A septic tank and drainfield combination is the oldest and most common type of OSSF, although newer aerobic and biofilter units exist which represent scaled down versions of municipal sewage treatments. OSSFs account for approximately 25% of all domestic wastewater treatment in the United States.
In the United States, On Site Sewage Facilities collect, treat, and release about 4 billion gallons of treated effluent per day from an estimated 26 million homes, businesses, and recreational facilities nationwide (U.S. Census Bureau, 1997). Recognition of the impacts of onsite systems on ground water and surface water quality (e.g., nitrate and bacteria contamination, nutrient inputs to surface waters) has increased interest in optimizing the systems' performance. Public health and environmental protection officials now acknowledge that onsite systems are not just temporary installations that will be replaced eventually by centralized sewage treatment services, but permanent approaches to treating wastewater for release and reuse in the environment. Onsite systems are recognized as viable, low-cost, long-term, decentralized approaches to wastewater treatment if they are planned, designed, installed, operated, and maintained properly (USEPA, 1997). NOTE: In addition to existing state and local oversight, decentralized wastewater treatment systems that serve more than 20 people might become subject to regulation under the USEPA's Underground Injection Control Program, although EPA has proposed not to include them (64FR22971:5/7/01).
Although some onsite wastewater management programs have functioned successfully in the past, problems persist. Most current onsite regulatory programs focus on permitting and installation.
Few programs address onsite system operation and maintenance, resulting in failures that lead to unnecessary costs and risks to public health and water resources. Moreover, the lack of coordination among agencies that oversee land use planning, zoning, development, water resource protection, public health initiatives, and onsite systems causes problems that could be prevented through a more cooperative approach. Effective management of onsite systems requires rigorous planning, design, installation, operation, maintenance, monitoring, and controls.
State and tribal agencies report that onsite septic systems currently constitute the third most common source of ground water contamination and that these systems have failed because of inappropriate siting or design or inadequate long-term maintenance (USEPA, 1996a). In the 1996 Clean Water Needs Survey (USEPA, 1996b), states and tribes also identified more than 500 communities as having failed septic systems that have caused public health problems. The discharge of partially treated sewage from malfunctioning onsite systems was identified as a principal or contributing source of degradation in 32 percent of all harvest-limited shellfish growing areas. Onsite wastewater treatment systems have also contributed to an overabundance of nutrients in ponds, lakes, and coastal estuaries, leading to the excessive growth of algae and other nuisance aquatic plants (USEPA, 1996b). In addition, onsite systems contribute to contamination of drinking water sources. USEPA estimates that 168,000 viral illnesses and 34,000 bacterial illnesses occur each year as a result of consumption of drinking water from systems that rely on improperly treated ground water. Malfunctioning septic systems have been identified as one potential source of ground water contamination (USEPA, 2000).
Most onsite wastewater treatment systems are of the conventional type, consisting of a septic tank and a subsurface wastewater infiltration system (SWIS). Site limitations and more stringent performance requirements have led to significant improvements in the design of wastewater treatment systems and how they are managed. Over the past 20 years the Onsite wastewater treatment system (OWTS) industry has developed many new treatment technologies that can achieve high performance levels on sites with size, soil, ground water, and landscape limitations that might preclude installing conventional systems. New technologies and improvements to existing technologies are based on defining the performance requirements of the system, characterizing wastewater flow and pollutant loads, evaluating site conditions, defining performance and design boundaries, and selecting a system design that addresses these factors.
Performance requirements can be expressed as numeric criteria (e.g., pollutant concentration or mass loading limits) or narrative criteria (e.g., no odors or visible sheen) and are based on the assimilative capacity of regional ground water or surface waters, water quality objectives, and public health goals. Wastewater flow and pollutant content help define system design and size and can be estimated by comparing the size and type of facility with measured effluent outputs from similar, existing facilities. Site evaluations integrate detailed analyses of regional hydrology, geology, and water resources with sitespecific characterization of soils, slopes, structures, property lines, and other site features to further define system design requirements and determine the physical placement of system components.
Most of the alternative treatment technologies applied today treat wastes after they exit the septic tank; the tank retains settleable solids, grease, and oils and provides an environment for partial digestion of settled organic wastes. Post-tank treatment can include aerobic (with oxygen) or anaerobic (with no or low oxygen) biological treatment in suspended or fixed-film reactors, physical/chemical treatment, soil infiltration, fixed-media filtration, and/or disinfection. The application and sizing of treatment units based on these technologies are defined by performance requirements, wastewater characteristics, and site conditions.