Living off grid often means living in rural areas with little or no utilities available, we are left to fend for ourselves, which is typically the goal anyhow and not a problem. One of the biggest things the rural off gridder needs to take care of is human waste disposal. There are a few options, one is the Joseph Jenkins Humanure method of composting the waste material, that works very well but not everyone is on board for handling their own poo and waste products, and having company over can create its own set of challenges. If you have sufficient water resources, you may want to have a regular flush toilet, something unassuming and un-intimidating for you, your family and friends who may come visit.

For that you may choose to install a septic system. Typically that costs a LOT of money, is highly regulated (and for good reason!), but if you are careful and considerate, you can create a small septic system that will handle a small cabin or trailer for one or two people. This will probably be illegal in most areas, and if you are caught, may result in hefty fines and require the removal of the illegal system and possibly a cleanup of the area… don’t be ignorant of where you may put this, don’t put it in a place where it could contaminate ground water or any other bodies of water. In fact you probably shouldn’t even do it, BUT if you do choose to do this, or just want to know how, here are some instructions as to how you theoretically could do it. No one at or associated with this site will be held responsible for any actions taken by the visitors here as a result of reading this article.

How to Construct a Small Septic System

Most private septic systems are made up of two parts: The holding and digesting tanks and the dispersal field. The system shown here is a small system, designed for limited use of by two people with no laundry and a small travel trailer. The concept is not the same as a larger system. The tank is much smaller than required and the design is missing some important items such as internal baffles and a qualified site assessment. This system uses two 55 gallon drums, as opposed to the 1000 to 2000 gallon tanks used for a standard home septic system. The system we are creating here also has a dispersal field about one third that of a large home.

Property owners planning a system similar to this one should be aware that this system would not pass muster with any public health department in the USA and could subject the owner to a hefty fine if the system was discovered in use.

  1. Dig a ditch 4 feet wide, 26 feet long, and 3 feet deep.
  2. Assemble all the supplies, parts, and equipment. See the “Things You’ll Need” list below.
  3. Cut a hole in the top of each drum the size of the toilet flange pipe outside measurement. It should be near the edge. A saber saw is best for this task.
  4. Attach a 4″ toilet flange to each hole.
  5. Cut two holes in the top side of the lower drum, as shown in the photo, 45 degrees away from a perpendicular line drawn from the hole on top to the far side.
  6. Cut one hole in the upper drum opposite the hole in the top, as shown in the photo.
  7. Place the drum with one hole in the side at the end of the trench. Level the drum. The top of the drum should be at least 4 inches below grade.
  8. Dig a hole about one foot deeper for the placement of the second drum in front of the first.
  9. Dig the hole mentioned in step 8 a little deeper and fill with gravel until the 90 ell fits perfectly from the hole in the side of the top drum to the toilet flange of the lower drum.
  10. Cut a 3 1/2″ piece of 4″ ABS pipe (nipple) and glue it into one end of the 90 ell. Cut another nipple about 2 1/2″ long and glue it in the other end.
  11. Test the fit for alignment between the two drums. The end with the short nipple should go into the upper drum. It should look like the photo in Step 9.
  12. When you are sure about the fit, glue the end of the 3 1/2″ nipple into the toilet flange. We will deal with sealing the connection to the upper drum later.
  13. Glue a “Y” to 3 1/2 nipples and add a 45 degree bend to the left side of the “Y”. Align the “Y” to meet the incoming waste line, and glue it into the toilet flange.
  14. Cut and glue (2) 2 1/2″ nipples to the remaining two 45 degree bends at one end only and insert into holes in the side of the lower drum, as shown in the photo in step 7. The face of the two 45 degree bends should be perpendicular to the trench.
  15. See photo in Step 7
  16. Pound a stake into the ground so that the top of the stake is level with the bottom of the 45 degree bend coming out of one side of the bottom drum.
  17. Tape a 1″ wide block to the end of a 4 foot level, as shown in the photo to the right.
  18. Start the second stake a little less than 4 feet down the trench from the first.
  19. Lay the end of the level without the block on the first stake and the block on the second. Pound the stake down until the level shows level when the block is on the second stake. The second stake is now 1″ lower than the first, or 1/4″ per foot.
  20. Repeat this process until you have stakes the length of the trench.
  21. Place the gravel in the trench until the top of the gravel is equal with the top of the stakes.
  22. The gravel should now slope away from the drums at 1/4″ to the foot.
  23. Place two pieces of 10 foot 4″ perforated drain pipe connected with a slip coupler (holes down). Slide one end into the 45 degree bend of the lower drum. Repeat on the other side.
  24. Check the drain pipes with the level and block to see if the 1/4″ grade is consistent along the length of the pipe. Adjust by adding or removing gravel under the pipe.
  25. Seal the 45 degree bends and the 90 degree bend to the lower and upper drums, respectively. Try a two part epoxy. You could also use silicon caulk. See the photo in step 6 for finished view of epoxy. Consider using flex pipe for this, so that if the ground shifts it will give a little.
  26. Bury the trench to the top of the bottom drum with the remaining gravel.
  27. Lay landscape fabric over the gravel. This will prevent the soil from seeping into the gravel.
  28. Fill the remaining trench area with soil, compacting well to the original grade.
  29. Fill the upper drum with water.


  • The digestive tanks are made of two plastic 55 gallon drums. The waste fills the first tank, with the solids falling to the bottom. When the liquid reaches the level of the outfall to the second tank, it drains into it. If any solids are there, they fall to the bottom. When the liquid from the second tank reaches the two outfalls, it travels to the gravel leaching field for dispersal. Most of the solids will liquefy over time and be dispersed. After a couple of years, the solids may come to the top of the tank, and the tank will have to be pumped out.
  • After a while, you may see settlement where the trench was. Fill with more soil and compact with wheel of your car. Don’t drive over the area that contains the drums.
  • It is presumed that you know how to work with plastic ABS pipe. You must also have equipment to dig the trench (or be willing to get a lot of exercise).
  • The depth of the trench is relative to the depth of the waste source line. If the line is deeper or higher than the one shown, you will have to dig the trench deeper or shallower to accommodate that depth. It’s not that hard to figure. (Note: If you have too shallow of a trench, your septic system could be damaged easier.)
  • The vertical side of the “Y” will be used to pump out the tank when it is completely fill with solids.
  • The horizontal side of the “Y” connects to the waste source, and should be fitted with a connector that fits the source supply line.


  • Local Septic Regulations should be followed when constructing a septic system. It is illegal to install a septic system with no permit, the permit will detail the local requirements for installation of a septic system.
  • Don’t locate your septic system too close to trees, as tree roots will grow into your line, and cause them to clog (with roots) and with time, cause harm to your system.
  • This is a very small capacity system. This is not designed to meet the needs of a large household. It is designed for a small travel trailer and two people.
  • Depending on use, you may have to pump the upper drum once a year. The system shown here has been pumped twice in five years.

Things You’ll Need

  • (9) cubic yards of 3/4 or 1 1/2 crushed rock or blue metal
  • (80) square feet of landscape fabric
  • (2) 55 gallon plastic drums
  • (10) ft of 4″ ABS plastic pipe
  • (1) 4″ ABS 90 degree bend (sometimes called a street Ell)
  • (1) 4″ ABS Y branch (sometimes called a Y bend)
  • (3) 4″ ABS 45 degree bend
  • (4) 10 ft. length of 4″ perforated drain pipe
  • (2) 4″ drain pipe couplers
  • (2) 4″ toilet flanges
  • (1) 4′ Level
  • (10) Wood Stakes
  • (1) Set of PVC glue
  • (1) Two part epoxy or silicon sealant
  • (1) 1″ thick wood block
  • (1) Duct tape
  • (1) 4″ ABS removable cap for pump out when needed

Original article can be found here:

web statistics

Buy our book - OFF THE GRID - a tour of American off-grid places and people written by Nick Rosen, editor of the off-grid.net web site

23 Responses to “A small DIY septic system”

  1. Tonny.M

    I leave near the beach and want to know should I need a leaching field

  2. Lorraine Boyer

    What if you wanted to do this on a bit larger scale so that you can accommodate a toilet, kitchen sink, shower and laundry facilities. My husband and I live on the north eastern shore of lake superior with the lake being approximately 40 to 50 yards from the lake. We’re not getting any younger and would love some way of knowing how to accomplish pooping, showering and doing our laundry in our camp, without hiring an engineering firm.Any advice would greatly be appreciated, thank you in advance. And oh, I forgot we live in Canada

  3. Doc

    I have installed septic systems in the high country of northern New Mexico and the rural areas of south central Alaska. As one who has engineered and installed 100’s of septic systems, I have a few important suggestions to your plans.
    1. The sewer line from the cabin (or camper, etc.), is to be installed at 1/4″ per foot drop to the tank. In this line, a double clean-out should be installed. The sewer line should be a minimum of 10 feet long from the source.
    2. The leach field/bed MUST be level. A solid pipe, 10 feet long from the leach tank to the first perforated pipe is to be laid in at 1/4 inch per foot drop. ALL perforated pipe MUST be dead level. If there are two leach pipes, it is then a leach bed. Therefore, these two pipes MUST be a minimum of 3 feet apart.
    3. The bottom of the tank(s) should not be excavated below the depth it will rest. If it is, re-compaction is needed to keep the tank(s) from settling (creating dips and bends in the pipe).
    4. The leach field/bed should not be excavated lower than will accommodate the washed rock to the level of the bottom of the perf pipe. If it is, re-compaction is needed to keep the leach field/bed from settling (creating dips and bends in the pipe).
    5. The leach tank should have a clean-out as well.
    6. There should be a perforated stand pipe at the end of the leach field/bed (two if it is leach bed. one on each side at the end). This will allow inspection of the leach field/bed to determine how much liquid is in the leach field/bed.
    7. The entire septic system MUST be a minimum of 100 feet from a well, river, creek, stream or lake…or any body of water.

  4. Tim Houser

    Separate the liquids and solids. Liquids on the garden. Solids into a bin where you have black soldier flies (BSF). Feed the larvae to your critters (chickens, fish, etc.) and put the castings on your plants.


  5. Bro B

    Separate the liquid from the solid. Put the liquid in your garden.
    Take the solid waste and put it into a solar oven and pasturize it then use it in ypur garden as fertalizer.

  6. david

    Will additional fresh water help to dilute waste
    in the tanks?

  7. Rhoda

    Could get a picture of the T system, please?

  8. okabasi doma

    very very good idea!! so, i will try to build them in my country central java, indonesia.

  9. Dan

    Pro tip: liquids should always leave one tank via a “T” before entering the pipe to feed the next tank. The T is there to prevent solids from transferring to the next tank. The T should have a 12″ long down pipe to extend it below the level of floating paper in the upper tank.

  10. Gerry

    For part time use with for an RV site, can the Y be replaced with just a single vertical piece of PVC? This would be capped when not in use and hooked up to black water tank otherwise. Would I need to make adjustments for air inlet when not in use to keep system aerated?

  11. Rebecca allsteadt

    Thank you so much for the great idea.
    I am going to try it in an off the grid home up in alaska. :-)

  12. Joel

    Thank you for this great information, it is exactly what I need for my little FEMA trailer out in the woods. The pictures are a good way to help me conceptualize the idea, and I can easily imagine ways to customize it to my needs. Once again, thanks!

  13. John

    How will something like this work in a cold climate like New England? I believe the frost line is 48 inches down. Do the tanks and the pipes leaving the second tank that leach into the ground need to be below that? I dont want the tanks and pipes to freeze in the winter.

  14. Darren

    I would put 2 cleanout access points to ground level for each barrel so you could get a septic truck to suck out sand whenever needed.

  15. Lauren Norkin

    Thanks, folks! This is exactly the kind of thing we were looking to do for our “mancave”/guest trailer. Poster says you pumped system 2 times in 5 years. I wonder if you were using Riddix or a similar product and still had to pump or if you weren’t using such a product? We haven’t pumped our regular septic tanks in YEARS!! thanks for advice!

  16. John

    Yes. Use as many tanks as you want or buy tanks larger than 55 gallons. The point is that you want the solids to settle out before they go into your leach field. The primary tank is to settle the solids. The second is a secondary settling tank that will allow more suspended particles to settle out. A larger tank is better in that there is more retention time. The actual “cleaning” of the liquid occurs in the soil in the leach field.

  17. Adela

    Can one use more than 2 drums? Or is this only for 2?
    Thank you.

  18. william

    Ok I must not have asked my question correctly since it got deleted so I will try again. I have two plastic rv black waste tanks could I use the above method with those?

    • Wretha


      Your previous message is still here :) Sorry I didn’t recognize it as a question, it looked a bit rhetorical… to answer you, I don’t know, or I suppose it could work, I am not familiar with rv tanks…


  19. william

    Couldn’t you use rv tanks seems it would be easier?

  20. David Workman

    What a great idea with plastic drums I have seen metal ones that had rusted out I wander how long they last. Also make sure you are at least 75ft from any well or stream when you build your system. Tha ks for the Info on the system.

  21. Rodney

    Back in the day, when I used to pump out septic tanks, I came across a setup similar to this one except they used steel drums, welded makeshift inlet/outlet baffles & no leach field. It simply ran out 400′ down behind their house which at the time, was legal in southern Iowa. The tanks had been in use for about 25-30 years before they started having flushing problems. When I dug down & discovered what they had, the barrels were pretty much rusted all the way through & ready to cave in within another year but the bacteria was doing it’s job & all three tanks were sludge free. Their problem was the clay tile drain line, that hooked into the last tank, had come off the tank & the “system” was simply leaching into the ground. They had their toilet, lavatory, tub & kitchen sink going into that setup. Their grey water, (laundry), drained out a separate line, to the ditch. Which again, at that time, in rural Iowa, that was legal.

  22. Noba Dee

    It seems a lot easier to just have a privy or use some form of the humanure method. If visitors aren’t happy with the arrangements, they can always leave. ;)


Leave a Reply