Disinfection and Tertiary Filtration

Depending on the end-use of the effluent or national standards for discharge in water bodies, a post-treatment step may be required to remove pathogens, residual suspended solids and/or dissolved constituents. Tertiary filtration and disinfection processes are most commonly used to achieve this.

Post-treatment is not always necessary and a pragmatic approach is recommended. The effluent quality should match the intended end-use practice or the quality of the receiving water body. The WHO Guidelines for the Safe Use of Wastewater, Excreta and Greywater (see also Volume I, III and IV) provide useful information on the assessment and management of risks associated with microbial hazards and toxic chemicals.

Among a wide range of tertiary and advanced treatment technologies for effluent, the most widespread include tertiary filtration and disinfection processes. 

Tertiary Filtration 

Filtration processes can be classified as either depth (or packed-bed) filtration or surface filtration processes. Depth filtration involves the removal of residual suspended solids by passing the liquid through a filter bed comprised of a granular filter medium (e.g., sand).

If activated carbon is used as a filter medium, the dominating process is adsorption. Activated carbon adsorbers not only remove a variety of organic and inorganic compounds, they also eliminate taste and odour. Surface filtration involves the removal of particulate material by mechanical sieving as the liquid passes through a thin septum (i.e., filter layer). Membranes are also surface filters. Low pressure membrane filtration processes (including gravity-driven membrane filters) are being developed. Depth filtration is successfully used to remove protozoan cysts and oocysts, while ultrafiltration membranes can also reliably eliminate bacteria and viruses.


The destruction, inactivation, or removal of pathogenic microorganisms can be achieved by chemical, physical, or biological means. Due to its low cost, high availability and easy operation, chlorine has historically been the disinfectant of choice for treating wastewater.

Chlorine oxidizes organic matter, including microorganisms and pathogens (see also drinking water chlorination). Concerns about harmful disinfection by-products (DBP) and chemical safety, however, have increasingly led to chlorination being replaced by alternative disinfection systems, such as (UV) radiation and ozonation (O3). UV radiation is found in sunlight and kills viruses and bacteria (see also drinking water UV disinfection or SODIS).Thus, disinfection naturally takes place in shallow ponds (see also waste stabilisation ponds). UV radiation can also be generated through special lamps, which can be installed in a channel or pipe.

Ozone is a powerful oxidant and is generated from oxygen in an energy-intensive process. It degrades both organic and inorganic pollutants, including odour-producing agents. Similar to chlorine, the formation of unwanted by-products is one of the problems associated with the use of ozone as a disinfectant.


The decision to install a post-treatment technology depends mainly on the quality requirement for the desired end-use of the effluent and/or national standards. Other factors are the effluent characteristics, budget, availability of materials, and O&M capacity.

Pathogens tend to be masked by suspended solids in unfiltered secondary effluent. Therefore, a filtration step prior to disinfection brings about much better results with fewer chemicals.

Membrane filters are costly and require expert know-how for O&M, especially, to avoid damaging the membrane. In activated carbon adsorption the filter material is contaminated after usage and needs proper treatment/disposal. Chlorine should not be used if the water contains significant amounts of organic matter, as disinfection by-products can form. Ozonation costs are generally higher compared to other disinfection methods.

Health Aspects/Acceptance

With both chlorine and ozone disinfection, by-products may form and threaten environmental and human health. There are also safety concerns related to the handling and storage of liquid chlorine. Activated carbon adsorption and ozonation can remove unpleasant colours and odours, increasing the acceptance of reusing reclaimed water.

Operation & Maintenance

All post-treatment methods require continuous monitoring (influent and effluent quality, head loss of filters, dosage of disinfectants, etc.) to ensure a high performance.

Due to the accumulation of solids and microbial growth, the effectiveness of sand, membrane and activated carbon filters decreases over time. Frequent cleaning (backwashing) or replacement of the filter material is, therefore, required. For chlorination, trained personnel are required to determine the right dosage of chlorine and ensure proper mixing. Ozone must be generated onsite because it is chemically unstable and rapidly decomposes to oxygen. In UV disinfection, the UV lamp needs regular cleaning and annual replacement.


Further Readings

  • Cover image of a reference book or miscellany.

    TILLEY, E.; ULRICH, L.; LUETHI, C.; REYMOND, P.; SCHERTENLEIB, R.; ZURBRUEGG, C. (2014): Compendium of Sanitation Systems and Technologies (Arabic). 2nd Revised Edition. Duebendorf, Switzerland: Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (Eawag). PDF

    This is the Arabic version of the Compendium of Sanitation Systems and Technologies. The Compendium gives a systematic overview on different sanitation systems and technologies and describes a wide range of available low-cost sanitation technologies.

  • Cover image of a reference book or miscellany.

    EAWAG (Editor) (2011): Project: Gravity-Driven Membrane (GDM) Technology. Duebendorf: Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (EAWAG). URL [Accessed: 18.04.2012].

  • Cover image of a reference journal article.

    EPA (1999): Wastewater Technology Fact Sheet Ozone Disinfection. In: National Service Center for Environmental Publications (NSCEP).URL [Accessed: 29.08.2014].

  • Cover image of a reference book or miscellany.

    FOCUS TECHNOLOGY CO LTD (Editor) (2011): Water Treatment System (Active Carbon Filter). Zhangjiagang Beyond Machinery Co. Ltd.. URL [Accessed: 10.11.2011].

  • Cover image of a reference book or miscellany.

    NWRI (2012): Ultraviolet Disinfection. Guidelines for Drinking Water and Water Reuse. Fountain Valley (US): National Water Research Institute (NWRI) and Water Research Foundation (WRF). URL [Accessed: 20.03.2014]. PDF

    This document describes in detail dose, design, operation & maintenance, field commissioning and monitoring of UV disinfection for drinking water and reuse water.

  • Cover image of a reference book or miscellany.

    ROBBINS, D.M.; LIGON, G.C. (2014): How to Design Wastewater Systems for Local Conditions in Developing Countries. London: International Water Association (IWA). URL [Accessed: 20.01.2015].

    This manual provides guidance in the design of wastewater systems in developing country settings. It promotes a context-specific approach to technology selection by guiding the user to select the most suitable technologies for their area. It provides tools and field guides for source characterization and site evaluation, as well as technology identification and selection. This manual is primarily addressed to private and public sector service providers, regulators and engineers/development specialists in charge of implementing wastewater systems.

  • Cover image of a reference journal article.

    SELCUK, H.; NADDEO, V.; BELGIONO, V. (2007): Advanced Treatment by Ozonation and Sonolysis for Domestic Wastewater Reuse. In: Proceedings of the 10th International Conference on Environmental Science and Technology.URL [Accessed: 08.09.2011]. PDF

    This publication describes the combination of ozone and ultrasounds for the disinfection and discoloration of domestic wastewater treatment plant effluents for reuse purposes.

  • Cover image of a reference book or miscellany.

    U.S. EPA (2003): Wastewater Technology Factsheet: Disinfection for Small Systems. Washington: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). URL [Accessed: 20.03.2014]. PDF

    This document compares two types of disinfection technologies, chlorination and UV radiation. Comparison of the technologies is based on their applicability, design considerations, performance, operation & maintenance and costs.

Case Studies

  • Cover image of a reference book or miscellany.

    U.S. EPA (2004): Guidelines for Water Reuse. Washington, DC: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). PDF

    This document introduces us to the objectives and guidelines of water reuse. In describes all possible reuse application of water, technical issues in planning water reuse systems, legal and institutional issues, funding of water reuse systems, public involvement programs, guidelines in the U.S. and other countries.

Important Weblinks

  • http://water.epa.gov/ [Accessed: 20.03.2014]

    This is the weblink to the Technology Factsheets provided by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

  • https://www.watereuse.org/ [Accessed: 20.03.2014]

    This is a website for Water Reuse Organisations. They have a large data base of information and resources regarding water reuse and desalination.

  • http://www.youtube.com/ [Accessed: 30.04.2014]

    This video explains in detail how the chlorine is used as an element to purify water, making it fit for human consumption. It explains why this purified water is effective in preventing water borne diseases.