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<International Source Book On Environmentally Sound Technologies
for Wastewater and Stormwater Management>

4.1.4 Septic tank

A septic tank is a water tight tank, usually located just below ground, and receives both blackwater and greywater (Figure 2.18). It can be used with pour flush toilets or cistern flush toilets. It functions as a storage tank for settled solids and floating materials (e.g. oils and grease). The storage time of the wastewater in the tank is usually between 2 and 4 days. About 50 % removal of BOD and Suspended Solids (SS) is usually achieved in a properly operated septic tank due to the settling of the solids during wastewater storage.

A septic tank can be constructed of bricks and mortar and rendered, or of concrete. Its shape can be rectangular or cylindrical. A septic tank can be partitioned into two chambers to reduce flow short circuiting and improve solids removal.

The overflow from a septic tank is directed to a leach pit or trench. A leach pit (Figure 2.19) is similar to the pit of a pit latrine or pour flush latrine. The pit must be sized to allow percolation of the volume of wastewater generated. A pit works well in soils with high permeability. In soils with lower permeability a trench can provide the larger surface area of percolation (Figure 2.20). The trench is usually filled with gravel and a distribution pipe for the wastewater is placed in this gravel layer. Soil is then placed above this gravel layer to the ground surface.

A leach pit or trench does not work when the soil permeability is too low (e.g. clayey soil or hard rock). In regions where annual evaporation is high, trees and shrubs can be used to help pump the water into the atmosphere by evapotranspiration. An evapotranspiration bed can be designed similar to a leach trench, but a suite of suitable local vegetation species tolerant of high nutrients and water are planted above and surrounding the trench (Figure 2.21). The trench should be sized to store water during the rainy season or low evaporation periods.


A leach pit or drain does not work either when the groundwater table is close to ground surface. In this case off-site disposal is necessary using a settled sewerage system (Section 2 (3)). If the groundwater table is not too close, an inverted leach drain as described under Improved On-site Units below (4.1.5) can be used.

The organic solids in a septic tank undergo anaerobic bacterial decomposition just as in the pit of a pit latrine. The sludge needs emptying, and the period between emptying is usually designed to be between 3 to 5 years. The sludge has to be further treated before reuse or disposal (Section 2 (5)).

The septic tank overflow undergoes further bacterial decomposition as it percolates through a leach pit or trench. The decomposition is undertaken by soil bacteria, usually under aerobic conditions. The BOD of the wastewater can reach a low figure (<20 mg/L) if the distance between the bottom of the pit or trench to the groundwater table is greater than 2 m. Nutrients are not significantly removed by the bacteria and usually pollute the groundwater. Pathogenic bacteria are removed by die-off or filtration by the soil, but viruses may travel further in the soil or groundwater.

Percolation of septic tank overflow is much slower compared to rainwater percolation. This is because a layer of bacterial slime grows on the surfaces of the soil particles, restricting flow. Two leach pits or trenches used alternately, say every 6 months, are better than a single leach pit or trench of the same total area for percolation, because as one is used the other will recover its percolation rate.


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