Paksworld Plumbing, Part II

Posted: February 26th, 2014 under Background, Contents, Life beyond writing.
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The historians and archaeologists among you know that plumbing–its existence, variations, quality, and effect on human health (both good and bad)–is highly variable throughout history.    Elaborate systems for providing fresh drinking water, for instance, existed in time (and within a short distance) alongside the simplest, least effective ways of getting water to drink and a place to put your waste.   This allows fantasy and science fiction writers to play with the co-existence of different kinds of plumbing, and different attitudes towards what we now call public health issues.


This is a site-built (not by us!) septic tank from the mid-1950s.    It was sized to the estimate number of people who would be using it, and is original to this house.   It’s six feet long, 40 inches wide, and probably about that deep.    It was easy to see that though the inside is regular, concrete poured against a form, the outside is irregular–the heavy clay soil was used as a form, so the concrete has taken the shape of the excavation.   The three slabs on top would have been poured elsewhere.   The top sits about a foot below the ground surface, and the inlet pipe is down the side (on the house, right-hand side of this image.)  The slabs that form the top are thick and very heavy, meant for sliding aside to access the interior.


The black hose leading into it on the left is a powerwashing hose, doing the final cleanup after the contents were pumped out.  (No, I didn’t think you’d enjoy a picture of the contents.   Imagination is a wonderful tool.)   It was such a bright day with such contrasty lighting that I  couldn’t show the inside of the tank once it was clean.  (For some values of clean.)

In our world, this is a high-end method of waste treatment  in some countries (where pit toilets, if any, are common and septic tanks rare), and a low-end method in urbanized developed countries.   It would be high end in Paksworld of the present day.    Anything similar there would be built of stone (since they don’t have concrete, lacking the Romans.)

A septic tank is essentially a holding tank, but it does have some ability to decontaminate the effluent (the liquid that flows out) through a series of baffled chambers and time and releasing the water into a “tile field” where it waters non-tree vegetation.   It requires no mechanical skill to use–but it does need the sludge cleared out at intervals, and any leaks (e.g., from tree roots) repaired.  Though the job of manually emptying the sludge is unpleasant,  it was routine with septic tanks before sewage pumping trucks were invented, requiring only ladder, buckets,  something to put the sludge in (whence it could be hauled out to a pasture as fertilizer.)

Septic tanks came into use for houses with at least some indoor plumbing.    Prior to that, there were pit toilets and outhouses.   Pit toilets had to be cleaned out one way or another (sometimes by pouring gasoline into them and then burning them out.  Very stinky fire.   You moved the outhouse well away before doing that.  I don’t know what they burned them out with prior to petroleum products, or if they just hauled away the remains.  I do know my mother told me that fireplace ashes were thrown in to control odor and flies. )

So what about Paksworld?

Some houses, in some locations, do have a form of indoor plumbing, unlike our indoor plumbing.   In some areas,  fresh, reasonably clean water is brought into a city via constructed aqueducts, either underground or above ground and dispensed at public fountains and (in a few cases) into individual residences (but never ALL individual residences.)    When indoor water sources are available, then indoor water removal is available–usually by a kind of pipe.   Wood or ceramic pipes predate  metal pipes, which are still fairly rare and fairly crude.

Indoor water, if available, is used for cooking and washing and bathing before it’s used for toilets…the problem of disposing of the “black water” effluent is trickier than the other, to the people in Paksworld.   They already have jacks–pit toilets–where the waste is more compact and the smell can be controlled by throwing wood ash on it.    If you add all the water that a household uses for cooking, laundry, and washing of persons…now you have more volume, and in an undesirable slurry.   You need to invent a septic tank, with its lateral line and tile field, and for that you need space (which, in cities, you’re unlikely to have.

But in country houses of the rich, if there’s water piped in from a private source, something like a septic tank, rather than a pit toilet, might well exist.   Consider that such houses usually have attached gardens and small fruit orchards, for the use of the family and house servants, close in paddocks for livestock.  Not that hard to build a septic tank, channeling the effluent through an underground network to feed whatever it considered best.    If they think of it.    I suspect some estates have them, and some don’t–and more in Aarenis than in the north.

So the Mahieran estate–the wealthiest right now–will have such a system for the big house.  A water storage tank high enough to provide minimal water pressure for water in the house;  indoor jacks that drain into the underground tank.   They will have a separate laundry house and drain from that, but not a septic tank or anything like it–what we call a French drain instead–a ditch full of rocks, leading the water out away from the buildings.    The kitchen cooks-jacks will be separate, too, from the system.    The hunting cabin Beclan was kept in would not have a system like that.   Not even an outside pit toilet, but chamberpots to be used inside and a cesspit to throw the contents (along with food waste–very little) in outside.
Meanwhile, I’m thinking how to tell you about Mr. Flores, who came with his truck and pumped out and power-washed our septic tank and grease trap.   It takes a certain amount of background, which I’ll try to compress, but not now.  Now it’s time to leave for choir practice.


  • Comment by Jonathan Schor — February 26, 2014 @ 5:21 pm


    I always thought that a properly designed septic system and leach field if not overloaded would work for a really long time with no need for pumping.

    Signed up for Keiri turns dentist.

  • Comment by Linda — February 26, 2014 @ 8:11 pm


    The neolithic village of Skara Brae in the Orkney Islands shows evidence of a rather sophisticated system of drains and “indoor toilets”. It was built before the pyramids and is the most amazing place I have yet visited. Being built mainly of dry walled stone, and including stone furnishings, it is about 5,000 years old and has quite properly been designated a World Heritage site.

    The islands are a bit of a trip, but between the landscape and the prehistoric sites they are fascinating, especially if one takes the time to just sit and absorb the spirit of the place.

  • Comment by elizabeth — February 26, 2014 @ 10:56 pm


    Linda: One of the odd things about technology in general is that it can be developed to a high level and then lost in subsequent generations…reinvented somewhere else with a variation…lost again…etc. The “best” tech (as we see it) can coexist in the same period with “inferior” tech–sometimes in the same region, divided by social class or religion or race or all three. Social values drive some of the differences; climate drives some; migrations and the resulting social disruption drives some. And it goes all across the spectrum of technology, not just in plumbing.

    I would love to visit Scara Brae. Sitting and absorbing the spirit of a place is one of my favorite occupations.

    Jonathan: One faction told us that–that cleaning out a septic system risked having it not work right…just let it alone. Another told us regular pumping out was the key to a healthy system. There are some qualifiers in your comment that could be discussed at length (if I knew more!!) Like “properly designed septic system and leach field” and “if not overloaded.”

    Our system had worked without being pumped out for…almost certainly 20 years. Maybe longer. Probably longer. (I can’t remember exactly when we had it pumped out before…) And it really, really needed it by the time Mr. Flores came last Friday. The sediment had reached the outlet pipe. You don’t want sediment in the outlet pipe, plugging that up. (You also don’t want groundwater entering the outlet pipe and filling your septic tank during a period of heavy rain, which is what caused our earlier need to investigate the tank.)

    Mr. Flores recommends pumping out every five years, and leaving it alone otherwise except for a periodic packet of bakers’ yeast down the toilet. That’s if the tank is properly sized for the number of people using it, which this is for the two of us.

  • Comment by Wickersham's Conscience — February 27, 2014 @ 12:10 am


    In Alaska, outside of the very largest communities, septic tanks and drainfields are the rule and not the exception. In fact, they dictate minimum lot size: the drainfield has to be a minimum distance from the well.

    As Elizabeth says, the goal is to trap the solids in the septic tank and keep them out of the drainfield. It’s an imperfect system. The “fines” don’t all settle out and eventually clog the drainfield. in the northern two-thirds of the state, as I suspect in the northern parts of the north kingdoms, parts of the ground are permanently frozen, “permafrost.” Which can’t absorb water at all, another suite of complications. In very swampy areas, septic tanks tend to “float” up, as well.

    All of which makes waste disposal a problem still, at least in Alaska.

  • Comment by pjm — February 27, 2014 @ 1:58 am


    Melbourne had a sewerage system since the 1890s, but it expanded faster than the infrastructure could keep up with, so when I was growing up the washing water (I don’t know about storm water) drained into the street gutter, and the can of night soil from the thunder box was exchanged for a clean can every few days. It just demonstrates the point that advanced cultures can have more primitive bits.

  • Comment by Richard — February 27, 2014 @ 2:41 am


    Urban sewerage systems aren’t perfect either (and in more places than just Melbourne), as I’ve had the good fortune not to experience myself, only hear about. Common practice in the UK seems to have been to run everything, including storm drains from road gutters, into the same sewers. So when too much rain- or river-water fills the roads…

    Wickersham’s Conscience, remember the story in the Deed of the old orc tunnel in swampy mud outside the North Marches stronghold – no indication of permafrost. Look in horse nomad lands, I presume.

    Wonder what the rockfolk do with their waste underground.

    Can rock-magic produce concrete, or better? (whether humans have ever seen the results, or not).

  • Comment by GinnyW — February 27, 2014 @ 8:13 am


    Fountains were used as water supply partly because aerating water destroys/eliminates some of the potential contaminants. Similarly wells, which collect groundwater seeping fairly far underground, tend to filter out some of the contaminants. We have only glimpses of the rituals that villagers used to try to preserve the quality of water in their wells, but the rituals themselves testify that they were aware that “bad” water was a big problem. Although they may not have known how or why water turned bad.

  • Comment by elizabeth — February 27, 2014 @ 9:39 am


    Where I grew up, mid-20th c. south Texas, towns (fairly young, all but one founded earlier in 20th c.) had sewage systems with treatment plants–but not up to today’s standards. Farms had septic tanks. Colonias, the clusters of small settlements near/on farms where farmworkers lived, did not: they had, at best, pit toilets; at worst, a communal cesspit into which the contents of chamberpots or the equivalent were thrown. Water supply ranged from clean, treated, regularly inspected city water supplies to untreated river water dipped out of the canal system with a bucket or can. The stuff that came out of the faucet at our house was safe to drink…though I clearly remember our entire class breaking into astonished laughter when our science book told us water was colorless (check), odorless (What??), and tasteless (WHAT?!!!) Teacher was not amused. The Rio Grande was our water source–a long river in a hot climate dissolving salts from the many rocky formations it flowed over until it ran out of rocks about 40-50 miles upstream…the only mineral NOT in our water was fluoride, and the local conservatives were sure adding fluoride would turn us into Commies…so we all had bad teeth. The water smelled of chlorine (the amount it took to keep the bacterial count down, in a river with not that much volume and two nations drinking out of it and returning effluent to it) and tasted rich and salty.

    Away from faucets getting city water…huge canals transported the river water for irrigation, branching off into smaller and smaller ones. Unwary children (mostly brownskinned) swam in them; some drowned in the big ones. The water was brown, silty…and cooler than the air. My mother swam in the nearest canal when she was young; her mother made her quit swimming in the big one (indecency–there were BOYS swimming in that canal, including my uncle) so she had to take a dip in one of the laterals (smaller, much slower current) and hope her mother didn’t notice her damp hair. I knew better than to drink from the Second Street Canal, or try to get into it, but when I found a quiet lateral, or a horse trough, out at the margins of my exploration–and home was a very hot several miles away–I would take handful, if it looked clear and (for the horse trough) it had healthy looking “moss” growing on it. 11-12 year olds don’t know as much as they think they do. Canal water smelled better than city water, alive.

    We had disease: schools mandated immunizations, but families newly over from Mexico, and adults, might not have had them. I remember a diphtheria outbreak when I was in elementary school, cases of typhoid being reported, and polio was a constant worry until the Salk vaccine (for which we were a test area, so every child in school went through the series twice.) I knew kids that died of polio, and others left crippled, disappearing into what was then a vast network of polio centers–very few returned to public school, and no allowances were made for disability. My mother had had polio as a child, before those centers existed. When our town had an outbreak, we went on block quarantine–children were not supposed to be off the block they lived on, except to go to the doctor, or church, with their parents. I lived on a double block, and my best friend Martha and I got in big trouble for breaking block quarantine–she actually crossed a street; I just ran down to the other end of my block, to be across the street from her. We stood there yelling back and forth across the street…so of course someone saw us and called our parents, and then came out and scolded us and told us to go home at once.

    This goes far from the actual topic, but…it was clear to me that within a 10 mile radius of my house the 20th c. and several previous centuries were living side by side. When I got sick, I was taken to a doctor in a clean, modern-for-the-time doctor’s office; when I got encephalitis, my mother drove me 250 miles north to San Antonio, to a bigger hospital with specialist doctors. When a kid in one of the colonias got sick, her parents would very likely consult a curandera, a folk healer, and in a hut with a dirt floor the curandera would do what she could with prayers, rituals, and herbs. The light source, if any, would be a candle or kerosene lantern or open fire. There were several curanderas in our town (illegal, but tolerated), and a bruja (witch) some 40+ miles upriver and possibly (my childhood informants weren’t sure) another between our town and the one where my grandmother lived, ten miles to the east.

    It was the perfect setting to develop a future fantasy/science fiction writer, though of course I didn’t know that, and I came into it almost too late to get all it had to offer. There was the bright shiny promise of the space age (and I loved airplanes, and then the concept of rockets and space)…and the old, old culture of the Border country, much deeper and more complex than the new clean veneer of Anglo development (and I loved hearing about it.) The Spaniards had been there for ~300 years, but behind them were the native peoples (relatively shallow depth as human culture goes–only 12-13,000 years.) “Border” Spanish, dismissed as a corrupted form because of English influence, was actually part Nahuatl, the language of the region from before the Spanish invasion. We learned nothing in school about any of that. We barely learned about the Spanish missions; the pre-Spanish peoples were thin on the ground, without the panache of the Aztecs and Incas down in Mexico. The Spanish forced them into servitude (a servitude the Anglos, when they came, were glad to perpetuate) and tried to Christianize them. We were not told about the old Spanish trail markers–not the kind the state highway department put up, but the ones that Spanish and their descendants used, mysteriously maintained on specific trees and fence posts between the border and the Spanish missions–maintained even through my childhood (and maybe still, though the new road has been routed around the little settlements and water holes that the old road followed.) At any rate, I was spared the one-layer experience of a new post-WWII suburb, populated by only one race, with all the households at the same economic level and nearly all the fathers working for the same company or type of company. I knew from the start the world was far more complicated, and interesting, than that.

  • Comment by Tuppenny — February 27, 2014 @ 10:02 am


    I have vivid memories of 2 weeks at the end of a hot August when my parents rented a beach house in one of the tiny hamlets in the Jones Beach area of Long Island. There was a rickety board walk over the marsh to the privy. The one time it didn’t smell was when a storm came in ant the wind changed direction.
    And in Japan where I lived as a young child there were still honey bucket men with their two bucket yokes of night soil that they carried to the fields. Very odorous.
    Getting water and disposing of waste is so much work in so many societies – and so much of it womens work!

  • Comment by Rob — February 27, 2014 @ 10:36 am


    One of the neatest things about working for my company (very large engineering firm) is that we do a lot of programs for clean water and energy. One of the absolute neatest designs I’ve seen for cooking fuel comes out of the eastern middle-east, and has been used in its basic concept for hundreds of years.

    They separate the liquid waste from more solid waste material. The solid was is dumped into a large cistern type pit along a diagonal slide/pipe and the whole is covered with a dome shaped cover. The dome captures the methane gases form the decomposing waste, and a small pipe leads from the top of the dome to an outdoor cooking stove. With a family of 4 or more, as well as cows, or goats, there is enough waste to keep a constant flame.

    This is enough to ensure that areas without vegetation to burn for fires have the means to cook their food, and to stay warm. Yes, the pit needs to be cleaned out about once every 6 months, but as mentioned it is used as fertilizer.

    Clean water is the hardest thing to come by in the same locations. Running the water through beds of crushed charcoal has been a staple of many countries. They then filter it through different screens of material like wool, or grasses. It does not give you 100% clean water, but it gets rid of a lot of the heavier base metals. The water is then commonly boiled after.

  • Comment by John McDonald — February 27, 2014 @ 11:49 am


    As a young man in the 60’s, I was lucky enough to spend two weeks at Philmont Scout ranch. One of the more interesting skills I learned was how to make a cooking fire using buffalo dung as a fuel source. I imagine the horse nomads probably do something similar.

  • Comment by Jonathan Schor — February 27, 2014 @ 2:18 pm


    Of course it all depends on hoe realistic the author desires. I read, for example, the Nero Wolfe books frequently and while there is a bathroom mentioned, actually at least four in one book or another, no one ever heeds the call of nature. In some stories the protagonists never eat or use the Head. Do we need to read of Perry Mason needing to pee?

    On the other hand can Ms. Moon address the concept that some of the detail may be just filler? I do not think so but it is a thought worthy of consideration.

  • Comment by ellen — February 27, 2014 @ 6:01 pm


    I like to read about how people in other times/cultures handle little everyday facts of life like that. We were having a conversation about just those things a while ago, wondering what people used to do for toilet paper in the old days, when my father in law (quite deaf and usually off in his own little world), piped up with the following:
    “In days of old/ When knights were bold/ And loo’s were not invented/ They wiped their …(fill in)/ With clumps of grass/ And went away contented.

    Yes well…ummmm thanks Pops

    And besides, with so much mention of delicious foods and drink, it is only consistent to acknowledge the natural consequences of eating and drinking…

    Oh yes, Elizabeth @ 3, we have a septic tank, with a drainage area of rock and gravel, well away from the house; we live out of town, same 5 year interval (supposedly) between pumpouts…what is the baker’s yeast down the toilet for?

  • Comment by Genko — February 27, 2014 @ 6:35 pm


    Actually, Zen Master Dogen addressed the whole toileting issue quite extensively in his prolific writings (13th century Japan). He did a lot of instruction, especially about zazen, but also felt that everyday life needed to be lived mindfully, and had explicit instructions. He recommended using balls of clay (sometimes translated as balls of sand, which makes a little more sense to me) to wipe with. And he insisted that the monks wash their hands. He was dealing with a lot of country bumpkins, and wanted them to act a bit more civilized.

  • Comment by elizabeth — February 27, 2014 @ 8:44 pm


    John McDonald: I think my husband was there in the late 50s or early 60s. I’ll ask him. Dung fires have been used in climates where the dung dries out enough–it does here, but I’ve never tried it.

    Jonathan Schor: How much is mentioned of any bodily function depends on the kind of book (genre, setting, characters, etc.), the writer’s concept of the book, when the book was written (and thus social mores with regard to that bodily function), the book’s intended readership, and more. Detective stories of the Perry Mason/Hercule Poirot/Nero Wolfe era do not mention the detective’s need for a toilet for a combination of those things, nor do they delve into the detective’s sex life…but they do mention what the detective eats. Are Nero Wolfe’s gourmet meals, and Poirot’s finicky need to arrange his flatware perfectly and have his egg boiled precisely so long “filler”? No–they are part of characterization; they make the detective more interesting and memorable to the reader, and a detective’s personality is always at the center of these books, far more than a crime or criminal. Even now, the same is true…many such books are marketed (once the series takes off) both by author name and “An Inspector This Mystery.” What parts of a detective’s life may be used to enrich characterization is a matter of social taste at the time, but the characterization parts are not ‘filler’–they are essential to a successful mystery series.

    Fantasy & science fiction are genres where the creation of alternate worlds and how people (human or alien) live in them rises to the level of characterization. They’re not the only such genres: any work in which the setting is sufficiently unusual to need a lot of words to make it clear to the reader will delve into the character/setting interactions. But “setting” in SF/F is always part of the reason for the story, so the setting is more critical to the work’s success. It must feel livable to the reader. And criticism of the lack of reality-connections in SF/F is widespread. (Horses that never need to rest and can gallop for hours and hours, lots of food without any agriculture, cities with no visible means of support, spaceships always full of breathable air and drinkable water with no recycling or oxygen generation.) Real world-building means considering all aspects of living in this alternate world…including elimination and human waste. How it is shown, how much of it is shown, depends on each writer’s understanding of a book’s necessities and readers’ tolerance…and that has changed, and will change, through time. Editors help, on the “book’s necessities” side, because a writer can be much more fascinated in one aspect of the setting than 90% of readers. If the writer is truly interested and not trying to boost word count, then it’s not “filler”…it’s just the writer’s enthusiasm growing past the ideal point for that story. If, on the other hand, the writer is short on words and inserts 20K about the details of a spaceship’s environmental system, or weapons system, or the history of the social system as an infodump to get the book to the contracted length…it’s filler. Telling writer-enthusiasm from filler is the duty of both writer and editor…who are supposed to ensure that everything in the book contributes to the story in some way…making the characters (including, in this genre, the setting) more vivid and advancing the plot. So anything (including toilets and trips to them, but also swords, guns, food, cooking, money, cars, fights, surgery) can be in a story, integral to it, and anything (including toilets and trips to them, but also swords, guns, food, cooking, money, cars, fights, surgery) can be filler. As a writer who is in a constant fight to cut down a story, keep within shouting distance of the contracted length from the other side…I never need to pad. I always need to cut. So if I put it in there, and the editor doesn’t cut it…it’s not filler. It’s giving the reader information that will enrich the story. Specifically, one of the big differences between the way we live and the way people in Paksworld live is that they are always in contact with, and aware of, where their food comes from and where their waste goes. At that level of technology there’s no getting away from it. It can’t squick them the same way it can us, in our houses with clean water from a faucet and the quick disappearance of the waste. It’s as daily an experience to them as getting into a car or bus or train is to us. (And it still is to people who still deal with one or the other parts of that: soldiers in the field deal with both the food issue and the waste issue.)

  • Comment by elizabeth — February 27, 2014 @ 9:50 pm


    Okay, I have to ask (living in an area where sandy soil is dry, but also having beach camping experience) “How do you make a ball of sand hold together long enough to do any good?” On second thought, never mind. I’m just going to go with the ball of clay translation.

  • Comment by Jonathan Schor — February 28, 2014 @ 12:37 pm


    Then too is the nature of the writing. Whereas stories set in modern times don’t have to create atmosphere because we all know what a street or an automobile is, in world creating such as the world of Paks, nothing can be taken for granted. In the end, for both types of writing – world creating and using the known world, good writing certainly trumps bad and I must say that I do enjoy Ms. Moon’s writing.

  • Comment by elizabeth — February 28, 2014 @ 12:43 pm


    Jonathan: (beams)

  • Comment by Eowyn — March 12, 2014 @ 4:23 pm


    Regarding Skara Brae, if you ever want to go to Orkney and want advice on cool stuff to do, let me know. My mom goes there frequently (things like the bird preserve at Papa Westrey, Noop-Head on Westrey, the Tomb of the Eagle etc..

    I can just imagine what the pumping out smelled like. I’ve been down-wind of a privy cleaning and that was interesting enough.

  • Comment by Margaret Middleton — March 24, 2014 @ 12:57 pm


    I see nobody has addressed the bakers yeast question. It’s to refresh the processing bacteria munching on the sludge. There are ‘septic tank specific’ brands of this sold also [though any exact names elude me at the moment].

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