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Submerged bed septic system designs: this document discusses Vegetative submerged bed septic system design applications and High-Specific-Surface Anaerobic Reactors for septic systems, a variation for septic system effluent final treatment and disposal.
Vegetated Submerged Beds and Other High-Specific-Surface Anaerobic Reactor Septic System Designs
Description of Vegetated Submerged Bed Septic System Designs
Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems Technology Fact Sheet 5 - EPA 625/R-00/008 - We have expanded original US EPA information with supplemental documentation, references, and comments.
A high-specific-surface anaerobic reactor (figure 1) is any tank or cavity filled with solid media through which wastewater flows with a high hydraulic retention time (HRT). In onsite treatment the two primary types are vegetated submerged beds (VSBs) and anaerobic upflow filters (AUFs).
The first is characterized by horizontal flow and prolific growth of macrophytes on the surface. The second comes in a variety of forms from upflow sludge blanket systems and fixed media anaerobic filters to partially fluidized beds of fine media. Both have long HRTs, produce anaerobic effluents, generally treat either high-strength or minimally pretreated wastewater, and usually require some form of post treatment to meet surface discharge or water reuse requirements.
The primary removal mechanisms in all of these systems are physical, that is, floculation, sedimentation, and adsorption.
Anaerobic biological reactions are extremely slow and do not have a significant impact on soluble BOD until HRTs become quite long. Some toxic organic compounds may be reduced through these mechanisms and chemical precipitation (e.g., sulfides) at shorter HRTs.
VSBs, as shown in figure 2, usually follow a septic tank and remove most of the suspended and larger colloidal particles, BOD, organic forms of nitrogen, and other particles. Although they are frequently identified as subsurface constructed wetlands, they do not fit the strict definition of a constructed wetland.
Figure 2. Elements of a vegetated submerged bed (VSB) septic systems
Source: Toms Creek Project, VA.
Three types of AUFs can be used as pretreatment devices for high-strength wastewater and some onsite pretreatment applications in the United States. They are in shown in figures 3, 4, and 5. Figure 3, with a rock medium, is the most typical U.S. application.
Figure 3. Schematic of the upflow anaerobic filter process used in Vegetated Submerged Bed Septic System Designs
Figure 4. Schematic of the upflow anaerobic sludge blanket process used in Vegetated Submerged Bed Septic System Designs
Figure 5. Schematic of the anaerobic fluidized bed process used in Vegetated Submerged Bed Septic System Designs
Typical applications of Vegetated Submerged Bed Septic System Designs
AUFs are widely used in hot climates where domestic wastewaters are several times higher in strength than U.S. wastewaters. These systems can reduce high BOD and TSS to levels that can be readily treated by typical aerobic processes such as suspended and fixed growth aerobic units or recirculating/intermittent media filters. International literature contains numerous references to the three types of AUFs and their valuable contributions to water pollution abatement. Anaerobic rock upflow filters (figure 6) are also used to lower septic tank effluent BOD and TSS concentrations prior to discharge to the subsurface wastewater infiltration system (SWIS).
Figure 6. Anaerobic upflow filter for Vegetated Submerged Bed Septic System Designs
VSBs are extremely popular in the United States because of their aesthetic features and their ability to meet basic (secondary) effluent standards when treating septic tank effluent. Until recently they were purported to be capable of nitrification and nutrient removal at economically competitive HRTs. Since they are largely anaerobic, this would be biochemically impossible.
However, they are fully capable of meeting secondary BOD and TSS standards. They are also sometimes used before a SWIS and can meet the same effluent TSS and BOD standards as aerobic units (Technology Fact Sheets 1, 2, and 3). VSBs can be considered as pretreatment units regarding SWIS design requirements. They do not, however, remove more than 2 logs of fecal coliform and would likely require disinfection for direct surface discharge. They also require some form of aeration to meet effluent standards for dissolved oxygen (DO). These VSBs will capture rainfall and snowmelt, effluent standards for requiring adjustment to designs of SWIS following these units.
Both VSBs and AUFs are being used in rural areas in combination with aerobic processes to remove significant amounts of nitrogen through denitrification. These processes are included in the nutrient removal fact sheets.
Design assumptions for Vegetated Submerged Bed Septic System Designs
VSB design guidance for small communities is provided in table 1. In the first few months of operation, excellent phosphorus removal will occur until the rock medium becomes saturated with phosphorus and breakthrough occurs. (Note: USEPA guidance on design of VSBs can be found in Manual: Constructed Wetlands Treatment of Municipal Wastewater, posted at http://www.epa.gov/nrmrl/pubs/625r99010/625r99010.pdf)
Table 1. Summary of VSB Septic System Design Guide
Based on desired effluent quality and area loading rates as follows:
6 g/m2-d (53.5 lb/ac-d) to attain 30 mg/L effluent
1.6 g/m2-d (14.3 lb/ac-d) to attain 20 mg/L effluent
20 g/m2-d (178 lb/ac-d) to attain 30 mg/L effluent
Use another treatment process in conjunction with VSB
VSBs not recommended for phosphorus removal
0.5 - 0.6 m (20 - 24 in)
0.4 - 0.5 m (16 - 20 in)
Minimum of 15 m (49 ft.)
0 - 1%
Level or nearly level
First 30% of length
Last 70% of length
1% of clean K
10% of clean K
Inlet zone (1st 2 m [6.5 ft])
Outlet zone (last 1 m [3.3 ft])
Planting media (top 10 cm [4 in])
All media should be washed clean of fines and debris; more uniform rounded media will generally have more void spaces; media should be resistant to crushing or breakage.
40 - 80 mm (1.5 - 3.0 in)
20 - 30 mm (3/4 - 1 in) use clean K = 100,000, if actual K not known
40 - 80 mm (1.5 - 3.0 in)
5 - 20 mm (1/4 - 3/4 in)
Use adjustable outlet control device with capability to flood and drain system and sizing of VSB and SWIS (if used) must include a water balance analysis
a Use after primary sedimentation (e.g., septic tank, Imhoff tank, primary clarifier); not recommended for use after ponds because of problems with algae.
Except for the anaerobic upflow rock filter, AUFs are rarely employed for U.S. onsite applications. Since the primary purpose of these systems is to improve the BOD and TSS of septic tank effluent, they are essentially physical processes.
Therefore, they must be designed to maximize their flocculation and sedimentation functions. Limited field studies indicate that successful removal of particulate BOD and TSS could be obtained with an average HRT between 16 and 24 hours, rounded media size of 1 to 2 inches or greater, and a means of periodically draining excess accumulated solids from the bottom of the unit. At higher temperatures, some partial digestion of accumulated organic solids occurs. This liquefaction may by accompanied by gas production. The amount and makeup of that gas depend on pH, wastewater constituents (e.g., protein, lipids, carbohydrates), sulfate, alkalinity, and other constituents.
Performance of Vegetated Submerged Bed Septic System Designs
VSB systems can treat septic tank effluent to a BOD of 20 to 30 mg/L, depending on the organic loading rate chosen. The VSB effluent TSS is almost always less than 30 mg/L. Some removal of all constituents (e.g., heavy metals, organic nitrogen and organic phosphorus, pesticides, and other toxic organics) can also be expected. Over and above these removals, there will be some small percentage of dissolved organic removal owing to anaerobic biological activity.
Rock AUFs after septic tanks have not been widely studied, but they appear to remove TSS by as much as 55 percent from septic tank effluent, while removing a similar percent of the BOD. Actual removals will depend on the specific fractions of particulate, colloidal, and soluble matter in the septic tank effluent. Little soluble or fine particulate removal is likely. Both systems will remove pathogens, with VSBs capable of removing from 1 to 3 logs (design average = 2 logs), while AUF removal is estimated to be closer to 1 log because of shorter HRTs.
Management needs for Vegetated Submerged Bed Septic System Designs
All of these anaerobic systems are passive in nature and require minimal O/M activity. AUF units may be constructed aboveground, but they usually are below the ground surface to provide insulation and protect against severe climatic conditions. The solid medium can be a coarse gravel or one of many commercially available synthetic media that will not easily clog with biomass. Access to inlet and outlet systems should be provided for purposes of cleaning and servicing. An easily accessible means to drain the unit and an effective alarm system should be provided.
VSB units are generally aesthetically pleasing additions to the landscape if sufficient area is available for their application. It is estimated that fewer than 4 hours per year will be required for O/M tasks, which will involve inspecting the system and making any adjustments required. Therefore, until more information becomes available, a site visit schedule of three to four times a year is suggested.
Residuals generate in VSB systems at a slow rate. Although the system inlet where most solids accumulate can be excavated or piped for high-pressure removal, it is more likely that a replacement system would be built after the service life of the original system ends.
AUF units will require periodic flushing of accumulated solids and inspection of inlet and outlet systems. If solids are allowed to accumulate, the filter may clog or release high solids "events" to the SWIS. This will clog the infiltrative surface or the distribution system. Therefore, a site visit schedule of three to four times per year is suggested until more information becomes available. This would entail from 6 to 8 hours per year of labor. Disposal and transport of excess solids will require similar management to septage.
Risk Management Issues Concerning Vegetated Submerged Bed Septic System Designs
VSB systems can usually handle the flow variations likely to occur from residential sources, as well as toxic shock loads and power outages. Reed and colleagues (1995) proposed some models to support the view that insulation provided by dead vegetation (litter) on the surface should aid these systems during typical winters in northern climates. The potential for odor is low for properly sized systems.
AUF systems should also accommodate typical flow variations, toxic shocks, and power outages. They should be insulated from cold weather. AUFs are inherently odor and corrosion generators, so corrosion-resistant materials should be employed. Odor (hydrogen sulfide) production may require the use of an odor-control system (e.g., soil filters) to deodorize off-gases.
Typical Costs of Vegetated Submerged Bed Septic System Designs
VSB systems for onsite application will cost about $20 per square foot (USEPA, 1999). Almost half of that cost is for the media, while excavation, liner, plants, control structures, and piping make up the rest. Operation and maintenance costs would run less than $100 per year if these services are professionally provided.
AUF systems are likely to cost about $1,000 to $1,500 per house, primarily related to the cost of the tank and related containment features. O/M costs would run around $200 per year, including solids transport as required.
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US EPA Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems Manual - original citation epa.gov/nrmrl/pubs/625r00008/html/625R00008.htm and for vegetative submerged bed septics, see EPA http://www.epa.gov/nrmrl/pubs/625r00008/html/tfs5.htm
Victor Faggella, is a senior home inspector in New York and can be reached at Centurion Home Inspections, Inc. Mahopac, NY 10541. 845-628-0941 firstname.lastname@example.org The company has offices in Mahopac, NY, Woodbury CT., and Mansfield Center, CT.
Hankey and Brown home inspectors, Eden Prairie, MN, technical review by Roger Hankey, prior chairman, Standards Committee, American Society of Home Inspectors - ASHI. 952 829-0044 - hankeyandbrown.com
Rissy Plastics, 350 Cedar Lane, Torrington, CT 06790 USA, Tel: 877-221-4426, Email: email@example.com, for information about the the Flout™ floating outlet valve dosing system control for septic systems and onsite wastewater disposal.
The Home Reference Book - the Encyclopedia of Homes, Carson Dunlop & Associates, Toronto, Ontario, 25th Ed., 2012, is a bound volume of more than 450 illustrated pages that assist home inspectors and home owners in the inspection and detection of problems on buildings. The text is intended as a reference guide to help building owners operate and maintain their home effectively. Field inspection worksheets are included at the back of the volume. Special Offer: For a 10% discount on any number of copies of the Home Reference Book purchased as a single order. Enter INSPECTAHRB in the order payment page "Promo/Redemption" space. InspectAPedia.com editor Daniel Friedman is a contributing author.
Or choose the The Home Reference eBook for PCs, Macs, Kindle, iPad, iPhone, or Android Smart Phones. Special Offer: For a 5% discount on any number of copies of the Home Reference eBook purchased as a single order. Enter INSPECTAEHRB in the order payment page "Promo/Redemption" space.
Builder's Guide to Wells and Septic Systems, Woodson, R. Dodge: $ 24.95; MCGRAW HILL B; TP;
Quoting from Amazon's description: For the homebuilder, one mistake in estimating or installing wells and septic systems can cost thousands of dollars. This comprehensive guide filled with case studies can prevent that. Master plumber R. Dodge Woodson packs this reader-friendly guide with guidance and information, including details on new techniques and materials that can economize and expedite jobs and advice on how to avoid mistakes in both estimating and construction. Chapters cover virtually every aspect of wells and septic systems, including on-site evaluations; site limitations; bidding; soil studies, septic designs, and code-related issues; drilled and dug wells, gravel and pipe, chamber-type, and gravity septic systems; pump stations; common problems with well installation; and remedies for poor septic situations. Woodson also discusses ways to increase profits by avoiding cost overruns.
Country Plumbing: Living with a Septic System, Hartigan, Gerry: $ 9.95; ALAN C HOOD & TP;
Quoting an Amazon reviewer's comment, with which we agree--DF:This book is informative as far as it goes and might be most useful for someone with an older system. But it was written in the early 1980s. A lot has changed since then. In particular, the book doesn't cover any of the newer systems that are used more and more nowadays in some parts of the country -- sand mounds, aeration systems, lagoons, etc.
Design Manuals for Septic Systems
US EPA Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems Manual [online copy, free] Top Reference: US EPA's Design Manual for Onsite Wastewater Treatment and Disposal, 1980, available from the US EPA, the US GPO Superintendent of Documents (Pueblo CO), and from the National Small Flows Clearinghouse. Original source http://www.epa.gov/ORD/NRMRL/Pubs/625R00008/625R00008.htm Onsite wastewater treatment and disposal systems,
Richard J Otis, published by the US EPA. Although it's more than 20 years old, this book remains a useful reference for septic system designers.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Water Program Operations; Office of Research and Development, Municipal Environmental Research Laboratory; (1980)
"International Private Sewage Disposal Code," 1995, BOCA-708-799-2300, ICBO-310-699-0541, SBCCI 205-591-1853, available from those code associations.
"Manual of Policy, Procedures, and Guidelines for Onsite Sewage Systems," Ontario Reg. 374/81, Part VII of the Environmental
Protection Act (Canada), ISBN 0-7743-7303-2, Ministry of the Environment,135 St. Clair Ave. West, Toronto Ontario M4V 1P5 Canada $24. CDN.
Manual of Septic Tank Practice, US Public Health Service's 1959.
Onsite Wastewater Disposal Books
Onsite Wastewater Disposal, R. J. Perkins;
Quoting from Amazon: This practical book, co-published with the National Environmental Health Association,
describes the step-by-step procedures needed to avoid common pitfalls in septic system technology.
Valuable in matching the septic system to the site-specific conditions, this useful book will help you install a reliable system in
both suitable and difficult environments. Septic tank installers, planners, state and local regulators, civil and sanitary engineers,
consulting engineers, architects, homeowners, academics, and land developers will find this publication valuable.
Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems, Bennette D. Burks, Mary Margaret Minnis, Hogarth House 1994 - one of the best septic system books around, suffering a bit from small fonts and a weak index. (DF volunteers to serve as indexer if Burks/Minnis re-publish this very useful volume.)
While it contains some material more technical than needed by homeowners, Burks/Minnis book on onsite wastewater treatment systems a very useful reference
for both property owners and septic system designers. We refer to it often.
While Minnis says the best place to buy this book is at Amazon (our link at left), you can also see this book at Minnis' website at http://web page .pace.edu/MMinnisbook
Septic Tank/Soil-Absorption Systems: How to Operate & Maintain [ copy on file as /septic/Septic_Operation_USDA.pdf ] - , Equipment Tips, U.S. Department of Agriculture, 8271 1302, 7100 Engineering, 2300 Recreation, September 1982, web search 08/28/2010, original source: http://www.fs.fed.us/t-d/pubs/pdfimage/82711302.pdf
Septic System Owner's Manual, Lloyd Kahn, Blair Allen, Julie Jones, Shelter Publications, 2000 $14.95 U.S. - easy to understand, well illustrated, one of the best practical references around on septic design basics including some advanced systems; a little short on safety and maintenance. Both new and used (low priced copies are available, and we think the authors are working on an updated edition--DF.
Quoting from one of several Amazon reviews: The basics of septic systems, from underground systems and failures to what the owner can do to promote and maintain a healthy system, is revealed in an excellent guide essential for any who reside on a septic system. Rural residents receive a primer on not only the basics; but how to conduct period inspections and what to do when things go wrong. History also figures into the fine coverage.
Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank, Bombeck, Erma: $ 5.99; FAWCETT; MM;
This septic system classic whose title helps avoid intimidating readers new to septic systems, is available new or used at very low prices.
It's more entertainment than a serious "how to" book on septic systems design, maintenance, or repair. Not recommended -- DF.
US EPA Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems Manual Top Reference: US EPA's Design Manual for Onsite Wastewater Treatment and Disposal, 1980, available from the US EPA, the US GPO Superintendent of Documents (Pueblo CO), and from the National Small Flows Clearinghouse. Original source http://www.epa.gov/ORD/NRMRL/Pubs/625R00008/625R00008.htm
Water Wells and Septic Systems Handbook, R. Dodge Woodson. This book is in the upper price range, but is worth the cost for serious septic installers and designers.
Quoting Amazon: Each year, thousands upon thousands of Americans install water wells and septic systems on their properties. But with a maze of codes governing their use along with a host of design requirements that ensure their functionality where can someone turn for comprehensive, one-stop guidance? Enter the Water Wells and Septic Systems Handbook from McGraw-Hill. Written in language any property owner can understand yet detailed enough for professionals and technical students this easy-to-use volume delivers the latest techniques and code requirements for designing, building, rehabilitating, and maintaining private water wells and septic systems. Bolstered by a wealth of informative charts, tables, and illustrations, this book delivers: * Current construction, maintenance, and repair methods
* New International Private Sewage Disposal Code
* Up-to-date standards from the American Water Works Association
Wells and Septic Systems, Alth, Max and Charlet, Rev. by S. Blackwell Duncan, $ 18.95; Tab Books 1992. We have found this text very useful for conventional well and septic systems design and maintenance --DF.
Quoting an Amazon description:Here's all the information you need to build a well or septic system yourself - and save a lot of time, money, and frustration. S. Blackwell Duncan has thoroughly revised and updated this second edition of Wells and Septic Systems to conform to current codes and requirements. He also has expanded this national bestseller to include new material on well and septic installation, water storage and distribution, water treatment, ecological considerations, and septic systems for problem building sites.