A guide to the no-mains attraction

Townies throw up their hands in horror at the thought of septic tanks and LPG. But they're not as nasty as they sound, reports Hester Lacey
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The Independent Online

Gas mains, sewers and cables are not the glitziest features of city living. But if you don't have them, you're likely to miss them. Country-dwellers are no more receptive than urbanites to shivering with cold, cooking on an open fire, washing in the nearest stream or not being able to dial up the latest Big Brother updates. So how do you secure your home comforts when you're out in the sticks?

Gas mains, sewers and cables are not the glitziest features of city living. But if you don't have them, you're likely to miss them. Country-dwellers are no more receptive than urbanites to shivering with cold, cooking on an open fire, washing in the nearest stream or not being able to dial up the latest Big Brother updates. So how do you secure your home comforts when you're out in the sticks?

When it comes to heating, cooking and plumbing, country properties are more likely than town houses to rely on a whole brigade of tanks; oil tanks, gas tanks, septic tanks. Modern septic tanks, built of glassfibre-reinforced polyester, are tough enough to last as long as the buildings they service, says Brian Whorlow, chairman of the Institute of Plumbing Drainage Group.

While the idea of a reservoir of effluent at the bottom of the garden may be a little alarming, the fact is that septic tanks are efficient and even environmentally friendly, as the liquid waste doesn't go back into the water system, but is dispersed via a drainage field, drainage mound or purpose-designed reed bed. A 2,700-litre tank should last a family of up to four for around a year. Then the fun starts, as the tank will have to be emptied. "Septic tanks normally need pumping out about once every year, to remove the accumulation of sludge at the bottom of the chamber and the scum on the surface," says Whorlow. "Most local authorities operate a chargeable service, in addition to private contractors." The annual cost, he adds, is likely to be cheaper than the standard sewage charges made by water authorities.

A standard central-heating system, as well as cookers and fires, can be powered by oil or gas stored in a tank outside the house. Almost all UK domestic central heating systems use 28sec oil, aka kerosene, which can also be used to run kitchen ranges such as Agas. According to the National Energy Foundation, the number of homes with oil-fired central-heating systems is growing, as more houses are being built in villages with no mains gas. Running costs are efficient for oil-fuelled systems. For most of the past decade, oil has been cheaper than any fuel other than mains gas. Independent analysts Sutherland Associates, who have been publishing comparative heating costs charts for over 20 years, report that the average heating bill for a 3-bedroom home in the UK over the past four years was £462 per year for oil, £623 for Economy 7 electricity and £884 for LPG (liquefied petroleum gas).

However, there are disadvantages to oil. You have to find space for a whacking great ugly tank (I'm trying to grow a Clematis armandii over mine) and maintaining the tank and replacing it when necessary is your responsibility. Modern plastic tanks can be fitted with an electronic gauge that displays the oil level indoors, but if you've inherited an old metal tank, you will have to keep an eye out for corrosion, and will spend an annoying amount of time poking about in it with a broom handle to see if you need topping up. LPG is a more discreet option. Calor, the LPG market leader, can install an underground tank for £450. The tank remains the property of Calor, who service and maintain it after installation, for a small quarterly standing charge of £22; they also replace the tank every 10 years. Aside from the regular delivery top-ups, which are computer-automated so you never run dry, you wouldn't notice any difference to mains gas, says Calor's Rachel Hodge. "The gas works exactly the same way as piped gas in town for cooking, heating and fires."

On the subject of cost, she says that while oil is cheaper in terms of running costs, LPG has other advantages. "It costs more to set up an oil system, and you have to maintain your own tank afterwards. And there is also a spillage issue that you don't get with LPG."

When it comes to communications, you can evidently forget about cable television. Lots of us might consider that a blessing rather than a disadvantage. But, more seriously, particularly for those who work from home, there is also the issue of ADSL, which speeds up access to the internet. ADSL is currently available from BT at around 1,000 exchanges, covering around 60 per cent of the population. It's the further-flung, rural areas that miss out. Earlier this year, Sir Christopher Bland, the chair of BT, warned that it could be as much as 10 or even 20 years before many rural areas are offered high-speed internet services. Meanwhile, country-dwellers have to put up with slow download times and dodgy dial-ups.

Upgrading exchanges to cope with ADSL is an expensive business, and Bland reckons the answer lies with increased public funding. Perhaps it might. But some enterprising businessmen are already taking matters into their own hands. Robert Malpas is marketing director of SouthWest BroadBand, a new launch that aims to pick up where BT leaves off. "We felt that BT's business case begins to run out for towns around the 8,000-10,000-inhabitant mark," explains Malpas. "We are focusing on towns of 5,000-10,000 people in the south west, and the solution we are developing is a point-to-multi-point system using licensed spectrum. We can attach aerials to existing phone masts or high buildings, and transmit a radio signal to end users within three to five kilometres of the base point." This service will cost £29 per month, a comparable fee to ADSL itself, and much cheaper than using satellite services. SouthWest BroadBand's pilot scheme will be launching shortly in Shaftesbury, Dorset. If all goes well, the company will expand across the south west of England, and beyond - giving rural areas a much-needed technical boost.

Calor, 0800-626626; www.calor.co.uk. Oil-Fired Technical Association (OFTEC) 0845-658 5080; www.oftec.org.uk. Institute of Plumbing, 01708 472791; www.plumbers.org.uk. SouthWest BroadBand, 01747 858432.

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