Sanitation Terminology

Guide to the language of sanitation

by Larry Losoncy, PhD.

Sanitation systems and codes: what the words mean and how the regulations work.

The language of sanitation is a mystery to many. It is, however, a language we are likely to be hearing frequently in the future as the world’s water crisis becomes front page news. Since nearly half of all the homes in the United States are on septic systems it is also a language thousands of people hear used whenever their system has a problem.

Here are some of the words and what they mean.

Wastewater: all the water that comes out of the house or building is wastewater. It is sometimes referred to as “effluent”. In the codes governing sanitation all the water going into the structure must be treated when it comes out of the structure.

Blackwater: sanitation discharged from the structure. In most states blackwater also includes what comes out of the kitchen sink. In some states it also includes what comes out of the washing machine.

Graywater: the rest of the water coming out of the structure that is not blackwater.  Some jurisdictions do not distinguish between blackwater and graywater, requiring everything to be treated as sanitation.

On-site treatment: just over half of the wastewater from homes and structures in the United States is discharged into collecting lines (sewer mains) that take it away to wastewater treatment plants, lagoons or other types of centralized treatment. “On-site treatment” is the term used when this is not the case and instead the wastewater is treated at the point where it leaves the structure. The most common systems for on-site treatment are septic systems. These are called “on-site treatment systems”.

Septic Systems: collect the wastewater in underground holding tanks. The wastewater is treated in the tank or tanks and then dispersed, underground, through a series of lines which spread the treated wastewater out over a large area of land. These lines are called “leech lines”. They are pipes with holes in them designed to let the treated water flow out and go into the ground.

The lines are typically several feet below the surface but not deep enough to reach into the underground water.

Percolation: the term is often abbreviated to “perc”. Percolation refers to the process of  water seeping into the ground from leech lines. In the presence of shale, rock, clay and high water tables, percolation is slower or impossible. Slower percolation requires more land to absorb the wastewater and thus, more leech lines. With high water tables the wastewater does not travel through the ground but goes directly into the underground water flow. This is never allowed because the nutrients in wastewater promote growth of bacteria, which contaminate the groundwater. The primary nutrients are nitrogen, phosphate and potassium.

Mound Systems: in some situations where the ground does not perc septic systems can be used by trucking in sand to create enough ground that will perc properly. The sand is used to form a mound for the leech lines.

Drip Systems: another variation of septic systems where the groundwater is close to the surface is to run the leech lines just a few inches below the ground surface and let the effluent drip into the ground. The wastewater is absorbed by grass, plants and roots before it can get into the groundwater.

Alternative on-site treatment systems: are designed as alternatives to septic systems. There are a wide variety of alternative treatment systems, all of which are divided into two categories: discharge systems and non-discharge or zero-discharge systems.

Discharge systems: are designed to both treat wastewater and put it into the ground differently than septic systems. The two most common types are aerobic systems and microbiotic systems.

Aerobic systems: spray  the treated wastewater onto the surface of the ground instead of discharging it under the surface.

Microbiotic systems: may discharge the treated wastewater onto the surface or under the surface. They add microbes to bacteria already present to treat the wastewater.

Enhanced treatment: this term refers to methods of enhancing the typical septic treatment of wastewater. Septic treatment of wastewater is based on allowing bacteria to digest the organic matter and then letting the ground take over with the natural process of  absorbing the nutrients.. Disease-causing pathogens die off quickly once they are in the ground.

Some common methods of enhancing the septic process include use of ultra violet light to kill pathogens, injection of more bacteria to break down and digest the organic matter in wastewater and injection of oxygen with air bubbles. Oxygen serves as food for bacteria. Septic systems need a good constant supply of bacteria. Bacteria will only thrive if they have oxygen. Oxygen in water is attached to other molecules and cannot be used by bacteria until the bacteria break apart the molecules to which the oxygen molecules are attached. By injecting free floating (unattached) oxygen cells into the system the bacteria are given more nutrition.

Non-discharge systems: those systems that treat the wastewater but do not put anything into the ground. These systems are not capable of handling large amounts of wastewater. They are typically waterless systems or very low water use systems and are only used for treating sanitation discharge (what comes out of the toilet).

Composting systems treat the sanitation and turn it into material which can be used as soil enrichment.

Evaporative systems get rid of the liquids and render the solids harmless, reducing and drying them in the process.

Holding tanks: often made of concrete, holding tanks simply collect wastewater and must be pumped.

Vault toilets: holding tanks with a toilet. They are commonly found in outdoor settings such as parks, and at roadside restroom facilities.

Chemical toilets:  waterless toilets with a holding tank. Heavy use of chemicals kill the pathogens. Portable toilets are a common variation of chemical toilets and are most often referred to as porta potties or porta johns.

Pit latrines: trenches in the ground used to collect sanitation waste and then either pumped or covered over with dirt.

Codes: are the regulations governing sanitation systems. Each state has these codes. Counties and cities usually are given authority to add to the state codes and, in some instances, to allow variances from the codes suited to specific situations. They exist to protect human health and the environment. Before permits are issued for the installation of any sanitation system information about the site is required to make sure that the system is properly matched to the site conditions and the intended use. The permitting process is handled by the local Health or Environmental Protection Departments or both.

Many people think that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulates sanitation and wastewater systems. It does not. Each state regulates sanitation disposal. EPA sets standards for environmental safety: ground, air and water. It also receives information and monitors what is happening to the environment, providing important research and data to the states so that the best environmental practices can be reflected in regulating wastewater. Industrial wastes are a very large concern as are the sanitary waste materials generated by homes, cabins, recreational vehicles, mobile trailer homes, other vehicles and campsites. Given that our usable water comes from a very limited supply (wells, lakes, rivers and aquifers that can easily be polluted) it is vital that regulation be based on solid information and good science.

Methane gas: is lethal if breathed and can collect in tanks holding sanitation waste. The gas is produced when solids in wastewater begin to decompose. Bacteria need oxygen, just like all other living organisms. In water oxygen is attached to other molecules, which bacteria break up in order to free and digest the oxygen. The most common forms of molecules to which the oxygen attaches are the gases that, when freed up, produce methane and sulfur. Methane does not have an odor. The assumption should be that in any waterborne sanitation system there is methane.



Larry Losoncy is the president of Clean Up America, Inc. The company manufactures and markets  The Sanitizer™ non-discharge, evaporative toilet.  To learn more about The Sanitizer™ please go to