Primary treatment removes material that will either float or readily settle out by gravity. It includes the physical processes of screening, comminution, grit removal, and sedimentation. Screens are made of long, closely spaced, narrow metal bars. They block floating debris such as wood, rags, and other bulky objects that could clog pipes or pumps. In modern plants the screens are cleaned mechanically, and the material is promptly disposed of by burial on the plant grounds. A comminutor may be used to grind and shred debris that passes through the screens. The shredded material is removed later by sedimentation or flotation processes.
Grit chambers are long narrow tanks that are designed to slow down the flow so that solids such as sand, coffee grounds, and eggshells will settle out of the water. Grit causes excessive wear and tear on pumps and other plant equipment. Its removal is particularly important in cities with combined sewer systems, which carry a good deal of silt, sand, and gravel that wash off streets or land during a storm.
Suspended solids that pass through screens and grit chambers are removed from the sewage in sedimentation tanks. These tanks, also called primary clarifiers, provide about two hours of detention time for gravity settling to take place. As the sewage flows through them slowly, the solids gradually sink to the bottom. The settled solids—known as raw or primary sludge—are moved along the tank bottom by mechanical scrapers. Sludge is collected in a hopper, where it is pumped out for removal. Mechanical surface-skimming devices remove grease and other floating materials.
Secondary treatment removes the soluble organic matter that escapes primary treatment. It also removes more of the suspended solids. Removal is usually accomplished by biological processes in which microbes consume the organic impurities as food, converting them into carbon dioxide, water, and energy for their own growth and reproduction. The sewage treatment plant provides a suitable environment, albeit of steel and concrete, for this natural biological process. Removal of soluble organic matter at the treatment plant helps to protect the dissolved oxygen balance of a receiving stream, river, or lake.
There are three basic biological treatment methods: the trickling filter, the activated sludge process, and the oxidation pond. A fourth, less common method is the rotating biological contacter.
A trickling filter is simply a tank filled with a deep bed of stones. Settled sewage is sprayed continuously over the top of the stones and trickles to the bottom, where it is collected for further treatment. As the wastewater trickles down, bacteria gather and multiply on the stones. The steady flow of sewage over these growths allows the microbes to absorb the dissolved organics, thus lowering the biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) of the sewage. Air circulating upward through the spaces among the stones provides sufficient oxygen for the metabolic processes.
Settling tanks, called secondary clarifiers, follow the trickling filters. These clarifiers remove microbes that are washed off the rocks by the flow of wastewater. Two or more trickling filters may be connected in series, and sewage can be recirculated in order to increase treatment efficiencies.
The activated sludge treatment system consists of an aeration tank followed by a secondary clarifier. Settled sewage, mixed with fresh sludge that is recirculated from the secondary clarifier, is introduced into the aeration tank. Compressed air is then injected into the mixture through porous diffusers located at the bottom of the tank. As it bubbles to the surface, the diffused air provides oxygen and a rapid mixing action. Air can also be added by the churning action of mechanical propeller-like mixers located at the tank surface.
Under such oxygenated conditions, microorganisms thrive, forming an active, healthy suspension of biological solids—mostly bacteria—called activated sludge. About six hours of detention is provided in the aeration tank. This gives the microbes enough time to absorb dissolved organics from the sewage, reducing the BOD. The mixture then flows from the aeration tank into the secondary clarifier, where activated sludge settles out by gravity. Clear water is skimmed from the surface of the clarifier, disinfected, and discharged as secondary effluent. The sludge is pumped out from a hopper at the bottom of the tank. About 30 percent of the sludge is recirculated back into the aeration tank, where it is mixed with the primary effluent. This recirculation is a key feature of the activated sludge process. The recycled microbes are well acclimated to the sewage environment and readily metabolize the organic materials in the primary effluent. The remaining 70 percent of the secondary sludge must be treated and disposed of in an acceptable manner (see Sludge treatment and disposal).
Variations of the activated sludge process include extended aeration, contact stabilization, and high-purity oxygen aeration. Extended aeration and contact stabilization systems omit the primary settling step. They are efficient for treating small sewage flows from motels, schools, and other relatively isolated wastewater sources. Both of these treatments are usually provided in prefabricated steel tanks called package plants. Oxygen aeration systems mix pure oxygen with activated sludge. A richer concentration of oxygen allows the aeration time to be shortened from six to two hours, reducing the required tank volume.