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Aerobic septic system or aerobic treatment unit (ATU) failure rates & repair costs: this article discusses Aerobic Septic System Failure Rates & Costs.
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This website provides designs and products for aerobic septic treatment units (ATUs) for onsite waste disposal, also called fine bubble aeration systems. We address aerobic septic system design, features, inspection, repair, and maintenance. Product sources are also listed.
Some readers have written expressing concern that they've heard that ATU's have a high failure rate, "as high as 95%". That number doesn't mean much to me without more specific data, in particular, one would need to know what was meant by "failure" and what was the cause of specific failures of ATUs. Important septic system failures are the failure to adequately treat wastewater or the failure to successfully dispose of it.
ATU Failures due to lack of maintenance: In the study discussed below, while a high failure rate was reported for ATUs (where failure here means the aerobic treatment system was not treating the effluent satisfactorily), the failures were specifically linked to a lack of proper maintenance.
Every type of septic treatment system requires periodic maintenance and repair, and I expect that every septic system eventually fails and needs extensive repair or replacement. So we could put the septic system failure rate at 100%. What would be more useful would be a statement of the typical operating cost for various alternative septic treatment systems, the typical component life, and the amount and cost of ongoing maintenance that are required.
NESC, in an issue of their Pipelines magazine (Note 1), , cited a 1998 survey conducted in West Virginia which looked at Aerobic Treatment Units to evaluate the quality of their effluent discharge. 419 ATUs were tested for TSS (total suspended solids) and BOD5 (5-day biochemical oxygen demand), and 92 percent of the systems were determined to be producing unacceptable effluent discharge.
The main cause of these aerobic septic system treatment unit failures was attributed to poor or improper ATU maintenance. I suspect that homeowners, accustomed to the tradition of inattention to septic systems until they are visibly failed, simply were performing no maintenance at all. However with proper inspection and maintenance, ATU's can continue to provide effluent which has been treated better than by a conventional septic tank and drainfield.
For example, of the 419 units, only 85 were selected for chemical tests. Of the 419 units inspected, field inspectors found (by visual inspection) deficiencies in 272 units (65%). 71% of the 85 units selected for testing were found to have deficiencies.
What was particularly remarkable, while 93% of the ATU's with a visually detectable deficiency were producing unacceptable effluent output, more stunning, another 80% of the ATU's with no apparent deficiencies by visual inspection, were producing unacceptable effluent discharge! (Op. Cit., p. 43). Here is a description of the study: "Of the 419 ATUs examined, 85 were sampled for additional laboratory analyses, which included BOD, TSS, and fecal coliforms (FC).
Approximately 150 units were tested for chlorine residual and turbidity. The survey was performed by the Environmental Services and Training Division and the Environmental Microbiology Laboratory, both at West Virginia University (WVU), and six county health departments, and with assistance from the West Virginia Bureau of Public Health. The project objectives were to survey existing ATUs for proper operation and maintenance and to determine the chemical and microbiological quality of their effluents."
The NESC cites several obvious components in ATU installation and operating costs. Installation costs for an ATU include the cost of the ATU installation, including excavation and electrical wiring, the cost of construction of the post processing facility such as raised bed or sand bed.
See AEROBIC SEPTIC SYSTEM MAINTENANCE COSTS for details about the actual maintenance or operation costs of aerobic treatment units or ATUs.
Operating costs for aerobic septic systems include electricity for the ATU compressor or air pump, annual inspection and maintenance, usually by contract with the installer, and cost of effluent disinfection if that step is used. One website, www.toolbase.org which has some nice simple summaries of types of septic systems, cites a cost of $3200. to $5000. to install an aerobic treatment unit.
This number cannot possibly be correct for a complete system installation. More likely it is referring to the aerobic treatment unit itself, the tank and aeration system. Add to these the cost of excavation and piping for the sewer line from the building, from the ATU to the absorption system, and the installation of the wastewater absorption system, and you're probably looking at two to three times that number.
It is a bit tricky trying to compare alternative septic system costs. After all, we choose a particular system because it best fits the limitations of the site. A very limited site that requires installation of an ATU and a raised bed or septic mound system to handle the effluent, such as in a rocky building site in the Northeastern U.S., may involve a total installed cost of $25,000. This troubling number cannot be compared with the probably lower cost of a conventional septic tank and drain field ($10,000) because the latter simply won't work on the site in question.
What we can say about ATUs is that if regular inspection and maintenance are not performed, the system has a good chance of not working properly.
The cost of electricity to operate the septic aeration system is likely to be trivial, perhaps $4./month. We can also say that the trash tank or primary treatment tank will require more frequent pumping than a conventional septic tank. I expect that septic tank cleaning or tank pumping cost, often $125. to $250. per pumpout depending on location and tank size and effort to access the tank, probably is more significant than the operating cost to supply electrical power to the equipment.
I am having an ATU unit installed tomorrow. Against my better judgment, but due to wonderful regulations, that was the plan the engineer said we HAVE to have. Total install for a 500 gallon trash tank, 1000 gallon septic tank, ATU, 176 feet of drainfield piping with Q36 equalizer is $18,519. Just in case anyone was wondering. - Steve Woodward 10/4/2011
Steve, how is your ATU unit working so far? Was this a replacement for a failed system? How many people in household for that size. I'm guessing 5 to 6? Are you in the North and if so did you insulate the unit for winter? How big is your lot? Lastly, did you also have a well?
I HAVE LIVED IN MY HOUSE ONLY ONE AND A HALF YEARS AND I HAVE HAD NOTHING BUT TROUBLE MAINTANCE PEOPLE OUT MONTHLY COSTING ALOT OG MONEY I DO NOT HAVE I THINK THIS THIS THING IS STUPID! - Michelle 4/16/2012
Michele, I'm so sorry to read about your difficulty with an aerobic septic system. In fact aerobic treatment units can function to a very high level of treatment of sewage, but indeed independent research about various types of septic system failures confirms that most often, when there are failures in advanced systems and designs, it's because of lack of or improper maintenance.
We could argue that the problem is you haven't found the right maintenance contractor, and certainly that's what needs your attention. But it is fair to say that an innate problem with the design of some systems in just about any field (computers to zone valves) is that some designs, by their complexity, have trouble finding people who will install and maintain them properly - it could be lodged as a complaint against the designer as well.
Good design of any system includes making it easy to maintain it.
Stay away from these units with a 10 foot pole, they may work fine if you have 3 people or less in your household, however, that is not guaranteed. They are not designed for family usage. This is the greatest nightmare of my home purchase from 2006, worse than being underwater on your mortgage.
When it rains your toilets don't flush. You have to have it pumped once or twice a year at at rate of $250.00 each time, also, in Florida, you are required to pay a septic maintenance company $200.00 every year, plus $100.00 for a two year permit from the Health Department. Sooner or later everyone will have to acknowledge these systems are a failure. Charlotte County, Florida got rid of their mandate that all new residences install these units for a reason. They were also installing these systems on properties without enough room for a big enough drain field during the housing boom. Do yourself a favor and stay away from these things.
Concerning the above stating the failure is only due to improper maintenance is simply not true, with all respect! I have lived in my home with an ATU since 2006, it has been a pure nightmare, waiting for my county to sewer up my street, slowly they will get to me. Older septic systems last much longer and do not require so much $$ in maintenance. Either have a sewer or an older septic system, but not an ATU. This was confirmed by the very owner of the septic company that installed my system. She told me they are a life changing headache! - guest 6/27/2012
The aerator pump in my ATU causes so much turbulence in the tank that it stirs the contents in each baffled chamber in the tank and this causes solid particles to flow into the drain field array. This has caused blockages and back ups which require Roto-Rooter style cleaning at the cost of $535.00 per visit.
Three times in 5 years. ATUs are a design nightmare and any county or municipality which requires them should be investigated. In my opinion there is not enough bang for your buck here when you consider the prohibitive cost. As far as the purity the ATU is supposed to give, it is way over-rated and is overkill. The old style systems have been working fine for years. When was the last time that a cholera or dysentery epidemic occurred because of a non-ATU style system? - George Kachmar 6/27/2012
Guest, and George, thanks for sharing your views about Aerobic septic treatment units. Reports of actual user experience are very very valuable as they bring "real world" considerations and experience in to balance with "theory".
Aerobic treatment units are very widely used in some areas, such as parts of Texas. I imagine that perhaps where there are many users there are more competent experienced service companies and people's use experience may be better.
Our own research finds that studies show that ATU systems can work to a high level of treatment - in the 90% range compared with 40% treatment in a conventional septic tank; but frequent failures of the system occur, usually traced to lack of proper maintenance.
My OPINION is that any product or system that relies on installers or users to do something that most people are not going to do is, at the end of the day, not the best design. We have to design buildings and mechanical systems for what people are going to do (or not do), not what they should do.
I built my home in 2007 . I too have the nightmare known as ATU . The builders advice was to get a Clearstream ATU . One of the WORST mistakes I have ever made in my life . The pump only lasted 3 years . I have already had a circuit board go bad and now the filter housing is cracked . We also have to pay a permit fee with the state and a maintenance contract which also is expensive . Along with that is the hassle of dealing with the Health Department SURPRISE inspections . THIS IS NOTHING BUT A DISASTER . PLEASE STAY AWAY FROM THESE SYSTEMS AT ALL COST ! - Alan 3/21/2013
Alan, thank you for the report of your experience with Clearstream ATUs. Indeed surveys of septic system failures that focused on aerobic treatment units found a high failure rate, but asserted that the problem was lack of maintenance or owners not following the manufacturer's instructions. Of course if a product is designed to require maintenance that people are going to find burdensome or costly that design might be itself questioned.
Given that Clearstream will perform inspection and basic maintenance for the first two years at no charge, there wouldn't be much excuse for not having had maintenance performed and in turn I'd speculate that therefore the warranty should apply.
In the Clearstream ATU instance, can you tell us what was your experience when you went to the company to ask for assistance or advice?
If you have not done so, you can contact Clearstream, a Texas company, by calling them direct at 800-586-3656 or by writing to Clearstream at Clearstream Wastewater Systems, Inc.
4899 US Hwy 69 South
Lumberton, Texas 77657.
At AEROBIC ATU SEPTIC MAINTENANCE PROCEDURES we quote Clearstream's List of Aerobic Treatment Unit ATU Maintenance Requirements & Schedule. Can you give us any details on how working on each of these was easy or difficult?
I have a question about aerobic system. I've purchased land and now I have learned that I need aerobic system. I found out this system is very expensive. I am handy and can do some work on my own... I wander if there is anyway I can have alternative system like that for less?
(June 5, 2014) Ryan said:
I am exploring A.T.U. septic systems. Currently I have a design for a raised bed system and would like to eliminate or significantly reduce the field size by implementing an alternative. This project is new construction and has been determined to have bedrock at 17" (site#1) and 23" (site#2).
The cost of installing an aerobic system may be at least as much in the excavation as in the equipment itself; While I agree that there are septic system "add-ons" that add an aeration feature to an existing septic tank to increase the treatment level, but unless it's a multi compartment tank that can handle the increased agitation of sewage in the main tank (caused by the aerator) I think your results may not be nearly as good as you'd hope, and without some extra steps (filtration, settling chambers) you risk ruining the drainfield.
Furthermore, if you are being told that you already need a new system, chances are your drainfield is already shot; I'm not clear where you would save by a system that went only part-way to what you are being told is needed.
(Aug 23, 2014) Anonymous said:
Our aerobic system has been pumped out twice in the last four months at acost of over a thousand dollars.
It has filled up again after only two weeks
Between a service contract costing a thousand dollars a year and biannual permit of three hundred plu and service calls we are at our wits end
we cannot afford this system it has milked us dry and is still not functioning why are we having somuch trouble with it
Anon: what's milking you dry is not the concept of an aerobic septic system it's improper maintenance.
Pumping a septic tank so frequently tells me that most likely your effluent disposal system is not working, you're seeing slow drains or sewage backups and are making the mistake of thinking that pumping the tank is fixing something. It's not fixing anything except helping your septic pumping company's owner pay for his son's bar-mitzvah.
You need an aerobic septic system designer, engineer, or installation contractor - one who actually understands how your type of aerobic system is designed and works - to inspect and diagnose what's wrong. I can't guess if it's a problem with an aerator pump, spray dispersant of effluent, or something else.
A septic tank is normally always "full" of sewage or wastewater; clarified effluent leaves the tank to go to a disposal field or for some aerobic systems to a spray system that distributes treated effluent as a surface spray to irrigate a lawn or grassy area.
Pumping at regular intervals is needed to remove built-up sludge.
See SEPTIC TANK PUMPING SCHEDULE
But pumping a septic tank won't fix a failed drainfield, failed effluent pumping or spraying system nor will it fix an aerator that is not aerating or treating the sewage in your septic tank.
Contact your septic system manufacturer to get the right instuctions for the maintenance of the system and compare those with what your service company has been doing.
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(Feb 2, 2014) Brian said:
Should my motor constantly be running and never shut off?
Brian, I'm not sure what to answer, as we don't know what equipment you have installed.
But indeed, there are aerobic septic system designs in which the aerator pump is intended to run constantly.
(Feb 19, 2014) Jeniffer said:
Can an aerobic treatment system be moved once it is installed on my property? I own a 3 bd rm mobile home and the ceptic company placed it right in back of the house. I hate it there. when you go out the back sliding glass door it is about 6 ft from the house. The company also broke their back hoe digging the hole so they used my calechie for my driveway to just cover up the ceptic creating a small hill. What are my options?
Jennifer, with apology for sounding a bit glib, you can do anything in construction - the question is what will that cost and is it worth it. If you are bothered only by appearance, some grading, seeding, etc. may be what's needed. If the system was not properly installed, then the installer should be on the hook to fix it. Have you asked for an inspection by your local health department?
(Sept 20, 2014) Joe said:
How much land is needed to install? We have a 45' x 100' lot with lots of trees.
Joe the answer to amount of land necessary for a septic leach field depends on the type of septic design, soil properties including percolation rate, terrain shape, wastewater load volume, and local property setback requirements as well as other required clearance distances. So a single answer wouldiim sorry to say, not mean much.
(Dec 25, 2014) Frank said:
My aerobic system is full of problems. It has to be pumped out every two years. If a septic system has to be pumped out, then it doesn't work. I've had traditional systems for 20 years that HAVE NEVER HAD TO BE PUMPED OUT. I am planning on converting my aerobic system to a conventional system and just use the existing aerobic tank. Does anyone know if this is possible?
Frank all types of septic systems need periodic cleaning;
It is unlikely that you could simply turn off your aerator on an aerobic system and treat it as a conventional septic: the level of treatment and disposal of effluent would be inadequate.
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