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bio remediation, black water and winter  RSS feed

 
paul wheaton
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I guess the thing to do is to compare it to a standard septic system.

With a septic system, you have a big tank that holds all the big, solid mater.  And then you have a drain field that slowly lets go of the liquid stuff.  The drain field has to be exactly 18 inches deep so that air can get down there and the aerobic black water eating bacteria can feast. 

The upside of this system is that a fly cannot come and land on poop and then carry pathogen infested poop particles over to the house and land on my food. 

I wonder how bad this might be for the ground water. 

I wonder how well those bacteria work in the winter.  At 18 inches deep, I suppose the temperature is about the same as in the summer - so they probably do pretty good.  But I would think that they don't do a perfect job.  I would think that there is information to relate how perfect of a job the do or don't do.

And then there is bioremediation.  Without a greenhouse, does that sort of thing work at all in the winter?  I guess it might depend on how cold the winter is.  I know at my house it got down to 14 degrees this winter.  And we had some periods where it stayed near freezing or below for weeks at a time.  I would guess that at below 45 or 50 degrees, bioremediation ponds shut down.  But I could be wrong about that - and I would like to hear about that.





 
Susan Monroe
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Location: Western WA
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I think this was something that Art Ludwig talked about in his Grey Water Design books.  Cold weather definitely does affect it, but he may be the one that indicated that even a tiny greenhouse (4x6'?) was large enough to make a difference.  It's been years since I read his book, and the new version has more info, I understand.

One thing about septic tanks and things like them that affect the groundwater:  While the solids separate out from the liquid, the liquids still contain a LOT of nitrogen. The bacteria may work on the pathogens, but when it leaves the leach field, the nitrogen is still there. It moves with the water to wherever the water joins a natural water supply: stream, river, lake, or aquafer.  When you go to a marsh area and see an incredible amount of algae, it's from nitrogen (and possibly phosphorus) that has worked it's way to that spot.  And it usually comes from sewage or chemical farming or manure runoff.

As I understand it (always an iffy thing), if you were to run the effluent through a tiny, cattail (or bulrushes)-filled greenhouse, the plants grab the nitrogen and use it for making more plants.  When the weather warms up, you can harvest the plants and use them for mulch, and then let the cycle repeat itself.

I know when they show photos of the little greenhouse, they usually show a regular (expensive) greenhouse of small proportion.  But why couldn't you coat ten-foot lengths of rebar with that rust-sealing paint and form an arch over your cattail/bulrushes bed and just cover it with clearish, heavy plastic, like 6 mil?  Embed some plastic pipe where and at the angle needed, and just slide the rebar into the pipe in fall, and remove the plastic and rebar when the weather warms up, leaving the plastic pipe in place for fall.

By the way, speaking of cattails, I was reading in Dave Blume's book, Alcohol Can Be a Gas, that one acre of cattails can produce about 2,500 gallons of ethanol.  And he came up with an exquisitely beautiful design for a closed-loop design... 

If an intelligent town filtered it's sewage waste solids out, and let the liquid part run into a cattail marsh for several months, the cattails would absorb the nutrients and nitrogen.  The cattails would be then harvested for ethanol production.  At this point, the sewage effluent would switch to the alternate cattail marsh.

The harvested cattails would be processed at the distillery, and the 'waste', still full of all the nutrients that the cattails had absorbed with all/most of the pathogens removed, would be returned to the first marsh and spread as fertilizer, with reseeding of the cattails.  The only parts of the plants that are taken in the distillation process is the sugars and starches, which are created by sunlight.

And doing it this way, the number of gallons of alcohol jumps from 2,500 to TEN THOUSAND gallons per acre.

Sue
 
paul wheaton
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Wow!  That's some really excellent info!

Okay, so ...  you're saying that all of these septic systems all over the world are dumping their nitrogen (pathogen free) into our ground water.  Yes?

So, in the winter, the drain field does deal with the pathogens properly, but does not deal with the excess of nitrogen (and possibly other elements).

In which case, a composting toilet (the kind that keeps poop in a big, sealed barrel) is actually safer/better than a standard septic tank and drain field.  Not just a little, but a lot!  True?

The greenhouse idea is pretty interesting.  It's probably the best use of a greenhouse I have ever heard of.



 
Susan Monroe
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Yes, every single septic tank in the world is adding excessive nitrogen to the nearest water source (above or underground).  Most community sewage systems make a token effort to clean the water, but it isn't really effective. Add to that all the urine and rained-on manure from feedlot cattle.  And high-density horse stables.  And add to that all the nitrogen runoff from chemical farming.  It's mind-boggling, isn't it?  You take your kids fishing at the nearest stream, and it's all edged thick with algae feeding on the nitrogen and phosphorus.

I think if the temperatures stay warm enough, the microbes are dealing with the bacteria.  What I don't know is, if temperatures are warm enough all winter (like parts of California, for instance), do cattails grow all year?  And, if the tops do die down anyway, are the rhizomes still absorbing nitrogen?  And if cattails don't 'operate' in cooler temperatures, are there other plants that do?

Or would it be a better thing to have a tiny marsh in warmer weather and a composting toilet in winter?  What happens to waste solids in a marsh, are they remove beforehand?  What does a homeowner do with it?  Is it collected and composted for fruit trees or something?  Is it composted like Joseph Jenkins does with his sawdust bucket toilets?  He has tested his soil under his compost piles, and he said the compost pile eats the pathogens fast enough (even in winter) so they never get into the soil.

One thing I just learned in Art Ludwig's book on water harvesting (I don't have it here for the exact title), if you have a plain ole outhouse and just put poop in it (not urine), the nitrogen stays there.  If urine is included, the liquids seep down into the water source. 

What I DON'T understand is what happens when you have a lot of rain?  Does it liquify the nitrogen in the poop and move into the water sources?

There are still questions I have about composting toilets.  In dry areas, I can see them being pretty useful, but here in the PNW, do they still work the same way, or is it another kind of ball game?

I guess it's time to get Art Ludwig's NEW Create an Oasis with Grey Water book from the library.

The more I understand, the more questions I have.

Sue
 
paul wheaton
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Susan Monroe wrote:

One thing I just learned in Art Ludwig's book on water harvesting (I don't have it here for the exact title), if you have a plain ole outhouse and just put poop in it (not urine), the nitrogen stays there.  If urine is included, the liquids seep down into the water source. 



I would very much like to know the exact book and page number on that one!

I would like to know what the gray water system does in the winter.

And winter pasture poop - what happens there? 
 
Susan Monroe
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Okay, the book is Water Storage:   Tanks, Cisterns, Aquifers, and Ponds by Art Ludwig 2008.

It is a drawing on page 17, in the section titled How Water Gets into and Moves through Aquifers.

The drawing is Fig. 5: Side View of Impacts to Aquifer in River Valley.  It shows a valley, with the upper end showing springs and the lower end emptying into the ocean.  Under the surface of the land is an aquifer, with bedrock as the base, a layer of sand on top of that, and everything eventually draining into the ocean.  It shows the level when the aquifer is running fast during heavy rains, and also the level during severe droughts, where is is almost without flow, like a lake, almost at the level of the sea.  "If it is over-pumped, the flow can reverse, and contaminate the wells near the sea with salt water."

From upper valley to lower:
1.  Plant roots just below the surfacing springs absorb nitrogen and clean the water.
2. Unsealed well can channel surface contamination into the aquifer.
3. Sealed tube well, always drinkable if properly sited and constructed.
4. Dry toilet: very little aquifer contamination (none if urine is used as fertilizer) [I'm assuming he means collected separately -- Sue]
5. Well with big pump (about the middle of the valley): "located next to the septic leach field.  The underground river will reverse flow and the well will absorb contamination from all sides."
6. Composting toilet: no aquifer contamination.
7. Toilet with septic tank: much aquifer contamination.
8. Defecation field: very little aquifer contamination. [Does he mean from livestock?]
9. Earth toilet: very little aquifer contamination.

I really like this book.  Informative and if there's something he didn't cover, I didn't see it.

Sue
 
paul wheaton
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Excellent info.  Thanks Susan.

I've looked at that book twice and I have it in my amazon queue. 

I contacted the author over a month ago in an effort to entice him to do a book promo.  It sounds like he is so busy, he isn't even offering workshops anymore.

 
Susan Monroe
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Yes, I could understand that.  He's the Big Name in greywater.  In fact, he may be the Only Name in greywater!

Sue
 
            
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It's been a few years since I have built any septic systems but I would like to comment on this thread.
The new laws might say something about the leach field only being 18 inches deep, but I have built them up to three feet deep with no problems.
The anaerobic bacteria do their work in the septic tank, not the leach field.  It goes without saying that some would ride the effluent out into the leach field, but they would not last long as they feed mostly on the solid matter, and need an oxygen free environment in order to live.
Most tanks have two chambers or vaults, the first one catches all the material from the source, there is a pipe connecting  the two chambers.  The solids settle down into the lower levels of the first chamber, the liquids spill into the second chamber.  the outlet pipe is slightly lower than the inflow pipe, this and the inflow pipe have tees on them with a short piece of pipe which extend down into the chamber for a short distance.  This keeps anything floating from entering the leach field. 
The depth of the leach field is really not that important as it is merely a drain.  It carries the black water sans solids out into the leach field area where it is absorbed into the ground. 
I am sure there is much new info being passed around about all the evils of nitrogen and how they are doing so much damage, but in my opinion I doubt there is that much leaving the area of the leach field.  I have no data that supports that, just my own understanding of how these things work, what I have seen and knowledge from  having worked on them. 
In my opinion, the high nitrate levels that are of current concern are caused by the constant application of nitrates in the form of chemical fertilizers, and not from septic systems.  It goes without saying that nitrate migration occurs from areas where large animal populations are present, such as modern feed lots, but that is something else entirely. 
In my opinion, it is the synthetic nitrates that are causing such problems, not drain fields, they just are included in the witch hunt.  One study I recently looked at cited Whatcom, Yakima, and Franklin counties here in Washington State, all areas with lots of farming, and virtually all of them using synthetic nitrates, for years and years, and years.
Not sniping at you here Sue, just commenting on what I perceive.  The knowledge revolving around this sort of thing is subject to political and personal viewpoints (the kind of viewpoints such as "Ewwww, that stuff is draining into my drinking water!", and "Hey, we can create new laws over this subject!" and really should be addressed to problems other than drain fields.  IF it were draining directly into a water source then yes, there is a valid concern.  However, from what I was taught way back when I first had a septic installers license, the water is virtually clean with the exception of any chemical agents present within 100 feet of the leach field.  This view may have changed by now, although I don't know why the science regarding that from 25 years ago would have changed that much.   I think there is a difference between chemically synthesized nitrates and naturally occurring nitrates, and how they move in the ground.
A properly operating septic system never needs to be pumped out.
I recently read about a "new" discovery where if you set up this "new" kind of system that agitated the effluent in the first chamber of the septic tank (the one where the material first drops into and where the anaerobic bacteria are present) to break up the scum then the tank would never have to be pumped.  The point given was that it helps keep the bacteria active, which it would, but which happens anyway in a properly maintained system.   In my experience, if you do not ever flush anything into the septic tank that kills the bacteria, such as most chemical agents, then you don't even need this.  It is true that scum forming on top of the effluent inhibits the bacteria, but not really that bad, unless it is accelerated by chemical agents.
I had a bootleg septic system on a piece of property we owned years ago.  It was only a five hundred gallon single chamber tank with only 40 feet of single line drain field, it had 6 people on it for about 6 years and I checked it regularly up until we moved and it never built up any scum.  Most tanks have to be pumped out in three to five years, this one never even got close.
I think we are constantly fed a bill of goods by the powers that be that we have to change this, do that, rebuild everything or we will all die sort of nonsense.  I think it has more to do with money than with a real need.
 
                        
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Dry compost toilet for the solid waste, use the urine on plants as fertilizer, and you eliminate the need for a septic system altogether?
 
Robert Ray
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Oy, if you want to know about nitrate and groundwater infiltration I could write pages. In our particular area we were part of a National demonstration project. In the end our local government enacted an ordinance that required installation of what the refer to as ATT systems alternative technology treatment). Expensive dual chamber systems that require electricity and a phone line connection to work.
There are differing degrees of nitrate reduction zones, in the most sensitive zones some of these systems cost upwards of 35000.00 dollars. Poor planning on goverrnment in the early stages of subdivisions in the 60's allowed homes to be built in sensitive areas. But they didn't really know about nitrates effects or care back then.
Though I agree that some areas will require new technology some areas of the affected homes could easily be sewered. Yet in recent years State law prohibits rural sewer systems to prevent urban sprawl. Our argument has been that since these lots have been platted on the map and have been in existence for 40+ years and current code prevents further subdividing we are not creating the sprawl that they are trying to prevent. What are mostly one acre homesites already exisit and though expensive sewers in some areas would be a more effective fix than the new systems. Should some other pollutant be identified at a later date that needs to be addressed filtrastion at a dewer plant would be far easier than going back to the property owners and have them add yet another component to an individual system.
 
paul wheaton
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So if your soil is super duper sandy, you have a very small drain field?  And if you live in the country, you can just route that water into a ravine or something? 

This strikes me as rather contrary to my understanding. 

I even encountered a case where the drainfield was buried six feet deep and plugged (i believe) due to the anaerobic glie effect.

I wonder if we can get some data that is more concrete.  Like pathogens and nitrogen in the pipe headed to the drain field and then the number of the same a foot below a drain field pipe in the spring, summer, fall and winter.

 
Robert Ray
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There are so many factors that play into drainage fields, distance to groundwater where oxic and suboxic water interface. Groundwater recharge at differing times of the year.
In our particular case even the option of composting toilets was initially prohibited. Though the County will now allow their use after months of interaction.
There are areas that needed mitigation yet other areas are many miles from any surface water and wells at a depth that does not allow the migration of water that might have nitrates in them to pass those nitrates to those wells.
It appears that we are now at least able to look at options of sewers and green alternatives. But initially to me it was an abuse of code and an inflexible view by County staff.
It was not just the cost of the systems that caused concerns for many but the amount of money that would be made by the County app 7000 homes a $1200.00 repair permit more than 8 million dollars in permits could have been generated. The County  development staff is wholly supported by fees and permits.
Something needed to be done an open mind and looking outside the box should have been employed.
 
paul wheaton
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It seems like the very first step is to gather metrics. 

Surely there must be some sort of ..... pathogen parts per million thingy.  And then something similar for NPK. 

And then you would think there would be some sort of report that would say that an average level for the fluid travelling from the septic tank to the drain field would be XXXX and then an average for a foot below the drain field would be YYYY and then five feet lower would be ZZZZ.

And then, for comparison, we could have YYYY and ZZZZ values for a lawn, a pasture, a forest .... etc.  So we can get an idea of what we are dealing with. 

It just seems like the first step. 
 
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