Steps of a Wastewater Treatment Plant

The major aim of wastewater treatment is to remove as much of the suspended solids as possible before the remaining water, called effluent, is discharged back to the environment. As solid material decays, it uses up oxygen, which is needed by the plants and animals living in the water.

Wastewater Treatment Process illustration

“Primary treatment” removes about 60 percent of suspended solids from wastewater. This treatment also involves aerating (stirring up) the wastewater, to put oxygen back in. Secondary treatment removes more than 90 percent of suspended solids.

Steps in the wastewater treatment process

1. Pumping

The wastewater system relies on the force of gravity to move sewage from your home to the treatment plant. So wastewater-treatment plants are located on low ground, often near a river into which treated water can be released. If the plant is built above the ground level, the wastewater has to be pumped up to the facility. From here on, gravity takes over to move the wastewater through the treatment process.

2. Screening

Wastewater entering the treatment plant includes items like wood, rocks, and even dead animals. Unless they are removed, they could cause problems later in the treatment process. Most of these materials are sent to a landfill.

3. Removing grit and sludge

Wastewater then enters the second section of sedimentation tanks. Here, the sludge (the organic portion of the sewage) settles out of the wastewater and is pumped out of the tanks. Some of the water is removed in a step called thickening and then the sludge is processed in large tanks called digesters.

4. Sedimentation – removing scum

As sludge is settling to the bottom of the sedimentation tanks, lighter materials are floating to the surface. This ‘scum’ includes grease, oils, plastics, and soap. Slow-moving rakes skim the scum off the surface of the wastewater. Scum is thickened and pumped to the digesters along with the sludge.

Many cities also use filtration in sewage treatment. After the solids are removed, the liquid sewage is filtered through a substance, usually sand, by the action of gravity. This method gets rid of almost all bacteria, reduces turbidity and color, removes odors, reduces the amount of iron, and removes most other solid particles that remained in the water. Water is sometimes filtered through carbon particles, which removes organic particles. This method is used in some homes, too.

5. Aerating and Biological Reduction

One of the steps that a water treatment facility can do is to just shake up the sewage and expose it to air. This causes some of the dissolved gases (such as hydrogen sulfide, which smells like rotten eggs) that taste and smells bad to be released from the water. Wastewater enters a series of long, parallel concrete tanks. Each tank is divided into two sections. In the first section, air is pumped through the water.

As organic matter decays, it uses up oxygen. Aeration replenishes the oxygen. Bubbling oxygen through the water also keeps the organic material suspended while it forces ‘grit’ (coffee grounds, sand, and other small, dense particles) to settle out. Grit is pumped out of the tanks and taken to landfills.

6. Final sedimentation
Sedimentation is a physical water treatment process using gravity to remove suspended solids from water. For sedimentation to take place, the solids being deposited must be denser than the medium in which they reside.

The final sedimentation process is important for wastewater treatment plants because it removes large particles that were not removed by other systems and could damage pumps or pipes if left behind when treated water goes out into rivers and oceans. Additionally, final sediments are able to provide a nutrient-rich sludge that can be used as an agricultural fertilizer. The final step of sedimentation also allows operators of wastewater treatment facilities to separate any remaining fine particles from chemical additives such as chlorine gas (Cl), aluminum sulfate (Al(SO)), ferric chloride (FeCl), etc., so these chemicals don’t end up back in the

7. Disinfection – Killing bacteria

Finally, the wastewater flows into a ‘chlorine contact’ tank, where the chemical chlorine is added to kill bacteria, which could pose a health risk, just as is done in swimming pools. The chlorine is mostly eliminated as the bacteria are destroyed, but sometimes it must be neutralized by adding other chemicals. This protects fish and other marine organisms, which can be harmed by the smallest amounts of chlorine.

The treated water (called effluent) is then discharged to a local river or the ocean.