Thursday, December 13, 2018

Winter's Coming are you Ready?

Winter is upon us. There a few things that you should take care of in the waning days of fall to avoid bigger problems later on. All these problems have to do with water and cold. The first thing you should do is turn off the water to your outside hoses, there should be a valve for each in the basement next to the main water line. In older homes this is not always true. Next, unscrew the hoses. Most modern homes have frost-free sillcocks (hose bibs) installed, and if they are properly installed with a correct angel to drain the water back they should be fine all winter; however, I found out the hard way that sometimes they are simply not installed right or leaving the hose connected that winter may have caused the problem. My frost free sillcock in the back of the house had the pipe in the inside wall split a few years back. I replaced both sillcocks in the spring and now turn off the water in the winter. This should prevent problems in the future.

Next, you need to clear out your gutters. Clogged gutters can accumulate water in the gutter and around the house. In addition, a clogged gutter can contribute to creating ice dam. Coming from New England I worry about ice dams that form above the gutters at the edge of the roof. These dams or ice prevent melting snow from draining off the roof and instead may allow the water to back up behind the dam which can both leak into the home and lift the edge of the roof. Fortunately, in Northern Virginia we do not often have to worry about ice dams on the roof, usually it’s only a few days after a snow that the region warms up enough to melt the roof snow. In snow country it’s essential to insulate to keep the heated area out of the attic. The back side of my house faces south and is covered in solar panels. I’ve found that snow just slides off the solar panels. It’s more a danger to the glass door to my deck which always needs to be cleared away.

Also, you need to prevent frozen pipes. Frozen pipes can happen in your supply line or other parts of the house. If your well supply line or the water main is not frozen, you may have water in part of the house, but frozen pipes elsewhere. There are some things you can do to prevent frozen pipes. A couple of ceramic electric heat cubes, thermocouple, electric blanket and a little strategy can prevent frozen pipes.

The likely pipes to freeze are against exterior walls of the home, or are exposed to the cold, like outdoor hose bibs, and water supply pipes in unheated interior areas like basements and crawl spaces, attics, garages, or kitchen cabinets. Pipes that run against exterior walls that have little or no insulation are also subject to freezing. It is easier to prevent pipes from freezing than to unfreeze them.

In sub-zero weather wells with and without separate well houses can freeze. Keeping the temperature in a well house above freezing or your well pipe insulated can prevent this. It used to be that an inefficient 100 watt incandescent bulb gave off enough heat to do the job, but now with more efficient bulbs insulation and other sources of heat have to be used. An electric blanket can do the job. Deep wells are unlikely to freeze, it’s usually a supply line that was not buried deep enough. Abnormally cold snaps can identify many a private well line that was not buried deep enough at its most vulnerable point where it connects to the foundation.

Because of the usually mild winters here in Virginia, bathrooms are often build above garages or have pipes run through a dormer. If you have a bathroom above a garage keep a small ceramic electric heater ($40) connected to a thermocouple that turns it on when the temperature in the garage falls below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Turn on the heating cube in the garage and check it functioning when you turn off the hoses in late fall.

When the weather is forecast to fall into the single digits or lower open the cabinet doors below sinks located on outside walls or against attic dormers, and in the most extreme weather run an extra ceramic electric heater overnight keeping that bathroom toasty while the rest of the house is at an energy saving 62-65 degrees.

Letting the water run in very cold weather can work, but can also create other problems. While running water may prevent the water supply pipes from freezing, in the coldest weather the slowly running water might cause the drain pipe to the septic system to freeze and block the flow or even burst, and it can overwhelm a septic system. If you are on city water and sewer letting water trickle can prevent frozen pipes at a price.

Now is a good time to prepare for winter. Also, you might want to change your furnace and or heat pump filters so that the systems will work their best through the cold months ahead. Remember if we have snow to dig out your heat pump and make sure all furnace vents are clear and unblocked.

Monday, December 10, 2018

WSSC Getting Ready for Winter

After a November that saw more than 200 water main breaks and leaks, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC), which supplies drinking water to Montgomery and Prince George’s counties held a news conference to release details of WSSC’s #WinterReady plans. (I still don’t get why they do this with a hashtag.)

As you can see below, there is a direct connection between dropping water temperatures in the Potomac River and the increase in water main breaks. When the temperature drops the incidence of water main breaks rise. Of the 5,700 miles of water mains in their distribution system, approximately 2,900 miles are cast iron pipe, which were used from 1916 to through 1976. These pipes are prone to breaks because cast iron is a brittle material and the break rate for pipes increases after 60 years. Nearly 40% of WSSC water mains are more than 50 years old.
Water main breaks from 2015 -2018
Water main breaks can leave hundreds of people without service and can also cause serious traffic problems, making the daily commutes even more challenging. so WSSC takes winter preparations very seriously. “Winter is water main break season, and WSSC crews are ready for whatever Mother Nature throws at us,” said Carla Reid CEO of WSSC. “We keep a close eye on the temperature of the Potomac River, knowing that when the water temps drop, we see an increase in breaks. Our crews are ready to repair these breaks 24/7, and restore service to our customers as quickly as possible.”

According to the WSSC, they typically see an increase in breaks a few days after the Potomac River temperature hits a new low. The dropping water temperature can “shock” water mains, and though the pipes become accustomed to the cold water; whenever water temperatures hit a new low, there is a spike in breaks. As seen in the chart above the cold snap last January lead to an all-time-record 802 water main breaks and leaks in January 2018.

On average, WSSC crews repair more than 1,800 water main breaks and leaks each year, with the vast majority of them, approximately 1,200, occurring between November and February. WSSC has already repaired approximately 200 breaks and leaks in November this year and last winter as seen below, the total number of breaks was above average. 
2017-2018 winter water main breaks
According to WSSC Utility Services Director Damion Lampley. “When we experience a high volume of breaks, we prioritize repairs based on factors such as number of customers affected and impact to major roadways. Because some breaks may take longer to repair, we ask customers for their patience and understanding.”

At the new conference, WSSC crews demonstrated how to repair a typical break in a pipe and displayed the leak detection equipment used to pinpoint water main leaks. WSSC has teams of skilled workers and contractors on standby, along with trucks, heavy equipment, and the latest technology ready to roll for the winter to restore water flow after water main breaks.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions 2016

From the “Trends in global CO2 and total greenhouse gas emissions: 2017 Report” by Olivier J.G.J. et al. (1) it is reported : “In 2016, total global greenhouse gas emissions continued to increase slowly by about 0.5% (±1%), to about 49.3 gigatonnes in CO2 equivalent (Gt CO2 eq)... the 2016 emission increase was the slowest since the early 1990s, except for global recession years.” This slowdown in growth of carbon dioxide is primarily the result of changing to natural gas from coal for electrical generation and increases in wind and solar power adoption. “Most of the emissions (about 72%) consist of CO2, but methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O) and fluorinated gases account for 19%, 6% and 3%, respectively.(1)

As you can see below the United States represented about 13% of global greenhouse gas emissions. In 2016; the United States’ emissions fell (-2.0%) along with the Russian Federation (-2.1%), Brazil (-6.1%), and, within the European Union, the United Kingdom (-6.4%). China’s emissions were essentially flat at (-0.3%). In contrast, the largest absolute increases were seen in India (+4.7%) and Indonesia (+6.4%) and smaller increases in Malaysia, Philippines, Turkey and Ukraine.(1)

The US now represent 13% of World GHG emissions

US fossil-fuel emission are declining
It should be clear from the data that mankind is nowhere near on track to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases to meet the goal of keeping global temperatures within 1.5 degrees C. For more information see the link below to read the entire report. 

Monday, December 3, 2018

How Safe is Our Water

The United States has for the most part, safe drinking water available to all. Incidents that I have written about, Flint Michigan, Charleston WV, Toledo, OH and the frequent “Boil Water Alerts” that are occurring in towns and cities highlight the challenge for our community and city water systems to provide 24/7 safe drinking water with aging infrastructure and the reluctance to prioritize spending to maintain our water infrastructure while our source water (both groundwater and surface water) continues to be impacted by all the chemicals our modern life uses.

In Flint, potentially 98,000 residents were exposed to elevated levels of lead, disinfection by-products, E. coli and Legionella bacteria. In Charleston, a leaking above ground chemical storage tank released 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM) mixed with 5.6% propylene glycol phenyl ethers (PPH) into the Elk River, the source water for Charleston, West Virginia. In Toledo, Ohio unregulated toxins formed during algal blooms though to have been caused by agricultural runoff into Lake Erie forced the community to close the water intake for the city.

In the United States approximately 86% of the population obtains their water from public water supply. Over the past decades, the frequency of water quality violations under the Safe Drinking Water Act have increased. In a paper published early this year in the National Academy of Sciences, Maura Allaire, Haowei Wu and Upmanu Lall examined the national trends in violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act. As you can see below in the chart from their paper. 

from Allaire et al.
The authors found that “in 2015, 9% of community water systems had health-based violations of water quality standards. This affected nearly 21 million people in 2015. During the years 1984-2015 the authors found that 9–45 million people were affected in each year, representing 4–28% of U.S. population. “Drinking water contaminants pose a harm to public health. Some can cause immediate illness, such as the 16 million cases of acute gastroenteritis that occur each year at US community water systems. ..Health-based drinking water quality violations are widespread, with 9–45 million people possibly affected during each of the past 34 years...Though, relatively few community water systems (3–10%) incur health-based violations in a given year.”

From the U.S. EPA website the total number of serious violations for the past  four years has been decreasing slightly since 2014. Note though that the total number of "serious violations" from the EPA data charting tool appears higher. The number of water systems with any violation is more than 10 times higher.  
from US EPA

If you want to read more about concentration and location of water system violations the full paper cited below can be read at the link. 

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Explore Climate Projections on a Local Level

The following are excerpts from Volume I and II, of the Fourth National Climate Assessment. Volume I released last year, provides a detailed analysis of how climate change is affecting the physical earth system across the United States and provides the science that the assessment of impacts in in Volume II is based.
Wuebbles, D.J., D.W. Fahey, K.A. Hibbard, B. DeAngelo, S. Doherty, K. Hayhoe, R. Horton, J.P. Kossin, P.C. Taylor, A.M. Waple, and C.P. Weaver, 2017: Executive summary. In: Climate Science Special Report: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume I [Wuebbles, D.J., D.W. Fahey, K.A. Hibbard, D.J. Dokken, B.C. Stewart, and T.K. Maycock (eds.)]. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, USA, pp. 12-34, doi: 10.7930/J0DJ5CTG.

“Our world is warming overall, but temperatures are not increasing at the same rate everywhere. The average global temperature is projected to continue increasing throughout the remainder of this century due to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from human activities; however, high latitudes are expected to continue warming more than lower latitudes; coastal and island regions are expected to warm less than interior continent regions.”

“Climate models differ in the way they represent various processes (for example, cloud properties, ocean circulation, and aerosol effects). Additionally, climate sensitivity, or how much the climate will warm with a given increase in GHGs (often a doubling of GHG from preindustrial levels), is still a major source of uncertainty. As a result, different models produce small differences in projections of global average change. Scientists often use multiple models to account for the variability and represent this as a range of projected outcomes. Finally, there is always the possibility that there are processes and feedbacks not yet being included in projections of climate in the future.”

“The figure below from the shows the Fourth National Climate Assessment shows annual average surface temperature for the contiguous U.S. (black line) from 1960 to 2017, and the long-term warming trend (red line).”

 However, as you can see in the chart from the same report the warming has not been uniform across the nation. 

“Because warmer air can hold more moisture, heavy rainfall events have become more frequent and severe in some areas and are projected to increase in frequency and severity as the world continues to warm. Both the intensity and rainfall rates of Atlantic hurricanes are projected to increase with the strongest storms getting stronger in a warming climate. Recent research has shown how global warming can alter atmospheric circulation and weather patterns such as the jet stream, affecting the location, frequency, and duration of these and other extremes.”

The bottom line here is no matter what mankind does, in the next couple of decades the expected impacts from climate change and are going to happen. The only future mankind actions can impact at this point are in the second half of the 21st century.

“Because Earth’s climate system still has more energy entering than leaving, global warming has not yet equilibrated to the load of increased greenhouse gases that have already accumulated in the atmosphere (for example, the oceans are still warming over many layers from surface to depth). Some greenhouse gases have long lifetimes (for example, carbon dioxide can reside in the atmosphere for a century or more). Thus, even if the emissions of greenhouse gases were to be sharply curtailed to bring them back to natural levels, it is estimated that Earth will continue warming more than an additional 1°F by 2100.”

So, this brings me to the really cool aspect of the Fourth National Climate Assessment- Climate Explorer. "With advances in computing power, the future effects of climate change can be projected more accurately for local communities down to the county level or you can look at the projected future on a state level. You simply hit this link and the click on the state you are interested in. "Local high-resolution (downscaled) climate modeling was used to produce data at a scale of 1–20 miles. These projections show climate-related impacts at the local level and can be an important tool for community planners, decision-makers, or for choosing where you want to live. The “Climate Explorer, projection data are derived from the global climate modeling experiments known as the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 5 (CMIP5). In the updated version, graphs and maps will display county-scale data generated using a new statistical downscaling technique called Localized Constructed Analogs (LOCA).”

When we were choosing a community to retire in, I had to manually extrapolate to climate projections available and simply guess at what the future might bring to any location. We chose a location in Virginia and the new Climate Explorer tool produced a very satisfying report for our location. You might want to look at the climate forecasts for your location and make sure that you make a well informed decision of where to live.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Climate Science Special Report

Every four years the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) delivers a report to Congress and the President that “1) integrates, evaluates, and interprets the findings of the Program…; 2) analyzes the effects of global change on the natural environment, agriculture, energy production and use, land and water resources, transportation, human health and welfare, human social systems, and biological diversity; and 3) analyzes current trends in global change, both human-induced and natural, and projects major trends for the subsequent 25 to 100 years.”.

On Friday the federal government released the Fourth National Climate Assessment Volume II. In 2017 volume I, of the Fourth National Climate Assessment was released. Volume I released last year, provides a detailed analysis of how climate change is affecting the physical earth system across the United States and provides the science that the assessment of impacts in in Volume II is based. Volume II focuses on the human welfare, societal, and environmental elements of climate change and examines the variability in observed and projected risks, impacts, and implications under different mitigation pathways. The report contains many examples of actions underway in communities across the United States to reduce the risks associated with climate change, increase resilience, and improve livelihoods that made me feel good.

The report is long!! I have only looked at a couple of chapters, and I believe that the two report together with the appendixes total more than 1,600 pages. You have three choices here go to your favorite news source and read their opinion to confirm whatever point of view you have. Or you could read the 196 page summary of findings  at the link below. I do, however recommend reading the 18 page summary of impacts.

Finally, if you might want to read the 62 page Frequently Asked Questions in Appendix 5 of Volume II which is an amazing summary of the entire topic of climate change and its implications. In 62 pages you are caught up with the entire field of study and are prepared to have opinions and make informed decisions in your life and talk intelligently at social gatherings. Topics covered are:
  • Introduction to climate change 
  • Temperature and Climate Projections 
  • Climate, Weather, and Extreme Events 
  • Societal Effects 
  • Ecological Effects

Volume I Citation:
Wuebbles, D.J., D.W. Fahey, K.A. Hibbard, B. DeAngelo, S. Doherty, K. Hayhoe, R. Horton, J.P. Kossin, P.C. Taylor, A.M. Waple, and C.P. Weaver, 2017: Executive summary. In: Climate Science Special Report: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume I [Wuebbles, D.J., D.W. Fahey, K.A. Hibbard, D.J. Dokken, B.C. Stewart, and T.K. Maycock (eds.)]. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, USA, pp. 12-34, doi: 10.7930/J0DJ5CTG.

Volume II Citation:
USGCRP, 2018: Impacts, Risks, and Adaptation in the United States: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume II [Reidmiller, D.R., C.W. Avery, D.R. Easterling, K.E. Kunkel, K.L.M. Lewis, T.K. Maycock, and B.C. Stewart (eds.)]. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, USA. doi: 10.7930/NCA4.2018.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Rules for Septic Systems

  1. Only toilet paper and human waste should go down the toilet. Do not flush wipes, facial tissues, paper towels, floss, cotton swabs or other items such as coffee grinds, kitty litter. 
  2. Do not use the garbage disposal to dispose of food scraps. A garbage disposal adds solids, grease and increases the biological load on a septic system. (Don’t ask me why they installed it, I use mine to break up soap bubbles.) 
  3. Do not put hazardous household wastes down the drain or in the toilet EVER. Do not wash paint brushes or containers in the sink. 
  4. Minimize the use of bleach, chemical disinfectants and antibacterial agents. As little as of 1.85 gallons of liquid bleach added to a 1,000-gallon septic tank can cause a die-off of the bacteria in a septic tank. 
  5. Never do more than two laundry loads a day. Laundry uses a lot of water and too much water in a single day will stir up to solids and scum and push them through the system. 
  6. Service your septic system regularly. At a minimum pump your septic tank every 3-5 years it will extend the life of your system.
The septic system is designed so that with proper maintenance it will last 20 to 30 years, but only if you treat it properly. Replacing a septic system is reported to cost $20,000-$40,000. The functioning of a septic system is based on natural ecological cycles. It needs to be treated kindly and kept in balance. When a system is that is not pumped out on a regular basis has an excessive demand put on it, sludge (solid material) flows into the leach (absorption) field, potentially clogging it beyond repair. Excessive load from toilets and garbage disposal, putting grease, coffee grinds, kitty litter or any kind of trash down the drain will effectively decrease the size of the tank and the time that the solids have to settle out. This will decrease the life of and potentially overload the system. Even with proper use and maintenance the system will wear out. A garbage disposal adds solids, grease and increases the biological load on a septic system.

A typical septic system has four main components: a pipe from the home, a septic tank, a leach field (alternative systems might have drip fields, sand mounds or peat tanks where a leach field is not possible or has failed), and the soil. Microbes in the soil digest or remove most contaminants from wastewater before it eventually reaches groundwater. Many systems also have pumps to move the liquids from the home to the septic tank or from the septic tank to the drain field. There are also Alternative systems that have additional components such as; float switches, pumps, and other electrical or mechanical components including additional treatment tanks.

The septic tank is a buried, watertight container typically made of concrete, fiberglass, or polyethylene. It holds the wastewater long enough to allow solids to settle out (forming sludge) and oil and grease to float to the surface (as scum). It also allows partial decomposition of the solid fecal materials. Compartments and a T-shaped outlet in the septic tank are intended to prevent the sludge and scum from leaving the tank and traveling into the leach field area. Some newer systems have screens and filters to keep solids from entering the leach field.

The basic design of a septic tank will only work if the sludge is not too thick on the bottom and the grease and scum is not too thick on top, and if the flow to the tank is not excessive. If there is too much waste on the bottom of the tank or too much water flowing to the tank (multiple laundry loads or every relative you have taking a shower at the same time), there will not be enough time for the solids and liquids to settle out before the tank starts releasing waste. Water containing large amounts of fecal waste will be released to the drain field. Also, if there is too much grease and scum floating on top, the scum will be released to the leach field.