In Our Homes, Our Businesses and Our Communities: The History of Onsite Wastewater Treatment Shows the Potential for Sustainability
By Colin Bishop
In 1894, George E. Waring, Jr., a sanitary engineer, reformer and proponent of practical sewage infrastructure, shared the ’out-of-sight, out-of-mind‘ method of sewage treatment when he said, “It has hitherto been—and, in fact, still is—the practice of the world to consider its wastes satisfactorily disposed of when they are hidden from sight.”
This is not unlike today, where the daily trash of New Yorkers is sent by train to landfills in Virginia and South Carolina. As Waring was well aware, we need to be more self-sustaining if we are going to survive as a society. The following history shows that we have more than 100 years’ experience in successfully treating wastewater in conjunction with nature. The opportunity is clearly there to continue to do so if we consider a ’back to the user or community‘ approach.
The early beginnings of wastewater treatment
In 1877, Schlössing and Muntz “demonstrated that oxidation in soils is due to an organized ferment.” An organized ferment could be decribed as the treatment processes that occur through microbial biofilms. They found that “sewage, slowly filtered through a column of sand of sufficient depth, was completely purified. If chloroform was introduced, essentially benumbing the organisms in the sand, no purification took place until the effect of the chloroform had passed away. They accepted this as proof—and later knowledge confirms it—that purification is due to living organisms”.1
The impact this discovery would have on public health can perhaps be best understood by examining the consequences of its absence. “Probably no epidemic in this continent’s history better illustrates the dire results that may follow one thoughtless act than the outbreak of typhoid fever in Plymouth, PA, in 1885. In January and February of that year, night discharges (urine or feces likely collected in a bedpan or chamber pot) of one typhoid fever patient were thrown out in the snow near his home.” Pathogens in those discharges, carried by spring thaws into the water supply, caused an epidemic that lasted from April to September. In a total population of 8,000 people, 1,104 citizens contracted typhoid fever and 114 died.2
In research conducted in Birmingham, AL from 1910 to 1922, typhoid fever deaths were tracked annually. Prior to sanitary sur- veys being conducted and the installation of 6,000 sanitary privies (in homes not yet reached by sewers), there was an average of 48 deaths per 100,000 people. A sanitary or pit privy is a shallow dug hole with a toilet seat structure inside a small enclosure. They are often referred to as outhouses. Following the installation of the sanitary privies, the mortality rate dropped by 52 percent to an average of 23 per 100,000 people. There were similar findings in a study conducted in Berkeley County, WV, from 1911 to 1917 and Yakima, WA, from 1908 to 1914.3
The move toward onsite wastewater treatment
Once the role untreated wastewater played in public health was understood, communities across the continent began increasing the use of septic tank systems at the individual household level. Guidelines governing the design and installation of systems were established along with target performance standards. In 1924, the Home Sewage Disposal book noted: “To operate properly and to prevent pollution of the ground or the groundwater, septic tanks should be water tight. Any material is permissible, so long as it is durable and does not leak.” It also noted: “The average city plant is operated by a skilled attendant; the average home plant receives practically no attention. Reserve capacity should be provided to care for these factors, and sufficient storage provided to equalize the abnormal hourly flows and allow a certain minimum retention period for the sewage. The installation should be designed to operate practically without attention”.3
In 1926, uniform or timed dosing was addressed in the Sewerage and Irrigation book: “If the tank is supplied at a uniform rate with material of the same composition, a uniform condition will be established. If the composition of the supply or the rate at which it passes through the tank is varied, the bacterial life, and consequently the character of the effluent, will vary”.4 In 1927, Septic Tanks for the Farm noted with regard to soil-based treatment, “By far the greater number of bacteria is in the upper foot or two of soil.”.5
The more things change…
There is little difference in how an onsite wastewater treatment system, typically a septic tank and gravel-filled drain field, looks or functions today versus 100 years ago. The septic tank was first introduced in the late 1800s. In 1910, Sewerage noted that “the true function of a septic tank is to remove and hydrolyze the suspended matter” with the thought that “the sewage should not stay too long in a septic tank, from six to 12 hours being found best. Also noteworthy is “the effluent of a septic tank is therefore in better condition for disposal by dilution than merely settled effluent. Moreover, the grosser matters, which cause surface clogging of filters, are removed. It is a question, however, whether the septic effluent is better adapted for disposal on fine-grain filters, as the fineness of the suspended matter and absence of the surface mat, which is formed on a filter when coarser matters are present, result in a deeper penetration of the deposits”.6
There were different methods for drain-field construction, depending on whether the land was flat, gently sloping or steeply sloped. Tightly packed soils were supposed to be deeply subsoiled (the idea was to construct a deeper trench) and underdrained. Porous, well-drained, air-filled soil is an absolute necessity. Subsoiled ground should have three- to four-inch distribution tile, with the depth varying from 1.25 to 3.5 feet (0.38 to 1.06 meters). If planting crops over the drain field, the depth should be 3.5 to 4 feet (1.06 to 1.21 meters) deep.7
In 1937, the Portland Cement Association was promoting concrete septic tanks as a way to guard the health of families. The septic tank was advertised as the ’bulwark of safety’.8 As early as 1924, septic system designers were aware of the need to treat grease differently than other wastes and were building traps and tanks for oil and grease removal. As such, today we know how to deal with organic (biochemical oxygen demand [BOD]) loading, hydraulic loading, fats, oils and grease (FOG) loading and chemicals (e.g., quaternary ammonium compounds [QAC]) in onsite wastewater treatment systems. A simple QAC calculator spreadsheet is available to estimate the QAC concentration in a food service establishment waste stream.
Originally published in 1922 and revised in 1928, Sewage and Sewerage of Farm Homes, USDA Farmers’ Bulletin No. 1227 warned: “Care in operating is absolutely necessary. No installation will run itself. Continued neglect ends in failure of even the best-designed, best-built plants. If the householder is to build and neglect, he might as well save expense and continue the earlier practice”.7 The same is true of the municipal water and wastewater treatment systems we have in place today, many of which are in dire need of repair or replacement with no funds to do so. Which begs the question, is large-scale, city-wide infrastructure the most appropriate choice for the 21st century? If we build more onsite, or neighborhood, resource water (let’s take the waste out of wastewater) treatment systems, there is the potential for greater sustainability and infrastructure independence for the following reasons:
- Less intrusive land development
- Reduced impact on the overall watershed
- Greater opportunity to promote the reuse of water at or close to the point of use
- Opportunity for an integrated food, water and energy plan
- Less use of power to move and treat wastewater and potable water
- Improved national and homeland security—less reliance on large water treatment and water resources
- Individual, family and community buy-ins, investment and accountability
When looking back at the history of wastewater treatment in the US, it’s entirely possible and beneficial for us to return to more decentralized, onsite wastewater treatment and water reuse systems. It has the potential to save families and save the country as water becomes a more precious resource and energy prices continue to rise.
- Waring, Jr., George E. (1894, April). Out of Sight, Out of Mind. Methods of Sewage Disposal. Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, Vol. XLVII,No. 6.
- Parry, B. Evan (1929). Sanitation: Sewage Treatment for Isolated Houses and Small Institutions Where Municipal Sewage System Is Not Available. Ottawa, ON: Department of Pensions and National Health.
- Hardenbergh, W.A. (1924). Home Sewage Disposal. Philadelphia, PA:J.B. Lippincott Company.
- International Library of Technology 440 (1926). Sewerage and Irrigation. Scranton, PA: International Textbook Company.
- Haswell, John R. (1927). Circular 89, Revised: Septic Tanks for the Farm. State College, PA: Pennsylvania State College.
- Folwell, A. Prescott (1910). Sewerage, 6th Ed. NewYork, NY: John Wiley & Sons.
- US Department of Agriculture (1928). Farmers’ Bulletin No. 1227: Sew- age and Sewerage of Farm Homes. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture.
- Portland Cement Association (1937). Guard his heath and your own with a Concrete Septic Tank. Chicago, IL: Portland Cement Association.
About the author
Colin Bishop is Director of Sales and Government Relations for Anua. He started his career with the Mohave County, Arizona Environmental Health Division as an environmental health specialist and was later an environmental health supervisor over one of three districts. Bishop has been an entrepreneur and worked in the decentralized and onsite wastewater industry over the last 19 years in system manufacturing, design and service, regulation, inspection, sales and marketing, and site/soil evaluation. He is a Registered Sanitarian in Texas, Louisiana and Arizona and a Registered Environmental Health Specialist through the National Environmental Health Association. Bishop earned a B.S. Degree in zoology from Brigham Young University in 1992.
About the company
With headquarters in Greensboro, NC, Bord na Móna Environmental Products US (now Anua) develops and markets residential and decentralized wastewater treatment, water reuse and odor control solutions for communities, municipalities and industries throughout North America. Combining recycled or waste materials with innovative technology, the company’s products help ensure clean air and clean water, while reducing the demand for energy and the use of chemicals. The company began its US operations in 1993 and is part of the Ireland-based Bord na Móna, a multinational $550-million (USD) full-line provider of products and services in the environmental, energy, fuels and horticulture markets.