Taking Responsibility for Waste!

Although not the most palatable topic, septic or sewer systems are absolutely crucial to a healthy, happy, and sanitary life. There have been many, many scientific and technological developments in the past century or 2, not the least of which is the way we dispose of our waste. We’ve probably heard of the nothing short of tragic methods many countries around the world used in the previous centuries, but it gives us something to be thankful for if nothing else!

In truth, many epidemics and plagues throughout the 1800’s and prior to that as well, have been due to inefficient or sometimes just plain revolting sewage systems (see Sewage collection and disposal). Diseases such as cholera, typhoid, yellow fever, and even malaria are but a few examples of what can Image Courtesy, Olek Remeszhappen when waste isn’t properly disposed of. Mosquitos are not only responsible for many of these diseases, but interestingly, thrive big-time in sewage-contaminated bodies of water as opposed to purer sources.

Research has proven that mosquitos that are bred in polluted water grow bigger, fly faster, and have an overall lower mortality rate than their more inferior counterparts bred in cleaner water. The “nutrient-enriched” water containing large amounts of ammonia phosphates and other minerals abundant in sewage serve to feed the bacteria and microorganisms that mosquito larvae eat, beefing up their diet, making them healthier and more robust. Another dandy reason to add to the million to keep your waste where it belongs.

The search for ideal waste disposal methods is something man has been up against since the beginning of time. We have certainly come a long way since our ancestors dug holes as their solution, but there is still much we can learn from how things used to be done. Hey, when it comes down to it, a hole in the ground is still the first thing most of us would think of if there wasn’t a toilet available! – Heck, I might not even bother digging a hole :-P! Ok, let’s talk about options, assuming modern take-it-for-granted city pipes isn’t one of them:

– A hole in the ground right outside your kitchen window.

– A hole in the ground about 30 meters into the woods behind your cabin.

– A pipe leading from your in-house toilet right out to your front street. (History people!)

– A septic system.

Given the choices above, a septic system is probably the system of choice if city sewers weren’t available. – Providing you have some kind of environmental conscience that wouldn’t allow you to just funnel your sewage down to the closest river (ugh). A septic system consists of several key components which together, break your sewage down for safe deposit back into the groundwater. Designing and maintaining a proper septic system is crucial not only for our health, but for our environment as well.

The system starts with piping that leads from your toilet to an underground septic tank (see image above). This tank is the the first stage of decomposition where the heavier solids settle to the bottom and the lighter “scum” floats to the top. Tanks often have 2 compartments with a dividing wall between them. The liquid component of the waste will then flow into the second chamber where further settling will take place. This process is then followed by what is called a leach field.

A leach field is a section of land that is used to filter the effluent as it makes its way down through the layers of soil, and eventually into the groundwater. A potential leach field must meet certain “percolation requirements” before being deemed suitable. If the soil is too porous – too much sand and gravel – it won’t effectively “hold” and deactivate the harmful pathogens, and conversely, if the soil isn’t porous enough – such as too much clay – it won’t allow the percolation of waste water at the needed rate.

Tests that are done on the soil for this purpose are called “percolation tests”. The size of a given leach field is proportional to the amount of incoming waste water and inversely proportional to the porosity of its soil. Imagine a leach field as a system of perforated pipes stretched out over a wide area of land. These pipes are usually buried under a layer of soil and gravel to prevent animals from accessing. In a well-made leach field, gravity will more or less evenly distribute the effluent load through its piping.

Back in the septic tank, the heavier solids are being decomposed via anaerobic digestion. What the heck is that? Well, it’s kinda what makes this whole system even remotely effective. An anaerobic environment is what naturally takes place inside a septic tank when waste is introduced. It’s the bacteria that immediately begins eating away at pretty much anything that enters the tank.

One thing to keep in mind though, is that a septic system cannot run on auto-pilot forever. It needs to be regularly maintained for it to continue to run efficiently. There are certain “irreducible” solids that will remain in the tank, and that will gradually accumulate, causing an overflow of the same into the leach field. An overflow of these solids will clog your drain field and cost a right arm to repair.

Other precautions regarding septic systems involve what you can safely flush down your toilet or drains – if other sinks etc are also connected.

– Non-biodegradable substances such as cigarette butts, hygiene products, non-biodegradable toilet paper, etc, cannot be decomposed bacterially, and will only build-up, leading to clogging, overflow, and premature failure of the septic system.

– Oils and greases are more difficult to decompose and can cause clogging and excessive stinking if larger amounts are disposed of.

– Disinfectants, bleaches, and chemicals of any kind have the potential to destroy the anaerobic environment. Do not flush these into your tank!

As a rule, only dump what’s absolutely necessary and nothing more. Keep the septic system for your sewage and use other methods such as composting etc for other organic waste instead of using garbage disposers. Perform periodic maintenance on your septic system and have your tank emptied on a regular basis – intervals depend on the size of your tank, the number of users, and your faithfulness – or lack of it – in keeping the guidelines. This is absolutely essential and cannot be ignored.


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