Three Things I Know Nothing About
December 2, 2017 8:12 AM   Subscribe

We just bought a house. Yay! But it's in rural Massachusetts, and is not quite like any house I've lived in. It has a septic system, oil heat, and well water. What do I need to know about these things?

Best practices, warnings, maintenance schedules, all of this will be extremely welcome. Thanks!
posted by restless_nomad to Home & Garden (35 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I can only speak to septic. First thing, you should have it pumped out and the filter replaced so that you’re starting ‘clean’. Don’t use a garbage disposal if you can help it as it adds a huge load of solids into the system. Avoid using lots of bleach in your sinks/laundry as it can kill off the good bacteria in your system. Don’t flush tampons. In fact, don’t flush anything except safe-for-septic toilet paper.

We pump ours out every 3-4 years, not because it needs it, but because I’d SO rather spend the $400 to have it pumped and filter cleaned than have it back up into the house. I shudder at the thought.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 8:18 AM on December 2, 2017 [5 favorites]

The oil heat shouldn't be too different to any other kind of heating system. Make sure you've got CO detectors around, but that's just generally good advice.

Septic systems are a bit temperamental when it comes to what you can put in them. One way to think of them is as an artificial digestive system, and that analogy extends to having a microbiome. Be careful about dumping anything that can disrupt said microbiome, like bleach (ok in small quantities, but be careful) and chemical clog removers (not ok in any quantity, from what I've read). And then, yeah, you need to get it pumped regularly. The exact schedule will depend on the size of your system and your water usage.

Well water ought to be tested regularly, and the water filters need to be changed yearly. Testing kits are sold at Home Depot, but you'll need to mail the samples to a lab to actually get results. Your city should have some resources for water testing. Depending on the test results, you may need to modify your system a bit, i.e. adding water softeners to remove undesirable minerals.
posted by tobascodagama at 8:26 AM on December 2, 2017

When your power goes out, the electric pump for your well water goes out. Have a backup, whether a generator or a secondary pump for emergencies that is manual or solar. Also have a water stash in the house. 3-liter soda bottles are made of better plastic that is slower to degrade or leak than gallon jugs.
posted by Former Congressional Representative Lenny Lemming at 8:29 AM on December 2, 2017 [12 favorites]

Septic: be sure you know where the access lid is. If it's covered by lawn it will be the place where the snow doesn't stick or melts first. Don't make your septic guy get out a shovel to find your access point.

Oil: get on a scheduled delivery. Pay attention to how much you use and adjust delivery times, as needed, so you never get near the bottom of the tank. There's crud down there that will clog up your nozzle. Get on maintenance plan to clean your nozzle once a year.

Well: it would be good to know what kind of pump you have and how deep your well is. In my house built in 1985, the builder cheaped out and put in 65 foot well with a low-end pump. After a few years we were putting in 100 foot well with a more powerful pump
posted by scorpia22 at 8:32 AM on December 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

For your oil furnace, have it maintained once a year. Fuel quality matters: you can get a build-up of sludge at the bottom of the tank with low-quality fuel. Auto-fill is nice (monthly delivery in the winter months, instead of needing to remember to call for a delivery).

Seconding the CO detectors. A whole family died here from CO a few years ago, so that was a sobering reminder.

For well water, one down side is that you’ll lose water in a power outage (which is sooo inconvenient if it’s a bad storm that stretches for days) so be prepared for that!
posted by bighappyhairydog at 8:34 AM on December 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

I can only address oil heat, since I'm on the town water and sewer system. I'd recommend verifying that the supply line has the recently mandated safety upgrades if the system was installed before 1990. Oil heat requires regular maintenance for safety and efficiency; we usually schedule annual maintenance for October or November, after the heating system has had a chance to get some use but before it's critical. (Our boiler also runs the hot water heater, so it's in use year round.)

An oil system has an emergency cut-off switch that, per MA code, must be installed near the entrance to the room with the furnace. If you have an undivided basement, that's usually at the top of the basement stairs. Find yours, so that if you have a fire you can turn it off.

A modern oil furnace requires electricity to function. If you're really out in the boonies, consider getting a generator to power your furnace, well pump, and fridge during an extended power outage. If you do that, get advice from someone who knows what they're doing. Alternately, consider a solar system or a whole-house battery.
posted by brianogilvie at 8:36 AM on December 2, 2017 [3 favorites]

Just moved into my first house with oil heat and the best advice about that was to just spring for a "deluxe" service plan--with that, you get a free service of the boiler once a year, but also free service calls, including after hours, if anything goes wrong. If your tank qualifies for coverage, it might be worth looking into tank insurance, which would cover a replacement. (My tank is too old, so I'm looking at a couple of thousand in the next few years to replace it before it leaks...). The automatic delivery oil plan is what I picked after a month of having to run down to the basement every few days to check the fuel gage to make sure it hadn't dropped below 1/4.
posted by TwoStride at 8:42 AM on December 2, 2017

Minimize what goes down the drain. Tampons are a problem, if anyone uses them, leave newspaper in the bathroom, maybe recycle paper lunch bags. You do not need septic treatment tablets or whatnot. Just use the toilet and let the microbes do their thing. I use single-ply tp, to reduce solids. Even in a power outage, the tank has not overflowed with just me living here. It did overflow to let me know when the pump died. (poop emoji, sad emoji) There's just me, so I have the tank pumped less often. Tree roots can damage the leach field, so pay attention to how close and large your trees are.

Get the well water tested if you didn't do that when you bought the house. It's likely to be just fine. I have city water, not city sewer. Wells can and do go dry in droughts. Talk to neighbors as they will have experience of the water table in your area.

I have an oil furnace. It also heats the hot water, so it runs all year. This is not very efficient. The furnace needs a cleaning every year or 2, costs about 150 - 200 in Maine. If you run out of oil, the fuel line will probably need to be bled before the furnace can restart. Don't push the restart button a lot of times. The oil burner/ furnace doesn't run without electricity. Many people have generators; I have a wood stove.

Congratulations on the house!
posted by theora55 at 8:42 AM on December 2, 2017

As others have mentioned, get to know your septic and well systems.

Likely, you have a purifier downstream of your well pump. A common type is a cation exchange column and you need to supply that kind of system with salt. No one really explicitly told us that about our system (but the manuals and such were all there though). You probably had the well water tested as a condition of your sale, but if not, it would be a good idea.

For your septic, does it work by simple gravity flow? (i.e., the house is 'uphill' of it and the waste just flows in?) Our current house has a reservoir tank and then a pump to pull the water out of it, because we are downhill of where it needs to go. In MA, the sellers probably had to do a Title V inspection and there may be information in that report that would be interesting to you. Somehow we always passed our inspection in our old house even though we shouldn't have had a garbage disposal and we had a sink draining into a dry well. Our previous house had the laundry NOT going into the septic, so the sellers had to get that remedied before the sale. All things that were learned via the Title V inspection. The first time you have the septic pumped ($100 to $200) the company should be able to indicate to you how often you need to do it.

Nthing getting on a contract to have regular oil delivery. Our company does a good job and we never even think about running out. We've also heard that if you suddenly need repairs, it's going to be a lot easier to get them done if you have a contract already.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 8:46 AM on December 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

I love this class on having a well, put together by a well expert that is passionate about wells and public health:
posted by k96sc01 at 8:56 AM on December 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

Septic: go easy on the disposal. In fact, we act like we don't have one, only using it to get the last stray bits of food. Get it pumped regularly. We do it every two years.
posted by jpe at 9:03 AM on December 2, 2017

In my experience an annual contract for heating maintenance is worth it.

Septic systems can limit future renovations. In my case I'm limited to the number of bedrooms I can have because I'm unable to install a larger septic system. That may or not be the case where you live, and it may not even matter.

As others have said, think about what you put down your sink. I compost all my vegetable matter anyway. I've never missed having a disposal.

Welcome to the Commonwealth!
posted by bondcliff at 9:37 AM on December 2, 2017

Did you get any records from the previous owner? Our oil company put a sticker on the fill pipe outside and the company that installed our new boiler hung paperwork near the unit. If you find out who last pumped the septic system they could tell you when it was done. We have town water so no advice on wells.
We have a small wood stove which allows us to stay home during extended power outages and helped keep the oil bill down when the price was up around $4/gallon. We can even do limited cooking on it.
posted by Botanizer at 9:39 AM on December 2, 2017

I rented a house with oil heat once in PA and it was INSANELY expensive compared any gas heating bills I payed in IL or OH with comparable winter climates. We dropped the heat to low 60s(F) during the day and low 50s at night, and it still felt expensive.

There's lots of variables, and I can't say for sure what will be the case for you, but if it were me, I'd assume (and budget) that winter heat will cost more than I think, and start acclimating to lower room temps, maybe electric blankets, etc.
posted by SaltySalticid at 9:48 AM on December 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

Hi! We had problems with our drains and septic from the day we moved in. After 10 years of regular nonsense issues, we had a new drainfield put in - wrecked the back yard for a bit, but so nice not to be listening for every drain gurgle.

I wish we had gotten someone to run a scope down the drainfield from the git-go. We would have known about the root cause of the issues earlier (the “pipes” [I don’t know the technical term for the water disbursement in the drainfield piece] were PACKED with dirt by the time anyone took a look in there). We would have saved a lot of stress and hassle having that field redone sooner.
posted by hilaryjade at 9:57 AM on December 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

We have just moved into a house with well water and a septic system too. It's new so nothing's broken yet, but here's what we've been told:

1. Absolutely do not use a garbage disposal at all.
2. Don't flush tampons
3. Get the well water tested - you might be used to fluoridated water for keeping your teeth health, that's something to think about. Also, depending on the hardness of your water, you may or may not have difficulty with buildup in your appliances (esp. dishwasher). You could get a water softener, or various kinds of filters to deal with various kinds of water problems. If your water tastes great, you're probably only concerned about fluoride and maybe radon, which can be in water sometimes. You should know if you have a radon detector.
4. You should know where the drainfield of the septic system is and make sure not to let anything with big roots grow there - nothing larger than a small shrub. The roots would plug up the holes in the pipes.
5. Have the septic tank pumped every 2-4 years.

No idea about oil heat I'm afraid.
posted by Cygnet at 10:57 AM on December 2, 2017 [3 favorites]

Some oil companies automatically calculate when you need a fillup, based on "degree days" that are a function of the outside temperature. You might also be able to convert to piped-in gas, if there's service in your area. If not, you could convert to propane, which involves putting a big tank outside the house. IDK how propane cost compares to oil or NG. NG is currently cheaper than oil, and requires much less attention.

Before our town installed a sewer system, builders could not install garbage disposals, because they swamp septic systems. Likewise, you could not buy bleach in stores in town, because it sterilizes the septic. Some people advocate periodic additions of biological agents to boost the action of the system. Others say they're useless. Here is a long list that Massachusetts DEP says are not harmful to septic systems or the environment. Chemical drain cleaners (Drano; Liquid Plumber) are definitely harmful.

Most everyone I know who has well water uses a filtration system. These also require periodic maintenance.

If you have an unshaded South-facing roof, consider solar PV or hot-water installations.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 11:10 AM on December 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

The above comments have covered oil heat pretty well, but I do want to underscore the 'dang this is way more expensive than I thought it would be' part. I suggest winterising your home, if it hasn't already been.

- Storm doors and storm windows are a really effective way to increase efficiency, because they keep all that expensive heat from escaping. This is time-consuming and expensive to install all around a house, but you only have to do it once. (You may already have them!)

- Cheaper, simpler, still effective, can be done in addition to storm doors and windows: Draft Snakes for every door! (You can also just roll up a towel and wedge it in the gap, but pwease consider snek.)

- Insulate your windows! (Draft Snakes can go here too, or you can use weather stripping). Those window insulation kits actually do work. Also helpful: heavy curtains for every window. Open curtains in the day to let in warming sunlight, close them every night to keep in the heat.

- Sweaters, sweaters, more sweaters, Snuggies, hot tea, socks, sweaters. Lighting candles can also help the house feel warmer when it's chilly.
posted by halation at 11:14 AM on December 2, 2017 [3 favorites]

A modern oil furnace requires electricity to function. If you're really out in the boonies, consider getting a generator to power your furnace, well pump, and fridge during an extended power outage. If you do that, get advice from someone who knows what they're doing. Alternately, consider a solar system or a whole-house battery.

If you go the route of a generator, I highly recommend a dual fuel model that can run on gasoline or propane with the flip of a switch. (Most can be converted with a new injector nozzle, but it's much better to not have to deal with that)

The reason being that a barbecue grill sized tank will power a 3000 watt generator for 12+ hours. You're messing around a lot more often with gasoline, but with both fuels usable most folks who live out in the sticks will have at least another 5-10 gallons of gas and a propane tank or two in addition to whatever is dedicated to the generator. Living a certain lifestyle, you're likely to always have a couple days' fuel on hand just because it's around for other reasons.

Also, if propane is available in your area, you may find switching out your oil for a propane tank is much more cost effective. Then you have a 500-1000 gallon tank sitting outside all the time and thus weeks of electricity and heat in an extended power outage.

A bit of battery storage, even without PV can seriously drop your fuel consumption, also. Add some PV and you can have 24 hour power that handles even peak loads for only a few hours of generator use a day.
posted by wierdo at 11:15 AM on December 2, 2017 [3 favorites]

There are draft-blockers that have a roll on both sides of the door, and slide with it as it opens and closes. They slide under the door from the latch end. Some thresholds and carpets can interfere with smooth operation.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 11:19 AM on December 2, 2017

Also, if your well is more than about 50 feet and the pump doesn't have a start kit you'll need an annoyingly large generator to get the damn thing started. Yet another reason a few kWh of battery storage is a significant advantage in a backup system.

And on septic, septic tanks are funny. I've lived in places where the leach field was fine for 20+ years and never had the tank pumped in all that time. I've also lived in places where the septic system was so precarious an extra couple of people could start a cascade of issues even with regular pumping. It just happened to be on the low end of what was considered acceptable on a perc test back when it was built, so it drained very slowly.

Not that it was a problem for us per se. We lived on the side of a mountain at the time so any overflow was well away from the house. Kinda pissed the city and all the neighbors down the creek off, though. Nobody likes untreated sewage flowing past their house, quite understandably.

Since the house was built prior to the land being in the city (or the city having any sewage disposal regulations at all) they couldn't actually make us do anything about it, funny enough. Never mind that in the intervening years they'd run sewers up the hill and there had always been city water in the relevant period. (The city's original water tanks were just up the street a bit. I often climbed in them as a child since they were disused by then, replaced by a small water tower on top of the mountain and a couple of 50 million gallon tanks downhill a bit from us) It would have cost at least a few grand to dig a new pit for the ejector pump, pipe it up to the sewer line and get it connected.

Another place my family had back then (land used to be cheap, what can I say) got rural water service run past in the early 90s and despite the offer of a $200 connection for signing up before they finished building rather than $2000 after they still refused. Better to waste $50+ a month on electricity for the well pump in perpetuity than spend $200 up front in my dad's mind, I guess. To be fair, the well pump cost nothing when it wasn't in use while the water authority would bill $8 a month minimum, but still.
posted by wierdo at 11:39 AM on December 2, 2017

Random homeowner facts:

Everything in a toilet tank can be replaced by the homeowner, but only if the water shutoff valve works. Old valves may leak from the valve stem when put in the shut off position; this can be bad with hot water. Faucets on the outside of the house should be should have a valve on the inside where it's warm, so water can be shut off there is winter, and the pipe drained by leaving the outside faucet open; this is to prevent the pipe bursting in a freeze. Well water systems vary. Some have the pump at the bottom of the well. If so, the wiring makes a perfect ground for lightning which can blow the whole thing apart. There may be a pressurized water tank above ground which will supply a limited amount of water if the power goes out. We put a ordinary filter on a well because we were getting sand in our faucets. Some well water requires a water softener which is a maintenance item.

Free-standing water heaters are guaranteed for about 10 years. I asked the guy who installed ours how long it would last. He said 10 years and a day. (It's been well over than by now.) If they fail with a massive leak, a lot of damage can result because the water won't shut off (unless special stuff has been installed.)

Oil burners require more maintenance than gas burners (which require basically none). It's good to have pre-emergency relationship with a fixit guy who may be attached to your fuel supplier. Ask your fuel oil guy if he has advice on what to try before calling him. A friend has an oil tank in his basement which failed and spilled the oil on the basement floor. That's about the worst thing I've heard of happening to a house other than a major fire. Don't ignore drips.

Any peeling paint or wallpaper in the house may be due to a leaky roof. If it peeled a while ago, the roof may already have been fixed.

In our development, the drain from the washing machine left the house separately from the other waste water, but they joined on the way to the septic tank. Don't know why. There are local customs about almost anything. People will tell you a plot of the location of your well and septic system is on file down at the town hall. Don't bet on it.

Some people mentioned generators. Gasoline has a short shelf life of about 6 months. If it gets really old, say a couple years, it can burn badly and clog your engine with a lot of carbon. This is one reason for gas/propane driven generators. Even without this consideration, storage of large amounts of gasoline is a bad idea. For the same reason, use a fuel stabilizer in your mower in the winter and the snow blower in the summer.

Some kind of cover to keep leaves out of your gutters are a very good idea. I've even had some good luck with the very cheapest kind.

Good luck.
posted by SemiSalt at 12:27 PM on December 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

Seconding getting the oil delivery sorted - UK experience, but I suspect that similar factors may be in operation: my parents' house wasn't extremely isolated but it had a very challenging driveway for larger vehicles to get down. This meant that there was only one company who could deliver oil - so it was extremely important to get deliveries booked in advance of when they were needed, as there was no other option if they were busy.

Talk to people in the local area about water oddities - for example, there are places where the water has enough copper in it to turn dyed blonde hair green (it's fine to drink); I've stayed in places where the water was brown because it came through peat - again, totally safe to drink, but needing to get used to.
posted by Vortisaur at 1:01 PM on December 2, 2017

Welcome to the Commonwealth!

Yes! I grew up in a house in MA that had all these things (and so did my sister) so hit me up if you have specific questions. People have given you a lot of decent advice, here are a few things to add.

- OIL: Your oil delivery person is likely also your furnace maintenance person. If the furnace hasn't been serviced recently call them for an annual servicing. They can let you know if there is something that needs attention. It's normal for your basement to smell like oil during a delivery. Get on a delivery schedule if you are grown-ups with jobs, no one wants to run out of oil
- SEPTIC: I am a lot more cavalier about septic than many people. If you have problems, they can be hellish but I haven't treated mine that gingerly (I use the disposal, I flush tampons, I get it pumped irregularly). The big thing is knowing where the access point is and getting it pumped regularly (frequency depends on the size tank you have, there is probably a company who has done your house, best to have them keep doing it)
- WATER: Congrats your water doesn't have flouride in it or chlorine or other additives. Downside: it may smell weird and now that is your problem! Get your water tested, don't be surprised if you may need water treatment stuff (or check the basement to see if there is water treatment stuff like a water softener down there). Well water is usually fine but yes a power outage likely means you have no more water until the power is back on (depending) and you may need to manually restart the pump (just a switch to flip) to make sure you know where it is and how it works.
posted by jessamyn at 1:16 PM on December 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

My parents live out in the country and for many years they've used a garbage disposal but heed warnings not to put any meat or fat in there.

Their well water is almost undrinkable because of the taste -- a whole-house water softener and filter makes a huge improvement and your clothes and hair will thank you. Plus you won't get such generous mineral deposits in your kitchen and bathroom. Coffee and tea taste a lot better, too.

Your well probably has an electric pump....another good reason to have a generator. You can get a propane generator if you don't want to deal with gasoline.
posted by wryly at 5:34 PM on December 2, 2017

I grew up with a well and septic tank. In addition to losing water due to power outages, we also had trouble with our pump freezing in the winter (in the southeastern US, with the pump housed in the garage).

We had good water and never had a need for a filter or water softener. However, because most kids at my school were on wells, we got fluoride treatments at school (monthly swish and spit sessions). If you have kids, making sure they get fluoride treatments of some kind may be something to ask a dentist about.

Our septic tank was usually fine, except when it wasn't. Then it really wasn't.
posted by hydropsyche at 6:42 PM on December 2, 2017

A couple people have already pointed out that when your power goes out with a well you lose water, but I want to specifically call out that "water goes out" means not just "nothing's gonna come out of the tap," but also "no flushing toilets". I tell you this explicitly because in our last house, which was on well water, this had somehow never occurred to my husband or me as obvious consequence of "the water goes out". And it was really, really not a fun thing to realize mid-power-outage in a snow storm.

Sure, it's a simple matter to power through a few days of blackout with heavy blankets, bottled water, canned food, and whatever booze you have lying around, but around the first time someone's gotta poop...well, you better have a plan, because that little liter-sized bottle of drinking water isn't gonna help.

The good news is that you absolutely can flush a toilet without running water - toilets essentially work through magic gravity pixie dust that means that if a sudden influx of a large amount of water hits the bowl, what's in the bowl will flush. The bad news is that that kind of manual flush is gonna take...well I never measured, but maybe 1-2 gallons per flush? At least? And not in the sense of "pour seven water bottles into it one by one" - it needs to be a forceful dump (sorry!) of the water's weight into the bowl[1] (we typically did it from a mop-type bucket) so you're ideally going to need something along the lines of a tub of water standing by, plus a smaller-but-not-too-small pouring container. Depending on your household's bowel habits, just how much flush water you need to set aside could be "fill up a trash can and we're good", or it could be "fill up the every container in the house and pray".

For many people needing to set aside water like this isn't a huge deal, because they can fill up the bath tub pre-storm and use that[2] - but I would suggest you make sure now whether your bathtub drain will actually hold a seal over 1+ days well enough to keep in all that water.[3] If you don't have a bathtub - my old house had only a shower stall - make plans now to have not only a water-tight storage container(s) to hold your water but also somewhere to store those containers once they're full of however many gallons of liquid and too heavy to lift. You don't want someone to trip over them in the dark and go for an involuntary swim, but you also don't want to have to trek across the house carrying 16 pounds of water every time you need to flush.

And yes, dear reader, when we went shopping for our current house, one of the first things I told our realtor was "Absolutely no houses with wells. NONE."
[1] I think you could also empty 1-2 gallons worth of individual water bottles into the toilet's tank, and then flush using the flush lever like you normally would, but how ok you are with doing that will depend on just how much you trust that you will be leaving yourself more than enough bottles of water to actually drink from.

[2] Caught unprepared, my husband and I once tried to shovel snow into a trash can and then bring in it the house for it to melt into flush-water. We learned the hard way that a) that is a painfully slow process, b) especially if the power's been out a while and thus your house is quite chilly, and c) a 13-gallon trashcan full of snow does not make anywhere NEAR 13 gallons of water

[3] I think there are some household hacks to help with that - I vaguely remember something about weighing down a piece of plastic wrap to cover over the drain - but I can't speak for which of them to use
posted by Hold your seahorses at 8:35 PM on December 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

I rented a house with oil heat once in PA and it was INSANELY expensive compared any gas heating bills I payed in IL or OH with comparable winter climates.

This is going to be entirely dependent on specifics. If the furnace looks like some old cast iron monster that may even have been converted from coal to oil, then yes, it is probably hugely inefficient. With something modern you might be fine and be able to find specs on it to work out exactly what it is an how efficient it's supposed to be. There are modern, high efficiency oil furnaces, just like there are efficient modern gas furnaces and inefficient old ones — my understanding is that their efficiencies can be comparable. The caveat is that as the efficient oil furnaces are somewhat spendy, people either tend to replace old oil furnaces with efficient gas when they can, or cheap out and buy less expensive, less efficient new oil furnaces.

The house we bought last year had a new, efficient oil furnace and we paid considerably less for heat last winter than we used to in in our previous house with an old gas fired hot water heating system. Our system also provides hot water, so it runs all year, but with the mild winter in Massachusets last year the last time we bought oil was in April (which reminds me that I need to schedule a delivery in the next week or so).

Going to check the gauge on the oil tank is indeed a bit of a pain, and the faster you burn oil the bigger the pain. I'm planning to install a cheap webcam pointing at the gauge to save the schlep (the grand plan, that I'm not sure I'm quite up for, is using a Raspberry Pi and a computer vision library to read the gauge for me and just email me when it 3/8ths - possibly a project for a snow day this winter!).

Draft snakes are indeed a good way of sealing up cracks as halation says; if you don't want to get crafty, Ocean State Job lot carries inexpensive ones, if there is one near you (probably other places too, but that's the only place I've noticed them).
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 8:54 PM on December 2, 2017

At some point in the future, consider installing a wood-burning stove if you can afford it. Do an insane amount of research first, and then some more.
posted by ovvl at 10:25 PM on December 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

A couple people have already pointed out that when your power goes out with a well you lose water, but I want to specifically call out that "water goes out" means not just "nothing's gonna come out of the tap," but also "no flushing toilets".

Yes, I should have mentioned that we lived on a lake, and so toilets could be flushed with buckets of lake water when the power is out. This was fine after Hurricane Hugo in September, but it really sucked to be the one getting buckets of toilet flush water during an ice storm.

Yes, you need a good sized bucket, and you still have to hit just the right angle to make it work.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:00 AM on December 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

Wood-burning stoves are very bad for the environment, if you care about that.

A failed in-house oil tank is a disaster. There used to be a lot of instances of oil-delivery trucks going to the wrong house and pumping hundreds of gallons into the fill port on the side of a house that had no tank, because it had been converted to gas. It made the houses permanently unlivable, because the oil could never be completely removed, and it's really stinky and toxic. An oil-tank rupture would have the same effect. I think ordinances now require that gas conversions include removing or sealing off the oil-fill ports.

You can buy 5-gallon plastic water jugs cheaply. The ones I'm thinking of are square, so they stack in minimal space, and have spigots for easy decanting. Put a little bleach (about 1/4 teaspoon/gallon) in when you fill them, to keep the water safe for drinking. Five gallons of water weighs more than 40 pounds, so bear that in mind. If you're storing the jugs on a concrete floor, put a piece of cardboard or plywood under them; heavy plastic objects on concrete tend to crack.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:03 AM on December 3, 2017

State cooperative extensions generally have resources on water testing . Here's a helpful page from UMass -- they recommend testing annually and give some helpful guidance.

On the septic system -- in addition to the good advice above, you'll also want to avoid dumping excessive amounts of grease/fat down the drain, as it can permanently clog and destroy your leach field. Normal dishwashing is fine, but whenever you have a large amount of grease or cooking oil/fat to dispose of (for instance, draining meat or getting rid of fry oil) then don't pour it down the drain. You can pour it into a tin can, let it cool (or harden) fully, seal it up in a bag, and put it in the trash.
posted by ourobouros at 6:06 AM on December 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

Know where the well head is, and ensure it has a close-fitting cover/cap which is firmly in place, especially if it sits low to the ground. Ours predates current code so it's only 6 inches above ground, the perfect height to collect grass clippings and god knows what else when the cover got knocked slightly askew and no one noticed for months.
Smell & taste were noticeably "off", but fortunately testing found no really bad contaminants. One round of diy well disinfection got it back to normal.

For flushing/hygiene during power outages, if you have room, simple insurance is to keep a 55 gallon blue plastic drum with removable lid filled with water and a little bleach in the laundry room. Once a year use a light duty pump (like sold at hardware stores for ponds) to empty it into a few loads in the washing machine and then refill it using a hose from the laundry sink.

Our area has had power outages lasting several hours to several days at least once a year, so we upgraded to a basic gas generator with capacity to run the septic pump, well pump, freezer, and the fan for the propane furnace. It plugs into an inlet wired to the main electric panel so it can directly feed power to the house's wiring, and doesn't need to run 24x7, a few hours on/off is usually good enough. For gas, we just keep a few 5 gallon cans in the garage with fuel stabilizer added and the fill date noted on a piece of tape. In the summer they get used in lawn mowers, in the winter they get dumped in the car as they get old.
posted by superna at 8:45 AM on December 3, 2017

Buy a copy of this useful and beautifully illustrated (yes really!) book. The Septic System Owner's Manual
posted by tardigrade at 9:32 AM on December 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone! We're muddling along and all of this info is super helpful.
posted by restless_nomad at 1:46 PM on January 1, 2018

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