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Waste and Wastewater Management

Household Waste and Wastewater

How much does an alternative septic disposal system cost to run and maintain?

Annual costs vary depending upon the type of system and its configuration. For example, a single-pass sand filter costs approximately $15 per year in electricity, whereas a system that utilizes an aeration system that operates 24-hours a day can cost $300 or more a year. Maintenance providers offer service contracts. These can range from $150-$400 per year depending on the type of system and frequency of maintenance.

How much does an enhanced septic system cost?

Costs range from $10,000-$20,000 or more for a complete system. Keep in mind, however, that in some repair situations on small lots there is only enough room for an enhanced system. Also, the cost of a conventional system in some applications (very wet or stoney lots) can far exceed the cost of an enhanced system, especially if fill and retaining walls are required.

How much land area is typically required for a conventional onsite septic system?

Most of the land area for an onsite septic system is needed for the soil absorption field because the typical septic tank itself is usually 4 to 6 feet wide, 8 to 10 feet long, about 5 feet deep, with a liquid capacity of 1000 to 1500 gallons. Usually, the soil drain field lines will fit within the front yard or the backyard of a 1-acre home site. The precise area requirements however, will depend upon the type of soil on the site, the size of the house (number of bedrooms), and the topography of the lot. A site with clayey, slowly permeable soils needs a larger drainage field to absorb the sewage effluent than does a site with sandier more permeable soils. Adequate land area must be available to isolate the entire septic system from any nearby wells, springs, streams, lakes, or other water bodies. There must also be enough area to install a replacement system in case it is ever needed. This replacement area must meet the same soil and site requirements as the original system.

How often should I have my septic tank system pumped?

The frequency of pumping depends on the following factors: 1) capacity of the septic tank 2) volume of wastewater 3) amount of solids in wastewater. Estimated septic tank pumping frequencies in years for full-time residences can be calculated in the following manner. The frequencies were calculated to provide a minimum of 24 hours of wastewater retention assuming 50 percent digestion of the retained solids. These numbers are for estimation purposes only - every system and situation is different and pumping may be required more or less often than indicated. If you are in doubt, contact your local septic system professional. Septic tanks normally range in size from 500 to 2500 gallons, with 250-gallon increments. The recommended pumping rate for a 500-gallon tank for a residence with one (1) occupant is six (6) years. For each tank size increase of 250-gallons, add three (3) years to the pumping frequency for single occupancy. For example, a 1250 gallon tank, in a one occupant dwelling, should be pumped every 15 years. Divide the single occupancy pumping frequency by the number of occupants for the pumping cycle with additional residents. For example, a 1500-gallon tank should be pumped every 18 years for one occupant and every six years for 3 occupants. A 2500-gallon tank can go 30 years without pumping for a single occupant dwelling but should be pumped every five years for a dwelling with six occupants.

How reliable is a percolation test for determining soil suitability for an onsite septic system seepage field?

A percolation test is the most reliable method of determining soil suitability for a septic system drain field. However, the reliability of a percolation test will vary with season and with weather conditions, and generally only indicates if water will move through the soil. Percolation tests cannot be performed if the ground is frozen and they are unreliable in drought periods. During wet periods, only a margin of safety can be obtained in the test. If the site has been accurately classified and mapped as to type of soil, suitability for onsite septic system drain fields can be verified from hydrologic parameters established for this particular soil map unit.

How should a water table well be constructed to reduce the likelihood of contamination from a septic system?

First, all septic system components should be located down gradient from the direction of ground water movement if possible and the well should be sealed at the surface and encased to some depth to restrict shallow flow directly into the borehole. According to well construction practices, well casings should extend to a depth greater than 25 feet or 10 feet below the static water level in sand and gravel formations. If the well goes to bedrock, an encased depth of 30 feet is recommended for sandstone and 40 feet for others. Well owners should consult with their county public health department or any other agency responsible for well drilling standards to get exact recommendations for their specific location. For more information on well-head protection and well construction, contact the National Drinking Water Clearinghouse (800-624-8301, 304-293-4191 or http://www.nesc.wvu.edu/drinkingwater.cfm).

How should household hazardous waste (e.g., paint, paint thinner, batteries, used oil) be disposed?

Hazardous wastes that are generated in the home, like mineral spirits and old paint, are not regulated by the federal RCRA program. Many communities provide collection centers or pick-up services for the management of household hazardous waste. Local recycling centers or fire departments may be able to provide more information about locations and details.

How should I care for my septic tank system that treats my onsite wastewater?

The septic tank is an essential part of any onsite sewage system, so there are some points to remember about the care and feeding of that part of the onsite sewage treatment system. Here are some things to remember. 1) A starter product is not needed for bacterial action to begin in a septic tank. Many bacteria are present in the materials deposited into the tank and will thrive under the anaerobic growth conditions present. 2) If you feel that an additive is needed, be aware that some may do great harm. Additives that advertise to eliminate tank cleaning may cause the sludge layer to fluff up and be washed out into the drainfield, plugging soil pores. Some additives, particularly degreasers, may contain carcinogens (cancer-causing) or suspected carcinogens that may flow into the ground water along with the water from the soil treatment unit. 3) Send all wastewater into the septic tank unless you are plumbed for grey use for irrigation. Don't run laundry wastes directly into the drainfield, since soap or detergent scum may plug the soil pores, causing failure. 4) Normal amounts of household detergents, bleaches, drain cleaners, and other household chemicals can be used and will not stop the bacterial action in a septic tank. But do not flush excessive amounts of any petroleum-based household chemicals down the drains. Do not dump cleaning water for latex paint brushes and cans into the house sewer either. 5) Do not deposit coffee grounds, cooking fats, wet-strength towels, disposable diapers, facial tissues, cigarette butts, and other non-decomposable materials into the house sewer. These materials will not decompose and will fill the septic tank and plug the system. Using toilet flush water to get rid of a cigarette butt is also very wasteful of water. If you smoke, keeping an ash tray handy in the bathroom is a much better idea. 6) Avoid dumping grease down the drain. It may plug sewer pipes or build up in the septic tank and plug the inlet or outlet to the soil drainfield. Keep a separate container for waste grease and throw it out with the garbage. 7) If you must use a garbage disposal, you will likely need to remove septic tank solids every three years or more often. Fine particles of ground garbage will likely find their way out of the septic tank and plug up the drainfield. It is better to compost, incinerate, or deposit solid waste materials in the garbage that will be hauled away. 8) Use a good quality toilet tissue that breaks up easily when wet. One way to find out how easily your toilet tissue disintegrates is to put a hand full of toilet tissue in a fruit jar half full of water and shake it vigorously. If the tissue breaks up easily, the product is suitable for the septic tank. High wet-strength tissues are not suitable. As long as the tissue breaks up easily, color has no effect on the septic tank. Many scented toilet tissues have high wet strength. 9) Clean your septic tank every three to ten years. How often depends on the size of the tank and how many solids go into it. A rule of thumb is once every 3 years for a 1,000 gallon tank serving a 3-bedroom home with 4 occupants (and with no garbage disposal). Here is a word of caution: Never go down into a septic tank. The gases present may poison or asphyxiate you. Only trained professionals should enter a septic tank or any other confined space. 10) To properly clean a septic tank, the manhole cover or the tank cover must be removed. This is the only way to be sure that all the solids have been pumped out. A septic tank cannot be cleaned adequately by pumping out liquids through a 4-inch inspection pipe. Doing so often results in some of the scum layer plugging the outlet baffle when the tank refills with sewage water. Be sure that the tank is opened when it is cleaned. At this time the baffles should be inspected and replaced if necessary. 11) Recharge wastes from a properly operating water softener will not harm septic tank action, but the additional water must be treated and disposed of by the soil drainfield. If the softener recharge overloads the sewage system, this waste water can be discharged to the ground surface since it contains no pathogens. But it must be discharged in a location where it will not be a nuisance or where it can damage valuable grass or plants. 12) Using too much soap or detergent can cause problems with a septic system. It is difficult to estimate how dirty a load of laundry is, and most people use far more cleaning power than is needed. If there are lots of suds in your laundry tub when the washer discharges, cut back on the amount of detergent for the next similar load. It is generally best not to use inexpensive detergents which may contain excessive amounts of filler or carrier. Some of these fillers may be some type of clay, even a clay like bentonite which is used to seal soil pores in ponds. The best solution may be to use a liquid laundry detergent, since they are less likely to have carriers or fillers that could harm the septic system. Each septic system has a certain capacity. When this capacity is reached or exceeded, there will likely be problems because the system will not take as much sewage as you want to discharge into it. When the onsite sewage treatment system reaches its daily capacity, be conservative with your use of water. Each gallon of water that flows into the drain must go through the septic tank and into the soil absorption unit. Following are some ways to conserve water that should cause little hardship in standard of living: a) Be sure that there are no leaking faucets or other plumbing fixtures. Routinely check the float valve on all toilets to be sure it is not sticking and that the water is not running continuously. It does not take long for the water from a leaking toilet or a faucet to add up. A cup of water leaking out of a toilet every minute may not seem like much but that is 90 gallons per day. So be sure that there is no water flowing into the sewer when all water-using appliances are supposed to be off. b) Installing a water meter is a sure way to know how much water you are using and how much water use is reduced by doing certain things. A water meter for a home should cost from $50 to $100 plus installation. c) The most effective way to reduce the sewage flow from a house is to reduce wasted toilet water, which usually accounts for about 40 percent of the sewage flow. Many older toilets use five to six gallons per flush. Some of the so-called low water use toilets are advertised to use only 3.5 gallons or less per flush. Usually the design of the bowl has been changed little, however, and often two flushes are needed to remove all solids. That could be seven gallons. Newer toilets are available which have been redesigned and will do a good job with one gallon or less per flush. Using a one-gallon toilet rather than a five gallon toilet will reduce sewage flows from a home by about a third. This reduction may be more than enough to make the sewage system function again. While prices may vary, one-gallon toilets can usually be purchased in the $200 range, far less than the cost of a new sewage treatment system. d) With a water meter you can determine how much water your automatic washer uses per cycle. Many washers now have settings to reduce the amount of water used for small loads. Front loading washers and suds savers use less water than top loading machines. If your sewage treatment system is reaching its maximum capacity, try to spread the washing out during the week to avoid overloading the sewage system on a single day. e) Baths and showers can use lots of water. For example, a shower head flow of 5 gallons per minute will require 100 gallons in 20 minutes. Shower heads that limit the flow to 1.5 or 2 gallons per minute are available and should be used. Filling the tub not quite so full and limiting the length of showers will result in appreciable water savings. f) Do not waste water trying to get cold drinking water from the faucet by letting it run for several minutes. Keep a container of drinking water in the refrigerator instead. Then it will not be necessary to run water from your faucets in order to get a cool drink. There may be other ways to conserve water that you can think of in your home. The main idea is to consider water as a valuable resource and not to waste it. Following a few simple rules like not using too much water and not depositing materials in the septic tank that bacteria cannot decompose should help to make a septic system trouble-free for many years. But do not forget that a septic tank does need to be cleaned out when too many solids build up.

How should I handle household hazardous waste (HHW)?

Improperly handled HHW can cause both short and long-term problems, including accidental poisoning, fire, explosions and injury. Disposing of these products with regular household waste can cause injuries to sanitation workers, or fires in dumpsters or garbage trucks. Pouring HHW down the drain puts them directly into septic tanks or sewage treatment plants, risking ground or surface water contamination, while burning HHW puts toxic chemicals directly into the air we breathe.

I have an on-site septic tank system. Should I take special precautions in maintaining this system?

Yes, all on-site wastewater disposal systems require some special precautions. If you have a septic tank, there are some general rules you should follow. First, remember that any substance you put down the drain into a septic tank may eventually get into the local groundwater. Second, don't bother with septic-tank additives or the addition of yeast; they really don't help the septic tank very much. Third, follow these recommendations: a) Do not dispose of fats, grease, or cooking oil down the drain. b) Do not use a garbage disposal or put coffee grounds, meat bones, or other food products that are difficult to biodegrade down the drain. c) Do not dispose of household cleaning fluids down the drain and use disinfectants sparingly. d) Do not dispose of automotive fluids such as gas, oil, transmission or brake fluid, grease, or antifreeze down the drain. e) Do not dispose of or rinse any containers containing pesticides, herbicides, or other potentially toxic substances down the drain. f) Do not dispose of any nonbiodegradable substances or objects such as cigarette butts, disposable diapers, and feminine hygiene products down any drain or toilet. g) Minimize water usage. Do not run water continuously while rinsing dishes or thawing frozen food products (these are good conservation measures in any household). Consider limiting toilet flushes or putting a plastic bottle full of water in the toilet tank to reduce the amount of water used in each flush. h) Run only full loads when using a dishwasher or washing machine (again, good conservation ideas in any household). Try to use the washing machine at times when water is not being used for other purposes. i) Do not use any chemicals to clean your system; they may actually harm the system or the groundwater. j) Do not connect any footing or foundation sump pumps to the septic tank sytem. Two good references are: (1) So-Now You Own a Septic System, WWBRPE20/ Brochure available from the National Small Flows Clearinghouse at West Virginia University, P.O. Box 6064, Morgantown, WV 26506-6064, (800) 624-8301; and (2) The Care and Feeding of Your Septic Tank, WWBRPE18/Brochure also available from the National Small Flows Clearinghouse. The National Small Flows Clearinghouse web address is http://www.nesc.wvu.edu/nsfc/.

I would like to connect my home to an existing sewer line. What are the procedures to follow on this matter?

Most municipalities have an environmental engineering department or sanitary engineering unit that works directly with the local water and wastewater utility. Call this engineering group or the water department for advice on reaching this engineering unit. Someone from this unit will inspect your plumbing system and give you an assessment of potential sewer access and the costs involved for such access. In general, you will pay for all costs to connect to the sewer line and a sewer access fee. Sewer access fees vary from one municipality to another and also vary with water meter size to your property. Residential water meters are usually the smallest on a public water system (3/4 inch to 1 inch) and therefore have the lowest sewer access fees.

I've had my septic system for 20 years and never had to do anything to it. It must be okay, right?

With a properly functioning system, up to 80% of the solids can be broken down into gases and liquids. However, every system needs pumping eventually. If your system has never been pumped then the solids are going somewhere, including direct discharge to a surface water body, the groundwater, or into the drainfield. Pumping frequency depends on number of people, household water use and the size of the tank.

Is a permit required for installation, alteration or replacement of onsite septic system components?

Yes, yes and yes. In the United States, construction and installation of original components or any alteration or replacement components to all individual sewage disposal systems are regulated by state and local health departments or some other state and local environmental service agency. In general, state regulations require permits to be issued for this work at the local level. In most cases, County Health Departments review proposed projects, perform the site inspections and sign off on permit approval forms for such systems before they can be put into use.

Is it okay to discharge the backwash from a water softener into a septic tank system?

Addition of large volumes of water from any source, including backwashing from a water softener, will increase the seepage burden on the system. Studies have shown that discharging high volumes of brine regeneration solution into a septic system may be detrimental. This water contains a high concentration of sodium salt that may adversely affect soil structure to reduce drainage, thereby, hastening the potential for clogging. The sodium may also disperse the sludge that has accumulated in the bottom of the septic tank, causing it to be flushed to field lines where drainage pores may become plugged. This is a leading cause of system failures. Another potential problem is high chloride which may inhibit wastewater treatment by retarding the growth or killing microbes responsible for anaerobic decomposition and denitrification. If your softener operates by flow-demand versus auto-timed regeneration, it is considered safe to discharge directly to the drain field but not through the septic tank. Timer systems usually contain more salts in backwash and are more likely to cause problems even in the drain field.

Is it okay to pipe roof drains so they go through an onsite septic system?

No, this water should never be piped through the system and, in fact, should be drained away from the system completely if possible. Added volumes of water from roof drains or any other drains will add to the seepage burden of the system and could flush solids to the lateral seepage lines to hasten their clogging. Any drainage water that can pool on the ground surface and seep into the trenches of the drain field will also add extra burden to the system.

Is it okay to put a connection line from a septic tank under a driveway to the seepage field?

Yes, as long as the line is of suitable quality to prevent crushing and the trench is sand packed to prevent sagging. The appropriate sized cast iron or schedule #40 PVC pipe is recommended. NOTE: In cold climates there is risk of such lines freezing because any snow that would provide insulation is usually removed from the driveway.

Is it okay to route the backwash from a greensand water filter to a septic tank system?

This causes no problem in most cases because of the small volume of contaminants removed and added to the tank and the effects or permanganate dissipate rapidly. You should check however, to make sure your local environmental health department does not have special restrictions.

Is it possible to be exposed to the superbug methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in the environment or are hospitals the only source for potential infection by this bacterium?

Maybe. It was once thought that hospital patients were the only likely persons to be exposed to the potentially fatal bacterial infections from MRSA. However, MRSA have now been found in wastewater samples taken from a number of wastewater treatment plants. This means that these bacteria have the potential to infect otherwise healthy people in community settings and in the open environment if contaminated wastewater is used for spray irrigation or released into surface water systems. NOTE: This is only possible should the bacteria survive wastewater treatment processes. Research has shown that they do not survive tertiary treatment that includes chlorination.

Is there a valid concern for radioactive contaminants in the wastewater generated from hydraulic fracturing or fracking operations to remove more oil and natural gas from certain shale formations?

Yes. It is not uncommon for some of the shale formations such as those in the Marcellus Shale region to contain significant levels of radioactive elements. Therefore, the wastewater removed from fracking operations within such regions may contain significant radioactivity. Even if this wastewater is routed to traditional wastewater treatment plants (sewage plants) by the gas industry, such treatment plants are not designed and equiped to remove some of the organic contaminants or radioactive elements that could be present in this wastewater.

My community is considering a program that will charge residents based on the amount of garbage they throw away. What are the benefits of such a Pay-As-You-Throw (PAYT) program?

Based on prior case studies the implementation of a pay-as-you-throw program causes people to generate less garbage and increase recycling, both of which reduce trash disposal costs for the community. After time, such programs may also generate income from collected recyclables. Of course, the long-term benefits would be savings in money, energy and needed landfill space, with contributions toward improvements in air quality, water quality and reduced global warming.

Should I use a kitchen sink garbage disposal unit if I have an onsite septic system?

Probably not. Garbage grinders can be used in homes served by septic tanks and subsurface seepage fields, but septic system maintenance is a higher priority under these conditions. Garbage grinders produce solids that may build up in the tank much faster and result in carry out of solids into the drainage field unless the tank outlet is designed to prevent this. If a garbage grinder receives a lot of use, you would be smart to have the septic tank pumped every three years at maximum to extend the life of the seepage field. You can have a septic tank maintenance and pumping company monitor the status of your tank to determine needed pumping frequency. The primary reason for onsite septic system failure is solids plugging the seepage field drain system. The system will last longer if garbage is disposed in other ways.

Should I use septic special additives to improve the operation of my onsite system?

No. There are over 1200 products on the market, some boasting extravagant claims, but there is no scientific proof indicating that special additives improve septic system function. In fact, they may eventually harm your system. Save your money for inspections and pumping.

Some people say that you shouldn't pour solvents and other household chemicals down the drain because they pollute the rivers and lakes. Is that true? How else can I get rid of them?

While household chemical products are generally safe for the uses they are designed for, some may become harmful to the environment as they accumulate in non-target areas. For this reason you should not put these products down a drain. Most sewage treatment facilities are not capable of removing such toxic substances. You should also be aware, in most instances, that anything put into the storm sewer system goes directly to the receiving lake or river completely untreated. So, before you dump anything down a drain or into a storm sewer, remember that you or others may be drinking it some day. For those substances that you have at home now and want to get rid of, such as old paint, find out whether there is a hazardous waste disposal site in your community and take them there. Contact your local environmental officials or extension office for assistance. Make sure the containers are labeled to indicate the contents.

What about empty household hazardous waste (HHW) containers? Can I put them in regular garbage?

Yes. Most empty HHW containers are not hazardous and can be placed in your dry waste. However, there may be special exceptions, so check with local authorities who handle solid waste disposal.

What are enhanced treatment septic systems?

Enhanced (or alternative, or innovative) septic systems provide additional treatment to your household water. These systems include an additional component such as a sand filter. Each component plays a different role in treating the effluent. One component may reduce waste strength or remove pathogens, another may remove nitrate-nitrogen, while others, working in combination, do all three. The type of treatment system that you install will depend upon the water resource you are interested in protecting.