Septic Tank Cleaning with Biological Treatments

Image of John Lancaster Copyright by John Lancaster
Ft. Smith, AR USA


Nature naturally degrades anything organic. Whether it's a dead animal in the wild or an apple core carelessly tossed aside by a child, any organic material not treated by a preservative will degrade to harmless elements through one or more natural processes.

In the field of bioaugmentation - meaning simply that we help or reinforce (augment) natural biological processes - companies search out bacteria or other organisms that are capable of breaking down the various materials that need handling.

Septic tank cleaning using biological materials, such as live microbes and enzymes

These organisms are cultured and sometimes even encouraged to specialize in digesting a particular product. From this base culture, the company develops products designed to handle that type of material.

Most septic system supplements consist of a blend of several kinds of bacteria, including both those that use oxygen (aerobic) and those which operate well in environments without oxygen (anaerobic). Some bacteria used are "facultative", which means they can adapt to either aerobic or anaerobic environments. This allows them to work effectively under wider ranges of conditions.

The starting point to an understanding of bioaugmentation is knowing that it is a natural process. It simply concentrates organisms that grow naturally in the environment to improve and enhance reduction of human or industrial wastes to non-polluting products. No genetically altered bacteria are used.

Ken Roten, president of Commonwealth Chemical, Inc. In Louisville, Kentucky, which supplies bio-additives to professional sewer pumpers, emphasized this point.

"One of the key things we try to accomplish," he said, "is to help nature do the job. Mother Nature does her own degradation, but the sewer systems change. So what we are doing is helping the natural process or helping the system do a better job."

As in any new field, a number of myths arise. One of these is that bacterial additives will completely replace pumping and other septic system maintenance procedures. Roten stressed that this is not true.

"We don't sell miracles," he chuckled. "We don't sell gimmick products with the promise that you'll never have a problem. If you do things that aren't compatible with the system that you have, you're going to have a problem regardless of what bacteria you use."

"The product breaks down a long chain of compounds," added Daryl Donaldson, a consultant who works with Commonwealth from time to time. "It breaks down glycerides, fats, fatty acids, cellulose content, food particles, that sort of thing. It also breaks down lignin (the tough material that gives wood its strength), lactose, most of the food starches, and even ground meals, so long as they haven't been bleached."

Donaldson went on to point out that bleached meals, such as flour, take a long time to break down because the bleach does not break down easily. Bleach is added to give the product a longer shelf life.

Products such as chlorine and a number of others, including chemical drain cleaners, can reduce naturally occurring bacterial colonies in sewer lines and septic systems. This allows sludge to build up, cake, and harden inside the lines and may result eventually in failure of the system.

It should be noted that one school of thought holds that no additives are necessary. They point out that the bacteria supply is renewed each time the commode is flushed. They also stress that the bleaches used are normally quite dilute, killing off some of the bacteria, but not necessarily destroying them all. The homeowner, however, often wants to put in something to maintain the system and, if the pumper does not provide an additive, the homeowner will then use grandma's remedy (yeast) or whatever other product he can find; or worse, use a product that falsely claims to eliminate pumping.

Bio-additives have other advantages, according to Mark McKee, manager at Enviro Care Corporation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

"In home use," Mark told us, "it's the only kind of product that you can use in a garbage disposal to break down all the grease build-up. Toilets? What other kind of product can you put in a sluggish toilet?"

Noting that bacteria colonies build up in sewer lines and help keep them clean, McKee detailed how they work. "What you're doing is putting a product in there that lives on waste," he stressed. "It grows. So you're putting in a maintenance product maybe once a month to keep this culture of bacteria growing in the pipe, so it can stay maintenance free. But as soon as we dump something down there that we shouldn't, then it kills off what bacteria are growing there and the sludge builds back up again."

Leach field failure is a major problem in rural areas where each house has its own on-site waste water treatment system. A number of factors create such failures. Most often, the cause is simply that the system isn't pumped or maintained as it should be, or it is overused. Lack of maintenance is handled by having the pumper come out often enough to prevent sludge from flushing out of the septic tank and into the leach or drain field.

Overuse, however, is a different problem, according to Commonwealth's Roten. "One of the problems you have with a septic system is the design of the system itself," Roten stated. "Not only does it have to run properly, but it has to be designed for the number of people using the facility. You can have a system designed for a family of four, and now it's being used by a family of eight. If the system is not designed to handle that capacity, then it's going to have a problem."

Enviro Care's McKee agreed. "What happens," he explained, "is that a layer of sludge builds up in the septic tank. It fills up with water and then you have an oversurge of water. Let's say somebody's taking a shower, or you have guests over for the weekend. Well, this oversurge of water goes into the septic tank and mixes up the sludge on the bottom. That goes over the baffle and sludge starts getting into the leach field. Then the field starts sludging up."

As sludge builds up in the leach field, a biomat forms. This is a layer of living and dead organic material that flushes through the leaching medium (gravel, sand, etc.) and settles on the interface between the underlying ground and the leach field. In the absence of an adequate supply of bacteria to digest and break down the biomat, it becomes restrictive, preventing water from soaking into the ground. As drainage slows, "ponding" begins. This is the point where a septic drain field has water standing on the surface. It's also the point at which your customer is looking at several thousand dollars of work to replace the leach field.



By John C. Lancaster, - Editor & Writer 

Other sewer and environmental pages by the author:

BizSolver Home Page - The Free Archive of Business and Industrial Experience, providing practical solutions to everyday problems for business and industry. Includes a growing set of useful articles for ready reference, including the Internet Marketing Series, the Wastewater Treatment and Reuse series, an Onsite Wastewater Treatment series, and a series of biotechnology articles, as well as other articles, are coming soon.


Originally published in The Pumper, a publication of Cole Publishing Inc., PO Box 220, Three Lakes WI 54562, tel. 800-257-7222 or 715-546-3346.


Return to the Septic Tank area of the SwopNet Engineering Databank. You will find lots more information about on-site wastewater disposal there.