Performance evaluation of onsite wastewater treatment : field sampling and preliminary evaluation of results

Goonetilleke, Ashantha, Dawes, Les A., & Rigden, Brian (2000) Performance evaluation of onsite wastewater treatment : field sampling and preliminary evaluation of results.


Background The onsite treatment of sewage and effluent disposal within the premises is widely prevalent in rural and urban fringe areas due to the general unavailability of reticulated wastewater collection systems. Despite the seemingly low technology of the systems, failure is common and in many cases leading to adverse public health and environmental consequences. Therefore it is important that careful consideration is given to the design and location of onsite sewage treatment systems. It requires an understanding of the factors that influence treatment performance.

The use of subsurface effluent absorption systems is the most common form of effluent disposal for onsite sewage treatment and particularly for septic tanks. Additionally in the case of septic tanks, a subsurface disposal system is generally an integral component of the sewage treatment process. Therefore location specific factors will play a key role in this context.

The project The primary aims of the research project are: • to relate treatment performance of onsite sewage treatment systems to soil conditions at site; • to identify important areas where there is currently a lack of relevant research knowledge and is in need of further investigation.

These tasks were undertaken with the objective of facilitating the development of performance based planning and management strategies for onsite sewage treatment. The primary focus of the research project has been on septic tanks. Therefore by implication the investigation has been confined to subsurface soil absorption systems. The design and treatment processes taking place within the septic tank chamber itself did not form a part of the investigation. In the evaluation to be undertaken, the treatment performance of soil absorption systems will be related to the physico-chemical characteristics of the soil. Five broad categories of soil types have been considered for this purpose. The number of systems investigated was based on the proportionate area of urban development within the Brisbane region located on each soil types.

In the initial phase of the investigation, though the majority of the systems evaluated were septic tanks, a small number of aerobic wastewater treatment systems (AWTS) were also included. This was primarily to compare the effluent quality of systems employing different generic treatment processes.

It is important to note that the number of different types of systems investigated was relatively small. As such this does not permit a statistical analysis to be undertaken of the results obtained. This is an important issue considering the large number of parameters that can influence treatment performance and their wide variability.

The report This report is the second in a series of three reports focussing on the performance evaluation of onsite treatment of sewage. The research project was initiated at the request of the Brisbane City Council. The work undertaken included site investigation and testing of sewage effluent and soil samples taken at distances of 1 and 3 m from the effluent disposal area. The project component discussed in the current report formed the basis for the more detailed investigation undertaken subsequently. The outcomes from the initial studies have been discussed, which enabled the identification of factors to be investigated further. Primarily, this report contains the results of the field monitoring program, the initial analysis undertaken and preliminary conclusions.

Field study and outcomes Initially commencing with a list of 252 locations in 17 different suburbs, a total of 22 sites in 21 different locations were monitored. These sites were selected based on predetermined criteria. To obtain house owner agreement to participate in the monitoring study was not an easy task. Six of these sites had to be abandoned subsequently due to various reasons. The remaining sites included eight septic systems with subsurface effluent disposal and treating blackwater or combined black and greywater, two sites treating greywater only and six sites with AWTS.

In addition to collecting effluent and soil samples from each site, a detailed field investigation including a series of house owner interviews were also undertaken. Significant observations were made during the field investigations. In addition to site specific observations, the general observations include the following: • Most house owners are unaware of the need for regular maintenance. Sludge removal has not been undertaken in any of the septic tanks monitored. Even in the case of aerated wastewater treatment systems, the regular inspections by the supplier is confined only to the treatment system and does not include the effluent disposal system. This is not a satisfactory situation as the investigations revealed. • In the case of separate greywater systems, only one site had a suitably functioning disposal arrangement. The general practice is to employ a garden hose to siphon the greywater for use in surface irrigation of the garden. • In most sites, the soil profile showed significant lateral percolation of effluent. As such, the flow of effluent to surface water bodies is a distinct possibility. • The need to investigate the subsurface condition to a depth greater than what is required for the standard percolation test was clearly evident. On occasion, seemingly permeable soil was found to have an underlying impermeable soil layer or vice versa.

The important outcomes from the testing program include the following: • Though effluent treatment is influenced by the physico-chemical characteristics of the soil, it was not possible to distinguish between the treatment performance of different soil types. This leads to the hypothesis that effluent renovation is significantly influenced by the combination of various physico-chemical parameters rather than single parameters. This would make the processes involved strongly site specific. • Generally the improvement in effluent quality appears to take place only within the initial 1 m of travel and without any appreciable improvement thereafter. This relates only to the degree of improvement obtained and does not imply that this quality is satisfactory. This calls into question the value of adopting setback distances from sensitive water bodies. • Use of AWTS for sewage treatment may provide effluent of higher quality suitable for surface disposal. However on the whole, after a 1-3 m of travel through the subsurface, it was not possible to distinguish any significant differences in quality between those originating from septic tanks and AWTS. • In comparison with effluent quality from a conventional wastewater treatment plant, most systems were found to perform satisfactorily with regards to Total Nitrogen. The success rate was much lower in the case of faecal coliforms. However it is important to note that five of the systems exhibited problems with regards to effluent disposal, resulting in surface flow. This could lead to possible contamination of surface water courses. • The ratio of TDS to EC is about 0.42 whilst the optimum recommended value for use of treated effluent for irrigation should be about 0.64. This would mean a higher salt content in the effluent than what is advisable for use in irrigation. A consequence of this would be the accumulation of salts to a concentration harmful to crops or the landscape unless adequate leaching is present. These relatively high EC values are present even in the case of AWTS where surface irrigation of effluent is being undertaken. However it is important to note that this is not an artefact of the treatment process but rather an indication of the quality of the wastewater generated in the household. This clearly indicates the need for further research to evaluate the suitability of various soil types for the surface irrigation of effluent where the TDS/EC ratio is less than 0.64. • Effluent percolating through the subsurface absorption field may travel in the form of dilute pulses. As such the effluent will move through the soil profile forming fronts of elevated parameter levels. • The downward flow of effluent and leaching of the soil profile is evident in the case of podsolic, lithosol and kransozem soils. Lateral flow of effluent is evident in the case of prairie soils. Gleyed podsolic soils indicate poor drainage and ponding of effluent.

In the current phase of the research project, a number of chemical indicators such as EC, pH and chloride concentration were employed as indicators to investigate the extent of effluent flow and to understand how soil renovates effluent. The soil profile, especially texture, structure and moisture regime was examined more in an engineering sense to determine the effect of movement of water into and through the soil.

However it is not only the physical characteristics, but the chemical characteristics of the soil also play a key role in the effluent renovation process. Therefore in order to understand the complex processes taking place in a subsurface effluent disposal area, it is important that the identified influential parameters are evaluated using soil chemical concepts. Consequently the primary focus of the next phase of the research project will be to identify linkages between various important parameters. The research thus envisaged will help to develop robust criteria for evaluating the performance of subsurface disposal systems.

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ID Code: 54211
Item Type: Report
Refereed: No
Keywords: on-site wastewater treatment, on-site sewage treatment, septic tanks, aerobic wastewater treatment
Subjects: Australian and New Zealand Standard Research Classification > ENGINEERING (090000) > ENVIRONMENTAL ENGINEERING (090700) > Environmental Engineering Design (090701)
Divisions: Past > QUT Faculties & Divisions > Faculty of Built Environment and Engineering
Past > Schools > School of Urban Development
Copyright Owner: Copyright 2000 The Authors
Deposited On: 18 Oct 2012 02:55
Last Modified: 18 Oct 2012 21:55

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