A history of cesspools, septic tanks and BSI

What are cesspools and septic tanks?

In the UK a cesspool is a sealed tank for the reception and temporary storage of sewage, whereas in the US it is often referred to as a “holding tank.” Because it is sealed, the tank must be emptied at least weekly. A septic tank is a multi-chamber storage tank allowing liquid and solid waste to separate and partly treats the sewage. The liquid flows out of the tank and be disposed of separately.  It still contains sewage but in small enough particles to be carried through a discharge outlet and into the ground.

Origins- Renaissance to 1880’s

Cesspools have been around since the time the Renaissance began, and became commonplace in some European cities in the 14th century. They were a more sanitary alternative to simply tossing sewage into the street. They have moved gradually toward becoming obsolete since the modern septic system was developed in the late 19th century, but they are still used in regions where sewer systems aren't present.
The underground septic tank system is believed to have originated in France. John Mouras is credited for inventing the septic tank system on or around the year 1860 and eventually patented the idea in 1881.  By the mid 1880's, two-chamber, automatic siphoning septic tank systems, similar in concept to those used today, were being installed in the United States. They eventually appeared in English properties in the late 1800's and were introduced to many other countries by the British Military.

Standards finally appear

There does not appear to have been a UK standard for cesspools until the late 1940s. The post-war Atlee government felt that while the use of cesspools was not considered good practice, it was recognized that it was the only practical method of dealing with sewerage in some area, possibly as a result of damage caused by the war.

BSI’s Council for Codes of Practice for Construction and Engineering works was commissioned by the Ministry of Works to produce CP 302.200 (Cesspools) in 1949.

A standard for septic tanks did not appear until 1956 in the form of CP 302.100 Small Domestic Sewage Treatment Works.  Interestingly, a “septic tank” was regarded as a “cesspool” within the meanings of the Public Health Act 1936 at that time.

1970’s to date

The 1956 Code of Practice was revised to become CP 302:1972, and included coverage of settlement tables installations, activated sludge (treatment of sewage by aeration” and “effluent polishing” (removal of solids from secondary effluent).

CP 302.200 Cesspools had few revisions until it and CP 302:1972 were replaced by the one standard in 1983 – BS 6297 Design and Installation of Small Sewage Treatment Works and Cesspools. 
BS 6297 was revised in 2007 to cover holiday parks with up to 250 population equivalents and include designs of the most commonly used drainage fields.
What’s available in the Knowledge Centre?

BSI’s Knowledge Centre can provide access to withdrawn CP 302 series, the 1972 and 1983 revisions. Members can view withdrawn standards without charge in Chiswick, and they are available for purchase in hard copy and PDF. BSI members receive a 50% discount, free postage and can buy on account.

To find out more please contact the Knowledge Centre at: knowledgecentre@bsigroup.com or on +44 (0)20 8996 7004

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