A History Of Septic Systems In America

Septic Tank Repair & Installation

Sewage treatment in America is actually a fairly new concept. Not that long ago, cities dumped it directly from residences and commercial properties through tunnels under the city to a river. Unfortunately, they also got their water from that same river and people got sick.

Everyone has bacteria, vruses and parasites that live inside them, but because we've built up imunities to our own "critters" we remain healthy. When those bacteria, parasites and viruses get passed on to someone else without our immunities, they become sick. In the early days, antibiotics were not available, therefore a simple case of diarhea could become deadly. It didn't take too long before people realized that their drinking water was the source of the problem and decided to clean up their waste water before returning it to the water cycle.


Some scientists say of the greatest advances in modern times was the advent of sewage treatment.


Prior to indoor plumbing, when people built a house, they also dug a shallow well and dug a hole for an outhouse. Since they didn't want to trek a 1/4 mile in the rain or snow to get water or answer nature's call, they naturally dug each of these fairly close to the house. Unfortunately, their close proximity had the potential for transmitting disease.


In the early 1900's, the way people used water changed dramatically with the advent of indoor plumbing. Up until that point, people were only using water by the bucketfull, but modern bathrooms and kitchens allowed people to start using water by the barrel. Getting water into the house was easy. The real problem was getting it back out again. Most of the time, people just ran a pipe out to a ditch, river, or lake. This caused some problems:


- Pools of sewage are dangerous to people and animals that come in contact with them.

- These pools are breeding grounds for mosquitos and mosquitos spread disease. More people have died from mosquito spread diseases than all of the wars combined.

- Sewage is high in nutrients (human waste, soaps) and when these nutrients eventually made it into a body of surface water it promoted excess plant and algae growth.

- Those old wells were seldom filled-in properly and as a result were a direct conduit to the underground drinking water supplies.

- It stunk.


Cesspools were the next invention.

Cesspools are nothing more than a pid dug near the house. Wastewater was flushed into the cesspool where it leached down through the bottom and out through the sidewalls. The problem was that mose cesspools were so deep, that they often dug right into the shallow water tables - contaminating the water supply.


Researchers at the Universities of Minnesota and Wisconsin conducted research and discovered that naturally occurring bacteria in topsoils consumed parasites and viruses present in excrement. It was found that by keeping the treatment process just under the surface, the topsoil, along with the electrostatic processes that took place, was an excellent method of purifying wastewater.


By the 1970's, the modern septic system was in existance and was comprised of three parts.

leach line installation

The tank

The tank allows settling, separation and storage of solids.

The drainfield

A typical drainfild is a trench or bed with 6" to 36" of gravel under a plastic pipe. More gravel is placed over the pipe and covered with a permiable barrier to prevent topsoil from migrating down and clogging the gravel. Topsoil is then used to cover the trenches with a slight crown to encourage run-off. As the wastewater travels through the distribution pipe, gravity draws it through the gravel bed where oxygen supports aerobic bacteria that consume the disease-causing pathogens. The drainfield also acts as a temporary reservoir which allows larger amounts of water to collect and slowly dissipate.

The soil

Soil acts as a filter. Bacteria thrive in shallow soils around drainfields and act as a polishing filter removing any surviving pathogens. A portion of the nutrients are used by the plant life covering the field. Approximately 30% of the liquid is returned to the atmosphere through evaporation and evapotranspiration.


Unfortunately, there are still millions of homes still using cesspools, and although many states are now rewriting their building codes, people are still buying homes with outdated systems. They are being told that their outdated system is grandfathered in, so they need never worry about updating it. The problem is that you can't grandfather in a health or environmental issues. So, if you have a system that doesn't meet the current codes, eventually you will have to update it. Here are a few tips:


- Have your system inspected now and if it doesn't meet code, ask the contractor to give you an estimate on bringing it up to code. This way you can factor the cost into your future plans.

- If you're selling your house, bring the system up to code first, then use the new system as a selling point.

- If you're buying a home, bring in your own septic contractor to inspect the system. If it doesn't meet code, factor that into your offer.


Note: This information is paraphrased from www.septicprotector.com. For a complete history of septic systems, please visit their website.