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The Future of on-Site Wastewater

Anish R. Jantrania, Ph.D., P.E.
Technical Services Engineer
Division of Onsite Sewage and Water Services
Virginia Department of Health

INTRODUCTION

The concept of wastewater management started on a small scale focusing mainly on disposal of human waste using systems such as privies. During this century, the focus shifted to treatment of wastewater prior to disposal using large-scale multi-million gallons per day pipe-and-plant surface water discharge systems in densely populated areas, and tens of thousands of septic systems in rural areas. With the advances in the small scale collection, treatment and disposal technology, and remote monitoring systems, it is now possible to offer the most advanced level of wastewater treatment options in low- density area at less cost than the conventional pipe-and-plant systems. Hence, I believe that the wastewater industry will continue to move towards the use of on-site decentralized systems, and the future for such systems is quite bright. However, a lot of work needs to be done by us to gain public acceptance and confidence for the use of wide range of on-site systems as alternatives to a conventional pipe-and-plant system as well as to a septic system.

As described in my other pater- Integrated Planning Using On- Site Wastewater Systems, public education, regulatory over haul, and establishment of operation and maintenance infra- structure are the three important areas that we need to address in order to be successful in the future. We need to develop easy to understand performance standards for individual home systems, medium size cluster systems, and large community scale onsite systems. We must tell the world that we no longer want anyone to use wastewater as a defacto zoning tool. As we all know, conventional septic drainfield systems have long been used as the defacto zoning tool, mainly because the use of such systems requires certain type of natural soil and site conditions to safely treat and dispose wastewater. However, use of alternative on-site treatment system such as media filters or package plants can reduce the site dependency for managing wastewater on-site. Thus, I believe that in order to have a bright future for the on-site systems, we must START thinking in terms of “finding a suitable wastewater system to achieve necessary performance standards on a given site,” and STOP thinking in terms of “finding a suitable site for a septic drainfield system to achieve necessary performance.” After all, we are in the business of managing wastewater in an environmentally sound manner!

Beside the need for public education, regulatory overhaul, and establishment of O&M infra-structure, we need to evaluate and define roles of various “players” whose services are essential for the wide-spread use of on-site systems in the future. Most important point to consider in this regards should be the value of anyone’s service to the efficient use of on-site system. Questions should always be asked: what is the value of the proposed or required services for the use of on-site systems? In the present time of competitive market based economy, there is no room for inefficient or value-less services, and it is very important for all of us to constantly evaluate our role in making an on-site system a valid and attractive option to a centralized system.

But, who are the players in this on-site wastewater industry? What role are they currently playing? Is their role adequate or a change is necessary in order to have a bright future for on- site systems? This paper attempts to address these types of questions by looking at what is happening now and what needs to happen to have a bright future for the on-site wastewater systems.

PLAYERS IN ON-SITE INDUSTRY

On-site systems are the wastewater management systems that can be used for treatment and disposal of wastewater at or near the place where wastewater is generated. As indicated in my other paper, adequate treatment and disposal of wastewater are the most important aspects of any wastewater management program. In the areas where population density is low, the expense of collecting wastewater all the citizens deserve to have access to an affordable and efficient wastewater system. Those who live in area that is served by a centralized wastewater system often don’t have to pay any attention to how their wastewater is managed. But those who currently live in area that is not served by a centralized wastewater system are often faced with many challenges and sometimes are even held “hostage” by their wastewater system! Size or the location of a house are not an issue if that house is served by a centralized wastewater system, but as we all know sometimes these issues can become a big deal if that house is to be served by an on-site system! Similarly, use of common household appliances such as a garbage disposal, water-softener, etc. are typically discouraged if not prohibited when the house is served by an on-site wastewater system. God forbid, if an on-site system has a pump then the owner is stuck with a “sewage alarm” and sometimes don’t know what to do when the alarm gets activated in the middle of the night. So, when should be the role of the citizens, the primary player, in the on-site industry?

I believe that the role of the citizens in on-site industry should be no different than their role in the centralized wastewater industry. Public acceptance of the on-site systems can be enhanced only when such systems offer the wastewater services that are just like a centralized sewer system and the process of getting a “permit” for an on-site system is no different than that of getting connected to a centralized system. In terms of wastewater services to a typical homeowner, it is important that sewage does not backup in the house, there are no “sewage alarms” to worry about, there is no odor from the sewage system, and the sewage system does not interfere with the expansion or resale of property or with the use of appliances such as a garbage disposal or water-softener. When an on-site system can offer such operational comforts to the citizens and offer environmental protection guarantees to the regulators, their use can be considered as “equivalent” to a centralized sewer system. In terms of getting a permit for an on-site system, the homeowner wants the process to be working with his/her plans for the house and not against, to be meaningful, and to be timely. Sometimes, homeowners have to wait for months to get a permit for an on-site system, which really makes no sense. We now have on-site wastewater technologies that can achieve both of these requirements in a cost-effective manner. However, we are still in an infancy stage for the development of an operation and maintenance infrastructure (Utility) that can make these technologies available to the citizens on a large scale basis, and we are also in the similar stage in terms of the regulations that govern the use of on-site systems based on their performance on a large scale instead of one at a time.

The other players in the on-site industry include: manufactures, operators (utility), engineers, soil and site evaluator, installers, regulators, and policy/decision makers. All these players must keep the Citizens, the primary player, in mind when they consider their role in the on-site industry. I sometimes wonder if this is really happening. Quite often, the need and desires of the citizens are overlooked or even ignored when the decisions for an on-site wastewater system are made by the other players. I hear complaints form the citizens about how the regulations are “preventing” them from having their dream-house built, or how an engineer has slowed down or even de-railed the process for getting their sewage permits, or how a manufacturer has sold them a system that has male-functioned within a year, or how a soil scientist has declared that they have to use a certain type of technology, etc. I believe that there is a tremendous need for reviewing the roles of these players and developing a system in which professionals from disciplines of science, engineering, and business can work together for meeting the wastewater related needs and demands of the citizens using on-site systems. Only then there is a future for on-site systems.

Manuafacturers

Manufacturers of various wastewater treatment and disposal systems play an important role in terms of developing and packaging new technologies for on-site systems. these are the tools of our trade. In order to achieve the necessary environmental and public health protection from wastewater under different site conditions, one needs adequate wastewater system for treatment and disposal. Using the basic principles of wastewater treatment, many companies have developed a variety of small-scale treatment devices for on-site systems. But today, the most commonly used treatment device for on-site system is a septic tank.

The current regulatory system in all the states generally promote the use of septic tanks as a primary treatment device along with a soil dependent disposal system that is supposed to provide further treatment of septic tank effluent. Primary treatment of wastewater is an important step in any type of wastewater treatment scheme. However, when a primary treatment device such as a septic tank is not properly sized, properly manufactured, or properly maintained, the performance of the rest of the wastewater treatment system gets adversely affected. Making watertight septic tanks with an effluent filter and adequate access for maintenance are the two important issues all the septic tank manufacturers need to consider. When properly sized, manufactured, installed, and maintained, septic tanks can offer a cost-effective means for primary treatment of wastewater. However, in my opinion, the septic tank effluent must be treated further to a secondary or a tertiary level before disposal in order for the on-site systems to be successful in the future. Long-term environmental and public health protection from the wide spread use of conventional septic tank drainfield systems cannot be and should not be taken for granted.

the need for advanced treatment today is driven mainly by the soil and site limitations for the use of a conventional septic tank drainfield system. Many types of aerobic treatment units and media filters are currently available as an alternative on- site systems. Manufacturers of such systems are normally faced with a tough challenge for marketing their system in a cost- effective manner, mainly due to the lack of appropriate regulations for such systems. Current regulations in most states allow the regulators, typically sanitarians, to issue a permit for a septic tank drainfield system to most of the homeowners who need a system. Only when the soil and/or site conditions do not meet the requirements for such a system, or do not meet the homeowners’ expectations for size or location of the system, an alternative system is considered. I believe that such a regulatory process is quite detrimental to the overall future of the on-site systems. I believe that the regulations and the regulators must focus on the performance of an on-site system and stop promoting conventional septic tank drainfield systems. Only then the manufactures of all types of on-site systems will be able to offer the tools necessary for on-site wastewater management to all those who do not have access to a centralized wastewater system. Manufacturers for all the types of on-site systems must constantly focus on making their systems more effective, manageable, and affordable. There is a need for independent third-party evaluation of all the wastewater treatment and disposal devices. I believe that a utility that is licensed in evaluating the performance of newer systems. When such a utility is available, manufacturers instead of dealing with individual homeowners for marketing their systems can then deal with the utility; and the regulators instead of dealing with individual homeowners and the manufacturers can deal with the utility to make sure that the environment and the public health is protected on a continuous basis form the wide-spread use of on-site systems.

Utility

So, what is this utility thing? What role can it play in the on- site industry? As I have mentioned in my other paper in this proceedings, I believe that besides the need for regulatory overhaul, establishment of an operation and maintenance infrastructure, i.e., a Utility, is very important for the future of on-site systems. Development of a service sector in any industry is the key to successful development, implementations, and wide-spread use of products that the industry has to offer to citizens. At present, septic tank pumpers are the only people who offer an on-going services for an on-site system in terms of pumping the septic tanks. I am quite sure that most of these septic tank pumpers would like to have an easy access to the tank so that they don’t have to spend time locating the tank and digging several feet down to open the tank. I am also sure that most of the homeowners won’t mind to having easy yet safe access to their tanks so that their yards don’t get dug-up every time their tanks need pumping. Despite this, it’s just now that we’re seeing introduction of access risers for septic tanks!

If a utility is responsible for permanent operation and maintenance of on-site systems, issues such as access to the system components can be addressed in a timely manner. I believe that such a utility should be licensed to do all the pre- installation work such as engineering, site/soil evaluation, and allowed t install and operate the on-site system. Such a utility should be regulated based on the performance of the on-site systems, both in terms of operational services to the citizens and the necessary protection of the environment and public health.

Under the utility model for on-site systems, the role of engineers, soil/site evaluators, and installers can be defined in a manner that would result in the most efficient use of their services. Today, I believe that the requirements of soil/site evaluation and engineering quite often do not add any real value to the operation of on-site systems. Most of the current regulations for on-site systems still require soil/site evaluation to determine if the proposed site is suitable for an on-site system, typically a septic drainfield system. Such pass/fail criteria for a site are not necessary because now it is possible to have an adequate wastewater system for any site. Besides, such pass/fail criteria for on-site systems have led to the misuse of on-site regulations as a defacto zoning tools. In my opinion, the decisions for how many bedrooms a house can have or how many houses can be built in a sub-division, or how big a commercial facility can be built on a lot, etc. should be made by the citizens and planning/zoning boards and NOT by the environmental or health regulators. Once the decision is made for doing something in an area that is not served by a centralized wastewater system, an on-site system utility can then offer all the services necessary for adequate treatment and disposal of wastewater. The environmental and the public health regulators can make sure that the services provided by the utility offer safe, adequate and proper protection to the environment and public health from wastewater.

Engineers and soil/site evaluators who under the current system have to work for individual homeowners can work for the utility to make sure that an appropriate on-site system gets installed on every lot and their expertise necessary for installation and operation of such systems are provided whenever needed. Under the current regulatory system, a homeowner has to deal with an engineer, a soil/site evaluator, an installer, a manufacturer, and a regulator; and spend a lot of money specially when the lot is not suitable for a conventional septic drainfield system. Soil and site evaluations are sometimes done by both public and private sector soil scientists, similarly engineering is done by both public and private sector engineers or a single family home on-site wastewater system, resulting in inefficient and duplicate work. In contrast, under the utility model, the necessary pre-installation work can be done in a most efficient manner. Adequate installation of any on-site system is very important for the long-term use of such systems. Under the utility model, well trained installers can adequately install the system and engineers can offer onsite engineering services when needed. Manufacturers of on-site treatment and disposal system can also be assured that their products will be installed and operated in a professional manner.

Regulators

The role of regulators needs to be changed drastically in order to have a bright future for on-site systems. At present, most of the regulatory efforts (more than 90%) for on-site systems are geared towards pre-installation works, such as soil/site evaluation, selection and engineering of on-site system, and reviewing and re-reviewing the work done by private sector when needed. I believe that the current regulatory system focuses more towards making the on-site system work on paper and less on what actually happens in the ground! Issues such as watertight septic tank, adequate access to all the components of on-site systems, and adequate maintenance of onsite systems are not properly addressed. there is a tendency under the current regulatory system to minimize or under estimate the role of private sector for offering on-site wastewater services. At the same time, the current regulatory system does not pay any attention to the long-term environmental impacts from the operation of on-site systems. Thus, as indicated in my other paper, there is a tremendous need for reforming the current regulatory system, not just rewriting the regulations. the movement towards developing performance based regulations is just the first step towards the reformation of the current regulatory system. I also believe that the future of on-site system is quite bright if we start looking beyond the wide-spread use of conventional septic drainfield system, and start using wastewater system that can be adequately operated and maintained on a permanent basis, i.e., treat the wastewater to better than primary level and focus on the recycling or reusing of treated effluent rater than its disposal.

Policy/Decision Makers

Finally, the role of policy/decision makers also need to be changed in order to gain acceptance of on-site systems as a true alternative to a centralized systems. At present, this group of people is not aware of all the options available for wastewater management. A conventional septic tank drainfield or a centralized collection and treatment plant are the only two options typically known to most of the policy/decision makers. Hence, when a community is faced with failing drainfields, instead of evaluating all the options for managing wastewater in a cost-effective manner, a decision is made to either do nothing or to install a new costly centralized system. The current regulatory system sometimes forces communities to spend more than $20,000 per connection to fix the failing drainfield situations. Instead, I believe that an adequate on-site system can be installed at a cost less than $15,000 per connection. The policy/decision makers are not yet ready to consider funding or financing the on-site systems in a way similar to a centralized system. On-site systems are typically considered as private property, while a centralized collection and treatment system is considered as public property. Hence, installation of on-site systems is typically done in a fragmented one at a time manner, which results in tremendous inefficiency, thus costing more than necessary.

The future of on-site systems can be made better if they are used as an alternative that is equivalent to a centralized system not only from technical point of view but also from financing and long-term operation point of view. A community that is managing a centralized system for a densely populated area should seriously consider offering wastewater services to the area outside the reach of sewers using cost-effective on-site systems, instead of extending the sewers. Long-term operation and maintenance of on-site systems must be done by a utility in a manner similar to the centralized system. As more and more communities are considering privatization of the operation of their centralized wastewater system, it is time the operation of on-site system be addressed in that manner. A utility that is charged with running a multi-million gallons per day wastewater treatment system, can also operate thousands of small on-site wastewater systems using the advanced remote monitoring systems.

SUMMARY

On-site wastewater systems have come a long way during the past few decades and they have a bright future in the next century. We now have technologies available that will allow us to manage wastewater at any scale in an environmentally sound manner. Soil and site dependency of on-site systems can be reduced or even eliminated by using appropriate treatment and disposal systems. However, a utility for long-term operation and maintenance of on- site systems is needed for the wide-spread and effective use of these systems in the future. Creation of such a utility will require many changes in the current ways of dealing with on-site systems. The role of all the players needs to be reviewed and redefined so that the on-site systems can be considered as a true alternative to a centralized system at a lower cost.

In reviewing the role of all the players, an important question that needs to be asked is what is the value of the proposed or required services? In a competitive market economy, it is very important that redundant and value-less activities are eliminated from all the processes associated with offering any services to the citizens. There is a tremendous need for a regulatory overhaul and for raising the overall standards of services that are offered to the citizens who need on-site systems. Citizens are the primary player in on-site industry and their demands and desires for an appropriate wastewater systems must not be overlooked by the rest of the players. On-site systems will have a better future only if they can offer the wastewater services to the citizens that are just like a centralized sewer system.

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