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View Full Version : I am confused about our 1920s cistern...


MotherCharlotte
12-03-2012, 01:13 PM
Maybe somebody knows something about cisterns at old farmhouses, that could help me be less confused.

Our house was built about 1920. It was originally a dairy farm. About 100 feet from the house, in the corner of the yard near the road, is a cement cistern sunken into the ground. The cement looks positively ancient - definitely original to the house. When you look through the wooden slats covering it, you can see water maybe, 15 feet down from the surface. I have no idea how deep it is.

We assumed that this was something that was used to collect rainwater and was used to water animals or crops. We talked about maybe putting a pump down there one day to water our own crops. However...we discovered something very strange yesterday. Apparently the plumbing from both the laundry area, and the kitchen...do NOT drain into our septic tank at all. The pipes leave the house on the opposite side of the house...in the direction of the cistern.

Is it really possible that half our house is draining into the cistern, and not the septic tank? I have never heard of this kind of system. I am thinking now that maybe, when the house was built they had an outhouse, and this cistern collected the water from the kitchen sink - then when indoor toilets and a septic tank were added later, they just left the original drainage arrangement?

Has anyone had any experience with these kinds of systems? I feel quite perplexed about all this. I wonder for instance, if it would even be safe to use this for irrigation if the kitchen drains into it...what about bacterial contamination (from raw meat juice and the like)? Also, is it seeping into the ground somehow? Because why doesn't it ever overflow? I do a heck of a lot of laundry.

Maybe we are wrong though, and there is some other place the kitchen and laundry are draining into? The women whom we bought the place from (who hadn't lived here very long) mentioned she thought there was an old well or something not far from the house, because there was sunken area of ground. It is directly in between the house and cistern. However, I can't really believe there would be 2 septic tanks...what would be the point of that.

I feel so silly that we didn't notice this when we moved in (or before!). Has anyone out there had a 1920s house with a cistern who might be able to enlighten me as to what is going on?

Plowpoint
12-03-2012, 07:53 PM
You do not have to go back into the 1920's to find these systems, up until 1970 or so they were quite common.

I could be wrong of course, as odd things occur in old houses, but I grew up in a house built in 1965 that drained the "gray water" as it is called; water from sinks and drains, into the ditch of the road. It is actually perfectly legal to have, but when you upgrade to a new septic system, gray water is supposed to go with the black water (your sewer pipe coming from the toilets), and plumb it directly into the septic tank and then leach field.

A few years ago they told us farmers were polluting a nearby lake but the numbers they were claiming were way too high. The farmers investigated and it was coming from the gray water of homes along the lake fronts being drained into the lake.

My wife's mother can remember seeing bubbles form in the AmmonoosucRiver in Lisbon, NH every time the neighbor did her laundry.

It was VERY common to plumb sink drains into a separate area then the leach field back before 1980 or so. As long as the drain is working though, you are grandfathered and free of worry.

OzarksJohn
12-03-2012, 08:04 PM
Howdy.

When it comes to plumbing or anything else regarding antique engineering that may or may not have been added to or modified over the years, anything is possible. Drop a trash pump in it and drain it completely and see if there are actually pipes entering it below the water level. Check to see if water is actively entering it through any you find. Kitchen sink and laundry water is considered "gray" water as opposed to "black" water raw sewage from the commode. "Gray" water has long been considered ok for watering the garden. Upon a detailed inspection after pumping dry, dont be surprised to see some fractured concrete and a pretty good layer of dirt sludge in the bottom. I once saw an old cistern that was holding water about 14 feet deep and was likely leaking in ground water during the rainy season. It was actually under the concrete kitchen floor in an old house. Some of the old systems caught roof runoff from the guttering and had diverters that allowed you to shut off the flow to the cisterns as desired. If you can figure out just how yours was set up after draining it, its possible that you might be able to do some mortar repairs and use it once again for a reserve of garden water. Cisterns are a valuable asset in dry conditions, but they do require TLC and covered protection to remain fully functional (and safe) for drinking water should you need one for such uses. The cover or lid over one needs to be in good repair too just for human and animal safety. Unless there is a permanent metal ladder in there, there may be no escape in case of an accidental fall in.OzarksJohn

P.S.

Two stage septic tank systems have existed. The solids end up falling out and being consumed by the bacteria in tank one and the second tank gets the liquid overflow as it passes on to the leech field piping. Several different types of septic systems have been used over the years in various locales. A local septic pumping company would likely figure that out pretty quick if you ever had an issue with it.

offgridbob
12-03-2012, 11:47 PM
The draining with a trash pump is a good idea but unless you have plenty of money be careful who you tell about your old systems, some are probably illegal and others to replace with a permit can run into the 5000 to 10,000 bracket

MotherCharlotte
12-04-2012, 03:01 PM
Thanks for the responses!


When it comes to plumbing or anything else regarding antique engineering that may or may not have been added to or modified over the years, anything is possible. Drop a trash pump in it and drain it completely and see if there are actually pipes entering it below the water level. Check to see if water is actively entering it through any you find.


Thanks for the idea! I guess draining it is a surefire way to examine if water is entering it or not when we empty the sink in in the kitchen or the washing machine. We'll have to do that sometime soon.

And don't worry Bob, I wasn't planning on calling up the township to make sure this arrangement is legal, or anything. I'm not taking any chances! :)

Terri
12-04-2012, 10:15 PM
Bailing out a cistern is a big job!!!!!!!!!

Now, I would never tell you to dump dye into your washing machine, but if there is a sink next to it then they might drain into the same place. So you could put a lot of dye down the sink, and see if it turns some of the water a funny color??

Or, perhaps you could run a load on a quiet, windless day, and see if there is a small current when the washing machine empties?

J R Adams
12-05-2012, 11:07 PM
Bailing out a cistern is a big job!!!!!!!!!

Now, I would never tell you to dump dye into your washing machine, but if there is a sink next to it then they might drain into the same place. So you could put a lot of dye down the sink, and see if it turns some of the water a funny color??

Or, perhaps you could run a load on a quiet, windless day, and see if there is a small current when the washing machine empties?

Food coloring is pretty strong and not toxic. Shouldn't be anything illegal about that.

Moolah
12-07-2012, 09:34 PM
we have something similar to what you are describing and it is a hand dug well that is spring fed.

About 10 yrs ago we drilled a deep well, and we hooked the old spring fed well up to the livestock barns to provide water. The spring fed well will also be our water supply if we need it and can't get water out of the deep well (when the snow is blowing and we loose power and no one wants to start up the well generator and keep it fed. LOL