Sanitary engineering

Sanitary engineering, also known as public health engineering or wastewater engineering, is the application of engineering methods to improve sanitation of human communities, primarily by providing the removal and disposal of human waste, and in addition to the supply of safe potable water. Traditionally a branch of civil engineering and now a subset of environmental engineering, in the mid-19th century, the discipline concentrated on the reduction of disease, then thought to be caused by miasma. This was accomplished mainly by the collection and segregation of sewerage flow in London specifically, and Great Britain generally.[1] These and later regulatory improvements were reported in the United States as early as 1865.[2]

It is not concerned with environmental factors that do not have an immediate and clearly understood effect on public health. Areas outside the purview of sanitary engineering include traffic management, concerns about noise pollution or light pollution, aesthetic concerns such as landscaping, and environmental conservation as it pertains to plants and animals.

Skills within this field are usually employed for the primary goal of disease prevention within human beings by assuring a supply of healthy drinking water, treatment of waste water, and removal of garbage from inhabited areas.

Compared to (for example) electrical engineering or mechanical engineering which are concerned primarily with closed systems, sanitary engineering is a very interdisciplinary field which may involve such elements as hydraulics, constructive modelling, information technology, project design, microbiology, pathology and the many divisions within environmental science and environmental technology. In some cases, considerations that fall within the field of social sciences and urban planning must be factored in as well.

Although sanitary engineering may be most associated with the design of sewers, sewage treatment and wastewater treatment facilities, recycling centers, public landfills and other things which are constructed, the term applies equally to a plan of action to reverse the effects of water pollution or soil contamination in a specific area.


Irrigation systems were invented five to seven thousand years ago as a means of supplying water to agriculture-based societies. Aqueducts and irrigation systems were among the first forms of wastewater engineering. As population centers became more dense, they were used to remove sewage from settlements. The Romans were among the first to demonstrate the effectiveness of the aqueduct. The Dark Ages marked a period where progress in water management came to a halt.[3]

As populations grew, the management of human waste became a growing concern and a public health threat. By the 1850s in London, more than 400,000 tons of sewage were flushed into the River Thames each day - around 150 million tons per year.[4] Diseases such as smallpox, diphtheria, measles, scarlet fever, typhus, cholera, and typhoid were spread via the contaminated water supply.[5] During the 19th century, major cities started building sewage systems to remove human waste out of cities and into rivers.

During the 1900s, the activated sludge process was invented.[6] The activated sludge process is a form of water purification that uses bacteria to consume human feces. Chlorine is used later in the process to kill off the bacteria.

Over the centuries, much has changed in the field of wastewater engineering. Advancements in microbiology, chemistry, and engineering have drastically changed the field. Today, wastewater engineers also work on the collection of clean water for drinking, chemically treating it, and using UV light to kill off micro-organisms. They also treat water pollution in wastewater (blackwater and greywater) so that this water may be made safe for use without endangering the population and environment around it. Wastewater treatment and water reclamation are areas of concern in this field.



Wastewater engineering is not usually its own degree course, but a specialization from degrees such as civil engineering, environmental engineering, bio-chemical engineering, or chemical engineering. Formal education for wastewater engineers begins in high school with students taking classes such as chemistry, biology, physics, and higher mathematics including calculus. After high school most jobs require certification from a state agency. Those wanting to advance in the industry should pursue a civil engineering, mechanical engineering, environmental engineering, or a facilities engineering degree. Gaining experience through internships and working while in college is a common pathway toward advancement.

Education about waste treatment requires course work in systems design, machinery design principles, water chemistry, and similar coursework. Other classes may include Chemistry of Plant Processes, and various plant operations courses.

Wastewater engineers may advance in their careers through additional education and experience. With additional knowledge and experience one can become the manager of an entire plant. The accreditation body certifying the education for the degree and license is the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). Over time, some companies may require the wastewater engineer to continue their education to keep up with any changes in technology.

Obtaining one’s master's degree is encouraged since many companies list it as a preference in selection.[7][8]

In this field 76 percent of those employed have a bachelor's degree, 17 percent have a master's degree and three percent have a post-doctoral degree as of 2013.[9] The average annual salary is approximately $83,360.[10]

Plant Operations

Initial employment in wastewater engineering can be obtained by those with and without advanced formal education. The California State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB), for example, shows how individuals can advance through a progression of certifications as Waste Water Treatment Operators.[11] The Board uses a five level classification system to classify water treatment facilities into categories I-V according to the population served and the complexity of the treatment system.

The Operator Certification requirements for water treatment operators and waste water treatment operators are described in detail by State law. To meet certification requirements, operators must submit an application to SWRCB, have the necessary work experience, meet the educational requirements, and pass an examination based on the knowledge, skill,and abilities described in the regulations. Operators are required to renew their certificates every three years. To be eligible for renewal, certified operators must complete a specified number of continuing education hours after the previous issuance of a certificate.[12]

Job description and typical tasks

Wastewater engineers use a variety of skills and must have knowledge of mechanical and environmental engineering. They are required to perform tasks and demonstrate knowledge in design, mathematics, English, construction, physics, chemistry, biology, management, and personnel. Wastewater engineers must have skills in complex problem solving, critical thinking, mathematics, active listening, judgement, reading comprehension, speaking, writing, science, and system analysis.[9] Typical work activities include problem solving, communication with management and staff, gathering information, analyzing data, evaluating standards and complying with them, and communicating with others in the field.

Wastewater engineers perform these activities by combining their knowledge and skills to perform tasks. These tasks are to understand computer-aided design programs, and to conduct studies for the construction of facilities, water supply systems and collection systems. They may design systems for wastewater collection machinery, as well as system components. They may perform water flow analysis, then select designs and equipment based on government and industry standards.[13] Some are involved with a specific area of concern such as waste collection or the maintenance of waste water facilities and stormwater drainage systems within an area. Others cover a broader scope of activities that might include maintenance of the public water supply, collection of residential yard waste program, disposal of hazardous waste, recycling strategies and even community programs where individuals or businesses "adopt" an area and either maintain it themselves or donate funds for doing so.

Wastewater engineers may also map out topographical and geographical features of Earth to determine the best means of collection, design pipe and pumped collection systems, and design treatment processes for collected wastewater.

Typical employers

Wastewater engineers work for private companies, state and local governments, and special districts.

Modern challenges

Water scarcity

Water managers confront new challenges and the need for new technology as water levels decrease due to increasingly frequent and extended droughts. Technologies such as sonar mapping are being used in wells to determine the volume of water that they can hold. For example, the United States Geological Survey and the State of New York worked together to map underground aquifers since the 1980s.[14] Today they have thorough maps of these aquifers to assist in water management.

Desalination plants may be required in the future for those regions hardest hit by water scarcity. Desalination is a process of cleaning water by means of evaporation. Water is evaporated and it passes through membranes. The water is then cooled and condenses allowing it to flow either back into the main water line or out to sea.[15]

Climate change

Wastewater treatment contributes to global warming in many ways. One of the factors that contributes to global warming is wastewater treatment facilities and their emissions of greenhouse gases. Some of those gases are carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. These gases occur because of the decomposition of organic material from the anaerobic bacteria. These bacteria clean the leftover waste. Even if the anaerobic bacteria decomposition produces these gases, the percentage of greenhouse gases that other equipment produce is still greater than the contribution of the anaerobic bacteria. Also, the power usage from those machinery is very high. That is why many facilities are undergoing renovation to use higher levels of anaerobic bacteria compared to other types of equipment.[16]

The effects of global warming on waste water treatment facilities vary from location to location. In the Northeast, there has been increased rainfall causing treatment plants to be too small relative to the amount coming in. In the West, there is a lack of rainfall and water sources are being depleted. This means the facilities will need to be updated to meet modern and future environmental changes such as the increased use of recycled and reclaimed water. Climate change also affects piping and increases the rate of corrosion, adding to facility cost.


  1. Sanitary Reform of London, The Working Collection of Sir Joseph Bazalgette, British and Commonwealth Literary Studies, Green Library, Stanford University
  2. EUROPEAN SANITARY REFORM.; The British Sanitary Legislation, The New York Times, July 31, 1865
  3. Steinbeck, SG. "An Abridged History of Onsite Wastewater: Early Years to Present" (PDF). REHS Onsite Water Protection Branch. Environmental Health Section, Division of Public Health, NC Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved April 9, 2015.
  4. "London's Victorian sewer system". Thames Water. Tames Water. Retrieved April 4, 2015.
  5. Hardy, Anne (1984). "Water and the Search for Public Health in London in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries". Medical History. 28 (3): 250–82. doi:10.1017/s0025727300035936. PMC 1139446. PMID 6390024.
  6. Matsuo, Tomonori; et al. "Civil Engineering Vol. I" (PDF). Wastewater Management Engineering. Encyclodedia of Life Support Systems. Retrieved April 3, 2015.
  7. "Environmental Engineer". Science Buddies. Science Buddies, Inc. Retrieved March 21, 2015.
  8. "Environmental Engineer: Career Profile"., Mountain View, CA. Retrieved March 21, 2015.
  9. "Summary Report for: 17-2081.01 - Water/Wastewater Engineers". O*net Online. U.S. Department of Labor. Retrieved March 23, 2015.
  10. "Wages and Employment Trends". U.S. Department of Labor. Retrieved March 25, 2015.
  11. California Environmental Protection Agency. "Operator Certification Requirements TABLE" (PDF). State Water Resources Control Board. State of California. Retrieved March 30, 2015.
  12. "Wastewater Treatment Plant Classification, Operator Certification, and Contract Operator Registration" (PDF). State Water Resources Control Board. State of California. Retrieved April 20, 2015.
  13. Fairfax County Department of Human Resources. "Wastewater Plant Operations Manager Classification Specification". Fairfax County Classifications. Fairfax County, VA. Retrieved March 21, 2015.
  14. "Ground Water Resource Mapping". New York State Department of Resource Conservation. State of New York. Retrieved March 23, 2015.
  15. Lattemann, Sabine; et al. (2008). "Environmental impact and impact assessment of seawater desalination". Desalination. 220 (1): 1–15. doi:10.1016/j.desal.2007.03.009. Retrieved April 20, 2015.
  16. Cakir, FY (September 26, 2005). "Greenhouse gas production: A comparison between aerobic and anaerobic wastewater treatment technology". Water Research. 39 (17): 4197–4203. doi:10.1016/j.watres.2005.07.042.
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