at least 10% (preferably more) until the job is completely done and has been inspected and approved, and you are happy with it (i.e. they cleaned up their mess).

In most jurisdictions, the process is :

1. Get a percolation test to see how fast water soaks into the ground over the course of a year.
2. Draw up plans for your system, including, location, size and depth of tank; location, size and depth of drain field; type and amount of stone/sand required around drain pipes; types of pipes; pump from tank to field (if required); type of filtration system (if required); electric plans (if using filtration or pump). Go back and visit your inspector friend and show him the plans before you formally submit them, so he can point out deficiencies. Plans that fail, usually get more strict scrutiny when resubmitted.
3. Get plans approved. Get permits.
4. Hire contractors.
5. Get inspections required during the process (e.g. depth of holes inspected before filling, electrical inspection, final).
6. Get approved paperwork (this is usually a stamp on your permits, but may also be an occupancy permit for the building).
7. Make final payment to contractors.

If you hire separate contractors for the infill (stone/sand) verses digging the holes, make sure you see the scale ticket for each truckload of infill they deliver, so you are getting all the stone you are paying for, plus a nominal delivery fee for the truck and driver. Many truck drivers will charge for more stone than they deliver to people that don't know any better. If you subbed out the digging and infill to the same contractor for a fixed-price, he will eat any money loss due to the truck driver dishonesty.

Generally speaking, once you get the engineering done, and permits. I would hire a single contractor to do the digging, install tanks, drainfield, electrical, backfill, etc. That way, you have 1 person responsible for all the physical work, and they can't point fingers at each other when something goes wrong (for example, if the holes are dug too big, you could go over budget backfilling with more stone, or if the elec was run to the wrong location and needs to be moved) which might cause you to go over budget.

Best of luck!
 
Susana Smith
Posts: 32
Location: northern VT
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Thanks Brett, you've given me even more of the detailed info that may, I hope, help me keep this phase from consuming the whole of my building budget.
(I'll admit I've been having visions of living in an unplastered 25 sqft hut, um I mean "toolshed" beside an unused gloriously compliant septic mound.)

I will study all the suggestions I've received in this thread.
I've already mastered playing stupid, lol, but it is advice to remember in my hypothetical well-informed future.
"Acting as my own general contractor" is a phrase I needed, and fixed-price bids vs estimates vs hourly , wow!

 
Susana Smith
Posts: 32
Location: northern VT
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Dale, that's the one aspect of this that I already had solid info on, that the state issues the permit.
Until I talked to the state guy, though, I didn't realize that well and septic are same permit, a single "design".

That is useful info about composting toilet reducing septic size by 25%, I thought that they ignored composting toilets entirely.
I'm pretty sure I want the smallest size septic already, but maybe this means I should increase the number of bedrooms in the permit,
thus being ready for future expansion when I win the lottery.

You said pm you so I will, about the cost of the permit/plan.

Thanks!
 
Aaron Mills
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This post was from a while ago, but as I'm currently dealing with this exact issue I thought I'd update it.

The state does control the permitting process. As stated previously, I also would have expected Vermont to be a more liberal and forward thinking state. I've found that to be not so. They are bogged down in bureaucracy, burdensome processes, and antiquated thinking.  "If you're looking to setup some modern new eco septic then I'm not your guy." I've heard this from so many designers. None of them want to step outside what they've been doing for too many years. It's unfortunate.

Grey water is still considered a pathogen, and as such must be treated in the same fashion as all other sewage. So there's no such thing as a separate "non hazardous" grey water system to Vermont.

Composting toilets are acceptable, but have to meet certain criteria, and need a permit. Composted human waste must be buried in an approved septic site, under 6" of ground, and the land can't be used for pretty much anything after that. Composting toilets do reduce septic system sizes by 25%, but a septic system is still required(because grey water is still a pathogen, and must be handled appropriately).

Poo composting(other that the above toilet method) isn't legal as a resident without proper permitting, which is $1000\yr. This is actually a commercial permit, not intended for "regular people", but is applicable if anyone were so interested. This permit in conjunction with the above approved and permitted composting toilet is the way to actually compost and use human waste in an agricultural application.

Permit after permit on top of regulations and restrictions. It's ridiculous. Yes, poop needs to be managed appropriately. But there need to be better, easier, more affordable ways.


** That's what I've been running up against for the past couple weeks. Regulations, permits, and expense. So here's what I'm discovering since pushing back on the state crew. **

There are alternative systems available for grey water treatment. There is only 1 plant based alternative true "green" system currently active in a residential capacity. That's setup for a 10 home community. The issue is the permitting, engineering, construction cost, and mandatory testing make it financially restrictive. Most of the off grid folks don't have the financial wherewithal to create one of these systems simply due to all the regulatory and professional services costs. The systems are actually quite inexpensive.

I currently have a small plant based system filtering my grey water, and 5gal solid waste buckets being taken out to compost. It's been a great system so far. Unfortunately I have a nosy neighbor that i found out has already sent emails to the local zoning office asking about what I'm doing(snitches get stitches). I'm expecting someone from the state to show up some time soon. So I've been tearing through the research, and contacting a ton of people. That way it appears that I'm working on the process. The property is already totally perked, designed, and permitted for a $20,000 3 bedroom system. But there's no way in hell I'm paying that much for a 600sq.ft. cabin to live in the woods. I should have spent a little more money on more land. Or more trees between me & the neighbor. I guess 10 acres isn't enough to get people to mind their own business.

I'm going to continue to push back and see what I can change. Maybe make this a greener, more sensible planet.

http://dec.vermont.gov/water/ww-systems


 
Lidia Marchioni
Posts: 5
Location: SF Bay Area, CA
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For anyone installing septic, I wanted to make you aware of an alternative to perforated pipe buried in gravel: leaching chambers/tunnels.  I had to redo my septic a few years back and found this great, though not so cheap product.  It is a plastic chamber that does not require any gravel, is extremely easy to install and cuts the requirement for the length of a leach field in half or more (which was crucial in my case).  I do not recall the name of the brand I used, but it was NOT this one: http://www.homedepot.com/p/Advanced-Drainage-Systems-16-in-x-34-in-x-76-in-Leaching-Chamber-1600BD/100210614. ; This is just to give you an idea of what I'm talking about.  I paid about $40 per 3 foot section once I found a local distributor.
 
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