Thursday, October 23, 2014

Measuring BMP's Effectiveness

On Tuesday, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) announced a joint project that will study and measure the water quality improvements that are actually achieved from farmers' use of conservation practices. Working together, the NRCS and the USGS will measure and quantify the benefits of voluntary agricultural practices known as best management practices or BMPs.

In Virginia the local Soil and Water Conservation Districts help implement BMPs through the Virginia Cost-Share Programs that are used as an incentive for farmers to implement BMPs. (Full disclosure: I volunteer and am Treasurer at the Prince William Soil and Water Conservation District.) The Conservation Districts provide free technical assistance to property owners that include developing conservation plans for agriculture properties, state cost share money to help pay for installing BMPs from 100% for stream exclusion fencing down to $35/acre for cover crops. The majority of BMPs have a 75% of the cost reimbursed by the Conservation Districts and the remaining 25% paid for by the farmer can be claimed as a tax credit. The Conservation Districts help farmers implement and pay for environmentally sound agricultural practices and verify that the BMPs are installed and maintained. There has long been a need for real world measurement of the effectiveness of BMPs on the watershed.

Nutrient runoff, nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment, carried by rainwater and snowmelt impacts many of our nation’s waterways including the Mississippi Delta and the Chesapeake Bay. These pollutants, released from waste water treatment plants, agricultural operations, urban and suburban runoff, septic systems and other sources, cause algae blooms that consume oxygen and create dead zones where fish and shellfish cannot survive. In Virginia and the other Chesapeake Bay states BMPs are an extremely important component of the plans for restoring the Chesapeake Bay. Measuring the water quality benefits of BMPs will allow the proper allocation of time and money to the most effective conservation practices.

Nutrient and sediment pollutants that do not come out of a stormwater pipe or waste water treatment plant pipe are washed into the rivers and streams by rain and snowmelt, and the accepted way to reduce this kind of pollution is to implement agriculture and urban best management practices. Agricultural BMPs minimize the use of fertilizers and pesticides to achieve a desired level of performance and quality of crops and pastures while protecting the environment. BMPs are also designed to reduce runoff and soil erosion and benefit water quality while maintaining or even enhancing agricultural production.

Now, the USGS will use the Natural Resources Conservation Service database generated and maintained by the state programs on conservation practices and installed BMPs at private farms combined with water monitoring to understand how well these BMPs perform overtime on a watershed scale. Ultimately the USGS will incorporate this information into its surface water quality models, which track how rivers receive and transport nutrients from natural and human sources to downstream reservoirs and estuaries. This will provide crucial information for funding and operating voluntary nutrient management strategies and programs, and provide information for watershed planning.

The partnership between USGS and NRCS was announced at the Mississippi River Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force Meeting. The NRCS stated that they will protect the privacy of individual farmers and only plan to use the data to evaluate the effectiveness of the installed BMPs. The data can be used for designing better nutrient management plans, which are likely to be required when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency extends their reach to the next level either directly or indirectly.

When hundreds of farms take action in one watershed, it can make a significant difference reducing nutrient pollution and hopefully helping to prevent algae blooms downstream. “This agreement will allow NRCS and USGS to combine resource management capabilities with science, and will give us the information we need to prioritize the most effective conservation strategies so that we can improve the quality of streams throughout the Mississippi River Basin,” said Lori Caramanian, deputy assistant secretary for Water and Science at the Department of the Interior the home of the USGS.

The NRCS and USGS will develop conservation intensity data sets that reflect the value of BMPs in terms of improved water quality, but do not reveal private information about individual farms, ranches or forests. The private information of farmers participating in these conservation programs is protected by law and maintaining the trust among the NRCS, the Conservation Districts and the farmers is vital to the continued success of voluntary conservation on private lands. Models that the USGS will develop will allow our Conservation District to have accurate information on the effectiveness of the BPMs and enable us to use our funding to obtain the biggest improvements in water quality.

Nutrient runoff from many different sources, including urban areas and industry, impacts our nation’s waterways. By providing science-based information, NRCS and USGS can help farmers decrease nutrient runoff and improve water quality for their own communities and downstream communities and environments. Close to one-quarter of land in the Chesapeake Bay watershed is devoted to agricultural production. According the Chesapeake Bay Foundation the largest source of pollution to the Bay comes from agricultural runoff, which contributes roughly 40% of the nitrogen and 50% of the phosphorus entering the Chesapeake Bay. So to meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mandated a contamination limit called the TMDL (total maximum daily load for nutrient contamination and sediment) to restore the Chesapeake Bay, Virginia and the other states will have to implement BMPs on the majority of agricultural lands and the data from USGS/NRCS program can help us implement the most cost effective strategies as widely as possible.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Pharmaceutical Contamination Impacting Our Groundwater

Water is neither created nor destroyed. All the water on earth is between 4-5 billion years old, dating from around the time when the Earth was formed. There is no mechanism on Earth for creating or destroying large quantities of water. What we've got is recycled through the water cycle over and over again. Mankind leaves contaminants in the wastewater we return to streams. For most of history this was not important because contaminants were natural and biological, populations were sparse and the water ultimately flowed to the sea and rainwater returning to our rivers was free of contamination. As populations increased we treated our wastewater to remove the biological contamination with increasing efficiency to reduce disease and environmental impact. Wastewater reuse has become an important and measurable portion of downstream water supply while becoming a complex mix of chemical and biological contamination characteristic of our modern society. This contamination is spreading to all of our water supply including groundwater.

Groundwater is the largest and most reliable source of freshwater on earth. In the United States 26% of public supplied water is from groundwater in addition, 15% of households in the United States with private wells pump directly from groundwater for their drinking water. Groundwater and surface water are connected in many ways, not all of them fully understood. When streamflow is low due to lack of precipitation (drought) or withdraws (pumping for irrigation or water supply), groundwater serves to help maintain the baseflow. When conditions are dry, rivers, streams and ponds can serve to recharge groundwater.

In addition wastewater from agricultural irrigation is used to recharge groundwater and effluent discharge from wastewater treatment plants is intentionally and accidently finding its way into groundwater. In Los Angeles waste water effluent is used to recharge the groundwater, septic systems return their effluent water to groundwater and several studies by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists Paul M. Bradley and Larry B. Barber (and others) have shown that waste water contaminants including pharmaceuticals are carried not only downstream into drinking water intakes, but into the shallow groundwater at least 65 feet from the stream.

The most recent study by Bradley and Barber et. al. was carried out at Fourmile Creek, near Des Moines, Iowa in October and December 2012. Fourmile Creek has been extensively studied by these scientists because wastewater dominates the streamflow. (Wastewater also dominates the flow of the Occoquan River and many others in our area.) Due to a drought in the Des Moines area, the wastewater represented 99% of streamflow in October and 71% of streamflow in December. Scientists chose to track the movement of pharmaceuticals between the stream and shallow groundwater because pharmaceuticals are bioactive, can be highly mobile, are good indicators of domestic wastewater, and wastewater is the only source of pharmaceuticals in Fourmile Creek.

Both stream and shallow groundwater samples were analyzed for 110 pharmaceuticals. The scientists found that 43% and 55% of pharmaceuticals analyzed for were detected in the stream’s water in in October and December, respectively. Fewer pharmaceuticals were detected in shallow groundwater; however, 16% and 6% of the pharmaceuticals were detected at a distance of 65 feet from the stream bank during October and December, respectively. The pharmaceuticals detected included antivirals and antibiotics, muscle relaxants, and antidepressants and tranquilizers, as well as medications for treating cancer, diabetes, and hypertension; in concentrations as high as 87 nanogram per liter (ng/L).

Both carbamazepine and sulfamethoxazole (a common antibiotic) were found in shallow groundwater at detectable levels at 65 feet from the river bank. The levels of these pharmaceuticals were higher close to the riverbank during the drier period, and appeared to fluctuate in response to drought; the larger portions of the river flow were made up of wastewater the higher the concentrations of sulfamethoxazole and carbamazepine in the groundwater. However as distance increased, the concentrations dropped, but it appeared that the rate of biodegradation of wastewater contaminants in groundwater is slower than in surface water and trace contamination of the groundwater may become ubiquitous.

USGS scientists have previously documented adverse impact to trace levels of sulfamethoxazole far below levels used to treat diseases on native soil bacteria. Since many studies by the USGS have found sulfamethoxazole in surface waters, the scientists conducted a series of laboratory experiments to determine the effect of the antibiotic on native soil bacteria. They found that sulfamethoxazole concentrations commonly found in aquatic environments (approximately 1 microgram per liter [ug/L]) delayed the start of cell growth, limited denitrification (a critical component of global nitrogen cycles), and altered bacterial community composition. In short, our contamination of water supplies with traces of antibiotics may impact the ability of the earth to feed us.

Other impacts of water pollution have been to the aquatic ecology. For over 15 years the USGS has been studying fish kills. Work done by Vicki Blazer and others has documented endocrine disruption and immune-suppression in aquatic life as contributing to fish kills. The earliest work did not find a cause. Dr. Blazer and others believe that methodology used to detect these chemicals in past studies may not have been sensitive enough, and may indeed be above the concentration thought to impact these fish. Dr. Blazer and others believe based on research studies in more than 25 fish species, that 1 ng/L (parts per trillion) may be the “no effects level” for estrogen concentrations in stream water on fish. We eat the fish, we drink the water, and we intentionally recharge groundwater with our waste water and pass all manner of chemicals and pharmaceuticals through our septic systems. For many of us, the closest septic system to your well is our own septic system. Any drugs you take (or flush down the toilet), chemicals you spray in your yard, use or pour down the drain may reappear in trace levels in your well especially during dry months or drought.

Water is our most valuable resource and how we manage its use or allow its abuse may determine the fate of our country and mankind. Groundwater is an important natural resource, especially in those parts of the country that don't have ample surface-water sources, such as the arid West and in times of drought. Groundwater is a renewable resource, but not in the way that sun light is. Groundwater recharges at various rates from precipitation and surface water. Wastewater reuse is necessary to meet water supply needs, but we are contaminating our environment and our drinking water supplies with what we do not remove from our wastewater.

Wastewater has become a complex mixture of chemical and biological contamination. Pharmaceutical contamination in wastewater is a particular problem because the pharmaceuticals are highly soluble in water, highly mobile in the water compared to other wastewater contaminants, and pharmaceuticals are designed to be highly bioreactive with long shelf-lives. At the low levels found they can be toxic to stream ecology, cause endocrine disruption, immune-modulation and suppression and serve for antibiotic resistance selection. Water contamination will challenge mankind’s survival long before climate change.

Related blog posts and articles:

Endocrine Disruption and What’s in the Potomac River Watershed

Is Our Drinking Water Safe?  

Barber, L., Keefe, S., LeBlanc, D., Bradley, P., Chapelle, F., Meyer, M., Loftin, K., Kolpin, D., Rubio, F., 2009. Fate of sulfamethoxazole, 4-nonylphenol, and 17bestradiol in groundwater contaminated by wastewater treatment plant effluent. Environ. Sci. Technol. 43, 4843e4850.

Barber, L., Antweiler, R., Flynn, J., Keefe, S., Kolpin, D., Roth, D., Schnoebelen, D., Taylor, H., Verplanck, P., 2011a. Lagrangian mass-flow investigations of inorganic contaminants in wastewater-impacted streams. Environ. Sci. Technol. 45, 2575e2583.

Barber, L., Keefe, S., Brown, G., Furlong, E., Gray, J., Kolpin, D., Meyer, M., Sandstrom, M., Zaugg, S., 2013. Persistence and potential effects of complex organic contaminant mixtures in wastewater-impacted streams. Environ. Sci. Technol. 47, 2177e2188.

Bradley, P., Barber, L., Kolpin, D., McMahon, P., Chapelle, F., 2007. Biotransformation of caffeine, cotinine, and nicotine in stream sedimentseImplications for use as wastewater indicators. Environ. Toxicol. Chem. 26, 1116e1121.

Bradley, P., Barber, L., Kolpin, D., McMahon, P., Chapelle, F., 2008. Potential for 4-nnonylphenol biodegradation in stream sediments. Environ. Toxicol. Chem. 27, 260e265.


Bradley, P., Barber, L., Duris, J., Foreman, W., Furlong, E., Hubbard, L., Hutchinson, K., Keef, S., Kolpin, D., 2014. Riverbank filtration potential of pharmaceuticals in a wastewater-impacted stream. Environ.Poll. 193, 173-180.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Mold in the Richmond Veterans Hospital

According to the Institute of Medicine of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) there is sufficient evidence to link indoor exposure to mold with upper respiratory tract symptoms, cough, and wheeze in otherwise healthy people; with asthma symptoms in people with asthma; and with hypersensitivity pneumonitis in people with stressed or compromised immune systems. In addition there is evidence linking indoor mold exposure and respiratory illness. While molds are present at low levels in air, a mold problem in any building can be unpleasant or even sickening to the occupants, but as will be shown below, exposing hospital patients to a “moldy” environment can increase the risk of infection in some patients and therefore requires rigorous remediation.

Last March the McGuire Veterans Administration Medical Center in Richmond, Virginia hired an environmental consulting firm to perform an Indoor Air Quality Assessment in response to complaints from employees and patients about perceive poor indoor air quality and a recommendation from an outside group. The consultants performed a visual assessment of wards 1U, 1V and 1W and the Nurses Stations, checked the filters in the HVAC systems and made sure that the HVAC systems appeared to be clean. They also recorded the Temperature, Relative Humidity, Carbon Monoxide and Carbon Dioxide and used the test device called Micro 5 five minute low volume spore traps to collect 14 interior hallway samples and one exterior sample to measure total airborne fungal spore levels at a particular point in time in an attempt to identify if the hospital had a mold problem that might be impacting the employees and patients.

Currently, there are no federal standards (OSHA, NIOSH, EPA or CDC) for airborne concentrations of mold or mold spores.There are however OSHA , EPA and CDC guidlines for mold remediation wich implicity acknowledges the seriousness of mold contamination. Scientific research on the relationship between mold exposures and health effects continues, but there are yet to be determined absolute levels of exposure that are of no concern and threshold numeric levels likely to impact exposed populations. Molds are part of the natural environment. Molds are fungi that can be found anywhere - inside or outside all year long. About 1,000 species of mold can be found in the United States, with more than 100,000 known species worldwide. In recent years indoor air quality experts, the World Health Organization (WHO), Industrial hygienists and several scientific groups have developed standard approaches to investigating mold problems. Spore traps have become the dominant way of airborne mold sampling, but only test for a handful of spore species that most commonly indicate a problem.

There have been recent papers, presentations, and scientific articles that address whether an interior space is “moldy.” What emerges from these evaluations is that the most common indicator of mold problems in a damp environment is the elevated presence of two related species in particular Aspergillus/Penicillium. These spores are the primary colonizers according to the World Health Organization (WHO – 2009) and often amplify in the indoor environment in response to increased moisture. In addition, it is well documented in studies funded by the National Institute of Health that elevated concentrations of Aspergillus species of fungus in critical-care areas of hospitals, may result in an increased risk of infection in immuno-compromised patients (Kordbacheh et al. 2005; Lee et al. 2007). The CDC states that “the types of health problems caused by Aspergillus include allergic reactions, lung infections, and infections in other organs.” Thus, in the chart below and the discussion that follows, I only examine Aspergillus/Penicillium and total spore count in the 15 samples taken to determine if the sampling results are indicative of a mold problem at the McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond, VA.
When evaluating fungal spore levels there are three basic approaches to determine if the spore levels measured in a spore trap are of concern: comparing the finding to a reference sample, typically outdoor sample is taken, comparing the value to a control sample from similar building(s) that has not been impacted, or comparing the findings against a data base of mold impacted buildings.

When doing a spore trap sampling it is common with residential and small commercial investigations to sample the outdoor air as a reference sample as was done in this instance. However, air residence time in larger buildings can be hours or several days depending on the size of the building and air flow circulation and whether air filtration systems are operating. In modern buildings with active mechanical ventilation systems the indoor concentration of airborne spore is generally expected to be between 20-70% of the outdoor concentration with an assumed average of 50%. It is important to note that the comparison should be the relative concentration of each spore type and not just the total spore concentration (Spurgeon, 2004). As you can see in the chart above only one sample location (1W-103) had an Aspergillus/Penicillium spore count within the expected range compared to the exterior, all of the other samples were 100% to 2,950%. For the total spore count only the samples with the highest levels of Aspergillus/Penicillium (1U-141 and 1U-138) exceeded the expected range. By comparison to an exterior (reference) sample elevated levels of Aspergillus/Penicillium spores are of concern.

In large commercial complexes control samples can often be obtained from unimpacted buildings or unimpacted wings of buildings. Though the total spore count in most of the samples is significantly below the exterior sample, the elevated levels of Aspergillus/Penicillium and two samples showing elevated total spore levels indicate that there are areas within the building that are more impacted by fungal spores than others. The data indicates a hot spot that is more significantly impacted than other areas, though elevated levels of Aspergillus/Penicillium are ubiquitous. These hot spots should be more fully delineated. Remediation of the area should take place after identifying and eliminating the sources of moisture.

The final method of evaluating fungal spore data is by comparing the samples taken to a database of sampling results for buildings that have been tested. The concentration of airborne contaminants can be characterized by a lognormal distribution with a geometric mean concentration and standard deviation. Joe Spurgeon, PhD, CIH performed an analysis on the data from three studies to find the Aspergillus/Penicillium level for a “moldy” environment. Dr. Spurgeon created the table below from three separate groups of data:

Aspergillus/Penicillium levels considered as indicative of a “moldy” environment from three independent studies:

1. Baxter data: Asp/Pen ≥ 950 spores/m3
2. Rimkus data: Asp/Pen ≥1,000 spores/m3
3. Spurgeon data: Asp/Pen ≥ 1,000‐1,100 spores/m3

The sample from 1U-141 location would be classified by this database comparative approach as a moldy environment. In addition, that sample was in the 95-99 percentile for Aspergillus/Penicillium compared to all building samples represented in the database. Clearly the extent and source of the Aspergillus/Penicillium fungal spores needs to be identified, isolated and remediated.

In all methods of evaluation, the levels of Aspergillus/Penicillium identified at the McGuire VA Medical Center indicate a localized but significant mold problem that might impact the health of patients and staff. Additional tests should be performed to delineate the extent of the problem. The area of impact should be remediated following U.S. EPA and the CDC guidelines and confirmation testing performed. It is my understanding that the on-site Administrator has chosen to take no action, but this could potentially impact the health and comfort of the staff and our most vulnerable patients.

While there are currently no  federal regulations setting a threshold level for mold concentrations that would require remediation, available research shows that such a level is already and increasingly knowable. It is only a matter of time until such knowledge is embodied in a regulation and it is better to act now on what we already now then to risk harm while awaiting regulation to force action. We have established the Veterans Administration hospital system especially for veterans due to their extraordinary service to our county and a problem like this which puts their heath at further risk should not be ignored.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Chesapeake Bay Watershed has Plenty of Water this Year

The lead editorial in Science magazine last month began “The Western Hemisphere is experiencing a drought of crisis proportions. In Central America crops are failing, millions are in danger of starvation...” Editor Marcia McNutt goes on to illustrate the extent and severity of the drought and then to talk about the advances being made in measuring water availability using the Gravity Recovery And Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites to measure large scale changes in groundwater and moisture from space and a new method for measuring groundwater extraction by measuring regional land uplift (Borsa et al., Ongoing drought-induced uplift in the western United States, Science vol. 345 issue 6204 page 1587). These new methods are allowing scientists to begin to measure the amount of groundwater extracted from an aquifer and the remaining water. This is a first step in managing surface and groundwater together. Both surface and groundwater are part of one connected system responding on different timescales to precipitation based on specific geology. The availability of water resources are not constant and certainly not unlimited.

We chose to live in this little corner of Virginia for the water (on my part) and proximity to my husband’s home or origin. While several counties of Virginia were abnormally dry this past September (according to the Drought Monitor), the dry area was south of us. Groundwater levels in the monitoring well down the road have been normal for most of the year. We seem to be doing just fine this year sitting as we do between the Potomac River and Bull Run and have plenty of water. The National Weather Service’s Middle Atlantic River Forecast Center (MARFC) reports a Potomac basin total precipitation of 28.3 inches of precipitation so far this year thought that is 2.3 inches below normal- 2.2 inches of that shortfall, was in September. Both MARFC and the NOAA are prediction a wet fall along the Potomac watershed and the south in general. Texas is finally seeing relief and recovery from their drought. The drought is California is expected to continue north of the Colorado River. 
from the climate prediction center


The Potomac River is the fourth largest river along the Atlantic seaboard and the lifeblood of our region. The Potomac River starts life as a spring at the Fairfax Stone in West Virginia. The river flows approximately 385 miles to the Chesapeake Bay increasing in size and flow from its tributary streams and rivers in West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the District of Columbia growing to become the Bay's second largest Tributary. The River provides more than 500 million gallons of freshwater daily to those living in its watershed, in addition to irrigation water, and the more than 2 billion gallons of water a day for power plants.

The Potomac River is one of the least dammed large river systems in the Eastern United States. The combined storage capacity of all major reservoirs upstream of Washington, DC makes up less than 7% of median flow. Nonetheless, the Potomac River’s flow needs to be managed to assure the 500 million gallons per day the river supplies for drinking water to the region and the approximately 100 million gallons necessary for essential environmental services. The Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin (ICPRB) was created to manage and allocate the flow of the Potomac River. They reported last week, that despite a dry September recent rains have ensured that there is sufficient flow in the Potomac River to meet the Washington metropolitan area’s water supply demand without the need for water releases from the upstream reservoirs- Little Seneca and Jennings Randolph to keep the river at adequate flow.

The ICPRB manages the water withdrawals from the Potomac River by having Fairfax Water utilize their Occoquan Reservoir water treatment plant to maintain adequate flow to the Chesapeake Bay and having the other water utilities utilize their storage. The ICPRB reports it’s very unlikely (1-3% likelihood) that river flow will have to be augmented with water released from either the Little Seneca or Jennings Randolph reservoirs this year. Our region is well‐protected from a water supply shortage because of carefully designed drought‐contingency plans and continued strong precipitation. In addition to help maintain a consistent water supply, WSSC (the Maryland water utility) has their Patuxent reservoirs with a capacity of more than 10 billion gallons that is currently over 80% full and more reservoirs are planned for the entire system to ensure the water supply for the region can endure a prolonged drought. Back in the 1960’s during a severe and extended drought, when the population was only a fraction of what it is now, water withdrawals to supply drinking water to the three water utilities in the region from only the Potomac River reduced flows in the Potomac to such an extent that the River practically ran dry, leaving only mud between Great Falls and the tidal river.
Each fall when the Potomac is at its lowest flow the ICPRB maintains daily monitoring of the flow at Point of Rocks and Little Falls to always be prepared for the possibility that more serious drought conditions may develop in the upcoming weeks. At present, there is sufficient flow in the Potomac River to meet the Washington metropolitan area’s water demands, but the ICPRB remains diligent and watchful because weather as we know is changeable. 

from ICPRB
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) reports that groundwater levels are generally near normal for the region with both above and below normal levels scattered throughout the area. If your water is supplied by a well, you need to be aware of the factors that impact your water supply and regularly practice household water conservation to live within your water resources when necessary. Unfortunately, we do not have the ICPRB to help us manage our water resources and use. There are dry years and wet years and water will vary, though it is not always obvious. The groundwater aquifer you tap for water is not seen so you have to be aware of your water budget and live within it, something that transplants from the suburbs and city are not always aware of. 


My groundwater is very young, basically the groundwater levels in my well and the nearby USGS monitoring wells respond within a day to a rain storm despite being more than 100 feet deep. In many groundwater systems are not as directly tied to precipitation and so that is not true. Many well owners think of their water supply as unlimited until the well fails. Your well is not unlimited and you need to be aware of your water use. You need to be aware of the relationship between groundwater and surface water and how your well responds to drought and rainfall. During dry periods when my garden is in most need, my well is most vulnerable. I will only water my herbs and new plantings. Everything else in my garden has got to make it on what our climate provides (though I would probably try to save the cherry and plum trees in a drought- but not at the risk of my water supply).

USGS monitoring well 49V 1 shows a response to rainfall

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Protect Your Well and Solve One Coliform Problem-$100

My Well
I received a comment/question on my blog that said: “There is a hole in the half moon well plate thru which one can pour Clorox if needed. It is (usually) plugged, but the plug on my well plate was missing and (apparently, from the smell) an animal crawled in and died... (I tried) 2 heavy treatments with pool chlorine (10%), (but it just) stopped the smell for 6 days. “

What the writer describes is not a well cap appropriate for a drinking water well. It may be a well seal also known as a split caps and are used for venting a well, with the hole he refers to is not for putting chlorine in a well, but is an air vent. These types of caps are not suitable for outdoor use if it is even a sanitary well cap. A sanitary split cap is only appropriate for indoor use in an enclosed well house or basement. Sanitary split caps are usually equipped with a threaded hole, instead of a plug where an air vent should be installed. However, the writer describes his well cap as having a “half-moon well pate.” A properly sealed well does not have any kind of half-moon well plate. There is a type of well cap used on monitoring well with a port, but these were never intended for drinking water well. Also, a long time ago, there were wells where they used to drip oil or lubricant into the well, but that has not been done in decades. The caps on those wells were just ports.

I was very sorry to read the writer’s story because fixing the problem is going to cost thousands of dollars. To restore drinkable water the writer is going to have to clean out the well or if cleaning proves ineffective, the well will have to be replaced to restore drinkable water to the home. It is much simpler to install a sanitary well cap than to fix a problem like the one described by the writer. For want of a $100 sanitary well cap the well was probably ruined. A “well professional” he called said that in his twenty years of experience it was the worst smelling water he had ever come across. That comment convinced me it wasn't hydrogen sulfide, but indeed dead animal(s), though chlorination will alleviate a hydrogen sulfide smell for a while it is not always easy to diagnose a problem by email or even smell, testing the well water to be certain can be expensive, also . It is much simpler to maintain your well and cap then resolve a problem like the one the writer described.
example of a sanitary well cap


A sanitary well cap is also called a vermin proof cap for good reason. Standard well caps usually have screws around the side that hold a one-piece cap onto the top of the well casing (pipe). This allows insects, small animals like mice or surface water to enter the well. If you a single piece cap or any kind of cap with a plug or plate, replace it now! If the well cap does not properly seal the well, insects or vermin can crawl through gaps around the casing or through unscreened vents or open holes and build a nest inside the well casing and cap in the wire tangle at the top. Bacteria can reach unhealthy levels when enough droppings or dead bodies fall into the well water- long before the water smells or tastes bad. Once the smell is really noticeable the well may be beyond repair. In case you do not know, groundwater fills the spaces between rocks, sand and dirt. It is hardly ever a flowing body of water. The well is drilled into the ground and generally lined with pipe for the first 50 feet. Below that, it is a borehole in the rocks that fills with water from fractures which are way too small to allow dead bodies (even insect bodies) to flow through. The dead animal or animals came down from the top of the well and that is the only way to clear a well.

There are two basic methods for cleaning a well—mechanical and chemical. Generally a combination of the two is the most effective approach and the trick is finding a company qualified and with the equipment to perform the work. The universe of “well professionals” is a mixed one. Someone who understands pumps, piping and pressure tanks may have limited knowledge of geology and water chemistry or simply not have access to the right equipment. In many places anyone can call themselves a well professional. Even licensed well drillers and water system professionals have a limited range of knowledge and it can be tough to find someone who specializes in well restoration. In addition, if a well is too old and the steel casing is corroded it may not survive cleaning and you may end up replacing the well anyway. A water well system contractor who has both the training and equipment can help you decide which methods to use, depending on the condition of the well.

  • Mechanical processes for and removing debris from the well include: pressurized air, steam or water; wire brushes or scrapers; agitation of water in the well; and sonic waves.
  • Chemical cleaning often involves the use of various acids to loosen or dissolve debris so that it can be pumped out of the well. Depending on the nature of the cleaning job, there are also polymers and “caustic” chemicals (like chlorine) to remove debris. Chlorine is great for disinfecting, but not necessarily for cleaning or ridding a well of a dead animal or animals.

The age, condition and construction of a well will determine which methods can be used to clean it. If a well’s water intake areas or the well casing have corroded significantly over time, they may be damaged or destroyed by more aggressive cleaning practices. In such cases, it is probably best to save your money and proceed directly to drilling a new well. Well cleaning should be followed immediately by a thorough disinfection of the well system and should be completed by the water well contractor to ensure that it is done properly. Make sure you work with a qualified water well system contractor/driller who is licensed and qualified and has experience cleaning wells (or drilling new ones) in your area. Knowledge of local geology is important.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates public water systems. However, the responsibility for ensuring the safety and consistent supply of water from the 21 million private wells belongs to the well owner. A properly sealed well cap protects against all types of contamination. It is the first line of protection against pollution and contamination of your well. If you drill a well or own one, make sure your well has a sanitary well cap, which is a two piece cap with a rubber gasket seal between the two pieces. The rubber seal is the key component for keeping vermin, bug and environmental pollutants out of the well. A Sanitary well cap also has a vent screen, or more likely two vented screens between the gasket and the electrical wiring (conduit) port. A vented screen is necessary to equalize the pressure difference between the inside and outside of the well as the water is pumped, so you do not create a vacuum and draw dirt and contaminants into the well.
from Montana Water Quality District
Well caps keep out insects and vermin that prefer a dark, damp environment to nest and prevent surface pollutants from entering the well. Insects can cause major problems in a well. Bacteria levels of the water can rise from their droppings, and sometimes the bugs themselves can get trapped in the wells, die, and decompose in the well water. So, the first thing you should do as a well owner is make sure you have a sanitary well cap and the gasket and screens are in good condition, and the cap is properly bolted. Check your well a couple of times a year to make sure the cap remains sound.

My cast iron sanitary well cap was only nine years old when I decided to replace it with a cast aluminum well cap. The gasket had deteriorated and the rust on the well cap was preventing me from getting a good seal, so I replaced it.  The next thing you should do is make sure that the ground surface slopes sway from the well casing in all directions to keep surface water from flowing down the well pipe. The grouting does deteriorate over time (especially if you hit it with the lawn mower) and keeping water away from the well head helps prevent contamination. The well in the stone surround at the top is my well. The well is too close to the driveway. The stone surround and an adjustment to the driveway slope directs water from the drive down slope and the stone surround keeps people from backing into the well when they turn around.

A neighbor of mine had coliform bacteria (but not fecal coliform or E. coli) appear in their well. They replaced their well cap and repacked the soil around the well area so snow melt and rain would not flow to the well head. Though, their well had been grouted at construction, grout flaws and failure from damage (hitting the well with the lawn mower or the UPS truck backing up for instance) can undermine the seal that the grout provides. It is not possible to grout or re-grout an existing well. However, these two simple steps- a new well cap and packing the soil around the well area so water flows away from the well solved their problem, The continued effectiveness of the solution was confirmed at the county water clinic this past spring. Of course my neighbors knew they had a problem because they tested their well regularly to make sure the water was safe to drink. You are your own water supply company. You need to take care of your well and test your water – not once, but regularly.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Cutting Energy Consumption in Your Home

from EIA
For decades, heating and cooling what the U.S. Department of Energy calls space conditioning accounted for more than half of all residential energy consumption. In recent years despite the increasing size of the homes, heating and cooling energy use has fallen to less than 48%. Better insulation and more efficient air conditioners, heaters and heat pumps and a slow migration towards the south have begun to change that. It turns out that it takes less energy to cool a home than keep it warm in the winter and frankly, wearing a fleece jacket and warm socks can make a 66 degree Fahrenheit room comfortable. The most recent Residential Energy Consumption Survey from the Department of Energy’s Energy Information Agency (EIA) show that 48% of energy consumption in U.S. homes in 2009 was for heating and cooling, down from 58% in 1993. Today, according to data collected by the EIA heating accounts for approximately 42% of energy usage, cooling accounts for 6% (despite the increased use of air conditioning throughout the United States), hot water heaters use 18% of all power, refrigeration accounts for 5%, lighting 5% and other appliances and electronics account for 24% of energy use.
from EIA


Over the years I have been making both small and large changes to my home to reduce my energy consumption. I started with the easiest steps; lowering the thermostat in the winter and raising the temperature in summer, purchasing energy star eligible appliances and choosing an LED TV over a plasma or LCD for our new big screen TV. The other simple step was to change the incandescent light bulbs for florescent, LED fixtures in my track lighting and LED replacement bulbs. The first generation of LED bulbs the first generation of LED bulbs were a bit blue and make the clothes in my closet look oddly colored, but the newest bulbs are a much softer light, more what I like. I’ve also installed solar films on the windows and patio doors and hung lined drapes and curtains on most of the windows. These were small steps, but I learned over the years that small steps do add up.

A few years back, after a particularly cold winter, I turned to the Building Envelop Research of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory for guidance. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory performs their Building Envelop Research for the US Department of Energy, DOE. The DOE publishes their guidance in their “Insulation Fact Sheet,” which is available on the blog home page. Following the recommendations by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory the attic, crawl spaces, eves, ductwork, underside of a large portion of the main level floor were insulated with cellulose. The pipes, wall end caps, knee walls, sump pumps and all identified areas were sealed, the garage ceiling was insulated and an insulated garage door installed. I was actually surprised at the winter energy savings and pleased with the improved comfort in the master bedroom and bath.

When my heat exchanger that heats and cools the upstairs failed, I replaced it with a much more efficient unit (SEER 19), improved my ducting and air flow and installed a “smart” thermostat. The solution to improving my duct air flow was simply to install galvanized steel trunk lines and distribution boxes, properly sealed and insulated. The trunk lines have straight runs and gentle curves to the distribution boxes, but I used flexible R-8 reflective ducts to tie into the last few feet of the vent sleeves (to avoid replacing all the boots) keeping the transition as smooth as possible. I used reflective insulation at a minimum of R-8 to take advantage of what little boost I can get from the decreasing the emittance of the ducts. The result was much better cooling and heating at a lower monthly cost.

Last fall we discovered significant water damage to the front of the house. We ended up removing the imitation stone facing from the front of the house, the house wrap, OSB subsiding and insulation and repairing/replacing the water damaged sections of the sub-structure with pressure treated lumber. Once repairs were made, we installed new R-15 insulation on the main part of the house and added insulation to the garage then use pressure treated plywood to replace subsiding, wrapped all exposed siding with DuPont Tyvek. After carefully flashing all elements, we installed a Driwall Rainscreen system by Keene products and then install the new real stone facing. Hopefully, we will gain some small benefit from the improved and added insulation and have solved the water infiltration problem.

Since I was replacing the front wall of the house, I took the opportunity to run the PVC ducting for a new high efficiency hot water heater and furnace. This past week I upgraded my major gas appliances; the old hot water heater to a new high efficiency gas hot water heater and the gas furnace to a new 96% efficient furnace. I am hoping to trim my energy usage for hot water and heating. Higher energy efficiencies can be achieved with geothermal (ground-source or water-source) heat pumps, and geothermal heat pumps have low operating costs because they take advantage of relatively constant ground or water temperatures. However, the installation even on a new home is expensive because of the need to bury coils to deliver constant temperature fluid or install a groundwater pump and injection well to supply constant temperature water to the system. Ground-source or water-source heat pumps can be used in more extreme climatic conditions than air-source heat pumps, and are more effective at cooling and heating at the extremes, but I found the cost to retrofit my existing home to be prohibitively expensive.

Late in 2009 we snagged a Residential Solar Incentive Rebate and combined that incentive with the federal tax credit of 30% and the hope to sell the solar renewable energy credits, SREC’s, made the big leap to buy a 7 kilowatt solar photovoltaic system that has saved us approximately $1,230 per year on our electric bill. That is about twice the savings we achieved by insulating the house; however, the cost (before rebates and incentives) was more than ten times the cost of the insulation project. Even after all the rebates and incentives this energy savings was many more times more expensive than the insulation project and the financial gamble is only working out because I have been able to sell my SRECs in the Washington DC market (I got grandfathered). With a little luck I may reach payback in 7-7.5 years (from installation) and then I would have $1,231 in free electricity each yare for the remaining life of the system and that would be awesome.

According to data from the Energy Star program, over 7% of all household electricity is wasted in phantom loads. Households are buying more and more electronics, but Energy Star equipment has a lower stand by consumption and consumers are becoming more aware of not leaving unnecessary chargers plugged in. Televisions, DVD and DVR’s , video games, computers, tablets, monitors, printers, electronic charges, AC adaptors, microwave ovens, electric coffee pots and toasters –any device that that has a digital display or clock, or a ready light is using power. While I am not unplugging my microwave after every use, I did replace my microwave with an Energy Star unit that draws less standby power and I use the power saving mode on my computer and printer. Like changing your light bulbs, reducing these wasted loads is an easy way to cut your energy consumption even without unplugging everything when you leave the house or go to bed, there are still savings to be had. The Energy Start program has many painless suggestions for how you can cut the wasted energy.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is kicking off its first national ENERGY STAR Change the World through Community Service Tour. During the month of October there will be events in Worcester, Mass.; Baltimore, Md.; San Francisco, Calif.; Denver, Colo.; Orange, Calif.; and culminating on “ENERGY STAR Day,” October 28, in Phoenix, AZ where ENERGY STAR where there will be a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate an extensive energy-efficiency upgrade at U.S. Vets, a 135-unit non-profit housing facility for homeless veterans in Phoenix. The renovation included ENERGY STAR­-certified lighting, appliances, insulation, weatherization and windows, plus upgraded HVAC equipment and might have some useful suggestions for all of us.

EPA is hoping the public events will inspire us to consider what we can do to make a difference through energy efficiency, to share their “stories of positive energy,” and take the ENERGY STAR Pledge in celebration of ENERGY STAR Day. EPA is encouraging consumers across the country to join the millions who have already pledged to take action to save energy and money in their homes and protect the planet- all good things.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

CO2 Emissions in the U.S. are Rising

As delegates gathered for the United Nations Climate Summit, both the U.S. Energy Information Agency and the Global Carbon Project released their carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions data for the first half of 2014. The data from the Global Carbon Project projects that for 2014 37.0 ± 1.9 Giga metric tons of CO2 , will be released into the earth’s atmosphere. That is a 2.5% increase over last year and a 65% increase over 1990 CO2 emission levels. The top four emitters of CO2 in 2014 are expected to be the same as in 2013 when the share of emissions was: China at 28%, the United States at 14%, the European Union at 10% and India at 7%.
data from EIA

The EIA data shows that for the first half of 2014 carbon dioxide (CO2) released into the atmosphere in the United States increased by 2.7% over last year continuing the upward trend in CO2 emissions which were at their lowest in 2012. As can be seen in the graph above and chart below, there has been a general downward trend in CO2 emissions since 2007 in all sectors of the economy. (Please note that both the residential sector and industrial sector include part of the electrical generation emissions so that the parts add up to more CO2 than the total emission from the economy. The chart includes the commercial sector and removes the mixed sector electrical category.) Though overall emissions of CO2 in the United States have fallen 10.4% since 2007 and that is generally true in all sectors of the economy; the largest share of reduction in CO2 emissions was from reduction in emissions from electrical generation which have fallen 15% over the period. Over the same period, CO2 emissions from burning coal in manufacturing, transportation, and industry are down 21%. However, CO2 emissions from burning coal are up 3.25% in the first 6 months of this year and emissions from burning natural gas are up 4.9%. The increase in natural gas appears to be divided fairly evenly among the commercial, industrial and residential sectors.
data from EIA


Electricity generation accounts for approximately 38% of the CO2 emission in 2013 down from 40% in 2007. In 1990 electricity generation accounted for only 36% of the total U.S CO2 emissions. In 2013 the industrial sector accounted for 28% of all CO2 emissions, but back in 1990 industry accounted for 34% of total CO2 emissions. Back in the days when I was a plant engineer, the industrial sector accounted for 40% of all CO2 emissions. Over this period the industrial output has not shrunk, but the labor and energy inputs to industry have shrunk and production has surged and fallen with  recessions as can be seen in the chart from the Federal Reserve.
US industrial production from the Federal Reserve

 As you can see in the chart to the left the CO2 emissions from the generation of electricity have fallen since 2005. A portion of the reduction in CO2 emissions was from the reduction in power generation, the rest was due to a change in the mix of fuels used to produce the electricity and the increase in power produced by renewable energy. As can be seen in the chart below power generation from renewable sources increased by 241% since 2007, but represent only 6% of the power generated in the united states. The big change was the move away from coal to natural gas. Coal fell from 48% of generation in 2007 to 39% of generation in 2013. While natural gas increased from producing  22% of  electricity in 2007 to 27% in 2013.


from EIA