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Plumbing: a determining factor in the build

This is probably the one feature in building a home that is easiest to overlook, but the hardest to ignore. It can determine the viability of your build site, the layout and expense of your house, the height of your floors from the ground, and the overall functionality and thus enjoyability of your home.

The well being

Once a build site is selected, having a well drilled is the very next step. There's no sense in building a house for low bucks, then finding out you're going to have to spend a fortune to get water to it from a well that winds up being a mile away. The best advice I can give from personal experience is: SHOP IT. Shop it a lot, and let every well driller, that comes out to give you a ballpark estimate, know that you are doing so. Then check with local contacts on the reputation of the prospective drillers before you settle on one. In a small town, your county clerk will probably have the skinny on anyone operating in the area. Also, consider the location of the well and what you're going to build on your site. Eventually, you'll have to have that well serviced, and you don't want to have to tear down a garage to let them get to it.

Pump house

There are advantages and disadvantages to having a set up like this. What's going on here, is the big black tank is a 1500 gallon storage tank, that receives the water from the well, which is pumped to the house from the tank by a jet pump, next to that blue tank shown. The blue tank is the pressure tank. The advantages of having this arrangement are that if your well gives out, you still the remainder of 1500 gallons of water available from the point the float valve inside turns on the well (in our case apx 1200 gal). Additionally, if your water is hard coming out of the well, the water has a chance to distillate some of the minerals while it sits in the tank. The disadvantages are that it costs more money to set up, is another item to maintain, and your water isn't "well-fresh".

Running the supply line to the house

"There ain't no short handled shovels, no axes, rocks or picks". That song, Big Rock Candy Mountain, kept running through my head as I pick axed a trench for the supply line from the pump house to the cabin. Since it crosses a two track drive that goes to the back of the property, I had to install a metal chase to protect the water line. I used 1" PEX tubing as the supply line, and scavenged enough "damaged" metal pipe from a local oil company to cover the distance of the run. The pipe not only protects the tubing from getting crushed, but the air gap around the line helps insulate against cold. PEX tubing is rated to 200 psi, and can withstand a freeze, but you can't get any water if the line is plugged by ice.

Sewer drain and venting

This is where the earlier calculations come in to play. Since the sewer drain is 4" dia, it can be a little more difficult to get the proper drain slope in the line. We built the floor deck with joists running parallel to the direction of the sewer line to give us an additional 9-1/4" under the floor to work with. Since the toilet connection was 13' from where the drain exits the outer wall, we used a 1" in 6' slope, which is approx. 2-1/8" drop. Since the ground outside had the proper slope, we aimed to bring the pipe out through the wall at the lowest point, and stubbed up from the elbow that aims it up toward the toilet. The marks on the joist show where the wall goes, and the vent pipe is aimed into the middle of it.

Laundry p-trap drain

A p-trap is put in under the floor to hold water and act as a barrier to drain gasses that would otherwise be released into the house. A vent stub is installed to come up inside the wall. Stubs are just set into the elbows/sanitary-t's and are just tall enough get through the flooring to facilitate locating holes in the floor panel. They are not cemented in, because once the floor is installed, they will be replaced with a the correct length pipe required.

Grey water drain exit

The drain farthest from the exit point (laundry in this case) sets the height of all the other grey water drains, and has to be calculated and installed up to the exit point before installing the intersections of the succeeding drains, assuring that their receiving points have the proper slope. The slope on grey water drains isn't as critical as the sewer drain, so long as it all goes downhill toward the exit, but it's a good idea to try for a 1" in 8' slope. Connect the entire grey water drain system dry and mark the pipes and connections with a line, one to the other, before cementing. That way you can make sure it will all work out before it's permanent and get everything set back up the way it was as you cement it together.

Tub and shower p-trap drain

A tub/shower drain requires a p-trap under the floor as well, but requires no venting in this set up, since the tub overflow acts as a vent. We used 2" drain pipe for all the grey water drains and installed reducing adapters where necessary.

Lavatory sink drain

The lavatory sink drain is typical with any sink drain set up in the house, with no p-trap or vent provision under the floor deck. P-traps and vents are above the floor deck in sink drains.

Lavatory sink drain and venting

The lavatory sink drain vent is simply an extension of the drain pipe using a sanitary-t and running the connection from the sink into it. One of the strangest things I found was, that no tech manual tells you how high off the floor the sink drain should be where it comes through the wall. Kind of an important measurement to leave out, I think...It's 18", and now you know, too. Venting is required at all drain sources, because it keeps the vacuum caused by the water going down from emptying the p-traps and gassing the house with noxious fumes. Vents can be tied together, if easier, run outside through the roof, or simply capped with an air admittance valve inside the wall or under the sinks.

Putting the floor down over the drain system

Once the drain system is set, put the stubs in place. The stubs are just tall enough to stick through the floor when installed, and are not glued into the fittings, they will be removed later, and the permanent pipe glued in place. The tall one in the foreground is the permanent pipe for lavatory sink drain. With the short stubs in place, it's an easy matter to lay a sheet of plywood over the stub and butted up to the surrounding two sheets, then reach under with a marker and draw a circle on the bottom around the stub. If you have a deep enough crawlspace or basement, you can make the stubs fit completely under the sheet when laid flat on the joists and have a perfect template for hole drilling. Once the sheet is drilled out, glue in the permanent pipe, and slide the sheet down over it. You could also drill a little bigger hole, and glue the pipe in after you anchor the sheet, but we wanted the fit around the pipe to be tight to reduce the ability of critter infiltration.

Tub/shower drain installation

The next step was to put in the tub/shower unit, 'cause Man, ya start stinkin' pretty bad after working for a couple days like this, and not cleaning yourself up. Since we were keeping costs low, we bought the cheapest all in one unit we could find. It wasn't quite built properly, so we had to set shims under the bracing on the bottom of the unit to insure proper contact and support on the floor. Additionally, since neither of us wanted to crawl under there in the space between the ground and floor to make the connection to the drain, we built our shims up, to raise the shower enough to allow easy access under the tub with our hands and tools. This works out great, because not only can you reach under there, a big hole to access from underneath is unnecessary, so we could seal around the drain with caulk, and any critters or bugs that could possibly get into the crawl space, will be sealed out of the living area. One thing nice about an all in one unit is, you can put it in right against the bare studded walls. Another thing we did to improve the condition on this cheap unit, was to install regular wall insulation bats all around the tub part of the unit, including underneath, then into the studded walls behind the unit's walls. This keeps the tub and shower warmer, and deadens any noise that would otherwise penetrate into the surrounding rooms.

Septic tank

Installing the septic tank can be a really crappy job. As mentioned before we selected a build site with a ravine for the tank and the right slope for the sewer line. Since the landscape only has about six inches of dirt abover the bedrock, it's easier to install the tank in the ravine, build a retaining wall below and fill in the area above. After digging in 'til we hit bedrock, we laid down 6" of sand to cushion the bottom of the tank. The pipe to the drain field is run through a steel sleeve that is inserted into the rock retaining wall to keep the pipe from being crushed, but don't install that until the drainfield is complete and proper slope is achieved. Rocks are hauled from around the location, and stacked as the dirt goes in, setting each course back half the width of the rock below. Raking up rubble around the build site and sticking it up against the rock wall as it goes up, allows rain water to seep through the rocks without taking the dirt being retained with it. Sand is packed around the tank as the height of the dirt goes up around it, so no stones contact the septic tank.

Proper drainage for the retaining wall

To keep the retaining wall failing from hydrostatic pressure during periods of heavy rainfall, a drain pipe system is installed in the rubble behind the rock wall along the first course of stones. Using a 4" PVC cross a couple 22 elbows and some leftover drainfield perf pipes turned upside down, we built this drain system. You can buy corrugated perf pipe that is actually made for this application, but since we had this laying around, and we're keeping costs to a minimum, we did it this way.

Retaining wall drainage (cont.)

Using a gardening weed screen, we covered the upside down perf pipe holes to keep dirt from exiting through the drain system. Then, below the holes we covered the screen, to hold it in place, with water resistant caliche. We leveled that layer back, to force any water that makes it through the dirt above, into the perf pipe, and out through the drain exit.

The drainfield bed

Building the drainfield bed was as easy as hauling 300 wheelbarrows of stones. In other words, it was a time consuming, tiring task. In ground that is soft, you would dig three trenches, fill with stone and cover. With the dirt only six inches deep, we have to build the drainfield above ground. We combed the ground around the build site choosing only stones that are larger than an inch. Anything smaller will wind up going into the perf pipe holes, and clogging the drain line.

The drainfield pipe

Once the drainfield bed is large enough to accommodate, level the stones across, and give a slope of 1" in 12' down the length of the field. The general rule of thumb for a drainfield is 20' of perf pipe per person it will handle, with a minimum of 60'. Since it's only Mrs. Pilgrim and myself, 40' would suffice, in fact, we could actually get away with less, because our grey water goes into a separate drain, not the septic system. But, for safe practice, we used 60' of perf pipe for the drainfield. We tied them together with a cross, two elbows, and 5' of perf pipe between. We went one step further to ensure a maintenance free system, by tying them together at the opposite end with a "T" and two elbows, as well. This allows water to flow back up any the perf pipes, that could get clogged for any reason, from the other end. If the drainfield should ever need to be "snaked", the entire system can be reached from one cleanout up by the septic tank, because the rooter snake will travel through the cross, down the center pipe, then no matter which way the head turns, left or right, it will travel back up through one of the outer pipes, across at the cross again, and go down the third pipe.

Covering the drainfield

After the drainfield is properly sloped and checked with the perfpipe assembly in place, cover the pipe with weed screen and fill with more stone larger than 1" to a depth of 6" above the pipe, leaving the cross connection exposed so you can connect the pipe from the septic tank. The connection pipe must have a slope greater than 1" in 12' down toward the drainfield. We used 1" in 8'. Once the perf pipe is covered, rake up smaller stone and cover over the drainfield system. This will help keep the dirt that's going to cover the field from working its way down to the system. Since our drainfield is also on the slope of the ravine the septic tank is in, we brought enough stone in to run the uphill side of the bed into the hill, so rainwater can wash over the finished drainfield without eroding all that work.

Drainfield cleanout access

It's a good idea to include a drainfield cleanout access in your septic plan. I installed a sanitary "T" between the septic tank and the pipeline that goes to the drainfield. In the top of that, I put the necessary fitting (22 elbow) in, to aim the pipe vertical, and a clean out plug at ground level. If trees or weed roots ever infiltrate the perf pipe of the drainfield or if the system should get clogged, I can run a rooter snake down here, and clean the obstruction out. Without this, I would have to dig up the drainfield to fix it.

Cheating the (septic) system

I broke one of the longstanding "Pilgrim" rules here, by renting a bobcat to clear the area and move most of the dirt to the septic system area, instead of doing it all by hand. But, for a couple hundred bucks for the rental, I saved more than a few months worth of back breaking labor. I still have to shovel it around by hand as I backfill behind the retaining wall with rubble as it goes up. It's looking so good, that I took out most of the bushes around the area to display the rock retaining wall. How often do you get a scenic asset out of a septic system? Notice on the right, how the ground has been groomed level to the drainfield. This will assist in keeping rainwater from washing the drainfield away during heavy downpours. Once all the retaining wall is finished, the big pile of dark dirt will be used to cover over the entire system, and seeded with grass. It should look pretty spectacular.

Bonus: A pond site

I found a spot by the barn that had some deeper dirt deposits, and scooped it out to form a pond. This will really make Mrs. Pilgrim happy, since I can connect a float system from the garden hose to keep the pond filled and attract ducks. The pond will serve a couple purposes. It will attract the wasps away from the swimming pool, and I'll put some fish in it, to eat them when they land. It might be kind of fun to grow a big bass in there, and catch him occassionally. The pond is also a rainwater catch basin that will have the gutters from the barn draining to it.

A manifold for even water pressure

Ever had someone flush a toilet or have a washing machine kick in while you're in the shower? If you put a manifold in, as close to the water source as possible and use large diameter supply lines, you can almost completely eliminate the effects of a water pressure drop when another water line is opened. Manifolds are out there and ready for purchase, but I want nice big, brass turn off handles that can withstand a lot of use. It isn't really necessary, as they will hardly be used, but since I can build one for relatively the same price as a purchased one that has turnoff valves, I prefer to put my own together. The nice thing about this is, if you need to do any repairs on your plumbing down the road, you can shut off the valve that goes to that area, and continue to have water everywhere else in the house. With a handful of "T" connectors and some short nipples I slapped this manifold together in a matter of a few minutes. I used cast iron fittings to make it strong and used thread sealer compound (pipe dope) to seal. I no longer trust teflon tape because I used it the first time I hooked this unit up, and it leaked in a few spots and had to take it all apart and reassemble with the thread sealer compound.

The finished product

Held aloft like the mighty sword Excalibur, I wield the finished cold water manifold. There is another for the hot water supply. When building them, a little thought has to go into where the water line will go from the manifolds.

Water manifold installed

Using pipe hanger straps I screwed the manifold to a handy stud in the wall and inserted into a "T" in the supply line going to the water heater. There is no such thing as too many shut off valves in a water supply system, but the most critical one is the main supply shut off you can see on the floor. The valve on the left side of the picture goes to the garden hose bib outside. During winter, this valve can be shut off, and the bib outside opened to drain the water out to prevent freezing.

PEX tubing for plumbing

PEX tubing is wonderful stuff. It makes plumbing a snap, and has the added benefit of a higher pressure rating than conventional supply line pipe. It's relatively a new product and finding all the connections you need at the home improvement store can be a challenge, but there are plenty of reputable sites on the internet where you can order the connections you need.

PEX spells EASY

The tubing is cheap, but the connections are pricey. PEX makes up for this drawback by the fact that you don't need that many of them. The tubing can round corners and turn 90 in the span of the typical stud spacing. This corner will be behind the lazy susan cupboard which doesn't but up against either wall, so staying inside the wall studs was not a problem, I just curved it around inside of the corner. The tubing has to be run inside the insulation of your exterior walls to prevent freezing in cold weather.

Supply line stubs

It's hard to see in the picture, but those PEX fitting elbows are what's known as a "dog-ear elbow". They have a flange on the back side with holes in it that allow them to screwed to a piece of wood to anchor the stud. One side of the dog-ear has a PEX fitting and the other is threaded to attach the nipple that will go through the cupboard to the turn off valves.

Inside the kitchen cupboard

Here you can see the almost finished set up inside the kitchen sink cupboard, with the drain pipe, disposer wire conduit and stubs. Valves like those at the manifold will be installed on those stubs, because I like a tough, long lasting valve in my set ups. The drain stub is not cemented in, and the rag is stuffed into it to keep critters from entering the house, since the drain at the exit point is not connected to the sewer system yet