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Septic Systems




INTRODUCTION

BEST MANAGEMENT PRACTICES

MANAGEMENT MEASURES

Chemical Additive Restrictions
Education
Elimination of Garbage Disposals
Inspection and Maintenance
Phosphorus Detergent Restrictions

STRUCTURAL MEASURES

Denitrification Systems
Floating Aquatic Plant (Aquaculture) Systems
Upgrade or Replacement of Failing Systems
Alternating Bed System
Mound (Fill) System
Pressure Distribution (Low Pressure Pipe) System
Sand Filter System
Wetlands, Constructed

LINKS

REFERENCES

INTRODUCTION

Septic systems, also called onsite wastewater disposal systems, can act as sources of nitrogen, phosphorus, organic matter, and bacterial and viral pathogens for reasons related to either inadequate design, inappropriate installation, neglectful operation, or exhausted lifetime. Perhaps the greatest design inadequacy is associated with conventional septic systems, which do not remove nitrogen effectively. Inappropriate installation often involves improper siting, including locating in areas with inadequate separation distances to ground water, inadequate absorption area, fractured bedrock, sandy soils (especially in coastal areas), inadequate soil permeability, or other conditions that prevent or do not allow adequate treatment of wastewater if not accounted for. Inappropriate installation can also include smearing of trench bottoms during construction, compaction of the soil bed by heavy equipment, and improperly performed percolation tests (Gordon, 1989; USEPA, 1993). In terms of system operation, as many as 75 percent of all system failures have been attributed to hydraulic overloading (Jarrett et al., 1985). Also, regular inspection and maintenance is necessary and often does not occur. Finally, conventional septic systems are designed to operate over a specified period of time. At the end of the expected life span, replacement is generally necessary. Homeowners may be unaware of this issue or unable to afford a replacement.

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Where development using septic systems has already occurred, state and local governments have a relatively limited ability to reduce pollutant loadings from them. However, a number of useful steps can be taken. An onsite wastewater management program can reduce water quality degradation and save local governments and homeowners time and money. A variety of agencies can take on management of existing septic systems; wastewater management utilities or districts are the leading decentralized agencies. A range of measure which can be taken or initiated by such entities is given below.

An excellent reference for the most complete and current information on management options for septic systems is the National Small Flows Clearinghouse (NSFC). Established by the USEPA under the 1977 CWA, the NSFC gathers and distributes information about small community wastewater systems through a catalog of publications and other products, free newsletters, a computer bulletin board, computer databases, telephone consultation and referral service, and related programs. The Clearinghouse can be contacted at 1-800-624-8301, or at National Small Flows Clearinghouse, West Virginia University, P.O. Box 6064, Morgantown, WV 26506-6064.

BEST MANAGEMENT PRACTICES

MANAGEMENT MEASURES

Chemical Additive Restrictions: Organic solvents are advertised for use as septic system cleaners and sometimes as substitutes for sludge pumping, however there is little evidence that such cleaners perform any of the advertised functions, and can instead exterminate useful microbes, resulting in increased discharge of pollutants. In addition, the chemicals themselves, halogenated and aromatic hydrocarbons, can easily contaminate receiving waters and common cleaner constituents are listed with USEPA as priority pollutants. Restrictions on the use of these additives can preclude further exacerbation of poor system function (USEPA, 1993). Additive restrictions are most effective when used as part of a BMP system which involves other source reduction practices such as phosphate bans and use of low-volume plumbing fixtures, as well as mitigative BMPs such as upgrading and maintenance.

Education: Many of the problems associated with improper use of septic systems may be attributed to lack of user knowledge on operation and maintenance. Educational materials for homeowners and training courses for installers and inspectors can reduce the incidence of pollution from these widespread and commonly used pollution control devices. Education is most effective when used as part of a BMP system which involves other source reduction practices such as phosphate bans and use of low-volume plumbing fixtures, as well as mitigative BMPs such as upgrading and maintenance. National and state Home*A*Syst programs provide information and training on septic systems. An example is the North Carolina Home*A*Syst program's Improving Septic Systems page.

Elimination of Garbage Disposals: Eliminating the use of garbage disposals can significantly reduce the loading of suspended solids, nutrients, and BOD to septic systems, as well as decreasing the buildup of solids in septic tanks, thus reducing pumping frequency. Eliminating garbage disposal use is most effective when used as part of a BMP system which involves other source reduction practices such as phosphate bans and use of low-volume plumbing fixtures, as well as mitigative BMPs such as upgrading and maintenance.

Inspection and Maintenance: The high degree of system failure necessitates regular inspections. Homeowners can be provided with educational materials and can serve as monitors of their own systems. States and local governments should also develop an inspection program. A lower-cost, if less certain, alternative is for local governments to mail out printed reminders to owners informing them that inspection and perhaps maintenance is due for their systems. Some counties include such reminders on tax statements (Gordon, 1989). Utilities or other agencies can often be utilized at less expense for such a program. At a minimum, requirements should be established for inspection during change of property ownership. Agency ambient water quality monitoring programs can help isolate sources of pathogens in water resources.

Septic tanks require pumping to remove accumulating sludge approximately every 3 to 5 years. The frequency can vary depending on tank size, family size, and garbage disposal use. Failure to remove sludge periodically will result in reduced tank settling capacity and eventual overloading of the soil absorption system, which is more expensive to remedy. Maintenance can be required through contracts, operating permits, and local ordinances/utility management. Local governments can issue renewable operating permits that require users either to have a contract with an authorized inspection/maintenance professional or to demonstrate that inspection and maintenance procedures have been performed on a periodic basis (Gordon, 1989). Permit fees can be assessed to cover the program costs. Inspection and maintenance are more effective when used as parts of a BMP system which involves source reduction through elimination of garbage disposals and use of low-volume plumbing fixtures.

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For more information on maintenance:

Phosphate Detergent Restrictions: Conventional septic systems are usually very effective at removing phosphorus. However, certain soil conditions combined with close proximity to sensitive surface waters can result in phosphorus pollutant loading. If such conditions are sufficiently prevalent within areas of concern, restrictions or bans on the use of detergents containing phosphate can be implemented. Eliminating phosphates from detergent can reduce phosphorus loads to septic systems by 40 to 50 percent (USEPA, 1980). As of October 1993, 17 states had enacted phosphate detergent restrictions or bans (Soap and Detergent Association, 1993). Phosphate restrictions are most effective when used as part of a BMP system which involves other source reduction practices such as elimination of garbage disposals and use of low-volume plumbing fixtures, as well as mitigative BMPs such as upgrading and maintenance.

STRUCTURAL MEASURES

Denitrification Systems: Even properly functioning conventional systems are not effective at removing nitrogen. In areas where nitrogen is a problem pollutant, existing conventional systems should be retrofitted to provide for nitrogen removal through effective linking of aerobic and anaerobic transformation processes. Systems such as sand filters and constructed wetlands (see Wetlands, Constructed below) have been shown to remove over 50 percent of the total nitrogen from septic tank effluent (USEPA, 1993). Denitrification systems are most effective when used as part of a BMP system which involves source reduction through elimination of garbage disposals and use of low-volume plumbing fixtures.

Floating Aquatic Plant (Aquaculture) Systems: Constructed shallow (generally < 3 ft.) pond systems using floating aquatic plants in the treatment of industrial or domestic wastewater. Wastewater is treated principally by bacterial metabolism and physical sedimentation. The plants take up nutrients through their roots but perform little actual treatment themselves, serving instead as an excellent substrate for microbial biomass which provides significant treatment (Reed et al., 1987). The water hyacinth Eichornia crassipes has been studied extensively for use in these systems. The major advantages are their extensive root systems and rapid growth rate. Their major limiting feature is cold temperature sensitivity, confining its use to the southern states. Other species, such as pennywort (Hydrocotyle umbellata) and duckweed (Lemna spp., Spirodela spp., Wolffia spp.), have greater cold tolerances than hyacinths and have also been used in these systems (USEPA, 1988). These systems can provide effective secondary wastewater treatment or nutrient removal, depending on organic loading rate. They have been used most often for either removing algae from oxidation pond effluents or for nutrient removal following secondary treatment. The predominant mechanism for nitrogen removal is nitrification-denitrification, while phosphorus is removed through plant uptake, microbial immobilization into detritus plant tissue, and retention by sediments. Nitrogen and phosphorus removal by the plants is achieved only with frequent harvesting. Periodic removal of accumulated sludge is required. Where anaerobically generated hydrogen sulfide odor and mosquito breeding are problematic, design modifications such as step-feeding of inflows, recycling of effluent, supplemental aeration, and frequent harvesting of plants are effective. Aquatic plant treatment systems are most effective as part of a BMP system in which they perform the role of secondary, advanced secondary, or tertiary wastewater treatment (USEPA, 1988).

Upgrade or Replacement of Failing Systems: Replacement of old, inadequate systems and repair of failing ones is an integral part of an onsite wastewater management program. Common repairs include refitting the onsite system with new inflows and outlets, creating an alternative drainfield, or the use of other alternative technologies. Replacement of the entire system may be required where the original one was inadequate, improperly constructed or installed, or where the system does not respond to corrective measures.

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Local governments and other programs can facilitate remedial measures on an ongoing basis by providing technical assistance to owners, an approved roster of repair professionals, a complaint response system, and financial assistance to low income households for performing the necessary repairs (Gordon, 1989).

A number of alternative technologies are available for upgrading or replacing a failing system Gordon, 1989; USEPA, 1993). These include mound or fill systems, sand filters, and pressure distribution systems. Descriptions of these alternatives are given below. Upgrading or replacement is more effective when used as part of a BMP system which involves source reduction through elimination of garbage disposals and use of low-volume plumbing fixtures (Jarrett et al., 1985).

Alternating Bed Systems: Improper function is usually associated with the soil absorption field. The most common reason for failure of the absorption field is hydraulic overload. One retrofitting option involves construction of a backup absorption field, with the ability to route tank water to either field. The backup field is used while the primary field is rested and allowed to recover through biological activity. Fields are alternated every 6 months.

Mound (Fill) Systems: This is the most widely used alternative in some areas (Gordon, 1989), and involves the use of sand or other material to create an artificial drain field when the original soil is inadequate. Effluent flows from the existing septic tank to a pump tank, from which it is pressure-distributed uniformly up into perforated pipes embedded in the fill, which is mounded above the original soil. The mounded soil serves as the absorption field.

Pressure Distribution (Low Pressure Pipe) Systems: A storage tank and pump can be installed after the septic tank to more evenly distribute the septic tank effluent. More even distribution results in better treatment than the conventional gravity distribution method for a retrofitted system or the same treatment within a shallower soil for a new system.

Sand Filters: Several types of sand filters exist. Like fill systems, the sand filter takes effluent from an existing septic tank. In the intermittent sand filter, septic tank effluent is intermittently applied to the top of a sand bed, collected by underdrains at the bottom of the bed, and piped into a soil absorption field. In the recirculating sand filter, a portion of the sand filter effluent is recirculated to achieve more treatment, and the sand is replaced on a periodic basis (Gordon, 1989).

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Peat Filters: An innovative new filter system involves the use of a fibrous peat media. Effluent is pumped under pressure to the top of a factory constructed peat bio-filter module set on the soil surface. The effluent filters through the peat media before entering the soil treatment bed. The addition of a peat bio-filter allows for a reduction in soil depth to a restrictive layer. For more information on Peat Filters:

Wetlands, Constructed: Interest has steadily increased in the United States over the last two decades in the use of natural physical, biological, and chemical aquatic processes for the treatment of polluted waters. This interest has been driven by growing recognition of the natural treatment functions performed by wetlands and aquatic plants, by the escalating costs of conventional treatment methods, and by a growing appreciation for the potential ancillary benefits provided by such systems. Aquatic treatment systems have been divided into natural wetlands, constructed wetlands, and aquatic plant systems (USEPA, 1988). Of the three types, constructed wetlands have received the greatest attention for treatment of point source pollution. Constructed wetlands are a subset of created wetlands designed and developed specifically for water treatment (Fields, 1993). For more information on constructed wetlands see: Wetlands, Constructed in the Point Sources section and US EPA - Constructed Wetlands

LINKS

REFERENCES

Bastian, R.K., P.E. Shanaghan, and B.P. Thompson, 1989. Use of Wetlands for Municipal Wastewater Treatment and Disposal - Regulatory Issues and EPA Policies. In D.A. Hammer (ed.), Constructed Wetlands for Wastewater Treatment: Municipal, Industrial,and Agricultural. Lewis Publishers, Chelsea, MI.

Bastian, R.K., and D.A. Hammer, 1993. The Use of Constructed Wetlands for Wastewater Treatment and Recycling. Pages 59-68. In G.A. Moshiri (ed.), Constructed Wetlands for Water Quality Improvement, CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL.

Bingham, D.R., 1994. Wetlands for Stormwater Treatment. Pages 243-262. In D.M. Kent (ed.), Applied Wetlands Science and Technology. Lewis Publishers, CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL. 436pp.

Brix, H., 1993. Wastewater Treatment in Constructed Wetlands: System Design, Removal Processes, and Treatment Performance. Pages 9-22. In G.A. Moshiri (ed.), Constructed Wetlands for Water Quality Improvement, CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL.

Corbitt, R.A., and P.T. Bowen, 1994. Constructed Wetlands for Wastewater Treatment. Pages 221-241. In D.M. Kent (ed.), Applied Wetlands Science and Technology. Lewis Publishers, CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL. 436pp.

Fields, S., 1993. Regulations and Policies Relating to the Use of Wetlands for Nonpoint Source Pollution Control. Pages 151-158. In R.K. Olson (ed.), Created and Natural Wetlands for Controlling Nonpoint Source Pollution, C.K. Smoley, CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL.

Gordon, D.G., 1989. Managing Nonpoint Pollution: An Action Plan Handbook for Puget Sound Watersheds. Puget Sound Water Quality Authority, Seattle, WA.

Hammer, D.A. (ed.), 1989. Constructed Wetlands for Wastewater Treatment: Municipal, Industrial,and Agricultural. Lewis Publishers, Chelsea, MI. 831pp.

Hammer, D.A., 1992. Designing Constructed Wetlands Systems to Treat Agricultural Nonpoint Source Pollution. Ecological Engineering, 1:49-82.

Hammer, D.A., 1994. Guidelines for Design, Construction and Operation of Constructed Wetlands for Livestock Wastewater Treatment. Pages 155-181. In P.J. DuBowy and R.P. Reaves (eds.), Constructed Wetlands for Animal Waste Management: Proceedings of Workshop. Department of Forestry and Natural Resources, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN. 188pp.

Jarrett, A.R., D.D. Fritton, and W.E. Sharpe, 1985. Renovation of Failing Absorption Fields by Water Conservation and Resting. American Association of Agricultural Engineers, Paper No. 85-2630.

Moshiri, G.A. (ed.), 1993. Constructed Wetlands for Water Quality Improvement, Lewis Publishers, CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL. 632pp.

Reed, S.C., E.J. Middlebrooks, and R.W. Crites, 1987. Natural Systems for Waste Management and Treatment, McGraw-Hill, NY.

Soap and Detergent Association, The, 1993. Phosphate Legislation Summary, 10/7/93 (informal document). The Soap and Detergent Association, New York.

USEPA, 1980. Design Manual - Onsite Wastewater Treatment and Disposal Systems. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Water, Washington, DC.

USEPA, 1988. Design Manual: Constructed Wetlands and Aquatic Plant Systems for Municipal Wastewater Treatment. EPA/625/1-88/022. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office Of Research and Development, Washington, DC. 83pp.

USEPA, 1993. Guidance Specifying Management Measures for Sources of Nonpoint Pollution in Coastal Waters. EPA-840-B-92-002, January 1993. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Water, Washington, DC.

Weider, R.K., G. Tchobanoglous, and R.W. Tuttle, 1989. Preliminary Considerations Regarding Constructed Wetlands for Wastewater Treatment. Pages 297-305. In D.A. Hammer (ed.), Constructed Wetlands for Wastewater Treatment: Municipal, Industrial,and Agricultural. Lewis Publishers, Chelsea, MI.

Wetzel, R.G., 1993. Constructed Wetlands: Scientific Foundations Are Critical. Pages 3-8. In G.A. Moshiri (ed.), Constructed Wetlands for Water Quality Improvement, CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL.

WPCF (Water Pollution Control Federation), 1990. Wetland Systems. In Manual of Practice: Natural Systems. MOP FD-16 WPCF.