Overloaded anaerobic treatment systems are characterized by high concentrations of volatile fatty acids and molecular hydrogen and poor conversion of primary substrates to methane. Previous experiments with fixed–film reactors indicated that operation with reduced headspace pressures enhanced anaerobic treatment. For these studies, four suspended culture, anaerobic reactors were operated with headspace pressures maintained between 0.5 and 1.0 atm and a solids retention time of 15 days. For lightly loaded systems (0.4 g SCOD/g VSS-day) vacuum operation provided minor treatment improvements. For shock organic loads, vacuum operation proved to be more stable and to support quicker recovery from upset conditions. Based on these studies and a companion set of bioassay tests, it was concluded that: (a) a loading rate of about 1.0 g SCOD/g VSS-day represents a practical loading limit for successful anaerobic treatment, (b) a headspace pressure of approximately 0.75 atm appears to be an optimum operating pressure for anaerobic systems and (c) simple modification to existing systems may provide relief for organically overloaded systems.

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