What is a cesspool? Differences with septic tanks

A cesspool used to be a way to collect sewage in rural areas. The sewage was collected in a round tank and could seep into the ground. Later on, people realize that this can pollute groundwater. It also led to a lot of other problems as the water was not properly cleaned.

Nowadays we use septic tanks that are better at processing wastewater.  The water is cleaned before it is spread out over the garden. From time to time the septic systems need to be pumped empty. In cities, a complex system of drains and water processing facilities is used to collect and clean the sewage water before it arrives in rivers and oceans. 


The History of a Cesspool

 For a long period of time, people didn’t have toilets inside the house. They did their business in the garden or just dug a hole under the toilet that would be closed once it was filled. This was a lot of work, not clean, and could release terrible smells. Sewage gasses are unsafe and should be avoided. At this point in time, people didn’t realize this and used a simple solution to collect the sewage.

 Cesspools were the next step. A cesspool was originally a way to collect sewage in rural areas. People realized that it is important to keep the house clean and this was an easy way to get it outside. All the sewage was collected from a toilet inside the house.

This was quite easy to install as you just needed to dig a hole and install drains inside the house.  A lot of rural areas are still not connected to sewers and water treatment plants as it would cost too much to do so. Luckily plumbing has evolved over time and we found ways to replace cesspools with more advanced solutions. Let’s take a look at the problems that cesspools provide.

What problems does a cesspool cause?

A cesspool can cause a lot of problems. For one, it can contaminate groundwater. This can have a negative impact on the environment and the surrounding area. Given that cesspool leaked dirty water into the ground, it could contaminate groundwater. This would make the groundwater unusable. To solve this, more advanced versions of the cesspool have been developed.

Septic systems have multiple tanks that process the water. It is finally released in the garden using a drain field. This makes the water a lot cleaner than the cesspool ever did. It is a more expensive solution but it can last a long time if the septic system is taken care of. 

Additionally, cesspools can also lead to other problems. For example, the water may not be properly cleaned and may contain bacteria and other toxins that could harm the environment or people. Finally, cesspools can lead to sewage backups and a need for special attention. They often had to be closed and required a lot of work as they didn’t last that long. 

What are the benefits of using a cesspool?

Cesspools were easier and cheaper to install than the septic systems that we use nowadays. In some locations, they are still being used as they are grandfathered in but it is not allowed to install new ones given the issues that we discussed before. Local governments spend a lot of time and resources to make sure that people use their septic systems correctly.

The rules have become more complicated over the years and more requirements have been put in place. You need to get an inspection before you can use it. If your system leaks, it can cost a lot of money to get it repaired, you might get big fines as well. Owners of septic systems are therefore responsible for their tank and they should get it checked every 2 years to make sure that it works properly.

The bacteria in the cesspool were able to break down the wastewater to some extent. This was a great way to process it and reduce the amount of dirty water. The problem is that this process happened too slow and a lot of cesspools were not big enough to do this properly.

Cesspool vs septic tank

Septic systems nowadays can be quite big. More time is spent studying the soil and seeing what is possible. In some instances, a mound is needed to make sure that the water can be spread out over the soil. This gives bacteria more time to clean the water. 

Septic systems still have limitations. It is not possible to wash a lot in a short period of time as the water dilutes the sewage and slows down its processing. It is not possible to flush wet wipes or use a garbage disposal. You have to be careful when you use a septic system as it can be quite fragile. If things don’t work out or the tank is full, it needs to get pumped. Septic systems don’t last forever but some tanks can last 30 years or more.

This is a lot longer than cesspools ever could. With the advent of plastic tanks, it also has become easier and cheaper to install a septic system. If it is properly installed and used correctly, septic systems don’t require a lot of maintenance. Just check from time to time if everything still working properly. If the tank is full, it needs to get pumped. Specialized companies do this and it is an easy process. 

To conclude, we can state that cesspools were a first step towards the more advanced septic systems that we have nowadays. While they were not perfect as they could leak unhealthy water in the ground, they presented a stepping stone towards a better way to treat wastewater.  

Septic systems are still being used in rural areas and this will probably remain the case in the coming decades as it would be too expensive to transport this water to a water treatment plant. Septic systems are very advanced and can process and clean wastewater to a great extent. 

Septic systems have a rich history. People used to throw waste outside until they learned that it is important to process this. The first steps were just digging a hole in the ground to store the waste. Later on, we built septic tanks that process the wastewater. This is then further processed in drain fields.

Septic systems are harder to install than cesspools but it ensures that the groundwater stays clean. This is essential as the groundwater is sometimes used as drinking water. Pollutants can also spread over a big area so it is important to keep this under control.

Once we understood this, local communities have required septic systems instead of cesspools.