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Additives, in general

The subject of additives or supplements to enhance performance has been debated for a long time in a number of fields. I remember Andy Granatelli in the first commercials for "STP," the racerís edge, and the controversy over whether an oil additive really provided any benefit. For years, Iíve been reading about vitamins and whether or not they are beneficial or if we are just generating very expensive urine (which may or may not help the bacteria in your septic tank). Another controversy which I have been witness to for many years since I am a microbiologist and have been associated with several biological additive companies is the one over biological additives for biological systems from activated sludge systems (an advanced type of biological wastewater treatment process) to the more simple septic tank.

Well, not only is STP still around but the last time I was in an auto parts store I saw quite a few new oil additives on the shelf. And even though many doctors say that vitamin supplements are not needed if you have a balanced diet I recently read that some 52 million people take vitamin supplements and more and more doctors are changing their position on the subject. (Besides, who eats a truly balanced diet anyway Ė the last time I went to my doctorís office he was in the other examining room eating a Bacon Super Cheese Melt or something like that.) So it is with biological additives. Not only are they still around after over twenty years of controversy despite the label of "snake oil" and everything else, which has been justly earned by the marketing techniques of some companies, as pointed out by Roger Machmeier. But, like oil additives there are more brands than there were thirty years ago showing that someone is using the stuff, even if just for the "comfort factor" as Dr. Machmeier points out. Another reason is that there IS some good technology behind many of these products.

Additives and the "experts"

Many people have asked me if it doesnít bother me that a lot of the experts donít believe in the technology. My response is "No, it doesnít" because over the years a lot of times the experts have been proven wrong. The experts thought that Pasteur was crazy when he said that little organisms too small to see caused many diseases and the spoilage of food. I donít think anyone doubts that now since over the years and with new advances in technology a body or irrefutable evidence has been compiled to support this theory. There is now a body of evidence that supports the fact that certain vitamin and food supplement regimens can improve general health and vitality as well as reduce the risk of certain cancers, heart disease, etc. And while, in some of these cases, the experts have been wrong they have often been a driving force in generating the data that substantiates the technologies.

Additives and the lack of data

In most of these situations people develop theories based on observations made and implement the theories in the real world without a lot of the monitoring necessary to generate data that a scientist would like to see to make a strong scientific argument in support of the theory. As a result, much of the early data is qualitative or "anecdotal" and consists of testimonials and observations made under uncontrolled conditions. Scientists hate this sort of stuff. We like lots of data, graphs and controls. Marketers, however, love these testimonials, etc. because a consumer will get more out of another user proclaiming their good results than a bunch of data.

There are two big obstacles to overcome in trying to generate the kind of data scientists and engineers would like to see for septic tank additives. The first is that, while similar, no two septic tanks are exactly alike so agreeing on the configuration, loading, etc. that goes into the test protocol is not easy to do. (We recently were involved in studies sponsored by the National Pork Producers Council and it took more than a year to finalize a protocol to test additives for controlling odors in hog manure.) Second, running a well-documented study costs money Ė and it can be a lot if the study is done properly and over a long enough time frame. The analytical costs alone are sky high. And if a private company did fund an in-depth study and it was known that the study was sponsored by the company that produces the product tested most people would discount the results anyway. For example, when you see a study on the benefits of orange juice that was sponsored by the orange juice council donít you become just a little bit skeptical, even if it is a major university or professional group doing the study? Since there is no danger to using most of these additives they make it to market without standards or extensive supportive data.

This isnít a "premium" market like the pharmaceutical industry where they perform extensive trials and gets tons of documentation before introducing a product but have high profit margins to recover their R&D expenses. In this case peoples lives may be at risk too. The biological additive companies just donít have those kinds of revenues, profit margins, or research budgets. In recent years, I have also heard more scientists who are becoming less enamored with a lot of lab data, which shows excellent results in the lab but canít seem to be reproduced in the field where it really counts. They would rather try a product out in the real world environment and see how it fares there providing there is no imminent risk involved in the testing.

Additives and the "real experts"

As a scientist and septic tank owner I have a unique, sometimes too intimate, perspective on not only the issue but also some of the problems experienced by septic tank owners. I tend to value the observations and opinions of the pumpers in this area more than anyone. They are the real "professionals" and "experts" and I have gotten a lot of the practical knowledge about septic tanks that I have gained from these people.

Most pumpers arenít misled by the false claims made by companies that hype additives from chemicals, solvents, enzymes and bacteria. Unfortunately, the septic tank owner doesnít usually consult their best source of information - the pumper. Most pumpers know how and what various additives can do. They may not completely understand the chemistry or enzyme kinetics or population dynamics but they know from experience what the products can and cannot do in a septic tank as well as which ones work best in the majority of cases.

Additives and reality

Most of the products that are hyped have names with the words "magic", "turbo" or anything else that conveys high tech and astounding performance. As in most cases, if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Having a septic tank I regularly receive telemarketing calls and flyers on additives making wild claims, which would make me laugh more if I didnít know that these claims reflect poorly on all additives.

Basically additives can be broken down into three categories: chemical, including oxidizing agents, alkaline compounds, buffers, solvents and surfactants; enzyme; and bacterial. With the chemicals the activity is generally more predictable.

The oxidizing agents like peroxide compounds, release oxygen to the system or leach field oxidizing organics in the septic tank or leach field depending on where they are added. They work through direct chemical oxidation or providing oxygen for aerobic bacteria whose metabolism is more efficient than that of the anaerobic bacteria. Alkaline compounds include hydroxide compounds like calcium hydroxide that raise the pH of the septic tank, which tends to run on the acid side due to the anaerobic activity in the tank. They can also chemically digest certain organic materials. Buffers like sodium bicarbonate, or "baking soda" also adjust the pH to a more desirable range without the danger of overshooting which is possible with alkaline or caustic compounds. Surfactants and solvents are used to help solubilize or suspend fats and oils so they donít build up in the system. Unfortunately, two problems have been observed with these types of additives. The first is that the solubilized oil and grease are carried to the leach field that can be blinded or plugged if the biological activity is not adequate to break them down. The second is that some of these compounds arenít readily biodegradable and persist in the environment possibly resulting in groundwater pollution.

Enzymes are biological in nature and most come from plant or microbial sources. Enzymes are proteins that catalyze biochemical reactions. They are not living and do not reproduce so over time wash out of the system. Enzymes are very specific in the types of reactions they catalyze. Enzymes work best when they are used to speed up the slow step in a reaction like using lipase to speed up the first step of fat breakdown. Since enzymes are natural materials they are biodegradable and donít persist in the environment. As a result they do not normally present a pollution hazard.

Biological additives that contain bacteria and some which contain bacteria and enzymes are designed to augment the existing populations in the septic tank. What few people who have septic tanks realize is that a septic tank is a living system. It is a households water recycling system and microbes are what make it work using natures own cycles for returning the carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous and other elements to the environment With this in mind, it makes sense that improving the quality and activity of the biomass will make the septic tank work better. Unfortunately, not many people monitor any performance parameters in their septic tank like BOD, suspended solids the way wastewater treatment plants do. They rely on more qualitative observations like the fact that their system is backing up.

While several biological products manufacturers make or have made a claim of never having to pump out your system, this is just not possible as Roger Machmeier pointed out. The bacteria can break down most of the organic solids in the waste but nothing is going to break down the inorganics like sand, etc. and what is known as the non-biodegradable fraction of the organic waste. (Some people call this the "bug bones".) Eventually this will build up at the bottom of the tank and have to be pumped out to keep them from being transported to the leach field. (I use our own ProPump‚ product in my septic tank and still have it pumped out on average every three years.)

A lot of the critics of biological additives ask "Why add bacteria when there are a lot of bacteria in the system already?" Well, the same reason people with lawns overseed with grass seed when there is already grass there Ė to get the ideal distribution of the most desirable species to provide the best results.

One well documented field study on 30 laboratory microcosms and 14 septic tanks conducted by a major producer of bacteria for the septic tank market showed a 70% reduction in surface solids accumulation and a 40% reduction in bottom solids accumulation. These results may be published at some point when the company decides the timing is appropriate. Ecological is in discussions now with some consultants to design and run some closely monitored field studies. While the initial study will probably generate more questions than answers we are committed to doing this to validate the technology.

Until then I will go with the observations of over 3,000 septic tank haulers who have been offering our product for up to 10 years because it provides, in their estimation, the best results. Last year I spent some time in our booth at the Pumper Show in Nashville and found that our best salespeople where pumpers who used the product and were happy to share their experiences with other septic tank professionals.

The best thing to do in taking sides in this ongoing debate is to keep an open mind and go with your own findings until the definitive study comes along. Donít make your decisions on the say so of anybody Ė not the additive marketers, not the industry experts and not the scientists. Just remember the line Chico Marx used in one of the Marx Brothers movies when he was trying to con someone Ė "Who are you going to believe Ė me or your own two eyes?" Believe your own two eyes.

Mark J. Krupka
Technical Director
Ecological Laboratories


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