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Aerobic System with Spray Irrigation

Aerobic system with spray irrigation diagram

If you’re thinking about installing an aerobic septic system on your property, consider downloading Living with an Aerobic Treatment Unit and Spray Field.

Aerobic units treat wastewater for homes and small businesses using the same process as our municipal wastewater treatment system uses, only scaled down. They remove 85% to 98% of the organic matter and solids from the wastewater, producing effluent as clean as effluent that comes from municipal wastewater treatment plants, and cleaner than that from conventional septic tanks.

Aerobic units, which are certified as class I aerobic systems, treat wastewater well enough to be used in conjunction with spray systems, which distribute treated wastewater over lawns. They are the most common way to treat wastewater for spray systems.

Four-step treatment

The aerobic treatment process includes four main components that work together to purify wastewater:

  1. A pretreatment tank, generally referred to as the “trash tank” because it removes materials that microorganisms (microbes) cannot degrade.
  2. An aeration chamber is where aerobic microbes decompose waste in the water. An aeration system consists of an air pump, piping and diffusers that force air into the aeration chamber. The air pump, located near the aerobic tank, compresses air to flow into the aeration chamber.
  3. The diffuser forces the air into the water, dividing the air into bubbles that float to the surface. The oxygen in the air bubbles goes into the water for the microbes, while the rising bubbles mix with the water.
  4. A settling chamber, commonly called a clarifier, provides a place for the microbes that have treated the wastewater to settle out of the water.

A land application system distributes the wastewater into the soil for final treatment and disposal/reuse.

Aerobic treatment units usually disperse wastewater via spray distribution systems; which include a disinfection component (chlorinator) for removing disease-causing microorganisms, a pump tank for dosing water, and spray heads for spreading the water over the ground.

Two types of tanks

Aerobic treatment units can be built from concrete or fiberglass. Both materials are durable and can be used across Texas.

Concrete tanks are heavier and require larger equipment to carry them to the site, which can delay installation during wet periods. Some concrete systems incorporate the trash tank, aeration chamber, clarifier, and pump tank into a single structure; others include the trash tank, aeration chamber, and clarifier in one structure.

The main advantage to having the components in one structure is that the system can be delivered pre-built. The installer must dig only one hole with a level bottom, reducing preparation time for installation.

Fiberglass tanks are light enough to be carried to the installation site by a backhoe. They generally have an aeration chamber and clarifier in one structure. A separate trash tank and pump tank accompany the aeration chamber and clarifier.

Both tank types can meet your wastewater management needs. The systems must be installed according to manufacturer specifications and must be watertight to prevent groundwater from entering the system and overloading the treatment unit and land application area.


The aerobic treatment unit components (pre-treatment tank, aeration chamber, air pump, and settling chamber) work together to treat the water to a high quality.

In the system, wastewater first enters the pretreatment tank or trash trap, which removes plastic objects and other solids that float or settle. Then it enters an aeration chamber, where oxygen supplied by air pump allows aerobic organisms to live. Treatment in the aeration chamber is a biological process in which microbes eat the waste and their bodies transform it into non-polluting material.

The microbes change dissolved and solid pollutants into cell mass, such as non-degradable material, and gases (carbon dioxide, hydrogen, and methane). It is important to maintain an active population of microbes in the system to break down solids.

A variety of aerobic microorganisms living together in a mixed state can decompose many kinds of materials. The mixed state keeps the microorganisms and the solids suspended in the wastewater.

Treated wastewater moves from the aeration chamber into a settling chamber or clarifier. The clarifier allows the cell mass and non-degradable materials to settle from the water before it leaves the treatment system.

The separation of microbial cells from treated effluent is an important part of the process. Aerobic treatments processes greatly lower biochemical oxygen demand (BOD), a common measure of pollution, as well as reduce the suspended solids that do not settle to the bottom of the clarifier. This process also removes some of the disease-causing organisms in the waste.


When selecting an aerobic unit, your provider will first determine the amount of daily wastewater flow from the home or small business, then choose a Class I aerobic unit that can handle the amount of flow (which is determined by the square footage and number of bedrooms). Most residential systems can treat 500 gallons a day.

This approach to choosing a system assumes that the wastewater includes an amount of organic matter common for homes; it may be inadequate for certain businesses. The size of the system for restaurants and other facilities with strong wastes is calculated by using both quantity and organic strength of the facility’s wastewater.

Aerobic treatment units, marketed in Texas as Class I aerobic treatment units, must be tested and certified according to National Sanitation Foundation International Standard 40 policies for wastewater treatment devices. Aerobic treatment units that pass the test are approved for sale as Class I units.

Keeping a spray system working

To remain effective, aerobic treatment unit components need regular maintenance. Poorly maintained systems may not produce water as clean as desired. For the best care for an aerobic treatment unit, follow the manufacturer’s recommendations.

Use these general guidelines as a basis for maintaining your system.

Homeowner guidelines

  • Keep electricity going to the aerobic treatment unit. It needs a continuous supply of power for the aeration system. The aerobic microbes need the air from the aeration system to survive.
  • Maintain the spray heads in the system. If they are broken, replace them the same type and model as the original. Do not change the spray head locations. Also, do not place a vegetable garden in the spray area.
  • If an alarm sounds, call your maintenance provider. Reduce nonessential water use in the home until the system is fixed.
  • Maintain a landscape cover in the spray field. The grass and plants there will use the water and nutrients being dispersed by the system. Most disinfection systems use chlorine tablets to disinfect the treated water.
  • You must add chlorine tablets to the chlorinator. Be careful when handling chlorine, because chlorine gas can burn your lungs. Disinfection is important; without it, untreated wastewater will be sprayed onto the ground. Do not use swimming pool chlorine.
  • If the wastewater smells bad when it is being distributed, ask the maintenance provider to evaluate all system components. If they are working properly, evaluate your habits in the home.
    • You may be overloading the system with too much organic matter. For example, you may be pouring too much fat and grease down the drain grinding too much food in the garbage disposal, or sending too many paper products into the wastewater system.
    • Another problem could be that products toxic to the aerobic microbes are being sent into the system. For example, sending too many cleaning products down the drain could kill the microbes.
    • Overloading water to the system, such as when fixtures leak or too much laundry is washed on a single day, dilutes the microbes’ food source.
  • Sending too little wastewater into the system also can affect it. Microbes need steady source of organic matter. Homes with periodic usage, such as a lake house with weekend visits, will have problems maintaining a good population of microbes to treat the wastewater.
    • If you leave home for a couple of weeks, their population in the system could drop for lack of food. For example, vacationing for 2 weeks lowers the microbial population by reducing the food supply entering the system. Returning home and washing 10 loads of laundry can flush out what population is left with all the laundry water. After a period of low system activity, the microbial population needs time to rebuild so it can function well.
  • Generally, aerobic treatment units are used in conjunction with spray distribution systems that disperse treated wastewater over lawns. To minimize the risk of human exposure to disease-causing microorganisms, it is important that the aerobic treatment unit works properly.

The National Sanitation Foundation Standard 40 Program provides a way for homeowners to make sure their units can be serviced. Those who cannot find a local maintenance provider can contact the manufacturing company for help in locating one. If the manufacturer does not respond, the homeowner can contact the testing and certification group that tested the unit to find a maintenance provider.

Maintenance provider guidelines

  • The maintenance provider should perform these tasks:
  • Monitor the trash tank to determine the amount of solids accumulating in the tank.
  • Have the tank pumped on a schedule similar to a septic tank pumping interval (every 2 to 3 years).
  • Periodically remove some of the solids in the aeration chamber.
    • Solids form a blanket on the bottom of the clarifier and float in the aeration chamber. When aeration tanks are pumped, some water that contains microbes is left in the tank bottom.
  • Check the air pump to make sure the airflow rate entering the aeration chamber is constant.
  • Clean the air filter on the compressor inlet to remove dust and fibers.
  • Look for air leaks in the other components of the aeration system.
  • Check the diffusers in the aeration chamber to make sure the air is being distributed properly. When airflow is reduced, less oxygen is available for the microbes.

If the aerobic unit uses a spray distribution or subsurface drip distribution system, you need to keep a maintenance contract in force. The maintenance provider will report to local permitting authority on the unit’s operating condition every 4 months.

Spray system Lowering the tank into the hole Wires and pipes connected to home


Reference: Lesikar, Bruce. Agricultural Communications, The Texas A&M University System. Aerobic Treatment unit. Publication L-5302. 26 Jul. 2000.


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