Alternative Sewers: A Good Option for Many Communities

Note: The following article was excerpted from Pipeline, published by National Small Flows Clearinghouse. For an example of how alternative sewers were used to provide a cost effective solution for one rural Maritime community, read ETC’s Project Profile of the award winning, Victoria Water and Wastewater Project.

Those who are fortunate enough to own a home in a small or rural community probably appreciate certain aspects of country living. Being close to nature and far from the noise and complications of life in the city are among the popular reasons for choosing a home in a rural area.

Although the advantages are many, rural life isn’t always simpler than big city life. One example is the problem of how best to collect, treat and dispose of wastewater from all the homes and businesses located in different parts of the community.

A variety of factors help determine which wastewater technologies are best suited for a particular home or area. Often, communities will use a combination of different approaches for different circumstances to save money, control development, and protect public health and the environment.

For example, in densely populated areas, like the business section of town, a community may find that a conventional gravity sewer (like those used in large towns and cities) and a centralized wastewater treatment plant is the most cost-effective and environmentally-sound way to collect, transport, and treat the wastewater. In more sparsely populated areas, where lot sizes are large and homes are spaced widely apart, on-site wastewater treatment with subsurface discharge may be more practical and cost-effective.

But what about homes in locations that don’t fit either of the above descriptions? And what about areas where onsite treatment can’t be used?

Many small towns have clusters of homes and housing developments located far from other populated areas of the community. Groups of homes may be located in low-lying areas near water, or in areas with a high water table or with rugged, rocky or hilly terrain. Often hookups to conventional sewers are not available in these places and would be too costly to build – yet small lot sizes, poor soil conditions, or other site-related limitations make on-site wastewater treatment alternatives inappropriate or expensive.

Alternative sewers should be considered a possible option for groups of homes and businesses in areas like these, or anywhere they can cost-effectively fulfill the health and environmental goals of the community.


“Those whose job it is to select and design appropriate systems for the collection and treatment of sewage … must bear in mind that European and North American practices do not represent the zenith of scientific achievement, nor are they the product of a logical and rational process.

Rather, [they] are the product of history, a history that started about 100 years ago when little was known about the fundamental physics and chemistry of the subject and when practically no applicable microbiology had been discovered…

These practices are not especially clever, nor logical, nor completely effective-and it is not necessarily what would be done today if these same countries had the chance to start again.”

— Excerpted from “Sanitation and Disease” circa 1970

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