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Grease is clogging sewers nationwide, creating a costly mess
to clean up and a dilemma for officials and regulators. Recently, the Wall
Street Journal reported that 75 percent of the sewer systems in the United
States work at only half capacity because of grease clogs. The cost of keeping
sewers open, a cost borne by taxpayers at a local level, is $25 billion per
year. The increase in grease in sewer lines is a direct result of the
phenomenal growth in dual-income households who choose to eat out or take-out
rather than cook at home.
According to the National Restaurant Association’s
2001 Industry Forecast, total restaurant-industry sales have grown every year
for the past 10 years and are projected to reach a record $399 billion in 2001.
This growth, combined with the chronic problems of measuring grease to sewer
spillage, will continue to plague our sewer systems. Industrial areas also are
facing grease clogs in their main sewer lines due to various industry
activities, such as meat production and packing.
Grease clogs in a sewer line decrease the flow through the
lines and compromise system performance. According to Wayne Sobieralski of the
California State Water Resources Control Board, “The number one cause of
sewer overflows in Southern California is grease blockages.”
In Boston, a 300-foot grease ball with a 36-inch diameter
clogged the sewer line under the famous Faneuil Hall area. Across the country
and around the world, cities and towns are struggling to manage the growing
No matter if you live in a rural area that relies on septic
systems or in a city with sewers, regulators are responsible for overseeing
local establishments that are major contributors to the grease problem. The
primary challenge for these regulators is to develop programs and solutions
that are effective. This means that they will ensure and document compliance
with codes. Solutions looked at by municipalities include mandatory pumping
cycles, monitoring and fines for offenders. Many areas also have reduced the
amount of time between mandatory pumping cycles. Voluntary inspections every 30
days are required in some communities, but they are hard to enforce and
infrequently done. Many cities are rewriting their codes to require the use of
new technology as it becomes available.
One thing is for certain, given the magnitude and cost of
the problem, cities are cracking down. Boston’s current grease trap
regulations call for mandatory pump-outs every 90 days. New regulations in
Atlanta impose fines of up to $1,000 per day and a mandatory 60 days
imprisonment for violation of the local code.
In California (anticipating more stringent EPA regulations),
state, regional and local teams are collaborating to implement a comprehensive
program to optimize capacity, management, operations and maintenance (CMOM) of
all collection systems.
In St. Petersburg, Fla., a new ordinance is being written
that provides an incentive for proactive oil and grease management. Restaurants
will be required to pump their tanks every 30 days if they have a garbage
disposal and every 60 days if they do not have a garbage disposal attached to
their tanks. This is unless they receive a waiver from the city showing that
they are maintaining proper tank levels. In addition, the city may advocate
continuous monitoring at each location to provide immediate and historical data
on tank and trap performance and maintenance.
The outside grease trap/grease interceptor system of
wastewater treatment has been in use for more than 50 years. Historically,
studies consistently have shown that periodic grease tank inspections are a
vital part of proper system maintenance programs, but how frequently should tanks
be inspected and pumped?
Manual inspections are costly and time consuming. Inspection
requires locating the tank, removing the access cover and then inserting a
“sludge judge” or crude measuring device into the tank. The
measurement of the sludge, grease and liquid levels relative to the outlet tee
allows them to calculate the thickness of the solids. This method is costly and
time consuming, not to mention messy, smelly and, in many cases, dangerous. It
also is difficult to manage on a consistent basis due to the shortage of
inspectors and the growing number of businesses and facilities that must be
checked. Given the costs, manpower and the sheer volume of inspections required
to ensure compliance, control of the grease problem by inspection is impractical.
For example, there are 10,000 restaurants in Los Angeles and
a staff of 17 enforcement personnel. It takes the enforcement team two to three
years to inspect every facility. However, mandatory pumping is not a viable
long-term solution either.
providers do not properly pump tanks and traps when called in for service. In
some instances, grease and solids actually have been introduced into the tanks
by the pumper. As the cost to dispose of grease continues to rise due to the
elimination of land application processes and the refusal of more and more
treatment plants to process trap grease, the price to dispose of grease is
driven up. In many cases, pumpers are forced to travel great distances to find
a facility that will process the grease. Pumpers looking to cut cost and
dispose of less may skim the top grease and leave bottom solids.
Although pumpers may be responsible for some of the grease
problem, they are not responsible for restaurants and facilities that are out
of compliance because they just do not service their tanks and traps or because
they do not comply with best waste disposal practices. These food service
facilities are responsible for staying within guidelines and pay fines for
Good waste disposal practices implemented at each food
service facility are a necessary part of controlling the accumulation of grease
and sludge. They are necessary but not sufficient. In order to ensure compliance
at an acceptable cost, new solutions also must incorporate two critical
monitoring and tracking of regulatory compliance at the tank level.
access to real-time data about tank status from the desktop for regulators,
service providers and owners.
Recent developments in microprocessor-based ultrasonic
technology specifically designed for septic tanks and grease traps have made it
possible to continuously monitor the grease, sludge, liquid level and
temperature in tanks. The monitors utilize an ultrasonic transducer mounted on
a pipe suspended in the middle of the effluent (normally at the outlet end of
the tank). The acoustic beams in the transducer monitor to the top of the
sludge, to the bottom of the grease and to the liquid level in the pipe mounted
in the tank. The pipe acts as a stilling well, maintaining the liquid level of
Using these measurements and some preset tank dimensions,
the positioning and thickness of the solids and level of the liquid within the
tank can be calculated. The data recorded by the monitor is digitally fed back
to a control unit mounted in the customer’s building.
Data are presented to the user at his desk in a format that
is easy to understand. Programmable settings allow the service provider or the
regulator to set when the tank should be pumped based on the actual amount of
solids in the tank. At any time, owners can push a button to find out how close
the tank is to its next pumping based on the percentage of total allowable
solids, top solids or bottom solids in the tank. Status of the liquid level in
the tank in inches as well as a high or low relative to its “normal
level" also can be accessed at any at time via a button on the control
unit. A tank temperature gauge also is available that is important with grease
traps and in very cold climates. Critical solids and liquid levels can be
programmed into the system triggering a buzzer when exceeded. This information
is kept in digital memory for 20 years, serving as a historical record of
changes in the tank over time to document tank performance and routine
A tank monitoring solution based on this new technology can
save money and headaches for everyone involved in the process. Regulators have
a powerful tool to keep people in compliance and prevent overflows at less
As the cost of pumping grease escalates, food service
facilities will welcome improved management systems that will keep them in
compliance with local and state ordinances, and that will keep service costs
down. Currently, many providers charge a monthly tank fee and remove not only
the grease, but effluent as well. Monitoring becomes a tool for business owners
to ensure that their service provider is properly managing their tank or trap.
Finally, for service providers, the monitoring solution
enhances the value and profitability of service contracts. In many cases,
service providers will be in a position to pump less, yet make more. Pumping is
done when it is needed. When the tank is pumped correctly, it is possible to
wait longer before the next pumping. Less pumping for the existing customer
base frees up pump trucks and personnel to expand the business without
additional expense. For customers who always wait too long to pump, the
monitoring solution is proof that they should pump more often. This makes the
service provider’s job easier and increases service revenue.
Electronic monitoring systems have been installed in
numerous food service facilities nationwide from theme parks and prisons to
restaurant chains and hospitals. These businesses, with ultrasonic monitoring
systems for septic tanks and grease traps, are constantly analyzing tank
performance to help prevent solids from exiting their system and to recognize
the correct timing for pump out maintenance. In the case of septic systems,
regular maintenance of the septic tank also prevents failure of the drain field
due to clogging. Proper maintenance also protects surface and ground water from
nutrients, pathogens and other contaminants by preventing backups and
overflows. In environmentally sensitive areas, septic monitors are helping to
protect groundwater by preventing tank failures and disposal of harmful
bacteria into recreational lakes, streams, ponds and oceans. In every case,
owners and managers can control their system, saving money by pumping when
needed. A monitoring system also gives them the peace of mind that their system
is working properly, and they are staying within the guidelines set by state
and local regulations. For the grease traps and tanks connected to sewer lines,
monitoring is done similarly to determine the correct time to pump, protecting
the establishment from backups and the sewer system from costly clogs.
At Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Fla.,
following a number of compliance problems with their grease disposal system, a
monitoring system was installed in their grease trap on the recommendation of
the St. Petersburg Department of Public Works. They now call their pumper when
the tank reaches the recommended solids levels and are no longer having
regulatory problems and facing the risk of a system failure. By pumping when
needed, they have documented savings in both time and money. They also have the
added benefit of being able to document tank performance for regulators and
inspectors as needed.
A popular seafood restaurant in Provincetown, Mass., was
pumping two grease traps and their septic tank on a weekly basis on the
recommendation of their pumper. Even with this level of pumping, during peak
periods the grease trap was almost backing up into the parking lot. Yearly
tallies for these services were more than $20,000. After installing a grease
monitor, it was discovered that pumping on a weekly basis was not proper, too
much service was being provided at some times and not enough at peak others.
Another restaurant manager converted to the concept of
ongoing monitoring was skeptical at first. However, he knew that something
needed to be done after the restaurant had caused a two-mile backup on the city
sewer system six months earlier. One hour after a monitor was installed, it
showed that the tank contained almost 70 percent solids and a pumper
immediately was called to pump out the tank. Following the initial pumping, the
monitor still showed a 25 percent solids level, and the pumper was called back
to service the tank a second time, this time at no charge. After that incident,
the restaurant owner realized that not only could the monitor keep him out of
regulatory trouble, but also it enabled him to know whether or not his tank was
being properly serviced.
The Georgia State Prison System has facilities in urban and
rural areas. In all cases they have moved to ongoing tank and trap monitoring
in an effort to save money on service and to eliminate the risk of problems. So
far, they have 25 monitors installed and they have contracted to deploy
additional monitors at all 58 Georgia prison locations.
The primary challenge for the regulators is to develop programs
and solutions that are effective that will ensure and document compliance with
codes. The problem of grease in wastewater is not going to go away. In fact, it
will continue to rise as more development reaches every corner of our country.
Management rather than cleanup must be the approach to protect the environment
and taxpayer funds needed for other services. New technology and solutions have
been developed and are now available to provide real data on tank levels,
performance and regulatory compliance. Cities and towns are beginning to change
the focus of their efforts from catching offenders to preventing problems from
occurring. Regulators in Florida, Hawaii, California, Idaho, Kansas, North
Carolina and Massachusetts are looking at ways to use or require the
installation of monitors as an alternative to mandatory pumping and manual
Catching the situation before an actual back up occurs
averts health risks and serious damage to the system. Tank leaks also can be
detected through below normal liquid level readings. Everyone (the designer,
installer, owner, service provider, inspector, regulator, equipment
manufacturers and the environment) wins when problems are detected and
rectified before they get out of control.
With more than one million commercial tanks in the United
States and an estimated 28 million residential septic systems, the need for
proper management has never been greater. New regulation regarding onsite
septic systems and commercial grease traps is driving the need for technology
that ensures effective maintenance and regulatory compliance.
Ultrasonic tank monitoring solutions provide the means to
manage existing and new tank systems using actual real-time and historical data.
Monitors allow the owner of the tank or trap and the regulating officer to see
what is going on in the tank at any given time and to manage their waste
disposal practices. The enforcement team can keep people in compliance and
avoid overflows at lower cost. For routine maintenance of the septic tank or
grease trap, the monitor becomes the arbiter for when to pump. The service
provider is no longer questioned by the owner for trying to pump too often and
the inspector is no longer questioned for enforcing rules on when to pump based
on a time schedule that the owner feels is not necessary. The result is that
tanks or traps that really need to get pumped will get pumped more often when a
septic tank or grease trap monitor is installed. The difference is that now the
owner will have an intuitive understanding of why servicing is needed. Even
with automatic monitoring systems in place, owner awareness, managed
maintenance and regulatory oversight are important to ensure the future of
improved wastewater treatment and the environment.