They are typically 1 to 2 metres deep, can be rectangular or cylindrical in cross section and are used primarily to treat surface water. The length and breadth of the tanks are determined by the flow rate desired by the filters, which typically have a loading rate of 0.1 to 0.2 metres per hour (or cubic metres per square metre per hour). Although they are often the preferred technology in many developing countries, they are also used to treat water in some of the most developed countries such as the UK where they are used to treat water supplied to London. Slow sand filters now are also being tested for pathogen control of nutrient solutions in hydroponic systems.
Slow sand filters work through the formation of a gelatinous layer (or biofilm) called the hypogeal layer or Schmutzdecke in the top few millimetres of the fine sand layer. The Schmutzdecke is formed in the first 10–20 days of operation and consists of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, rotifera and a range of aquatic insect larvae. As a Schmutzdecke ages, more algae tend to develop and larger aquatic organisms may be present including some bryozoa, snails and Annelid worms. The Schmutzdecke is the layer that provides the effective purification in potable water treatment, the underlying sand providing the support medium for this biological treatment layer.