Advanced System Monitoring Takes the Guesswork Out of Troubleshooting

Flow meters and smart toilets will warn of trouble in the treatment train before environmental issues or system failure sets in

Advanced System Monitoring Takes the Guesswork Out of Troubleshooting

Interested in Onsite Systems?

Get Onsite Systems articles, news and videos right in your inbox! Sign up now.

Onsite Systems + Get Alerts

A colleague pointed us to an article recently about smart toilets. This is what happens when people learn you are into sewage; they constantly bring you items or news stories about sewage. You probably have similar experiences.

The article explained that soon there will be toilets on the market that can be fitted with cameras and sensors to evaluate poop or urine to identify potential health problems. The information can alert the user to simple problems like dehydration based on the color of urine or more serious issues like colon or prostate cancer or even COVID.

As a sewage professional, knowing certain diseases are present when you are working on a system would be useful information relative to safety precautions you may take. This would depend on  the homeowner sharing this information. However, as we have discussed in the past, you should always take proper precautions when working around sewage.

Foremost this means wearing personal protective equipment to protect you from bacteria or viruses. Use latex or rubber gloves and, where appropriate, gauntleted-over gloves for additional protection. Eye protection should be worn always, either glasses or goggles with side shields, and a face shield or face mask is a good idea.

With the onset of the Internet of Things approach, the possibilities for gathering data and information about various parts of our systems is almost unlimited. Having continuous or nearly continuous information about how the system is performing provides the opportunity to identify problems in real time. This allows you to intervene and fix any problem before the system fails entirely or some other part of the system is damaged.

Cost pushback

Measuring flow is one area where relatively new and inexpensive monitoring sensors are available. Low-cost ultrasonic and pressure sensors accurately measure flow. Something similar has been available for water or electric meters for some time, which has been used primarily by utilities for billing purposes. We have long advocated for installation of water meters to get an idea of daily household flow numbers for system design, operation and troubleshooting.

Homeowners and installers have pushed back on this idea primarily due to the expense of water meters and the fact that they measure water usage and not wastewater flow. They cite uses such as car washing and landscape watering for questioning the value for septic system monitoring. While there are ways to account for these uses, the bottom line is they have not been widely installed by homes on septic systems except in cases where the system is having problems and a professional is trying to determine the cause. To us this is like to proverbial locking the barn door after the horse is running down the road!

Low-cost sensors are available now that can be placed at any location in the system we are interested in evaluating. Obviously, we would like to know the flow out of the septic tank; the outlet can be instrumented to obtain real time continuous flow information. The same can be done for any of the other system components. We have had some of this ability in systems utilizing pumps, where cycle counters and timers can be calibrated based on pump delivery. The advantage of the newer technology is you measure flow directly.

Monitoring possibilities do not end with direct measurement of flow. Smart toilet cameras can  be attached at the same location as the sensor. The cameras can provide photos at certain timed intervals or when flow occurs. This gives a visual record of the flow out of the tank or other component. You can not only have data on the amount of flow but visual confirmation the flow has occurred and what effluent looks like coming out of the tank.

This type of information allows the service provider to see when flow occurs, time of day of flows, whether there are changes in appearance of the flow that would indicate excessive solids coming from a sewage tank. This type of monitoring would be helpful in identifying problems with aerobic treatment units or media filters. This is especially important when treatment units are placed in an especially environmentally sensitive area. Any problem can be identified and addressed more quickly rather than relying on periodic visits by a technician.

Nitrogen monitoring

Additional types of sensors provide valuable information. Total suspended solids can also be measured as a part of the flow determination. Calibration based on different effluent colors (such as flow out of a peat filter) combined with solids has the potential to improve management to reduce solids delivered to the final treatment and dispersal area. This could result in longer system life and fewer problems.

Additional sensors are coming on the market to measure nitrogen in the wastewater stream. These will be helpful in wellhead protection areas and areas where nitrogen is a surface water concern such as coastal estuaries. Rather than guessing or applying some rule of thumb estimate to nutrient loads based on research, these monitors will show whether the system is performing as expected.

Twenty years ago, this type of monitoring was talked about and the ability was there, but the expense was very large. What we see now is costs are one-third of what they were and continue to fall. These smart systems are here to stay and this presents a challenge for every installer and service provider to get up to speed on what is available and how it can be used to advantage. There are significant data management challenges to be overcome, but that will happen.


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.