Performance evaluation of onsite sewage treatment : results of soil investigations

Dawes, Les A., Goonetilleke, Ashantha, & Rigden, Brian (2000) Performance evaluation of onsite sewage treatment : results of soil investigations.


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

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

The project The primary aims of the research project were: • to relate treatment performance of onsite sewage treatment systems to soil conditions at site; • to evaluate current research relating to onsite sewage treatment; and, • to identify key issues where currently there is a lack of relevant research.

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 this research project has been on septic tanks. 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. Five broad categories of soil types prevalent in the Brisbane region have been considered in this project. The number of systems investigated was based on the proportionate area of urban development within the Brisbane region located on each of the different soil types. In the initial phase of the investigation, the majority of the systems evaluated were septic tanks. However, a small number of aerobic wastewater treatment systems (AWTS) were also included. The primary aim was to compare the effluent quality of systems employing different generic treatment processes.

It is important to note that the number of each different type of system investigated was relatively small. Consequently, this does not permit a statistical analysis to be undertaken of the results obtained for comparing different systems. This is an important issue considering the large number of soil physico-chemical parameters and landscape factors that can influence treatment performance and their wide variability.

The report This report is the last 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 project component discussed in the current report outlines the detailed soil investigations undertaken at a selected number of sites.

In the initial field sampling, a number of soil chemical properties were assessed as indicators to investigate the extent of effluent flow and to help understand what soil factors renovate the applied effluent. The soil profile attributes, especially texture, structure and moisture regime were examined more in an engineering sense to determine the effect of movement of water into and through the soil.

It is important to note that it is not only the physical characteristics, but also the chemical characteristics of the soil as well as landscape factors play a key role in the effluent renovation process. In order to understand the complex processes taking place in a subsurface effluent disposal area, influential parameters were identified using soil chemical concepts. Accordingly, the primary focus of this final phase of the research project was to identify linkages between various soil chemical parameters and landscape patterns and their contribution to the effluent renovation process. The research outcomes will contribute to the development of robust criteria for evaluating the performance of subsurface effluent disposal systems.

The outcomes The key findings from the soil investigations undertaken are: • Effluent renovation is primarily undertaken by a combination of various soil physico-chemical parameters and landscape factors, thereby making the effluent renovation processes strongly site dependent. • Decisions regarding site suitability for effluent disposal should not be based purely in terms of the soil type. A number of other factors such as the site location in the catena, the drainage characteristics and other physical and chemical characteristics, also exert a strong influence on site suitability. • Sites, which are difficult to characterise in terms of suitability for effluent disposal, will require a detailed soil physical and chemical analysis to be undertaken to a minimum depth of at least 1.2 m. • The Ca:Mg ratio and Exchangeable Sodium Percentage are important parameters in soil suitability assessment. A Ca:Mg ratio of less than 0.5 would generally indicate a high ESP. This in turn would mean that Na and possibly Mg are the dominant exchangeable cations, leading to probable clay dispersion. • A Ca:Mg ratio greater than 0.5 would generally indicate a low ESP in the profile, which in turn indicates increased soil stability. • In higher clay percentage soils, low ESP can have a significant effect. • The presence of high exchangeable Na can be counteracted by the presence of swelling clays, and an exchange complex co-dominated by exchangeable Ca and exchangeable Mg. This aids absorption of cations at depth, thereby reducing the likelihood of dispersion. • Salt is continually added to the soil by the effluent and problems may arise if the added salts accumulate to a concentration that is harmful to the soil structure. Under such conditions, good drainage is essential in order to allow continuous movement of water and salt through the profile. Therefore, for a site to be sustainable, it would have a maximum application rate of effluent. This would be dependent on subsurface characteristics and the surface area available for effluent disposal. • The dosing regime for effluent disposal can play a significant role in the prevention of salt accumulation in the case of poorly draining sites. Though intermittent dosing was not considered satisfactory for the removal of the clogging mat layer, it has positive attributes in the context of removal of accumulated salts in the soil.

Impact and interest:

Citation counts are sourced monthly from Scopus and Web of Science® citation databases.

These databases contain citations from different subsets of available publications and different time periods and thus the citation count from each is usually different. Some works are not in either database and no count is displayed. Scopus includes citations from articles published in 1996 onwards, and Web of Science® generally from 1980 onwards.

Citations counts from the Google Scholar™ indexing service can be viewed at the linked Google Scholar™ search.

Full-text downloads:

106 since deposited on 18 Oct 2012
5 in the past twelve months

Full-text downloads displays the total number of times this work’s files (e.g., a PDF) have been downloaded from QUT ePrints as well as the number of downloads in the previous 365 days. The count includes downloads for all files if a work has more than one.

ID Code: 54212
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 02:53
Last Modified: 19 Oct 2012 01:21

Export: EndNote | Dublin Core | BibTeX

Repository Staff Only: item control page