A vacuum sewer or pneumatic sewer system is a method of transporting sewage from its source to a sewage treatment plant. It maintains a partial vacuum, with an air pressure below atmospheric pressure inside the pipe network and vacuum station collection vessel. Valves open and reseal automatically when the system is used, so differential pressure can be maintained without expending much energy pumping. A single central vacuum station can collect the wastewater of several thousand individual homes, depending on terrain and the local situation.
Vacuum sewers were first installed in Europe in 1882. Dutch engineer Charles Liernur first applied negative pressure drainage to sewers in the second half of the 19th century. Technical implementations of vacuum sewerage systems began in 1959 in Sweden. Until the last 30 years[clarification needed], vacuum sewers were relegated to niche markets, such as trains, airplanes, and flat areas with sandy soils and high ground water tables.
In the 20th century, vacuum sewer technology has improved significantly, reducing operation and maintenance costs. Nowadays several system suppliers offer a wide range of products for many applications.
- 1 Basic elements
- 2 Advantages
- 3 Limitations
- 4 Applications
- 5 Treatment
- 6 Examples
- 7 Ruling technical guidelines and norms
- 8 References
The main components of a vacuum sewer system are a collection chambers and vacuum valve parts, sewers, a central vacuum station and monitoring and control components.
Some vacuum systems use gravity drainage for the first phase of collection; sewage flows by means of gravity from each house, as in a standard system. It discharges into a collection sump that might collect sewage from 2-6 houses and is located in a public area. Vacuum toilets are connected directly to a vacuum line.
Vacuum technology is based on differential air pressure. Rotary vane vacuum pumps generate an operation pressure of -0.4 to -0.6 bar at the vacuum station, which is also the only element of the vacuum sewerage system that must be supplied with electricity.
Interface valves are installed inside the collection chambers. They work pneumatically. After a certain fill level inside this sump is reached, the interface valve opens. The impulse to open the valve is transferred by a pneumatically mechanical controlled controller unit. No electricity is needed to open or close the valve. The energy is provided by the vacuum itself.
While the valve is open, the resulting differential pressure between atmosphere and vacuum becomes the driving force and transports the wastewater and air towards the vacuum station. Besides these collection chambers, no other manholes, neither for changes in direction, nor for inspection or connection of branch lines, are necessary. High flow velocities keep the system free of any blockages or sedimentation.
Large systems with numerous collection chambers benefit from the provision of a monitoring system for remote monitoring of the vacuum valves and sump pits. Such systems allow much faster troubleshooting and easier preventive maintenance of collection chambers and valves. However, monitoring systems are optional systems and not required for operation of vacuum sewer systems.
Vacuum sewer systems are considered to be free of ex- and infiltration which allows their use even in water protection areas. For this reason, vacuum sewer lines may even be laid in the same trench as potable water lines (depending on local guidelines).
In order to ensure reliable transport, the vacuum sewer line is laid in a saw-tooth (length-) profile. The whole vacuum sewers are filled with air at a pressure of -0.4 to -0.6 bar. The most important aspect for a reliable operation is the air-to-liquid ratio. When a system is well designed, the sewers contain only very small amounts of sewage. The air-to-liquid ratio is usually maintained by collecting liquid/air simultaneously or controller units that adjust their opening times according to the pressure in the system.
Sewers can be laid in flat terrain, and parts may flow uphill (within limits). A saw-tooth profile keeps sewer lines shallow; in frost-free climates, trench depth can be approx. 1.0 – 1.2 m. By contrast, gravity sewers need a monotonically falling slope of at least 0.5 - 1.0%, which can mean that expensive trenching and pumping stations are needed.
Once the wastewater arrives in the vacuum collection tank at the vacuum station, it is pumped to the discharge point, which could be either a gravity sewer or the treatment station. As the dwell time of the wastewater inside the system is very short and the wastewater is continuously mixed with air, the sewage is kept fresh and any fouling inside the system is avoided (less H2S).
- closed, mechanical/pneumatical controlled system with a central vacuum station. Electrical energy is only needed at this central station
- no sedimentation due to self-cleansing high velocities
- spooling and maintenance of the sewer lines is not necessary
- manholes are not required
- Usually only a single vacuum pump station is required rather than multiple stations found in gravity and low pressure networks. This frees up land, reduces energy costs and reduces operational costs.
- investment costs can be reduced up to 50% due to simple trenching at shallow depths, close to surface
- flexibility of piping, obstacles (as open channels) can be over- or underpassed
- reduced installation time
- small diameter sewer pipes of HDPE, PVC materials; savings of material costs
- aeration of sewage, less development of H2S, with its dangers for workers, inhabitants, as well as corrosion of the pipes may be avoided; sewage is kept fresh
- no odours along the closed vacuum sewers
- no stormwater infiltration, therefore less hydraulic load at the wastewater treatment plant
- absolutely no leakages (vacuum avoids exfiltration)
- sewers may be laid in the same trench with other mains, also with potable water or storm-water, as well as in water protection areas
- Lower cost to maintain in the long term due to shallow trenching and easy identification of problems
- In combination of vacuum toilets it creates concentrated waste streams, which makes it feasible to use different waste water treatment techniques, like anaerobic treatment
- vacuum systems are not capable of transporting sewage over very long distances, but can pump long distances from the vacuum station to the next sewage treatment plant or main gravity sewer.
- vacuum sewerage systems are only capable for the collection of wastewater within a separated system (not for the collection of storm water)
- the lines can only reach up to 3–4 km laid in flat area (restrictions of the system due to headlosses (3-4.5 m) (friction and static))
- systems should be designed with help of an experienced manufacturer (concepts are usually free of charge)
- external energy is required at the central vacuum station.
- odours close to the vacuum station can occur, a biofilter may be necessary
- integrity of the pipe joints is paramount
- grease can clog the sensor tube (if set up incorrectly) thus requiring preventative maintenance cleaning
- vacuum valves can get stuck open leading to pressure drops in the entire system. However, a monitoring system can help identifying stuck open valves immediately
Vacuum sewer systems may be the preferred system in the case of particular circumstances, such as:
Lack of water in many countries and drastic water savings measures have led to difficulties with aging gravity networks with solids blocking in the pipes. Vacuum systems save water.
Boggy, rocky, or permafrost terrain
Flat terrain, unfavourable soil (rocky or swampy ground), or a high groundwater table (which requires dewatering trenches) can make gravity sewerage systems much more expensive. Vacuum sewers are small in diameter and leak inwards, and in frost-free areas, they can be laid close to the surface in small trenches.
Water protection areas, environmental use
Vacuum sewers can pass through water protection areas and areas with sensitive high ground water tables, because there is no danger of spoiling groundwater resources (vacuum sewers have a high leak tightness due to their material; and if they leak, they leak inwards). Vacuum systems are used in many environmentally sensitive areas such as the Couran Cove Eco Resort close to the Barrier Reef in Australia.
Vacuum systems have also been applied to collect toxic wastewater from the environment.
Seasonally sub-freezing climates
If the temperatures in an area dip below freezing in winter, the vacuum line is buried below the frost line, in ground that stays unfrozen year-round (as are conventional gravity sewers). Valves, collection pits, intake vents, and control systems need to be designed to keep functioning despite cold, snow and ice. Temperature-monitoring sensors are also standard, so problems can be noticed early.
In Plum Island (Massachusetts), a vacuum sewer was installed without these precautions, despite the local climate, which has sub-freezing temperatures and significant snowfall in winter. The system worked in summer, but in winter the pipes and valves froze, the air intakes became buried in snowdrifts, and sewage backed up into homes. 60 households had to be rehoused in hotels until the thaw. The city is trying to recover costs for dealing with the problems and fixing the "fundamentally flawed" system.
Low or seasonal population density
With lower population densities, the costs for the collection chambers and vacuum stations are less important than the costs of installing pipe and, for gravity sewers, pumping stations, etc.. Pneumatic pipes are generally smaller than gravity-drained hydraulic ones In frost-free climates, the pipes for a vacuum system can also be buried more shallowly than a gravity system.
High specific conduit lengths, where the required pipe length is longer than ~4 metres per inhabitant, will tend to make a vacuum system cheaper.
In seasonal settlements (recreation areas, camping sites etc.) with conventional gravity sewer systems, sedimentation problems can easily occur as automatic flushing by daily waste water does not take place. High flow velocities within vacuum sewers prevent such sedimentation problems. The Formula 1 race tracks in Shanghai and Abu Dhabi are using a vacuum sewer system for that reason.
Historic sites may have old buildings, narrow streets, and steep terrain. Tourism may also cause strong seasonal fluctuations in population density. Vacuum sewer systemsmay be selected for their fast (avoiding conflicts with traffic and tourism), cost-effective and flexible installation. Examples include Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, France, and Khasab and Al Seeb in Oman.
Vacuum sewer systems can be set up so that they collect concentrated blackwater (toilet wastewater) only, with the greywater from sinks and baths being collected separately (it is much easier to treat greywater than blackwater). The biosolids from a vacuum system need not be diluted with flushing water.
- In the Bering Strait region of Western Alaska both the Native Village of Savoonga, located on St. Lawrence Island, population 600, and the Native Village of Saint Micheal located on Norton Sound, have been using vacuum sewer systems for years.
- Selawik, renovated its vacuum sewer system in 2014, saving over $217 000 a year on energy costs.
- Especially in the Middle East (United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman), vacuum sewer systems become more and more important due to easy and fast installation along with water saving effects and easiness of maintenance.
- Palm Island Jumeirah, located at the coast of Dubai City, United Arab Emirates, has low, flat terrain, with a high water table, a water protection area, a need to conserve freshwater, and a low population density. It has therefore installed a vacuum sewer system. Approx. 23,000 people (or 2000 buildings) will be connected to this vacuum sewer system. The system has only one central vacuum station serving 40km of sewer line. The vacuum station is considered to be the biggest vacuum station in the world.
- The eco-city of Masdar, U.A.E., uses a vacuum sewer system as well to separate grey from black water.
- Lately, vacuum sewer systems become popular for industrial and commercial projects as well, where only little domestic waste water occurs and where the flexibility of a vacuum sewer system allows easy coordination with usually plenty of other utilities in the ground. Good examples can be found again in the Middle East, such as some small industrial areas in the Emirate of Ras al Khaimah or the newly built Qatalum Aluminium Plant in Qatar, the world's largest primary aluminium plant.
- Vacuum sewer systems are not only used in the Europe or Middle East but even in low developed third world countries. Several vacuum sewer systems have been already built or are currently under construction in Africa (South Africa, Botswana, Namibia) for townships and rural areas where the benefit of fast construction time, cost saving trenching and high flexibility have come to full effect.
- Australia has been one of the largest users of vacuum sewer systems due to the low installation and operational costs. The largest system to-date has been at the Tea Gardens development in New South Wales, which will ultimately handle over 4,500 houses. The Water Corporation in Western Australia is considered the largest single owner of vacuum systems in the world with over 30 schemes now under their operational control.
High water table areas
- The United Kingdom is well served by Vacuum Sewerage Systems, the region most extensively served are the low lying fenlands of the East of England. High water tables (in some cases less than 1metre below the surface) and poor ground conditions have meant that the local Water Company, Anglian Water, has embraced the use of Vacuum Sewerage, taking advantage of the system's requirement for small bore sewer pipes laid in shallow trenches, dramatically reducing the requirement for pumping stations as would be required by conventional gravity sewer systems. The largest Vacuum Sewerage scheme in this region serves the villages of Outwell and Upwell, 4 vacuum collection stations serve some 1500 homes in this agglomeration. On initial costings for a conventional gravity sewer to serve the area, previously served by domestic septic settlement tanks the site would have required the installation of 32 pumping stations. Using a vacuum sewer system, this number of pumping stations was reduced to 4 vacuum stations. Other companies in the UK such as Southern water operate vacuum sewer systems, too.
- In northern Germany, several hundred systems have been operating since the 1970s. More are planned. Hamburg's 770-unit Jenfelder Au development was planned with vacuum sewers.
- The city of Ocean Shores, Washington makes a good case for vacuum sewer reliability and endurance. The city’s vacuum system is one of the largest in the world, and it’s also mature; most of its components are more than 20 years old and must function in a challenging operational environment along with gravity sewer and grinder pump systems. 
- The county of Sarasota, Florida and the city of Carnation, Washington are developing a county wide collection system that incorporates vacuum sewers.
- Good examples can be found on the Maldives, the post-tsunami WATSAN project UNICEF - UN, where on several islands vacuum sewer systems have been the best option. Several other project, mainly for resorts, have already been realized on the Maldives.
Areas with seasonal freezing
- The biggest installation in Europe (several vacuum stations) can be found in Gerasdorf (near Vienna), Austria, where many benefits of a vacuum sewer system helped to overcome difficult conditions in this mountainous area.
- Estonia has vacuum sewers.
- Poland has vacuum sewers.
Ruling technical guidelines and norms
- EN 1091
- DWA-A 116-1 (also known as ATV-DVWK-A 116, Part 1)
- WEF (Water Environment Federation) Alternative Sewer Systems (Second Edition -2008)
- WSA 07 (Australian Code)
- AS 4310 - 2004 (Australian Vacuum Interface Valve Standard)
- 1892 Patent: Pneumatic Sewerage system sewerhistory.org
- "Keeping Ocean Shores Clean: Coastal Town Relies on Vacuum Sewers". informedinfrastructure.com. 18 October 2016.
- "How Vacuum Sewerage Systems Work - Flovac Vacuum Sewerage Systems". flovac.com.
- "Frozen Vacuum Sewers and the Lessons from Europe". flovac.com. 29 May 2015.
- REPORTS, STAFF. "On Plum Island, 'justice' sought for sewer woes". newburyportnews.com.
- "Recent Advancements in Wastewater Sludge Composting - Water & Wastes Digest". www.wwdmag.com.
- "City of Coeur d'Alene - BioSolids Composting". www.cdaid.org.
- "KREIS - Kopplung von regenerativer Energiegewinnung mit innovativer Stadtentwässerung". Archived from the original on 29 December 2013. Retrieved 10 April 2016. (in English, despite German title)
- "PCS: Vacuum Sewer Construction". archive.org. 13 October 2007.
- "Wayback Machine" (PDF). archive.org. 23 May 2004.