Innovative on-site wastewater treatment


By Jeff Moyer, Rodale Institute Farm Director

Water is one of the most undervalued resources we have. Less than 1 percent of all the water on earth is considered potable and available for our use. Today, an average American household uses 400 gallons of water per day, most of this precious resource literally going down the drain. In Pennsylvania more than 30 percent of all households use a well as their source of water and an on-lot or decentralized system for handling the waste water coming from their residences. According the U.S. EPA, more than 10 percent of these sewage systems fail every year.

When Rodale Institute began looking at replacing our outdated public facility we started by looking more closely at the source of our water and the systems we were using to manage our waste water. The idea of simply hooking up to public utilities such as municipal water and sewage is not always the answer and many on-lot systems are in some stage of periodic failure. Our waste water systems, nationally, are taxed beyond their ability for expansion and we felt it only right to view our system within this context.

Rather than add to this problem with our own expansion, we explored innovative systems to bring water into our facility for use and to handle it once it had been used. We began the journey of discovery by reaching out to others more closely involved in the source water and waste water communities such as the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources and the National Environmental Protection Agency. At the same time we set in motion the internal task of defining what a successful design would look like from a philosophical prospective.

The design criteria we identified was this: The appropriate system had to be based on complex biological principles, it had to be rooted in natural processes, it had to be simple in its design, it had to be easily adaptable to any size, it had to be easily adoptable by the general public, it had to be aesthetically pleasing and it had to be cost effective. Since the roots of Rodale Institute’s mission are grounded in agriculture we wanted to design a system that could function on marginal lands to reduce development pressure on prime agricultural land which is often selected for the soil’s ability to easily “pass perc.” We also wanted to design a system that would demonstrate methods of handling waste water more effectively and efficiently that municipal sewage treatment plants so that even small to mid-sized communities could adopt the technology. Since we were dealing with new construction, we also addressed bringing water into the system with an eye toward conservation and sustainability.

We chose a constructed wetlands system with rain water catchment component.

Explore the project in the Water Purification Eco-Center section of the website, or read the booklet  (click on cover image) which captures the process we followed to identify our criteria, the path that lead us to selecting a constructed wetlands system and the design features that make it possible. It also lays out the reasons the technology works, the documented science that proves it works, and the parameters anyone can use to adopt this technology as a retro fit to an existing on-lot system or in new construction.

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