Installing Advanced Systems is Not Enough, You Have to Monitor Them

New technologies can provide better wastewater treatment in challenging situations, but only if they are inspected and maintained routinely.
Installing Advanced Systems is Not Enough, You Have to Monitor Them
Jim Anderson, Ph.D., is an emeritus professor at the University of Minnesota Department of Soil, Water and Climate and recipient of the pumping industry’s Ralph Macchio Lifetime Achievement Award. Email Jim questions about septic system maintenance and operation at

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Last month, I elaborated on the potential for new and developing technology to impact how we install, maintain and manage onsite systems. In the end, I asked whether we are ready as an industry to embrace the technology and move into a whole new realm of system management.

I am always conflicted when this subject comes up. Over the years I have been a strong proponent of “simpler is better’’ and the thought that it’s difficult for technologies to improve on the classic septic tank to a drainfield when it is properly designed, installed and maintained. I have also noted that when a problem arises, the simple approach is often abandoned too quickly in favor of a new technology, as opposed to figuring out the cause of the problem.

Another point of my reluctance to accept more technology as a solution involves performance in real-life conditions. Many new technologies are purported to do a much better job of treating sewage than a septic tank — ahead of the final soil dispersal area or final point where effluent enters the environment (nitrogen reduction systems as an example).

What is often glossed over or ignored altogether is that the performance of these systems is often not determined under actual operating conditions found at a residence. They may have all the necessary certifications and testing to get them approved for use, but when put into place under real conditions, the performance may not be nearly as claimed. Of course, this may not be all that bad because the quality of treatment is still better than septic tank effluent.


For me the problem becomes, though, that attaining the higher performance levels requires significantly more care in an advanced system over a traditional septic tank. While this additional need is recognized and usually results in the requirement of some type of initial maintenance contract, over time that maintenance tends to go away. When the technologies are not maintained, their effluent can become “dirtier” than septic tank effluent, which has negative impacts on everything in the system downstream.

Participating in a couple of groups discussing and providing input to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and others looking at cleaning up Chesapeake Bay, I found that regulators and others share the concern that without some type of monitoring or sampling effort to ensure performance, it is questionable that technology changes alone will help over the long run. Sampling and monitoring are very expensive and time-consuming activities, so the question is how to make sure it happens.

Systems are, by and large, the responsibility of the homeowner, and the regulatory agencies are not necessarily going to know or be told that the technology is not being cared for. Hopefully, education of everyone involved will help, but probably more is needed. The rules and regulations governing our industry have often not kept up with the technology changes.

Just before I retired (almost eight years ago) I was associated with a group that was about to use a geographic information system to look at soil information around the Great Lakes to determine soil relationships to septic systems. This is an effort similar to some activities in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

I don’t know the exact figures in the analysis, but for me the results are sobering because they show that perhaps only 25-30 percent of the soils mapped in the areas feeding into the Great Lakes would have properties that clearly point to their suitability for my favorite simple septic tank drainfield system. Those numbers would certainly go up if we included mounds and at-grades as “simple” systems, but those are often viewed as alternative technologies that certainly also take more care.


As I look at the larger wastewater industry, more and more I see stormwater management entities and water supply utilities use monitoring sensors to assess and predict performance. Some of this equipment is very expensive and can only be afforded by large municipalities and utilities. However, there appears to be a whole set of small, less expensive sensors about to come online that can be used at the scale of the systems we deal with. It may be five or 10 years before they are tested, proven reliable and generally available. Some of them, like flow-measuring sensors, are here already. Others, like nitrogen sensors, are being tested and will be coming.

This will open up whole new avenues of monitoring our systems for performance and it will be on a real-time basis. Think about how this could change your service visits. You can have real-time readouts on flow and nutrient performance, for example. A change or spike in the data would show you need a service visit to figure out why, and allow you to fix the problem before it impacts the rest of the system. Is this where you are moving? If not, maybe a part of your long-term planning should include looking into this and being ready to move when the technology becomes available. You could be ahead of the curve and offering services others will be unprepared to provide for a long time. It would be good for business and the environment. Imagine that!


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