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Photo courtesy of catsofaustralia.com

Early in the autumn of 2010 our septic system failed for the second time.  The first time it happened, in 2008, we discovered that the tank had been improperly installed and had a hole at the bottom where a rock poked into it, which sent all manner of unpleasant stuff to our downhill neighbors.  They were remarkably calm about it, but of course wanted us to fix the problem.  Which we did by removing the damaged tank and replacing it with a spanking new one.

We were very unhappy when they came back last fall and told us that ‘it’ was happening again.  Arrrrrgh.  Our loyal muratore Giovanni came over and had his merry band of laborers dig up the tank again.  The tank was fine; the only solution was that the septic field had failed after 10 years.  Giovanni’s crew kept digging to try to find the source of the problem.  Imagine our surprise when we discovered that we didn’t HAVE a septic field!  Instead we had a perforated pipe, about 12 feet long, that came off the septic tank and ran underground — and then ended.  Evidently when we did the reconstruction on our house our impressario (contractor) decided that we could make do with less than what the plans called for (he has since died, so we can’t ask him about it).  And, oddly enough, it worked fine for all those years.  But the heavy rains of last fall saturated the ground and ”took space” that our sewage had been using.

But it was no longer working, and we had to do something, quickly.   We were scheduled to leave in mid-November, so we had a hurried bunch of meetings with our geometra and with Giovanni, and came up with a plan whereby Giovanni would continue to dig and install the septic field properly.  Plans were finalized a day or two before we left.

When we arrived in Arizona we found an *urgent* e-mail from our geometra saying that he had called off the work.  A little further digging had revealed that there was nothing ahead but ledge.  There simply was no place to put a septic field.  What, he asked, did we want to do?

When we did the original reconstruction there was no public sewer in the road above us.  In the meantime, thank goodness, the sewer had arrived in San Maurizio, and when it was installed the Captain had the presence of mind to request a hook-up, even though we didn’t need it and thought we never would.  Wasn’t that a lucky thing?

Please, we asked our geometra, design a plan that will work well for us to connect to the sewer.  We knew it would be complex and costly, because our septic tank is some 40 vertical feet below the street.  Clearly, the easy fix was to go downhill, through our neighbors’ property and let gravity do the work.  Our geometra felt the neighbors out and wrote back quickly that we could forget about that solution. Then we waited.  And waited.  It is a funny thing about Italy – if you ask someone to do something and you are there to nag a little if necessary, the something will get done.  If you don’t happen to be around, nothing will happen at all.

Thus it was that when we returned in May we found the beginnings of a design for a pump-up system, but no work done, and a septic system that was still being generous to the neighbors.  The Captain attacked the problem with his usual vigor.  Within three weeks he had learned all there is to know about septic pumps, whom to contact to get a good one, and what other equipment was required.  The geometra participated in the process by seeing that the requisite permissions were requested and going over the plans.  The Captain and Giovanni organized the work and the work party, which, in addition to Giovanni’s digging crew included an electrician and a hydraulic specialist.  We didn’t want to wait for approval before beginning, so begin we did.  After all, you’re allowed to dig up your property without a permit.  And that’s what we did.

It was no simple matter.  We wanted to use as much of our existing system as possible.  We had to do the work quickly too, so we decided on an integral tank/pumps system rather than building a concrete tank and installing the pumps therein.  So Giovanni simply diverted the pipe that formerly led to the septic tank to the gleaming new septic tank with its pumps (two are required, one to use and one to use when the one you’re using stops working).  The unit is a triumph of Italian design and engineering.  Here it is in place with a fair amount of the plumbing already attached:

But before the above could happen, there was a lot of digging to do.  We needed a trench that would be wide enough to hold both an electrical line and the line from the tanks that would carry the waste up to the sewer connection.  We had to climb 40 vertical feet breaching four ancient stone walls and one new one in the process, beginning with the back wall of our wood shed.

This is where Giovanni’s genius shines.  We assumed he would simply break through the stone walls and keep the pipe fairly close to the surface with a 90-degree bend at each wall, but no – he went under the walls.  This meant an almost straight run uphill for the line thereby reducing the backpressure on the pumps, which the Captain felt was extremely important.

That means that in places the trenches had to be very deep indeed.

The men had to be very careful at one point because they had to dig all around the electric lines that serve the house.

Weren’t they smart to pass the line under the electrical conduits?  That way if there’s ever a leak it won’t short circuit the electric service.

The men who dug did some of the tidiest work we’ve ever seen. They made careful piles of material to refill the trenches when the pipe was laid, and they created a new stone dump at the far end of a lower fascia where they put all the big rocks they couldn’t use again. I’m embarrassed that I don’t know their names. Giovanni’s crew tends to change frequently as new men arrive from Romania, and then strike out on their own after they’re well settled here.  To a man they are incredibly strong, hard working and persistent.

They had to break through the supporting wall of the stairs that descend from the street level so that the pipe could run under the stairs (thank goodness they left that space hollow when, five years ago, they built the walls for the parcheggio above).


The pipe emerged again at the top step only to disappear into a new box built just for the purpose as required by the sewer company for reasons no one of us could plumb.  From there it was just a short downhill journey to the main sewer line.

(An interesting aside – one of our sour neighbors who have a right of passage down the stairs (yes, the same ones who were so patient while we dumped sewage on their property) complained that the new connection box is ‘unsafe.’  Our geometra opined that it was unsafe if one were blind, and that if we really felt we needed to address this complaint (which he didn’t think we did) we could just put something decorative on top of the box to alert the eye.  We’ve done nothing, and have heard nothing more on the matter. They send an old lady down the stairs once a year, just to be sure we remember they have the right.  I’m waiting for a letter from a lawyer. )

It took about 10 days to complete the physical part of the work on the project – each person showed up when promised and did what was necessary.  We were extremely lucky that about a day before the work was finished we received permission from the Sewer Department to connect to the main.  It was such a relief when the work was done.  It was a big undertaking, and the Captain put in untold hours planning and overseeing work.  What a joy it was the first time we heard a great whoosh up at the connection box and realized that our pumps were sending our waste on its way to Rapallo.

A sewer connection is one of those things we just never think about until necessity thrusts the thought upon us.  This problem drove us crazy for about six months; to this day I think with relief, when I flush, of where the water and whatnot are going.  Let’s hope the pumps last longer than we do!