Raun Norquist demonstrates Pirana septic system to officials earlier this year. Photo courtesy of danielgonzalezphotography.com.
By Stephen J. Kotz
To hear Raun Norquist tell it, “we live in a flush and forget world and nobody wants to pay attention to the problem.”
Ms. Norquist, who now lives in Noyac not far from Sag Harbor Cove, in a house with an aging brick septic system built in the 1930s, has been paying attention to that problem—the treatment of wastewater—for the better part of two decades.
“We need a paradigm shift in the way we think about treating our waste,” she said. Most methods “count on lots of water, and lots of space. And nobody is thinking about where we’re going to get it.”
Ms. Norquist represents a company called Pirana that was started by a California entrepreneur and inventor, Jerry Fife. It offers, she said, a simple method to boost the efficiency of a standard home septic system so that it releases much cleaner wastewater into the drainage field—the area surrounding the cesspool rings.
If such systems were to gain a foothold on Long Island, with its hundreds of thousands of private septic systems, there would be large scale reduction in groundwater pollution and leaching of septic waste into nearby surface waters, she said.
There would also be benefits to homeowners and local governments that must treat sludge from traditional systems. “This system is digesting what you have on site,” Ms. Norquist said, noting that regular systems need to be pumped every few years. “Pumping is expensive, it stinks, and then you are shipping it down the road to be treated at a wastewater treatment plant.”
The secret to a cleaner system lies in introducing and cultivating a large number of voracious bacteria—far more than are found in a typical septic system—that gorge themselves on the stuff we don’t like to mention in polite company. The bacteria can survive aerobically (with oxygen) or anaerobically (without it). Because there are so many of the little critters, they flow with the wastewater into the drainage field. There, they help control the formation of “biomat,” a sort of sludge formed by conventional anaerobic bacteria released by a traditional septic system and a major cause of failure.
The Pirana system that Ms. Norquist sells costs about $3,000. It consists of a 1-by-3-foot cylinder that is lowered into the existing septic tank. The cylinder has about 150 square feet of thin plastic lining coiled within it. That lining serves as a breeding ground for the bacteria that are introduced into the system in the form of a beeswax-like cake. The final element is a small pump, which injects air into the system, to help the bacteria thrive.
Ms. Norquist said about eight years ago, she had one installed in that 1930s-era septic system at her Noyac home, which was at the point of failure, and within hours the odor was gone and within days the system was functioning properly again.
The system requires little in the way of maintenance, although she said people who shut their homes down in the winter would probably be wise to add bacteria each spring when they reopen it for the season. Although hardware stores typically carry bacteria additives for septic systems, Ms. Norquist said a quart added to a system each month would produce only a fraction of the bacteria that the Pirana system supports.
Ms. Norquist who had previously been involved with a company that used an earlier but more cumbersome technology to improve septic systems, eventually became a sales representative for the firm.
Now that East End communities have turned their attention to combating the pollution caused by wastewater, Ms. Norquist is hopeful they will at least be willing to give the Pirana system a try.
She recently had what she calls a “show and tell” at her home, to which she invited Southampton Town officials and pulled the lid off her own system and retrieved a sample from it. “It looks like pale tea, it has no odor and no particulates,” she boasted.
Not only can it work in home septic systems, but Ms. Norquist is starting a pilot program to work with the Sag Harbor sewage treatment plant that will involve setting up one of its smaller holding tanks with a Pirana system to reduce the amount of sludge that must be hauled away. “They are spending $80,000 to $100,000 to haul away sludge now,” she said.
She said she regretted that East Hampton Town decided to shut down its scavenger waste plant, which she said, would also have been a perfect facility for another pilot program.
“We’ve got to stop thinking about this heavy-handed, expensive way to find ways to force nature into doing what we want,” she said, “and let it do what it wants to do.”
For more information about Pirana systems, contact Ms. Norquist at firstname.lastname@example.org .