On April 22, 2023, this year’s Earth Day has a theme of “Invest in our Planet,” which is timely as our industry is racing to discover solutions to our global water and environmental crisis.
This year’s Earth Day recognition comes as we face the reality that, in less than seven years, 700 million people could be displaced by intense water scarcity due to climate change (UNICEF). As we continue to innovate as an industry, the processes that we have used for past technologies can serve as roadmaps. These roadmaps will improve the development of new environmental water technologies, which will hopefully aid in these environmental solutions obtaining access to the market sooner.
Residential wastewater treatment systems, commonly referred to as septic systems, are a great example of a more environmentally friendly technology that we use today to slowly treat and disperse residential wastewater.
By evaluating these septic systems that help contribute to both human health and the environment, we can replicate their framework for upcoming, more advanced technologies. The key framework that these systems require is their ability to meet dual solution functionality, their ability to reduce public health concerns, their ability to meet industry standards, and their ability to meet and exceed nationwide regulations.
Providing multiple solutions
It is important that the existing technologies, and advanced technologies created in the coming years, serve multiple purposes in protecting the environment.
One way is by effectively reducing both water and energy usage. Homeowners that have a septic system are likely to be more cognizant of how much water they are using. The more water they use, the faster the system becomes overwhelmed, and then the more frequently they must pay to service their septic system.
The second way is by effectively utilizing a settling mechanism to separate fats, oils and grease from the liquid within the watertight tank, rather than requiring additional water to treat it. This can also help reduce additional water usage from local water treatment plants.
In addition to their water conservation properties, septic systems treat wastewater onsite, reducing the amount of energy needed to treat it at local publicly owned treatment works (POTWs). According to the U.S. Department of Energy, wastewater treatment plants use 30 terawatt hours per year of electricity, equating to around $2 billion in annual electric costs. As the industry strives to decrease the costs and energy use at treatment plants, septic systems, coupled with renewable energy and other sustainable technologies, will help lower the energy load that they currently require.
Reducing risks of public health concerns
A motivating force for the water industry is serving communities by managing all components of water — including sourcing it, treating it, and distributing it. With that comes a large responsibility to ensure that these communities are well cared for, and that the industry continues to move toward a more sustainable future. This includes being mindful of both human and planet health.
Septic systems are a fitting example of technology that is conscious of planetary and human health concerns. They not only provide individuals with a source to collect wastewater if a public sewer option is not available due to a more remote location, but they also aid the planet by treating wastewater.
Septic systems do this by properly treating wastewater before it re-enters nearby aquifers, streams, lakes, and rivers. Treating wastewater before it recirculates to these nearby resources is imperative to reducing the risk of transmittable diseases, exposure to pathogens, and harmful algal blooms created by excess nitrogen and phosphorus levels, helping safeguard both human health and the environment.
Establishing industry standards
Having industry standards that products must meet provides end users with confidence that their purchased product is safe and reliable. It also puts guidelines in place for industry experts to help them innovate safe and reliable products. This is especially pertinent when it comes to wastewater technology in providing rigorous, yet reachable, industry standards.
For example, septic systems certified to NSF/ANSI 40 and NSF/ANSI 245 must undergo rigorous testing and facility audits. To maintain certification, certified systems must pass unannounced annual audits to help ensure that facilities continue to comply with the certification requirements.
Additionally, field audits of installed systems are conducted to validate proper installation and maintenance. New systems comprised of different components must receive new product engineering approval to ensure it is proportionally equivalent to the initial conducted test and, if not, it must be retested. The system must also be reevaluated within a five-year period to verify that it continues to meet the current version of the standard and its requirements.
The process of obtaining and maintaining certification through these industry standards helps provide end users, and the industry at large, with peace of mind, knowing that their systems' claims are being met.
Setting benchmark regulations
Regulations promulgated by the U.S. EPA serve as a vital tool for new water technologies by setting measurable benchmarks throughout the testing process to obtain certification.
The U.S. EPA Secondary Treatment Regulations, 40 C.F.R. 133.102 serves as a foundation for third-party testing to help guarantee that septic water will be dispersed smartly to help keep nearby aquifers, streams, lakes, and rivers clean throughout the water treatment process. These regulations help guide state regulators and serve as a basis for industry standards to help manufacturers and end users know that these technologies uphold their claims.
Driving positive change
At a time where we are racing against the clock to deliver new water solutions to the world to aid the environmental crisis, it is important to step back and simplify the development process as much as we can. Recognizing that we already have frameworks in place from technologies that we utilize today can help us innovate new technologies for future success.
Having a structure in place for what these technologies should encompass, including dual purpose solutions, solving public health concerns, meeting nationwide regulations, and creating industry standards will allow these new systems to succeed the coming years.
Globally, we all have a part to play in Earth Day and investing in the planet. We must push for action rather than waiting on others to save the planet from the effects of climate change. As an industry, by learning from past technologies that are functional and have a positive impact on our environment, we can build innovative technologies more quickly.
Stakeholders in the water industry undeniably have a large responsibility to take care of this sector and be the leading voice of change as we continue to innovate and utilize systems that will help us move toward a greener planet.