By Scott Warrington and Dennis Klager
Carpet cleaners frequently inquire about how and where they may dump their waste water. This may be out of concern for the environment or simply a desire to avoid fines and other legal problems. There is no one answer that is right in every situation. A solution that is right in one part of your service area may not be allowed in another location you service.
During past decades of truckmount cleaning and water extraction, one typical procedure was to open the dump valve and empty the water onto the driveway and into the street, ending up in the storm drain.
The storm drain is the opening out on the street that clears away water during a “storm”. This water goes to our lakes and streams, usually with no filtering. Whatever is in the wastewater ends up in a river or lake. This is NOT the sewer system.
I have witnessed cleaners who open a valve and dump dirty water while driving down a highway or city street.
When automatic pump outs came along, technicians could place a discharge hose in the flower bed or on the lawn and dump wastewater onto the ground.
What has happened, in some cities, response to dumping on driveways and city streets has been met by the city or local municipality imposing fines and even criminal charges. In Houston, it can be a substantial fine plus criminal charges.
Local jurisdictions – states, counties, and cities – are all able to enact regulations that control how wastewater is managed. These regulations are often adopted from guidelines and licensing requirements set out by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Whatever the specific details, the goals are to keep drinking water safe, minimize impact on the environment especially aquatic life, and to avoid creating problems with the wastewater treatment facilities.
We will examine the potential issues and some possible solutions for different situations.
What are the potential issues when wastewater is discharged into septic lines or a septic field? Number one is the volume of water. Septic tanks and fields are built to handle the expected volume of discharge from the home or other facility that feeds it, plus limited extra capacity as margin for error.
Waste material must spend sufficient time in the septic system before it is ready to percolate through the ground and reach aquifers or drinking water. The addition of an extra 100 gallons of water to the systems may push waste matter through the system too fast.
An additional concern is how the waste material affects the bacteria working to digest organic matter in the septic system. Excessively high or low pH or the addition of a quantity of solvents can slow or stop the action of the bacteria necessary to breakdown waste material.
It may be acceptable to dispose of limited quantities of wastewater from carpet cleaning in a septic field through a drain or commode. But this would be unacceptable for large volumes of water or if the waste includes significant volume of solvents.
Sewer / Waste Treatment Facilities
Known as publically owned treatment works (POTW), most communities will have a wastewater treatment plant that incorporates a series of processes to remove pollutants from wastewater. These plants are designed to treat organic materials not hazardous chemicals. Even household cleaners, beauty products, medicine, and lawn care products should not be disposed of in public sewer lines. Are there potential issues for the cleaner who wants to discharge into a sewer that leads to a POTW? Yes, there are several.
Foremost are synthetic fibers and other non-soluble solids. During the cleaning process, especially with cut-pile carpet and staple fibers, there will be some shedding of fibers. These fibers along with paper clips, staples and other miscellaneous solids will enter the wastewater. They can contribute to clogging of pipes. They don’t breakdown in a system that is designed to eliminate organic solids. They must be filtered out at some point.
The easiest way to accomplish that is by a simple prefilter added to your vacuum line before the waste tank.
A second concern is solvents. More stringent regulation of solvents used in cleaning, has resulted in volatile solvents that would easily evaporate with low vapor pressure or non-volatile solvents that evaporate slowly if at all. This reduces solvent vapors in the breathing air space, but more solvents end up in the wastewater. Yes, these solvents are usually diluted with large volumes of water; however sophisticated equipment can detect amounts in parts per billion. This increased awareness of the presence of solvents has heightened concerns. Small amounts of solvents are still permitted in most jurisdictions, but if quantities of paint, oil and grease removers, graffiti removers and similar solvents are used, it may be necessary to dispose of the waste as hazardous waste.
The pH of the wastewater is also a concern. Highly alkaline or highly acidic waste can interfere with the chemistry used at the treatment plant. The pH of your wastewater should be between 5.5 and 9.0. In practice, this is seldom a problem since any cleaning products are highly diluted with water.
The run-off of fertilizers containing phosphates into streams, rivers, lakes and other bodies of water encourages the growth of aquatic plants. Plants use the oxygen dissolved in the water leaving less oxygen for fish. This can result in fish kills. The process is known as eutrophication. The problem is mainly from agriculture, but regulations limit the amount of phosphates that can be in cleaning products including laundry detergents and carpet cleaning presprays. There may also be rules on how much if any phosphate can be dumped where it will drain into a body of water.
There may also be concerns about pesticides. Although disinfectants have been classified as pesticides, carpet cleaners do not use pesticides in the regular course of cleaning. Any pesticides in the recovered water were cleaned out of the carpet after being applied by a pest control company or the home-owner themselves.
Emptying the waste tank where the water can run to a storm drain is not approved in any situation. Draining to gutters, paved streets, parking lots and similar would fall into this category.
If some areas, especially where water is a scarce commodity, pre-filtered water may be dumped onto ground. However, water should not be discharged where it can reach a stream, creek, river, lake or other body of surface water. In situations where water can be drained onto the ground, it should be a minimum of 75’ from any body of water. The discharge should not be on top of a septic field nor within 35’ of any drinking water well.
Surface draining should not be done repeatedly in the same location, even if it is your own property. Quantities over 150 gallons should be discharged onto the ground at one location.
Pumping pre-filtered wastewater to a drain or commode that leads to a sanitary sewer system and treatment facility is acceptable in every location as long as you have the property owner’s permission. These sewer lines may also be reached through a clean-out opening in the yard if one is present. Look for white PVC cap to locate a clean-out.
Some recreational vehicle parks may allow you to dump into their system where RV holding tanks are emptied. There is usually a fee and should only be done with the permission of the operator of the facility. Some car wash facilities may allow you to dump filtered water. However, this can put a strain on some recovery systems. Do so only with permission from the owner.
Another option is to create a dump site at your office location. This may be as simple as a small concrete basin and filter that drains into the public sewer through a cleanout connection at your shop or office. The company I worked for did this. We even made a public invitation to other cleaning companies to use our approved dump site in lieu of emptying their waste tanks in a ditch beside the road. No other company ever took us up on the offer, but our concern for the environment did generate some favorable publicity.
If the source of the wastewater is extraction from a water loss, category 1 and 2 water can be handled in a similar fashion to wastewater from carpet cleaning. Category 3 water should only be disposed of through a sewer system that leads to a waste treatment facility (POTW).
Another major issue can be a company doing a sewer backup cleanup. Let’s say the sewer serving the whole cul-de-sac is backed up. What do you do with the extracted sewage? According to the IICRC S500, it must be hauled to a licensed wastewater treatment plant or other appropriate facility in accordance with local regulations.
You could call a septic tank cleaning company or licensed waste hauler to do this. Just be sure, whatever you do is legal and safe.
One of our carpet cleaning trucks was leaking a little water, in our parking lot, due to not being completely emptied after a job. The local village officials came to our office, to inform us if it was still leaking tomorrow, we would be fined.
Make sure you know the laws in your area. It can be very expensive getting caught using the storm drain to dump your water. In some locations the “whistle-blower” who reports illegal dumping may get a reward based on fines you pay. That can be a strong incentive for someone to be watching how you handle the wastewater. PLUS, depending on what you are using to clean, it may not be good for our lakes and streams!
Make some phone calls. Don’t guess. Know your local laws!
 What Can You Do to Protect Local Waterways? From the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
 Portions of this article is based on “Recommended Guidelines for Waste Water Disposal” Updated September 2012 by The Society of Cleaning and Restoration Technicians.
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