Of cesspools and biodegradable cleaners

I've mentioned before that we have to be careful which cleaning products we use because of our septic situation. Actually, we don't even have a septic. That's the problem. Back when the house was built, there was less concern for polluting the groundwater. The wastewater from the home simply emptied into a brick-lined hole in the ground called a cesspool. From there, the water would seep out through holes left in the sides. It's the same concept used today in parking lot drainage, and it's now called a drywell. Drywells are approved in Indiana for greywater systems (no human waste), but codes now require a septic system. Since ours is grandfathered, we're trying very hard to preserve it. Not only would installing a septic be expensive, we'd also have to have the cesspool filled in. And we have two of them. Luckily, we do have an access hatch built into the driveway, so it can be occasionally pumped out like a regular septic.

What all this means for everyday life is that we need to be very careful what we put down the drains. Ordinary commercial soaps and cleaners inhibit the soil's ability to absorb liquid. Over time a scum builds up on the surface, and no water will leach out at all, which would mean our cesspool would be nothing more than a holding tank. As far as I know, this hasn't happened yet. All of our drains run quickly and there are no strange odors in the backyard. Since we'd like to keep it this way, we are pretty picky about what cleaning products we use.

The transition began even before we moved into the Prairie Box. I read an article somewhere (sorry, no idea where!) about how the chemicals we use in our homes can cause the indoor air quality to be worse than that outside. I also found that many cleaners are petroleum-based (laundry detergent, dish soap, and many others). I'm not a crazy hippie-chick, but it bothered me that I was using oil to clean my home and clothing. And myself. It also concerned me that some many substances we use to "clean" our home had warning labels on them. "Vapors can be harmful", "may cause skin irritation", "avoid prolonged exposure". Does this sound like stuff we want to prepare our food around? Take a bath in? Expose children to? No thanks.

And so the quest began. It started with a non-petroleum-based laundry detergent, but once we moved into the Prairie Box, I wanted as many products as possible to be biodegradable. Over the next few days, I'm going to take a look at the cleaning products we use in the house, and write about what works and what doesn't. I'll also include where we bought them and what they cost.

Here are the criteria we use when evaluating a product prior to purchase, in no particular order:
  1. Price: I don't care how well it cleans or how good for the environment it is if I can't afford to buy it on a regular basis. I try not to spend more than $6 for most cleaners, but there are exceptions.
  2. Biodegradability: A necessity. If I switch from a mainstream product, it's never to something non-biodegradable.
  3. Ingredients: I prefer products that are pH balanced (i.e. phosphate-free), since I have well water.
  4. Fragrance: Many "green" products are perfume free. Others smell like various herbs or flowers, which is usually okay. Some smell like patchouli. Ick.
  5. Availability: Some products I buy are only aavailable to me online. Others only at certain stores. When possible I like to buy from Meijer, since it's where I go for my groceries.

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