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Private Treatment Septic Tank

Private Treatment Septic Tank

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Published by persona

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Published by: persona on Feb 20, 2009
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Private Treatment: The Septic Tank
In rural areas where houses are spaced so far apart that a sewer system would be too expensiveto install, people install their own, private sewage treatment plants. These are called
.septic tank is simply a big concrete or steel tank that is buried in the yard. The tank mighthold 1,000 gallons (4,000 liters) of water. Wastewater flows into the tank at one end and leavesthe tank at the other. The tank looks something like this in cross-section:In this picture, you can see three layers. Anything that floats rises to the top and forms a layer known as the
scum layer 
. Anything heavier than water sinks to form the
sludge layer 
. In themiddle is a fairly clear water layer. This body of water contains bacteria and chemicals likenitrogen and phosphorous that act as fertilizers, but it is largely free of solids.Wastewater comes into the septic tank from the sewer pipes in the house, as shown here:A septic tank naturally produces gases (caused by bacteria breaking down the organic material inthe wastewater), and these gases don't smell good. Sinks therefore have loops of pipe called
that hold water in the lower loop and block the gases from flowing back into the house. The
gases flow up a vent pipe instead -- if you look at the roof of any house, you will see one or morevent pipes poking through.As new water enters the tank, it displaces the water that's already there. This water flows out of the septic tank and into a
drain field
. A drain field is made of perforated pipes buried in trenchesfilled with gravel. The following diagram shows an overhead view of a house, septic tank,distribution box and drain field:A typical drain field pipe is 4 inches (10 centimeters) in diameter and is buried in a trench that is 4to 6 feet (about 1.5 m) deep and 2 feet (0.6 m) wide. The gravel fills the bottom 2 to 3 feet of thetrench and dirt covers the gravel, like this:The water is slowly absorbed and filtered by the ground in the drain field. The size of the drainfield is determined by how well the ground absorbs water. In places where the ground is hard claythat absorbs water very slowly, the drain field has to be much bigger.A septic system is normally powered by nothing but gravity. Water flows down from the house to the tank, and down from the tank to the drain field. It is a completely
passive system
.You may have heard the expression, "The grass is always greener over the septic tank." Actually,it's the drain field, and the grass really is greener -- it takes advantage of the moisture andnutrients in the drain field.
Urban Wastewater Systems
In urban and suburban areas where people are packed closer together and where there is a lotmore wastewater to treat, the community will construct a sewer system that collects wastewater and takes it to a
wastewater treatment
facility.In the ideal case, a sewer system is completely
, like a septic system. Pipesfrom each house or building flow to a
sewer main
that runs, for example, down the middle of the
street. The sewer main might be 3 to 5 feet (1 to 1.5 m) in diameter. Periodically, a
vertical pipe
will run up from the main to the surface, where it is covered by a
manhole cover 
. Manholes allowaccess to the main for maintenance purposes.The sewer mains flow into progressively larger pipes until they reach the wastewater treatmentplant. In order to help gravity do its job, the wastewater treatment plant is usually located in a low-lying area, and sewer mains will often follow creekbeds and streambeds (which flow naturallydownhill) to the plant.Normally, the lay of the land will not completely cooperate, and gravity cannot do all the work. Inthese cases, the sewer system will include a
or a
lift station
to move thewastewater up over a hill.
Photo courtesy Falke Bruinsma
Screw pumps
Once the water reaches the wastewater treatment plant, it goes through one, two or three stagesof treatment (depending on the sophistication of the plant). Here's what each stage does:

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