Sand and Organic Filters


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Sand filters are usually designed as two-chambered stormwater practices; the first is a settling chamber, and the second is a filter bed filled with sand or another filtering media. As stormwater flows into the first chamber, large particles settle out, and then finer particles and other pollutants are removed as stormwater flows through the filtering medium. There are several modifications of the basic sand filter design, including the surface sand filter, underground sand filter, perimeter sand filter, organic media filter, and Multi-Chamber Treatment Train. All of these filtering practices operate on the same basic principle. Modifications to the traditional surface sand filter were made primarily to fit sand filters into more challenging design sites (e.g., underground and perimeter filters) or to improve pollutant removal (e.g., organic media filter).


Sand filters can be applied in most regions of the country and on most types of sites. Some restrictions at the site level, however, might restrict the use of sand filters as a stormwater management practice (see Siting and Design Considerations).

Regional Applicability

Although sand filters can be used in both cold and arid climates, some design modifications might be necessary (See Siting and Design Considerations).

In cold climates, filters can be used, but surface or perimeter filters will not be effective during the winter months, and unintended consequences might result from a frozen filter bed. Using alternative conveyance measures such as a weir system between the sediment chamber and filter bed may avoid freezing associated with the traditional standpipe. Where possible, the filter bed should be below the frost line. Some filters, such as the peat/sand filter, should be shut down during the winter. These media will become completely impervious during freezing conditions. Using a larger under drain system to encourage rapid draining during the winter months may prevent freezing of the filter bed. Finally, the sediment chamber should be larger in cold climates to account for road sanding (up to 40 percent of the water quality volume). Filters have not been widely used in arid climates, however, it is probably also necessary to increase storage in the sediment chamber to up to 40 percent of the water quality volume to account for high sediment loads.

Ultra-Urban Areas

Ultra-urban areas are densely developed urban areas in which little pervious surface is present. Sand filters in general are good options in these areas because they consume little space. Underground and perimeter sand filters in particular are well suited to the ultra-urban setting because they consume no surface space.

Stormwater Hot Spots

Stormwater hot spots are areas where land use or activities generate highly contaminated runoff, with concentrations of pollutants in excess of those typically found in stormwater. These areas include commercial nurseries, auto recycle facilities, commercial parking lots, fueling stations, storage areas, industrial rooftops, marinas, outdoor container storage of liquids, outdoor loading/unloading facilities, public works storage areas, hazardous materials generators (if containers are exposed to rainfall), vehicle service and maintenance areas, and vehicle and equipment washing/steam cleaning facilities. Sand filters are an excellent option to treat runoff from stormwater hot spots because stormwater treated by sand filters has no interaction with, and thus no potential to contaminate, the groundwater.

Stormwater Retrofit

A stormwater retrofit is a stormwater management practice (usually structural) put into place after development has occurred to improve water quality, protect downstream channels, reduce flooding, or meet other specific objectives. Sand filters are a good option to achieve water quality goals in retrofit studies where space is limited because they consume very little surface space and have few site restrictions. It is important to note, however, that sand filters cannot treat a very large drainage area. Using small-site BMPs in a retrofit may be the only option for a retrofit study in a highly urbanized area, but it is expensive to treat the drainage area of an entire watershed using many small-site practices, as opposed to one larger facility such as a pond.

Cold Water (Trout) Streams

Some species in cold water streams, notably trout, are extremely sensitive to changes in temperature. To protect these resources, designers should avoid treatment practices that increase the temperature of the stormwater runoff they treat. Sand filters can be a good treatment option for cold water streams. In some stormwater treatment practices, particularly wet ponds, runoff is warmed by the sun as it resides in the permanent pool. Surface sand filters are typically not designed with a permanent pool, although there is ponding in the sedimentation chamber and above the sand filter. Designers may consider shortening the detention time in cold water watersheds. Underground and perimeter sand filter designs have little potential for warming because these practices are not exposed to the sun.

Siting and Design Considerations

Drainage Area

Sand filters are best applied on relatively small sites (up to 10 acres for surface sand filters and closer to 2 acres for perimeter or underground filters [MDE, 2000]). Filters have been used on larger drainage areas, of up to 100 acres, but these systems can clog when they treat larger drainage areas unless adequate measures are provided to prevent clogging, such as a larger sedimentation chamber or more intensive regular maintenance.


Sand filters can be used on sites with slopes up to about 6 percent. It is challenging to use most sand filters in very flat terrain because they require a significant amount of elevation drop, or head (about 5 to 8 feet), to allow flow through the system. One exception is the perimeter sand filter, which can be applied with as little as 2 feet of head.


When sand filters are designed as a stand-alone practice, they can be used on almost any soil because they can be designed so that stormwater never infiltrates into the soil or interacts with the ground water. Alternatively, sand filters can be designed as pretreatment for an infiltration practice, where soils do play a role.

Ground Water

Designers should provide at least 2 feet of separation between the bottom of the filter and the seasonally high ground water table. This design feature prevents both structural damage to the filter and possibly, though unlikely, ground water contamination.


Pretreatment is a critical component of any stormwater management practice. In sand filters, pretreatment is achieved in the sedimentation chamber that precedes the filter bed. In this chamber, the coarsest particles settle out and thus do not reach the filter bed. Pretreatment reduces the maintenance burden of sand filters by reducing the potential of these sediments to clog the filter. Designers should provide at least 25 percent of the water quality volume in a dry or wet sedimentation chamber as pretreatment to the filter system. The water quality volume is the amount of runoff that will be treated for pollutant removal in the practice. Typical water quality volumes are the runoff from a 1-inch storm or ¬Ω inch of runoff over the entire drainage area to the practice.

The area of the sedimentation chamber may be determined based on the Camp-Hazen equation, as adapted by the Washington State Department of Ecology (2005). The Center for Watershed Protection (1996) used a settling of 0.0004 ft/s for drainage areas greater than 75% impervious and 0.0033 ft/s for drainage areas less than or equal to 75% impervious to account for the finer particles that erode from pervious surfaces.


Treatment design features help enhance the ability of a stormwater management practice to remove pollutants. In filtering systems, designers should provide at least 75 percent of the water quality volume in the practice including both the sand chamber and the sediment chamber. The filter bed should be sized using Darcy’s Law, which relates the velocity of fluids to the hydraulic head and the coefficient of permeability of a medium. In sand filters, designers should select a medium sand as the filtering medium.


Conveyance of stormwater runoff into and through the filter should be conducted safely and in a manner that minimizes erosion potential. Ideally, some stormwater treatment can be achieved during conveyance to and from the filter. Since filtering practices are usually designed as “off-line” systems, meaning that they have the smaller water quality volume diverted to them only during larger storms, using a flow splitter, which is a structure that bypasses larger flows to the storm drain system or to a stabilized channel. One exception is the perimeter filter; in this design, all flows enter the system, but larger flows overflow to an outlet chamber and are not treated by the practice. All filtering practices, with the exception of exfilter designs are designed with an under drain below the filtering bed. An under drain is a perforated pipe system in a gravel bed, installed on the bottom of filtering practices and used to collect and remove filtered runoff.


Typical annual maintenance requirements are:

  • Check to see that the filter bed is clean of sediments, and the sediment chamber is no more than one-half full of sediment; remove sediment if necessary
  • Make sure that there is no evidence of deterioration, sailing, or cracking of concrete
  • Inspect grates (if used)
  • Inspect inlets, outlets, and overflow spillway to ensure good condition and no evidence of erosion
  • Repair or replace any damaged structural parts
  • Stabilize any eroded areas
  • Ensure that flow is not bypassing the facility

The sorbent pillows used in Multi-Chamber Treatment Trains should be replaced twice per year. Routine (monthly) maintenance typically includes:

  • Ensure that contributing area, filtering practice, inlets, and outlets are clear of debris
  • Ensure that the contributing area is stabilized and mowed, with clippings removed
  • Check to ensure that the filter surface is not clogging (also after moderate and major storms)
  • Ensure that activities in the drainage area minimize oil/grease and sediment entry to the system
  • If a permanent pool is present, ensure that the chamber does not leak and that normal pool level is retained

Ensure that no noticeable odors are detected outside the facility
In addition to regular maintenance activities needed to ensure the proper function of most stormwater practices, some design features can be incorporated to ease the maintenance burden of each practice. Designers should provide maintenance access to filtering systems. In underground sand filters, confined space rules defined by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) need to be addressed.


Landscaping can add to both the aesthetic value and the treatment ability of stormwater practices. In sand filters, little landscaping is generally used on the practice, although surface sand filters and organic media filters may be designed with a grass cover on the surface of the filter. In all filters, designers need to ensure that the contributing drainage has dense vegetation to reduce sediment loads to the practice.


Sand filters can be used in unique conditions where many other stormwater management practices are inappropriate, such as in karst (i.e., limestone) topography or in highly urbanized settings. There are several limitations to these practices, however. Sand filters cannot control floods and generally are not designed to protect stream channels from erosion or to recharge the ground water. In addition, sand filters require frequent maintenance, and underground and perimeter versions of these practices are easily forgotten because they are out of sight. Perhaps one of the greatest limitations to sand filters is that they cannot be used to treat large drainage areas. Surface sand filters are generally not aesthetically pleasing practices but underground and perimeter sand filters are not visible, and thus do not add or detract from the aesthetic value of a site.


Filtering practices are for the most part adapted only to provide pollutant removal, although in exfilter designs, some ground water recharge can be provided. Sand filters are effective for pollutant removal with the exception of nitrates, which appear to be exported from filtering systems. The export of nitrates from filters may be caused by mineralization of organic nitrogen in the filter bed.

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