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Toilet paper breakdown or biodegradation test: this article describes and provide photos of a simple test demonstrating how bathroom tissue should be expected to break down inside of the septic tank. We demonstrate a simple low-tech toilet paper test to explore what happens to toilet tissue when it enters the septic tank or sewer system.
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This article is part of our series: Inspecting, Testing, & Maintaining Residential Septic Systems an online book on septic systems. Here we demonstrate a simple low-tech toilet paper test to explore what happens to toilet tissue when it enters the septic tank or sewer system.
Also see TOILET TISSUE CHOICES which addresses the questions of whether or not we should use special or bio-degradable toilet paper when a home is connected to a private septic system and what kinds of paper or toilet tissue may damage the septic tank or leach fields?
In that article we describe the impacts of using soft toilet tissue, recycled fiber toilet tissue, and other paper products that people might flush into a septic or sewer system.
There we also addressed the question: What About Putting No Toilet Paper into the Septic Tank At All?
But since large numbers of people throughout the world who have access to toilets are accustomed to flushing their used toilet tissue along with waste, we've begun a series of simple empirical tests of the breakdown of several types of widely-used toilet paper
At TOILET TISSUE CHOICES we also explained that in a conventional septic system using a tank and drainfield, ordinary toilet tissue does not harm the septic system.
The toilet tissue remains in the septic tank, kept from flowing into the drainfield by septic tank baffles, and eventually toilet tissue breaks down in the septic tank and is not a solid bulk problem at normal levels of usage.
To see just what actually happens to toilet paper in a septic tank produces photographs that some readers may not wish to examine closely, so in our forensic laboratory we made the simple toilet paper test illustrated here.
One square of Rite-Aid® low-cost bathroom tissue was inserted into a quartz-glass test jar containing approximately 100 ml of tap water (photo at left).
We capped and shook the jar of water and toilet paper for approximately 30 seconds (photo at left).
This agitation is more violent than what happens in a septic tank, but there too the incoming and out flowing sewage, combined in some systems with bacterial action and mechanical aeration, produces agitation of the sewage in the tank, including toilet tissue.
Still, we would not want even these small fragments to flow out of the septic tank into the drainfield, as soil clogging would follow, reducing the drainfield life. The job of septic tank baffles is precisely that of keeping floating scum and solids in the septic tank.
But what keeps these small particles of toilet paper (or other waste) in the septic tank if they are agitated into and mixed with septic liquid effluent that will indeed flow out through the septic tank outlet baffle and into the drainfield?
Time is the answer, or in septic-speak, settlement time. During periods of inactivity mechanical agitation of sewage in the septic tank is reduced, allowing solids to either settle out into the sludge at septic tank bottom, or coagulate in the floating scum layer at the top of the septic tank.
You can see in this photo (left) of our toilet paper test that after just 1/2 a minute the toilet paper fragments have already settled out and begun to collect on the bottom of our test jar. See EFFLUENT RETENTION TIME for details about septic tank settlement time.
Further septic tank agitation during use may re-mix these toilet tissue fragments, causing them to break into still smaller fragments that again will settle out of the liquid, moving towards the septic tank bottom. Eventually the cycle of agitation and settling will virtually dissolve the toilet tissue to very small microscopic paper fibers that may be digested further by fungal or bacterial action in the septic tank or drainfield.
Our toilet tissue test shown here was performed in simple tap water, without the benefit of septic tank microorganisms that would be expected to further break down bath tissue into ever smaller, septic-tank-digestible, fragments. That is why when the septic tank is opened for pumping and cleaning (see SEPTIC TANK PUMPING SCHEDULE), only the most recently-used toilet tissue is going to be found visible in the septic tank.
We will keep this test in our laboratory and will provide here further updates and photos on what happens to toilet paper in plain tap water.
Testing RV-Type Toilet Paper Designed for Chemical Toilets
Keep in mind that this version of toilet paper breakdown testing has (for now) excluded
But our lab photo (above) shows even without microscopic examination that by no means does this toilet tissue simply dissolve when it is placed in water.
Be Sure You are Using the Proper Treatment Chemical for RV Tanks, Chemical Toilets, or Graywater Holding Tanks
Chemicals intended as deodorants for chemical toilets, RV and marine sewage holding tanks, and similar equipment are produced by several companies including Coleman(see below) and Thetford's (Aqua-Kem®).
As Coleman® points out right on their Dry Holding Tank Deodorant and Cleaner, that product is intended for use only in portable toilets and RV/Marine toilet systems.
In sum, this is a deodorant and sewage stabilizer intended for portable toilets (chemical toilets) and RV sewage holding tanks where it is intended for brief (5-day) holding periods. Longer holding periods for sewage in these systems, or holding at higher temperatures may require a higher dose of the product.
The company's product labeling indicates that this substance
For graywater holding tanks in RVs and marine systems, Coleman® indicates that a separate product, Coleman® liquid deodorant and cleaner, is recommended in stead. See How to Use & Maintain a Chemical Toilet.
TOILETS, INSPECT, INSTALL, REPAIR
See WASTEWATER TREATMENT BASICS for a simple explanation of how septic systems work.
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Technical Reviewers & References
Related Topics, found near the top of this page suggest articles closely related to this one.
Also see these Septic System Inspection & Testing articles
Septic System References & Books
Composting Toilets - Books & References
Design Manuals for Septic Systems
Greywater System Books
Onsite Wastewater Disposal Books