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This article defines and explains the design of septic effluent disinfection systems for use with septic systems, a variation on septic system effluent final treatment and disposal. The page top image shows a sketch of a basic septic system design using gravity dosing and disinfectiontablets, with effluent flowing from a septic tank to a dosing chamber and from there to a drainfield. Image: Indiana state health department. US EPA information expanded and addended with supplemental documentation, references, and comments. Readers of this document who have aerobic septic systems installed should be sure to review AEROBIC SEPTIC DISINFECTANTS - Calcium Hypochlorite and AEROBIC SEPTIC DISINFECTANTS - Pool Chlorine so that proper type and quantity of disinfectant are used in those systems.
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EPA 625/R-00/008 - Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems Technology Fact Sheet 4, with annotations, and supplemental discussion and explanation
Description of Septic Effluent Disinfection Processes
The process of disinfection destroys pathogenic and other microorganisms in wastewater. A number of important waterborne pathogens are found in the United States, including some bacteria species, protozoan cysts, and viruses. All pretreatment processes used in onsite wastewater management remove some pathogens, but data are scant on the magnitude of this destruction.
The two methods described in this section, chlorination and ultraviolet irradiation, are the most commonly used (figure 1). Currently, the effectiveness of disinfection is measured by the use of indicator bacteria, usually fecal coliform. These organisms are excreted by all warm-blooded animals, are present in wastewater in high numbers, tend to survive in the natural environment as long as or longer than many pathogenic bacteria, and are easy to detect and quantify.
Figure 1. Generic septic effluent disinfection diagram
A number of methods can be used to disinfect wastewater. These include chemical agents, physical agents, and irradiation. For onsite applications, only a few of these methods have proven to be practical (i.e., simple, safe, reliable, and cost-effective). Although ozone and iodine can be and have been used for disinfection, they are less likely to be employed because of economic and engineering difficulties.
Use of Chlorine for Septic Effluent Disinfection
Chlorine is a powerful oxidizing agent and has been used as an effective disinfectant in water and wastewater treatment for a century. Chlorine may be added to water as a gas (Cl2) or as a liquid or solid in the form of sodium or calcium hypochlorite, respectively.
Because the gas can present a significant safety hazard and is highly corrosive, it is not recommended for onsite applications. Currently, the solid form (calcium hypochlorite) is most favored for onsite applications. When added to water, calcium hypochlorite forms hypochlorous acid (HOCl) and calcium hydroxide (hydrated lime, Ca(OH)2). The resulting pH increase promotes the formation of the anion, OCl-, which is a free form of chlorine. Because of its reactive nature, free chlorine will react with a number of reduced compounds in wastewater, including sulfide, ferrous iron, organic matter, and ammonia.
These nonspecific side reactions result in the formation of combined chlorine (chloramines), chloro-organics, and chloride, the last two of which are not effective as disinfectants. Chloramines are weaker than free chlorine but are more stable. The difference between the chlorine residual in the wastewater after some time interval (free and combined chlorine) and the initial dose of chlorine is referred to as chlorine demand.
The 15-minute chlorine demand of septic tank effluent may range from 30 to 45 mg/L as Cl; for biological treatment effluents, such as systems in Technology Fact Sheets 1, 2, and 3, it may range from 10 to 25 mg/L; and for sand filtered effluent, it may be 1 to 5 mg/L (Technology Fact Sheets 10 and 11).
Calcium hypochlorite is typically dosed to wastewater in an onsite treatment system using a simple tablet feeder device (figure 2). Wastewater passes through the feeder and then flows to a contact tank for the appropriate reaction.
The product of the contact time and disinfectant residual concentration (Ct) is often used as a parameter for design of the system. The contact basin should be baffled to ensure that short-circuiting does not occur. Chlorine and combined chlorine residuals are highly toxic to living organisms in the receiving water. Because overdosing (ecological risk) and underdosing (human health risk) are quite common with the use of tablets, long swales/ditches are recommended prior to direct discharge to sensitive waters.
[DF comment: Readers of this document who have aerobic septic systems installed should be sure to review AEROBIC SEPTIC DISINFECTANTS - Calcium Hypochlorite and AEROBIC SEPTIC DISINFECTANTS - Pool Chlorine so that proper type and quantity of disinfectant are used in those systems.]
Figure 2. Example of a stack-feed chlorinator for septic effluent disinfection
Use of simple liquid sodium hypochlorite (bleach) feeders is more reliable but requires more frequent site visits by operators. These systems employ aspirator or suction feeders that can be part of the pressurization of the wastewater, causing both the pump and the feeder to require inspection and calibration. These operational needs should be met by centralized management or contracted professional management.
Ultraviolet irradiation for Septic Effluent Disinfection
The germicidal properties of ultraviolet (UV) irradiation have been recognized for many years. UV is germicidal in the wavelength range of 250 to 270 nm. The radiation penetrates the cell wall of the organism and is absorbed by cellular materials, which either prevents replication or causes the death of the cell.
Because the only UV radiation effective in destroying the organism is that which reaches it, the water must be relatively free of turbidity. Because the distance over which UV light is effective is very limited, the most effective disinfection occurs when a thin film of the water to be treated is exposed to the radiation. The quantity of UV irradiation required for a given application is measured as the radiation intensity in microWatt-seconds per square centimeter (mW-s/cm2).
For each application, wastewater transmittance, organisms present, bulb and sleeve condition, and a variety of other factors will have an impact on the mW-s/cm2 required to attain a specific effluent microorganism count per 100 mL. The most useful variable that can be readily controlled and monitored is Total Suspended Solids. TSS has a direct impact on UV disinfection, which is related to the level of pretreatment provided.
Many commercial UV disinfection systems (figure 3) are available in the marketplace. Each has its own approach to how the wastewater contacts UV irradiation, such as the type of bulb (medium or low pressure; medium, low, or high intensity), the type of contact chamber configuration (horizontal or vertical), or the sleeve material separating the bulb from the liquid (quartz or teflon). All can be effective, and the choice will usually be driven by economics.
[DJF COMMENT - Readers should see our additional comments about UV lights for use on drinking water, as some of those concerns will pertain to UV light in septic effluent treatment application as well. UV -ULTRAVIOLET LIGHT TREATMENT]
Figure 3. Wastewater flow in a quartz UV unit
Typical applications of Septic Effluent Disinfection Processes
Disinfection is generally required in three onsite-system circumstances. The first is after any process that is to be surface discharged. The second is before a SWIS where there is inadequate soil (depth to ground water or structure too porous) to meet ground water quality standards. The third is prior to some other immediate reuse (onsite recycling) of effluent that stipulates some specific pathogen requirement (e.g., toilet flushing or vegetation watering).
Design assumptions for Septic Effluent Disinfection Processes
Chlorination units must ensure that sufficient chlorine release occurs (depending on pretreatment) from the tablet chlorinator. These units have a history of erratic dosage, so frequent attention is required. Performance is dependent on pretreatment, which the designer must consider. At the point of chlorine addition, mixing is highly desirable and a contact chamber is necessary to ensure maximum disinfection. Working with chlorinator suppliers, designers should try to ensure consistent dosage capability, maximize mixing usually by chamber or head loss, and provide some type of pipe of sufficient length to attain effective contact time before release.
Tablets are usually suspended in open tubes that are housed in a plastic assembly designed to increase flow depth (and tablet exposure) in proportion to effluent flow. Without specific external mixing capability, the contact pipe (large-diameter Schedule 40 PVC) is the primary means of accomplishing disinfection. Contact time in these pipes (often with added baffles) is on the order of 4 to 10 hours, while dosage levels are in excess of those stated in table 1 for different pretreatment qualities and pH values. The commercial chlorination unit is generally located in a concrete vault with access hatch to the surface. The contact pipe usually runs from the vault toward the next step in the process or discharge location. Surface discharges to open swales or ditches will also allow for dechlorination prior to release to a sensitive receiving water.
Table 1. Chlorine disinfection dose (in mg/L) design guidelines for onsite applications
The effectiveness of UV disinfection is dependent upon UV power (table 2), contact time, liquid film thickness, wastewater absorbance, wastewater turbidity, system configuration, and temperature. Empirical relationships are used to relate UV power (intensity at the organism boundary) and contact time. Table 2 gives a general indication of the dose requirements for selected pathogens. Since effective disinfection is dependent on wastewater quality as measured by turbidity, it is important that pretreatment provide a high degree of suspended and colloidal solids removal.
Table 2. Typical ultraviolet (UV) system design parameters
Commercially available UV units that permit internal contact times of 30 seconds at peak design flows for the onsite system can be located in insulated outdoor structures or in heated spaces of the structure served, both of which must protect the unit from dust, excessive heat, freezing, and vandals. Ideally, the unit should also provide the necessary UV intensity (e.g., 35,000 to 70,000 mW-s/cm2) for achieving fecal coliform concentrations of about 200 CFU/100 mL. The actual dosage that reaches the microbes will be reduced by the transmittance of the wastewater (e.g., continuous-flow suspended-growth aerobic systems [CFSGAS] or fixed-film systems [FFS] transmittance of 60 to 65 percent).
Practically, septic tank effluents cannot be effectively disinfected by UV, whereas biological treatment effluents can meet a standard of 200 cfu/100 mL with UV. High-quality reuse standards will require more effective pretreatment to be met by UV disinfection. No additional contact time is required. Continuous UV bulb operation is recommended for maximum bulb service life. Frequent on/off sequences in response to flow variability will shorten bulb life. Other typical design parameters are presented in table 2.
Performance of Septic Effluent Disinfection Processes
There are few field studies of tablet chlorinators, but those that exist for post-sand-filter applications show fecal coliform reductions of 2 to 3 logs/100 mL. Another field study of tablet chlorinators following biological treatment units exceeded a standard of 200 FC/100 mL 93 percent of the time.
No chlorine residual was present in 68 percent of the samples. Newer units managed by the biological unit manufacturer fared only slightly better. Problems were related to TSS accumulation in the chlorinator, tablet caking, failure of the tablet to drop into the sleeve, and failure to maintain the tablet supply. Sodium hypochlorite liquid feed systems can provide consistent disinfection of sand filter effluents (and biological system effluents) if the systems are managed by a utility.
Data for UV disinfection for onsite systems are also inadequate to perform a proper analysis. However, typical units treating sand filter effluents have provided more than 3 logs of FC removal and more than 4 logs of poliovirus removal. Since this level of pretreatment results in a very low final FC concentration (<100 CFU/100 mL), removals depend more on the influent concentration than inherent removal capability.
This is consistent with several large-scale water reuse studies that show that filtered effluent can reach essentially FC-free levels (<1 CFU/100 mL) with UV dosage of about 100 mW-s/cm2, while higher (but attainable) effluent FC levels require less dosage to filtered effluent (about 48 mW-s/cm2) than is required by aerobic unit effluent (about 60 mW-s/cm2). This can be attributed to TSS, turbidity, and transmittance (table 3). Average quartz tube transmittance is about 75 to 80 percent.
Table 3. Typical (UV) transmittance values for water
Septic Effluent Disinfection Procedure Management needs
Chlorine addition by tablet feeders is likely to be the most practical method for chlorine addition for onsite applications. Tablet feeders are constructed of durable, corrosion-free plastics and are designed for in-line installation. Tablet chlorinators come as a unit similar to figure 2. If liquid bleach chlorinators are used, they would be similarly constructed. That unit is placed inside a vault that exits to the contact basin.
The contact basin may be plastic, fiberglass, or a length of concrete pipe placed vertically and outfitted with a concrete base. Baffles should be provided to prevent short-circuiting of the flow. The contact basin should be covered to protect against the elements, but it should be readily accessible for maintenance and inspection.
The disinfection system should be designed to minimize operation and maintenance requirements, yet ensure reliable treatment. For chlorination systems, routine operation and maintenance would include servicing the tablet or solution feeder equipment, adding tablets or premixed solution, adjusting flow rates, cleaning the contact tank, and collecting and analyzing effluent samples for chlorine residuals.
Caking of tablet feeders may occur and will require appropriate maintenance. Bleach feeders must be periodically refilled and checked for performance. Semiskilled technical support should be sufficient, and estimates of time are about 6 to 10 hours per year. There are no power requirements for gravity-fed systems. Chemical requirements are estimated to be about 5 to 15 pounds of available chlorine per year for a family of four.
During the four or more inspections required per year, the contact basin may need cleaning if no filter is located ahead of the unit. Energy requirements for a gravity-fed system are nil. If positively fed by aspirator/suction with pumping, the disinfection unit and alarms for pump malfunctions will use energy and require inspection. Essentially unskilled (but trained) labor may be employed. Safety issues are minimal and include wearing of proper gloves and clothing during inspection and tablet/feeder work.
Commercially available package UV units are available for onsite applications. Most are self-contained and provide low-pressure mercury arc lamps encased by quartz glass tubes. The unit should be installed downstream of the final treatment process and protected from the elements. UV units must be located near a power source and should be readily accessible for maintenance and inspection. Appropriate controls for the unit must be corrosion-resistant and enclosed in accordance with electrical codes.
Routine operation and maintenance for UV systems involves semiskilled technician support. Tasks include cleaning and replacing the UV lamps and sleeves, checking and maintaining mechanical equipment and controls, and monitoring the UV intensity. Monitoring would require routine indicator organism analysis.
Lamp replacement (usually annually) will depend upon the equipment selected, but lamp life may range from 7,500 to 13,000 hours. Based on limited operational experience, it is estimated that 10 to 12 hours per year would be required for routine operation and maintenance. Power requirements may be approximately 1 to 1.5 kWh/d. Quartz sleeves will require alcohol or other mildly acidic solution at each (usually four per year) inspection.
Whenever disinfection is required, careful attention to system operation and maintenance is necessary. Long-term management, through homeowner-service contracts or local management programs, is an important component of the operation and maintenance program. Homeowners do not possess the skills needed to perform proper servicing of these units, and homeowner neglect, ignorance, or interference may contribute to malfunctions.
Septic Effluent Disinfection Processes Risk management issues
With proper management, the disinfection processes cited above are reliable and should pose little risk to the homeowner. As mentioned above, a potentially toxic chlorine residual may have an important environmental impact if it persists at high concentrations in surface waters.
By-products of chlorine reactions with wastewater constituents may also be toxic to aquatic species. If dechlorination is required prior to surface discharge, reactors containing sulfur dioxide, sodium bisulfate, sodium metabisulfate, or activated carbon can be employed. If the disinfection processes described above are improperly managed, the processes may not deliver the level of pathogen destruction that is anticipated and may result in some risk to downstream users of the receiving waters.
The systems described are compact and require modest attention. Chlorination does not inherently require energy input; UV irradiation and dosage pumps do consume some energy (>1kWh/day). Both processes will require skilled technical support for the monitoring of indicator organisms in the process effluents.
Chlorination systems respond to flow variability if the tablets are feeding correctly. UV does not do so and is designed for the highest flow scenario, thus overdosing at lower flows since there is no danger in doing so. Toxic loads are unlikely to affect either system, but TSS can affect both. Inspections must include all pretreatment steps.
UV is more sensitive to extreme temperatures than chlorination, and must be housed appropriate to the climate. In extremely cold climates, the UV system can be housed inside the home with minimal danger to the inhabitants. Power outages will terminate UV disinfection and pressurized pumps for both systems, while causing few problems for gravity-fed chlorination units. There should be no odor problems during these outages.
Typical Installation & Maintenance Costs for Septic Effluent Disinfection Processes
Installed costs of a complete tablet chlorination unit are about $400 to $500 for the commercial chlorinator unit and associated materials and $800 to $1,200 for installation and housing. Operation and maintenance would consist of tablets ($30 to $50 per year), labor ($75 to $100 per year), and miscellaneous repairs and replacements ($15 to $25 per year), in addition to any analytical support required.
Installed costs of UV units and associated facilities are $1,000 to $2,000. O/M costs include power ($35 to $40 per year), semiskilled labor ($50 to $100 per year), and lamp replacement ($70 to $80 per year), plus any analytical support.
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Technical Reviewers & References
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Septic effluent is distributed to a system final treatment and disposal using either gravity methods (which depend on terrain slope) or pressure methods (which use a pump to move effluent to its destination treatment and disposal area).
Methods For Septic Effluent Distribution Using Gravity Systems
Design Manuals for Septic Systems
Onsite Wastewater Disposal Books