Gravity Is Key in Amish School System Build

When a religious community prefers not to utilize electricity to move effluent, designer Stuart Meade makes sure everything flows downhill

Gravity Is Key in Amish School System Build

Anthony Bontrager in the Bobcat E55 compact crawler excavator throws topsoil on the Presby treatment bed, while Jay Bontrager uses the Bobcat T76 compact track loader to level it.

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An Amish farmer donated three acres of his agricultural fields in Ligonier, Indiana, for a new school accommodating 40 students and two live-in educators. The building had two indoor restrooms and two bedrooms.

The site also would have a stable, small and large softball diamonds, a potable well, and onsite system. Jonas Yoder, school board administrator, hired Stuart Meade, owner of Meade Septic Design of Goshen, Indiana, to design the latter. He hired Glen Graber, owner of Glen’s Excavating in Shipshewana, Indiana, to install the system.

“Making components fit on these tight sites is always challenging because everything is set back 100 feet from the well,” says Meade. “Often a stake indicates the well’s location, but I must verify that it has been approved before taking measurements.”

The community wanted a gravity-flow onsite system to avoid buying additional solar panels to power a pump. “Fortunately, the property dropped off quite a bit; otherwise, they would have to elevate the school to raise the building sewer outlet sleeve high enough to achieve gravity flow,” says Meade. 

Then Meade discovered a solid 6-inch PVC tile drain and a parallel solid 12-inch ABS tile drain (an agricultural drainage system) running across the proposed absorption bed at a depth of 48 inches. Both discharged to a county-regulated ditch.

With the seasonal high water table at 13 inches, Meade stipulated a shallow Presby Advanced Enviro-Septic treatment system with perimeter drain. He designed the sand-lined system for the native soil loading rate instead of taking the allowed 30% reduction. The installation took 11 hours over two days in June 2023.

Site conditions 

Soils are clay loam with a loading rate of 0.30 gpd per square foot.

System components

Meade designed the system to handle 750 gpd. Major components are:

  • 1,500-gallon dual-compartment concrete septic tank (Yoder Concrete) with PL-122 effluent filter (Polylok) and 20-inch risers (TUF-TITE)
  • 360 feet of Presby Advanced Enviro-Septic treatment-dispersal pipe (Infiltrator Water Technologies)
  • 309 feet of 4-inch polyethylene ASTM F405-05 corrugated perimeter drain pipe

System operation

Wastewater runs 45 feet through the 4-inch Schedule 40 building sewer to the septic tank. Effluent leaving the tank travels 5 feet through the Schedule 40 line before it transitions to 179 feet of SDR 26 pipe with gasketed compression joints. “Gasketed pipe is important for long runs, especially when buried above the frost line and subjected to shrink-swell conditions,” says Meade.

From the distribution box, effluent flows to four 90-foot rows of serial distribution treatment pipes on the upslope side of a 6-inch-deep 92-by-28-foot sand bed. A 20.5-foot sand extension creates the downslope side.


Graber, Garold Delagrange, Anthony Bontrager, and Jay Bontrager arrived on-site with a Kobelco SK160 LC crawler excavator, a Bobcat T76 compact track loader, and a Bobcat E55 compact crawler excavator. While Jay Bontrager excavated trenches and the hole for the septic tank using the Kobelco, the other three began removing 7 inches of soil to create a level area for the absorption bed. “The land sloped 1% to 3% to the north,” says Graber, who shot grades using a GL422N dual-grade laser (Spectra Precision).

Yoder Concrete delivered and set the tank, then Delagrange and Anthony Bontrager plumbed it and began laying sewer pipe. Graber had arranged for Double E Trucking and E&B Trucking to deliver septic sand as soon as the absorption bed was half excavated.

“The drivers dumped directly into the leveled area, enabling us to build the 6-inch layer of sand beneath the treatment pipes as we finished excavating,” says Graber. Each driver hauled five loads totaling a combined 213 tons of sand.

Graber’s crew had installed Presby systems before and this was a routine installation. However, the subsurface perimeter drain around the bed and a swale along the upslope side added interest.

“As we were digging the 43-inch-deep trench for the perimeter drain, we found the tile drains exactly where Stuart had drawn them on the plans,” says Graber. “His design also included instructions on how to overcome them.”

The crew dug down to the top of the PVC and ABS tiles, then measured 10 feet from the edge of the sand to the perimeter trench and 10 feet beyond the trench. “We cut the pipes, extracted the 21-foot sections with the excavator, and capped the 28-foot lengths beneath the bed,” says Graber.

Graber, Jay Bontrager, and Delagrange returned the next morning to remove the upslope ABS pipe and reroute 244 feet of the PVC tile around the bed’s west side, then north to discharge into the creek.

“We put a fitting in the cap of the live ABS tile and plumbed the perimeter drain’s polyethylene pipe into it instead of running a separate line to the creek,” says Graber. Workers backfilled the trenches with clay loam and the perimeter drain with pea gravel.

Meade had designed the surface diversion swale to discharge west of the bed, but Graber found doing so was impossible.

“To maintain gravity flow, the sewer pipe entered the distribution box at an elevation that left it exposed in the swale,” he says. “Consequently, we built the swale to the east so it discharges to the roadside ditch.” The bed was crowned with a 9-inch-deep layer of topsoil to shed water.

The Company

Glen’s Excavating works in LaGrange, Elkhart, and Noble Counties, but 95% of jobs are within a 30-mile radius of Shipshewana and most customers are Amish, as is Graber. The trucking subcontractors and Delagrange are not Amish. “Garold owns a pickup truck and drives the rest of us to work,” says Graber. Stuart Meade is his favorite designer because the plans are easy to read. “If you can’t install a system from Stuart’s designs, you’re in the wrong business.”


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