News | October 28, 1999

Low-Pressure Sewer Systems: Economic Advantages from Construction Through Operation and Maintenance

Low-Pressure Sewer Systems: Economic Advantages from Construction Through Operation and Maintenance
George A. Earle, III, P.E.
R. Paul Farrell Jr., P.E.
Environment One Corporation

Presented at the Hawaii Water Environment Association
19th Annual Conference

Ala Moana Hotel
Honolulu, Hawaii
February 13, 1997

Numerous low-pressure sewer (LPS) systems using semi-positive displacement grinder pumps have now been in operation for periods up to two decades. Economic advantages of pressure sewers in a wide variety of appropriate circumstances such as hilly, rocky and flat terrain were recognized decades ago. Dramatically lower total capital cost resulting from the ease of installation, as well as deferral of major "up front" construction costs are particularly significant. A mathematical model is introduced that estimates the reduced capital cost of LPS systems versus gravity sewers.

On the other hand, many engineers and operating personnel have been, and some still are, reluctant to adopt LPS systems because they have concern that Operating and Maintenance requirements will be excessive. These concerns were prudent 25 years ago, when pressure sewers and grinder pumps had no "track record." Today, however, there is a large body of well-documented experience showing the long-term reliability and operating costs associated with LPS systems from many parts of the U.S. Operating data for periods ranging up to 18 years were solicited from operators of several of these systems and, after analysis, comprises the second part of this paper. Three LPS system case studies are included, which show that if a system is properly designed and constructed, the actual operating costs are far lower and the maintenance much less frequent than would be expected based on conventional wisdom.

A final case study emphasizes the freedom from infiltration/inflow that is characteristic of all properly constructed LPS systems.

Lower Capital Cost Advantage
Pressure sewers have come a long way since the ASCE-sponsored development (Farrell 1968 and Anon. 1969) and federally sponsored demonstration projects of the early 1970s (Carcich 1972a, 1972b; Mekosh 1973; and Eblen 1978). It was apparent early on that, in the right circumstances, pressure sewers offered dramatic capital cost savings. The first municipal project funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (Gray 1975) served an initial section of the City of Weatherby Lake, Missouri, containing 309 lakeside homes. The actual capital cost of $1.03 million was 2.2 times less than the engineer's estimate of $2.25 million for a conventional gravity system. This characteristic of dramatic savings in first cost continues to the present time. An easily applied spreadsheet model for estimating construction costs of sanitary sewers has been developed. The model is useful in comparing design approaches, including gravity and pressure alternatives.

Installation cost calculations use construction cost data taken from "Site Work and Landscape Cost Data" (Means 1997), published annually by R.S. Means Company. Cost data from this and other reliable sources are built into the model. The user chooses from an array of options describing design choices and site conditions. The model estimates a national average cost per house for the collection system under consideration. All estimates are calculated on a per-mile-of-sewer basis. Correction factors can be applied for differences in construction cost for specific cities. This spreadsheet-based model provides the consulting engineer with a tool for making an orderly comparison of construction costs for gravity and pressure collection system alternatives for a specific parcel of land or existing residential area.

The mathematical model uses the key elements of cost for both gravity and LPS systems to construct an estimate of overall cost for each alternative. The most significant cost factors for each type of sewer system are the basis for the model's data. Figure 1 shows two representative cost lines: one for LPS systems and one for gravity sewers. The lines intersect at a "break even" point. This point represents the lot width at which both system costs should be equal, given the underlying assumptions about topography and soil conditions.

Site-Specific Cost Elements
The most significant site-specific factors impacting sewer system construction cost are:

  • Topography (flat, rolling hills, steep)
  • Soil conditions (rocky, high water table, tractable)

In addition to actual bid price history from "Site Work and Landscape Cost Data," published annually by R.S. Means Co., adjustments, or multipliers, based on experience and judgment are proposed for possible variations within these characteristics. Topography will influence the number of lift stations required in a gravity system and, in some instances, can necessitate the inclusion of lift stations in an LPS system. It has been assumed that the natural contours present in rolling terrain can be taken advantage of to minimize the use of lift stations when compared to flat or steep terrain.

Topography will also dictate the burial depth of the gravity lines. For simplicity, costs were derived for three different trenching depths: 6 feet, 12 feet and 18 feet. It is believed that this is a realistic range since most collection systems will start at 3 to 4 feet (deeper if serving basements) and descend to about 18 to 24 feet before requiring a pumping station.

In flat terrain, the assumption is made that an equal amount of pipe will be buried at the three depths indicated since the pipe will be laid in a "saw-tooth" pattern from pump station to pump station. Alternately, in rolling terrain, the engineer will be able to take advantage of the natural descent of the terrain to provide the proper slope of the piping system. Therefore, it has been assumed that less pipe would need to be buried at the greater depths. Finally, in steep terrain, the authors believe a higher percentage of the piping network will require installation at the greater depths. This assumption reflects the need to transport the flow over a series of summits and valleys without excessive pumping.

Topography will have very little bearing on LPS pipe burial depth. The low-pressure sewer system pipe depth is driven almost exclusively by the frost penetration in a particular region. In warm climates, the pipe may be buried just deep enough to provide protection against mechanical damage. (In the Scandinavian countries, LPS piping is routinely installed above the frost line in insulated, heat-traced, sand-filled, foam boxes.)

Soil conditions will obviously impact construction costs. The baseline construction costs used in the model assume tractable soil. Trenching costs assumed a 1:1 slope and no sheeting. (Estimates for trenching with sheeting at 12-foot and 18-foot depths were three to four times greater.) Trenching costs assumed bank-run sand bedding 12 inches over the crown of pipe and include backfill and compaction.

Correction factors, or adjustments, were then developed to allow for construction costs in rocky conditions and high ground water. These are the most predominant situations impacting installation cost and are frequently among the drivers leading to specification of low-pressure sewers.

Application of the Model
The model is applied to a potential project by working first from the proper topographical subgroup, i.e. flat, rolling or steep terrain. This will generate cost estimates per mile of sewer for LPS and gravity, based on the following assumptions:

For all sewers:

  • Houses on both sides of the street
  • 95 percent of street frontage used
  • Sewer main per house = 1/2 the lot width
  • Collection system only; no treatment included
  • Costs based on national averages from Means' "Site Work & Landscape Cost Data," 16th Ed.

For Gravity:

  • Pipe depth based on topography
  • Manhole spacing of 600 feet
  • Lift stations based on topography

For LPS:

  • One grinder pump per house
  • Grinder pumps are 60-gallon, SPD-type installed in yard
  • Three terminal and four in-line cleanouts per mile
  • Pumping stations, if needed, based on topography

From this point, a number of adjustments based on judgment and experience can be made to further refine the estimates. These factors include:

Once the appropriate adjustments have been applied to reflect actual circumstances, a cost per-mile-of-sewer is established. This number can then be converted to a cost-per-home for various lot sizes to determine the most cost-effective solution.

Capital Cost Comparison Example A project in Hume, Missouri, built in 1993 invited bids on both pressure and gravity alternatives. Only one contractor even submitted a bid on the gravity alternate, and it was 73 percent higher than his bid for the pressure system. The following site-specific conditions exist in the example (personal comm. 1993) project:

Applying these adjustments to the basic National Average Cost of the gravity sewer per house yields the following adjusted cost estimate:

Adjusted Cost:
$9,419 x 0.95 x 1.00 x 1.03 x 0.98 x 1.04 x 1.30 x 1.00 = $11,731

The basic and adjusted calculations for Hume, Missouri, are plotted on Figure 2, and actual bid prices from February 1993 by the winning contractor are overlaid as "X"s. The correspondence is within 10 percent, definitely accurate enough to make a correct decision based on the results.

Clearly the site-specific conditions play an important role in providing meaningful economic data for comparison of sewer system alternatives. While the spreadsheet model has already provided useful data for comparison, additional refinement is on-going.

Operation and Maintenance
Despite the undisputed advantage in capital cost, many engineers have been reluctant to recommend this technology because of real concerns about long-term operating and maintenance requirements. This cautious attitude was understandable and fully justified 25 years ago when pressure sewers were first introduced and had no established record of proven long-term performance. However, there is no longer any reason to fear the O&M requirements of a well-engineered low-pressure sewer system. Many projects have now been in routine use for 15 years or more, and quality data is available from several of them (Alexander 1993; Feuss 1996). Highlights of this experience and cost data are presented here in the belief that they can be of value to those still contemplating their first pressure sewer project.

O&M Case Studies
Fairfield Glade
This is a development of retirement and recreational homes on the Cumberland plateau of Tennessee. A large manmade lake and several golf courses plus the natural beauty of the Cumberland Mountains combine to make it a very desirable community. The topography is steep, and limestone is never far below the surface. Judicious use of some gravity and much pressure, plus a few temporary septic tanks in the most remote portions, have produced a hybrid system very low in operating cost, highly reliable, and in harmony with the natural environment. Construction began in 1978, and 20 grinder pumps were installed the first year. Additional pumps have been added each year as new homes were built. The number has varied with trends in the economy over the past two decades. Currently, there are more than 1,100 grinder pumps in service. More than 100 were added in 1995. They are going in at this high rate notwithstanding a generally slow housing market nationally. The owners speculate that this is perhaps because many of the owners are retirees with substantial equity and pensions moving in from more severe northern climates.

The pressure sewer and grinder pumps are operated and maintained by an assigned crew of two, who also have other responsibilities. Detailed maintenance records are kept and informal summary reports written annually. From this operating data, Gray (1991) derived the annual per-pump O&M costs plotted on Figure 3. He also noted that, even though the average age of the pumps is increasing, the per-pump annual operating costs are still declining. The project manager attributes this to the fact that his crew has become ever more efficient at making repairs, while the manufacturer has made continuous improvements in the quality and features of the progressing cavity grinder pumps.

Pierce County, Washington
The Lakes Area in Pierce County, Washington, is a very expensive neighborhood of full- time residences, about 40 miles southwest of Seattle. Each house has its own grinder pump, many of which are duplex models. The project went on-line in 1986. There are 900 grinder pumps and the project is completely built out.

Operation and Maintenance of Grinder Pumps
The Pierce County Department of Utilities operates the system. There are two operators whose responsibilities include all operation and maintenance. Detailed records are kept of the maintenance performed on each installation.

The reliability has been so much better than initially anticipated that a remote monitoring and data collection (SCADA) system was recently removed from service. It was creating more service calls than the pumps it was intended to monitor.

The data from a 1995 annual report shows that the average yearly operating and maintenance cost per pump for 1990 through 1995 was $43. For comparison, the data is shown from a smaller system of about 75 centrifugal (CFG) grinder pumps operated by the same utility. Its average annual cost per pump is $239. This five-to-one difference in per-pump O&M cost is attributed almost entirely to the necessity for preventative maintenance (PM) calls at four-month intervals to keep grease from fouling the float switches. The semi-positive displacement (SPD) pumps have no similar need for preventative maintenance and are checked once every three years. In reviewing the original contract documents, it is evident the engineer had thoroughly studied and was familiar with these and other unique features of the SPD grinder pump because he stated therein that "no equivalent product is known to the engineer." The Department of Utilities believes that they will be able to eliminate all PM calls on the 900 SPD pumps in the near future because experience is proving this to be a wasted expenditure of funds.

Meanwhile, any available capital funds are being used to gradually replace the CFG grinder pumps with an aftermarket version of the SPD type.

Line Maintenance and Cleaning
In 1994, at a time when the system had been in full operation for about eight years, a complete line-cleaning project was carried out. Relatively soft sponge balls, one or two nominal sizes larger than the pipe, were used as "pigs." These were compressed and forced at high velocity through each reach of the system by means of a jet truck. A total of 15,700 linear feet of pressure main, ranging in diameter from 2 to 4 inches, was cleaned. The shortest reach was 700 feet of 2-inch, while the longest was 5,000 feet of 3-inch. Cost varied from 14 cents to 37 cents per linear foot, with an average of 23 cents. The biggest variable was labor costs for traffic control. A two-man crew with traffic cones was adequate in the quieter residential areas, but on thoroughfares, it was necessary to employ flagmen, which roughly doubled labor costs.

The cleaning program was completely successful. All "pigs" were recovered and very little foreign material was observed. It was concluded that the lines, which were sized according to criteria in the pump manufacturer's handbook (Environment One 1995), are essentially self-cleaning. This was a useful exercise for developing and proving technique if needed, but there are no plans for future routine cleaning.

Cuyler, New York
In the early 1970s, Cuyler, New York, was a classic example of failing septic tanks in an economically depressed, tiny, rural community. There was no organized public works department. A resident farmer operated the snow plow kept in his barn. The hamlet supervisor was a storekeeper by day and the town's administrative head during his off hours.

The public health director for Cortland county, a sanitary engineer, heard about pressure sewers at an environmental seminar in 1976 and, after intensive further study, recommended it as the solution to Cuyler's problem. Two years later, a pressure sewer system was installed that collected all the town's wastewater in 2, 3, and 4-inch SDR-21 PVC pressure pipes. These lines were laid just below the frost line at a depth of about 48 inches. Most pumps were placed indoors. The pressure collection system conveys the wastewater to a community septic tank and soil absorption system on the north edge of the village, where suitable land was available.

Financing and "Self-Help" Approach
A combination of EPA and FmHA funds financed the system, along with much local participation and contributions of professional services by a local engineer and attorney. The county highway department and students from a nearby community college contributed common labor, equipment and engineering supervision of construction. This "self-help" approach, along with the inherent savings of pressure sewers, made this community's "impossible dream" financially feasible.

Operating Experience and Costs
Operation began in 1978, and results have been extremely gratifying. Cuyler has experienced a renewed vitality, and civic pride is very high. The health department is pleased that there are no more overflowing septic tanks to cause obvious nuisances and probable health hazards.

Five years after construction, Roy F. Weston Inc. (1986) was commissioned by the EPA to conduct a post-construction evaluation of the effectiveness of the project. Their conclusions were very favorable:

  1. " ... although the total cost actually expended exceeds the $150,00 town-imposed limit, it came very close to the original estimate, and does substantiate the fact that the benefit of lowest possible capital cost was achieved. This is especially true when the cost estimates are adjusted to 1978 dollars.
  2. "The benefit of discharge elimination would appear to be completely achieved.
  3. "Overall, the operational responsibilities associated with this system have been easily managed by the small rural community of Cuyler. The benefits of minimizing operating costs and operational requirements and maximizing system reliability have been achieved."

An important part of this study was the economic evaluation, including O&M costs for the first five years. Recently, the senior author, with assistance from the town clerk (Jackson 1994) and the public health director, brought this economic analysis up to date so that it now includes 12 of the past 15 years that the project has been in operation. The total annual cost per house (including collection, treatment, O&M and debt service) has averaged $251 over the 15-year period from 1978 until 1993. The portion of this attributable to grinder pump O&M is $53 per pump per year.

Elimination of Infiltration/Inflow
In addition to affordable operating costs and low capital cost, another advantage of pressure sewers, accruing from the fact that it is a pressure-tight piping system, is the complete elimination of infiltration/inflow (I/I). This avoids wet weather peak flows, and wastewater concentration into the plant is more constant — with significant benefits to the treatment process.

Sharpsburg-Keedysville, Maryland
By its very nature, a pressure sewer system, constructed of pressure-tight piping, quite like a water system in reverse, must be virtually free of any routinely occurring infiltration. This can be of tremendous benefit to the treatment works, as a recent experience in Maryland shows. The two villages of Sharpsburg-Keedysville, which include historic Antietam Creek, were, until recently, disposing of wastewater in a style more reminiscent of Civil War times than the dawn of the 21st century. The historic nature of the site, including many homes predating the Civil War, combined with narrow lots underlain almost completely with limestone, ruled out gravity constructions methods, even if cost had been no object. A pressure sewer system was chosen because of the minimum impact on the environment. It required only shallow, narrow trenches, nearly all above the limestone underlayment, and no blasting. As an added bonus, construction costs were far cheaper than gravity. The pressure sewer system consists of 664 SPD grinder pumps serving 815 houses, two main lift stations and 30 miles of PVC pipeline. This system conducts the flow to a new tertiary treatment works based on an oxidation ditch. During the first two full years of operation, influent flow records were kept and carefully compared to rainfall events (Palmer 1993). The conclusion, clearly evident from Figure 5, is that there was no correlation whatsoever between plant flow and external rainfall events. Therefore, the plant is 100 percent immune to the infiltration/inflow that plagues many treatment works served by other, older-type collection systems.


  1. Significant capital cost savings and reduction in environmental impact have been documented in pressure sewer systems, which are in everyday use in a variety of situations from coast to coast.
  2. Such systems have now been performing successfully for periods up to 20 years.
  3. O&M needs are affordable and require a workforce with skill levels no higher than those needed to operate existing pump stations and treatment works.
  4. The effects of pressure sewage on treatment are generally insignificant, and a 100 percent pressure-collection system has the distinct advantage of being entirely immune to Infiltration/Inflow.


  1. Alexander, Mark E. and Farrell, R. Paul. "Pressure Sewer Operation and Maintenance: Two Decades of Experience." Proceedings of WEF Specialty Conference on Collection System Operation and Maintenance, 1993.
  2. Anon. "Combined Sewer Separation Using Pressure Sewers," Final Report ORD-4 by ASCE to Federal Water Pollution Control Administration, Washington, D.C., 1969.
  3. "Bid Tab — City of Hume, Missouri." ETA Project No. 9254001, February 4, 1993. Personal communication with engineer, 1993.
  4. Carcich, Italo, Hetling, Leo J. and Farrell, R. Paul. Pressure Sewer Demonstration. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Report EPA-R2-72-091, 1972a.
  5. Carcich, Italo, Hetling, Leo J. and Farrell, R. Paul. Pressure Sewer Demonstration, JEED, ASCE, 100, No. EE1, 25-40, 1974.
  6. Carcich, Italo, Hetling, Leo J. and Farrell, R. Paul. Pressure Sewer Demonstration Project, JWPFA, 44, 165-182, 1972b.
  7. Earle, George A. III and Farrell, R. Paul. "A Mathematical Model for Estimating Sewer Costs." Presented at the New England Water Environment Association Annual Conference, Boston, 1997.
  8. Eblin, Jessie E. and Clark, Lloyd K. Pressure and Vacuum Sewer Demonstration Project. Bend, Oregon, Report EPA-60/2-78-166. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, D.C., 1978.
  9. Environment One Corporation Design Handbook. "Low-Pressure Sewer Systems Using Environment One Grinder Pumps." Schenectady, New York. Revised February 1995.
  10. Farrell, R. Paul. "Two Decades of Experience with Pressure Sewer Systems." Journal of the New England Water Pollution Control Association; 26-1. May 1992.
  11. Feuss, James V., Farrell, R. Paul and Rynkiewicz, Peter W. "A Small-Community Success Story: How Pressure Sewers and a Community Septic System are Protecting the Environment at Cuyler, New York." Journal of Environmental Health, 58, 18.
  12. Gray, Donald D. "TN Community's Grinder Pumps Provide Positive O&M Statistics." Small Flows Newsletter, U.S. EPA Small Flows Clearing House, Morgantown, West Virginia, 1991.
  13. Gray, Glenn C. "Environmental Constraints Challenge Designers of Shoreline Community Near Kansas City, Missouri." Professional Engineer, June 1975.
  14. Jackson, Lynn. Personal communication with R. Paul Farrell, 1994.
  15. Mekosh, George and Ramos, Daniek. Pressure Sewer Demonstration at the Borough of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. Report EPA-R2-73-270, U.S. Environmental Protections Agency, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1973.
  16. Palmer, Lynn H. "Preserving the Antietam Battlefield at Affordable Cost." Proceedings of WEF Specialty Conference on Collection System Operating and Maintenance. 1993.
  17. R.S. Means Co., Inc. "Site Work and Landscape Cost Data," 16th Edition. Kingston, Massachusetts, 1996.
  18. Weston, Roy F. Inc. "I/A Technology Assessment: Post-Construction Evaluation of Cuyler, New York, Grinder Pump — Pressure Sewer and Community Soil Absorption System." Interim report for U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, D.C., 1983.

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