Money down the drain? Upgrading Istria’s sewerage system

An update on the changing sewerage situation in Istria and its impact on home owners.

Being Croatia, works are seldom roped off ...

So … let’s talk sewage! Trenches are being dug all over Istria: diggers are closing roads, delaying traffic and limiting house access. If this hasn’t affected you yet, it soon will as Croatia (with EU funding assistance), is installing a more comprehensive sewerage system, moving many village houses off septic tanks onto mains drainage.

While the digging may affect us all across Istria in some way, not every property will be connected. If your house is in a small village at the end of a lane – like so many are – you are unlikely to see the mains diggers any time soon. Nor will you see them in towns, where there’s been mains drainage for decades. But if you live in a large village or close to a main artery, then expect diggers and disruption at some point.Sewer line trench near Zbandaj on Porec-Pazin road

Depending where you live, this is possibly old news, as work started on this project several years ago: many villages have already had their lives turned upside down and then put to rights again. One typical example is Kaštelir, a group of small villages north of Porec, where mains drainage work disrupted life for several years, with roads throughout the area being dug up, one after another. Work’s now finished there and has shifted on. For example, as I write this in Aug 2017, rock breakers are currently hammering east of Porec, digging a mains trench alongside the Porec-Pazin road near Žbandaj.

Making the connection

Once mains drains have been installed and the diggers moved on, owners are expected to connect their properties to the network – it isn’t optional. When the sewerage network is in place, most local councils will stop providing a septic tank emptying service and it is likely that owners who do not connect will be fined.

In theory, official notification letters will be sent from the local council (Opcina) to owners, letting them know what is expected of them. I say, ‘in theory’ because, this being Croatia, reality is likely to vary from council to council and even within the same council. For example, we have connected two houses in Kaštelir, the first covered in phase 1 of the works (2012-2014). In this case we received an official letter while the excavation work was still underway, saying we needed to go to the council to sign a contract and that we must be connected by a specified date. The second house was covered in phase 2 (2015-2016). This time no letter was sent. As my assistant, Elbina, said, “I guess they assumed that everyone knew what to do by this stage!”

IMPORTANT: please also note that, if a letter is sent, it may very well be sent to the property address and not necessarily to any agreed postal address. (In our case, all mail should come to our company address, with nothing going to our specific holiday property – Trenching to link houses to main sewer linebecause there’s no-one there to collect it! Despite this, the letter arrived in the house’s mailbox, not ours – luckily Elbina checks it regularly.) So if a connection looks likely in the vicinity of your property, I strongly advise you have someone keep a lookout for letters sent there.

While the government is responsible for putting in the infrastructure, property owners are responsible for arranging and paying for their personal connection – whether an official letter is received or not. Old septic tanks needs sealing up, and pipes laid and connections made to the most appropriate outlet (manhole). The complexity and cost of this depends on the property’s location and amount of work involved, and our two Kaštelir houses are good examples.

Our experience

The first house we connected is on a hillside surrounded by other properties with no connection point close by, so it wasn’t clear where we should go or what we needed to do. If you’re also in a situation like this, or have any doubts, we recommend talking to your local council. There will be someone responsible who will be able to give you advice. In our case, the official who came from the Kaštelir Opcina was extremely friendly and helpful (but only spoke Croatian). As he explained to Elbina, when a property is on a slope and the nearest manhole is uphill, the installation will require a pump. So he recommended, if possible, we went to the nearest downhill connection point. He also explained that manholes can take multiple connections, so not to worry if someone is already using it, as there’s usually two or three connection points per pit.

Our connection options were to follow our drive uphill and along the road, or go downhill under a neighbour’s driveway. Uphill was a far longer distance and involved installing a pump, a very expensive option. Downhill involved negotiating with our neighbour and paying them compensation. As our neighbour had recently finished laying his drive, he was understandably very hesitant about allowing our builder to dig it up and it took all Elbina’s negotiating skills to persuade him round, but this still looked a better bet than the uphill / pump option. The deal she agreed was that we would arrange and pay for his own (very straightforward) connection, give him a small sum in compensation for the disruption, and guarantee to return his property to its original state.

Even when installed, roads often remain in a mess for a while ...One of the reasons our neighbour finally agreed to let us through his land is because Miro, our builder, assured him that he would make no mess and that, when he was finished, no one would ever know the work had been done! Now … I have complete faith in Miro (as much as one can with a builder!): he’s done a lot of work for us, including the full renovation of Kovaci and has yet to let us down. Even so, I still had my doubts, as the work was fiddly and our neighbour is extremely house-proud – justifiably so, he’s done a lot of work on his place. So, given the amount of digging required, could Miro pull it off? If one of the paving bricks were broken, would we be able to find a matching replacement? How much might our ‘guarantee’ actually end up costing us? Oh me of little faith! Miro was as good as his word and looking at it a few days after he finished, you simply wouldn’t know we had trenched right through our neighbour’s driveway! And our neighbour was later heard boasting in the local pub – about what an excellent job his builder had done!

If you find yourself with an awkward connection like this, the best option will depend totally on your specific circumstances – for Connection pipe awaiting its manhole coverexample, there will be times when a pump proves a more straightforward and lower-cost option than going through a neighbour’s property. Each case will be totally individual.

Our second Kaštelir house was in Kovaci. When we restored Kovaci, luckily we knew the mains drainage work was coming – although it took a few years longer to arrive than we had been told – so we set everything up with future connection in mind. The house is also next to the road and in the end, a manhole was positioned right next to our planned ‘exit’ point. So while our first connection threw Elbina a string of challenges, our second connection was extremely straightforward.

Septic tanks – a brain dump!

While this expansion of Croatia’s sewerage network will put many more homes on mains drainage, there will still be a significant number of homes which will continue to rely on septic tanks in their garden.

Before we moved to Istria, I hadn’t given sewerage or septic tanks much, if any, thought. It was a case of down the plughole or down the loo was ‘out of sight, out of mind’! Since coming here, I’ve learned a lot more. I’ve learned that in Croatia septic tanks are referred to simply as ‘septics’ and that, in some cases, a ‘septic’ may be a single, concrete-lined pit which needs emptying regularly. In others it can be a split affair with ‘clean’ water (from washing machines, showers, etc.) going into a soak-away and ‘dirty’ water (loos) going into a contained compartment (this set-up is what the law stipulates). In many older septics (and some new ones), EVERYTHING goes into a soak-away – be aware these are illegal today. I’ve learned there are big septics and small septics, well installed ones and those that leak.

Before you glaze over, I’ll finish with one final point. Septic tanks need emptying and all Croatia’s local government garbage departments have a fleet of tanker lorries, trundling around the countryside emptying them. Getting your tank emptied is low-cost, with the exact price depending on the volume of sewage removed, the size of lorry required and the length of tube required to reach your tank. How often it needs doing depends on the size of your septic and number of people using it. With a large tank and few people, it may be an annual event; or, like for us at Kovaci, where we had a small septic tank and often ten people living in the house, a fortnightly affair! To get it done you call the town ‘Usluga’ (your local Council services), book an emptying lorry and wait. How long you wait depends on how busy they are, but it will usually happen within a week. When you call, they’ll take your number and, in theory, they’ll call ahead. I say ‘in theory’, because our experience is that the call all too often is from an irritated driver saying, “I’m here, why aren’t you!”

While this is what ought to happen, unfortunately, I’m sad to say this isn’t always what really happens. As some of you may have already spotted – or more likely smelt – in rural areas, instead of calling for a lorry it is not unusual for locals to ‘pump’ themselves, emptying their tanks into nearby fields and hedgerows. It’s an illegal, unhygienic and smelly process, one of the unexpected and less pleasant experiences of rural Istrian life.

So, while the current infrastructure work may be causing disruption and the connections cause work and expense, at least it will do away with septic tanks and their emptying – both legal and illegal.

Connecting with Helping Hand

Connecting a property to the sewerage network isn’t optional and hopefully this article, based on our real-life experience, should give you an idea of how to get it done, costs and the kind of problems that might arise.

Alternatively, if you would like someone to carry out the project out for you, Helping Hand is here to help. As Elbina did for us, she can do for you: arrange all paperwork and payments, negotiate with neighbours on your behalf, and organise any necessary work.

Get in touch for more information and to discuss your specific situation. Our contact details are:

  • Nicky: +385-91-4363366 or +44-1295298399 (VOIP line)
  • Elbina: +385-91-4363368
  • Email: HelpingHand@LiveIstria.com

 

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