Sunday, October 28, 2012

Storm Prep and Cleanup for Well and Septic Owners

With tropical storm Sandy approaching the east coast and potentially heading for Virginia and much of the mid-Atlantic and northeast, the Governors along the eastern seaboard have declared states of emergency. The local utilities have already requested additional workers to restore power lines, so it seems a good time to discuss basic storm preparations for your home and how intense rainfall associated with tropical storms and hurricanes can impact your drinking water well and septic system, and what you should do if your well and septic system are impacted. I am posting this blog entry a little early, so I can run off to the grocery store and pick up some more milk, orange juice, coffee and produce and any other emergency supplies I don’t have on hand.  

My home is on well water and without electricity I have no water, no septic, no sump pumps, my freezer containing a quarter of a cow (grass fed) that is in danger of spoiling, and my life generally disrupted with the loss of the all the modern conveniences. So five years ago, I had a Guardian 16 kilowatt automatic generator manufactured by Generac installed. When the power to the house is cut, the generator automatically kicks in to power most of the house in about 20 seconds. The generator runs on liquid propane from a tank buried in my yard that also powers my hot water heater, furnace, gas grill and stove. The generator can supply the house for more than two weeks depending on whether the gas furnace is running, and is housed in an insulated aluminum casing under my deck (muffling the sound) and looking good as new even after five years of sitting outside.
My Generator

The generator was serviced over the summer after the last storm and was filled with oil, and the propane tank was filled last week in preparation for winter. (Note that if the generator runs more than a few days especially when new it will need oil.) So, I am all set to go on those fronts. However, it is a little late to be installing a whole house generator and I understand that there has been quite the run on portable generators, so you may not be able to get one today. So, you need to make sure that your sump pump or pumps are operational and have battery backup (check those batteries and make sure they work), clear all the leaves out of your gutters and make sure the down spouts drain away from your foundation. Keeping water away from the house will protect your home and minimize the work that the sump pumps will have to do. Make sure you have batteries and flash lights. Even with the generator, we keep flashlights around. If you do not have a generator, fill plastic bags with water and put as many as you can in your freezer today. The water will freeze by tomorrow and the frozen water will serve to keep the freezer cold without power- just like a cooler.  If the power goes out, you might also want to use some of the ice bags to keep your refrigerator cold. In the end you can drink the water. Bring in all outdoor furniture, decorations, garbage cans and anything else that is not tied down, put them in the garage-that includes the pumpkins on the stoop.

Without electricity your well pump will not work, so you will need to fill the bathtubs and gallon jugs with drinking water when the storm hits to make sure that you will have water. If your home and well are on low ground, and the area floods then it is possible your well could be impacted. After a storm, brownish or dirty water coming from the well is a common occurrence and indicates surface water infiltration carrying dirt and contaminants into the well. If your well was flooded or your water appears dirty or brownish you need to clear your well and disinfect it and the stored water may have to last you a few days.

Septic systems should not be used immediately after flooding. Drain fields will not work until underground water has receded. Septic lines have been known to break during significant flooding, so keep an eye out for that. Whenever the water table is high or your septic drain field has been flooded, there is a risk that sewage will back up into your home. The only way to prevent this backup is to relieve pressure on the system by using it less. Basically, there is nothing you can do but wait it out, do not use the system if the soil is saturated and flooded. The wastewater will not be treated and will become a source of pollution, if it does not back up into your house, it will bubble up into your yard. Conserve water as much as possible while the system restores itself the drain field dries out and the water table fails. Also, if the septic system is not and entirely gravity system you will need power to run the pumps and need to understand if there is adequate gravity flow to move the sewage from the house.

The available volume in the septic tank (assuming you occasionally pump it) should give you several days of storage and water use if you conserve water to allow your drain field to recover. The biggest single use of water in the home is laundry- a top loading washer uses 52 gallons and a front load washer uses 27 gallons- do not do laundry until the system has dried out.  Toilets manufactured before 1992 use 5 or more gallons per flush while newer, low flush toilets use 1.5 gallons per flush. Only flush older toilets when you have to- not for urine. Go easy on your water use. The septic system operates on the principals of settling, bacterial digestion, and soil filtration all gentle and slow natural processes that will have been battered by the storm. Do not pump the septic tank while the soil is still saturated. Pumping out a tank that is in very saturated soils may cause it to “pop out” of the ground. Recently installed systems may “pop out” of the ground more readily than older systems because the soil has not had enough time to settle and compact.

If your well was flooded or your water appears dirty or brownish after the storm you need to clear your well and disinfect it. Your power must be restored to disinfect the well. Run your hoses (away from your septic system and down slope from your well) to clear the well. Run it for an hour or so and see if it runs clear. If you have a robust recharge rate as I do it will take hours to clear the well. If not let the well rest for 8-12 hours and run the hoses again. Several cycles should clear the well. What we are doing is pumping out any infiltration in the well area and letting the groundwater carry any contamination away from your well. In all likelihood the well will clear of obvious discoloration. Then, you need to disinfect your well. This is an emergency procedure that will kill any bacteria for 7 to 10 days.
Well with a sanitary cap

Determine what type of well you have and how to pour the bleach into the well. Some wells have a sanitary seal which must be unbolted. Some well caps have an air vent or a plug that can be removed. On bored or dug well, the entire cover can simply be lifted off to provide a space for pouring the bleach into the well. Carefully pour the bleach down into the well casing using a funnel if necessary. For a typical 6 inch diameter well you need 2 cups of regular laundry bleach for each 100 foot of well depth to achieve about 200 parts per million chlorine concentration. If you don’t know the depth of the well, pour a half gallon down the well. Wear rubber gloves, old clothes and protective glasses to protect you from the inevitable splashes, and don't forget a bucket of bleach mixed with water to wash the well cap.

After the bleach has been added, run water from an outside hose into the well casing until you smell chlorine coming from the hose (depending on the depth of your well and the recharge rate, this can take an hour or more). This step is important to mix the chlorine in the well. Then turn off the outside hose. Now go into the house and if you have a water treatment system, switch it to bypass before turning on the indoor faucets, then one bathroom and sink at a time, turn on the cold water faucets until the chlorine odor is detected in each faucet, then shut it off and move on to the next sink, or bathroom (if you have an automatic ice maker turn it off and dump the ice. Do not turn on the hot water. Once the inside system has been done, go back to the outside spigots and run the hoses until you smell chlorine coming out. Warning if you have iron bacteria in your well, your water may turn completely rust colored. Do not panic it will flush out of the system, but do not use the hot water until the water runs clear or you will have to drain the hot water tank to prevent staining.

Wait 8 to 24 hours before using the water. You want to run the hoses until the water runs clear if you have iron bacteria or simply run the hoses to prevent killing all the bacteria in the septic system. It is important not to drink, cook, bath or wash with this water during the time period it contains high amounts of chlorine whose by products are a carcinogen. After at least 8 hours, run the water into a safe area where it will not kill your lawn, your trees or plants pollute lakes, streams or septic tanks. Run the water until there is no longer a chlorine odor. Turn the water off. The system should now be disinfected, and you can now use the water for 7 to 10 days when the effects of the disinfection wear off. After 7 to 10 days you need to test your well for bacteria to make sure that it is safe.

The Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) Office will be hosting a drinking water clinic for well owners in Prince William County as part of the Virginia Household Water Quality Program and subsidizing the analysis cost. So you may want to attend to test your well. The Kickoff Meeting will be on November 5, 2012 at 7 - 8:30 pm at the Old Courthouse, 9248 Lee Avenue in Manassas, VA 20110. Unlike public water systems, private systems are entirely unregulated; consequently, the well testing, and treatment are the voluntary responsibility of the homeowner.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

SRECs in 2012 –What Will I Get For Mine

Solar Renewable Energy Certificates, SRECs, are not real, they are environmental “commodities” created by regulation that was born in New Jersey in 2004-2005 as a way to encourage and support the growth of solar energy within the states that utilize them. SRECs are not physical entities, but merely a credit for having made power.  In order for SRECs to have any value, the state must have a mandated Renewable Portfolio Standard, RPS, which is a state legislative requirement for utilities within the state to generate or sell a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable energy sources. The percentage requirements under RPS programs vary widely from state to state, but for SRECs to have any real value there must be a solar carve out and be tradable, because renewable energy credits from landfill  gas and other  less expensive sources sells for between $10 and $20. In addition, the SRECs must be tradable and there must be a punitive financial penalty for not meeting a solar RPS. The punitive payment is the Solar Alternative Compliance Payment (SACP) is what utilities must pay per megawatt hours, MWh, of solar electricity that they fall short of the RPS solar requirement through generation or buying SREC s. In addition, some markets have price supports embedded into the solar carve out to maintain a minimum price in an oversupplied market.

The RPS is mandated by state legislation (or city in the case of DC) varies from state to state, ranging from modest to ambitious. Some states have mandated requirements and others “goals” and the qualifying energy sources vary across states. Some states also utilize other incentives to encourage the development of particular resources (biomass, wind, solar, landfill gas, etc.).In some states with solar grant or rebate programs the utility company owns the SRECs so that the homeowner cannot sell them. This has worked in states like California where electricity rates are high and tiered and the solar installation market has become is more competitive and utility payments effectively fund solar rebates. As of September 2012, thirty-eight states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have enacted an RPS or a renewable portfolio goal (RPG). Of these states, only New Jersey, Maryland, Washington DC, Delaware, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts have assigned a multiplier to Solar RECs and created a separate SREC market where the homeowner or facility owner maintains ownership of the SRECs.

The legislation creating SRECs and RPS in various markets creates a situation where most markets loose SREC value. Without minimum price support, markets like New Jersey where SREC prices were once over $600 become oversupplied and collapse. There is always price pressure as the market over builds and the next project is willing to accept a lower SREC price. Then either the market collapses or the state closes its SREC market to outside systems and accelerates the solar carve out. In the District of Columbia, after the market price collapsed, the market was closed, and the RPS requirement was accelerated.  For the  51 megawatts of required average capacity for next year, there are over 24.6 megawatts of solar photovoltaic systems currently registered and certified in DC that are eligible for the DC SREC market, but DC allows a three year life on SRECS so any saved SRECs from the oversupplied period can be sold. Only 5.3 MW of the 24.6 megawatts are actually located within the District the others were registered and grandfathered before the market was closed. The SREC prices in DC are currently the highest in the nation and will encourage the installation of solar projects within the district, but peculiarities of the market may slow the installation of solar projects in the short run. The SACP is currently at $300 and set to begin stepping down in less than five years ultimately reaching $150.  In 2017 when the SACP is cut the market price of SRECs should fall to reflect that even if there is no sudden surge in solar installations in DC.

In Pennsylvania the RPS requirement for next year is 65.6 megawatts and there are 223.3 megawatts of solar photovoltaic systems currently registered and certified in that state with only 159.1 are actually located in Pennsylvania, but there is little hope of the SREC market recovering without legislative action to close the market and  accelerate the solar RPS and create price supports. There are no effective SACP (the state uses the average price actually paid for SRECs) and the market price has collapsed and SRECs are selling for under $20 from a high of around $300 in 2009.

Even with price supports, a vastly oversupplied market cannot maintain minimum prices for SRECS for long. New Jersey and Maryland have closed markets with price supports and still there has been downward pressure on prices as the markets have become oversupplied. In July 2012, the New Jersey passed new legislation to greatly increase the RPS solar requirements beginning in 2014 to counter the substantial amount of excess solar capacity installed in the state. Maryland is currently oversupplied, but the market remains viable thought prices for SRECs have fallen significantly. The two most important factors that also keep the Maryland market alive are that it is closed only in-state solar generators may participate and the RPS steps up aggressively each year through 2020.

Of the SREC markets only Washington DC and Delaware are not currently oversupplied, but both had to accelerate their solar RPS to overcome oversupply in the past. DC may remain stable for a few years because as a city it has no large capacity projects and is closed. To meet the existing solar RPS the city would have to increase its current installed solar capacity by putting solar panels on government buildings, University dorms and museums- a much slower build out. Ohio has a two tiered market in-state and out of state and meets it’s solar RPS with a combination of in-state and out of state SRECs at different price points. Under the RPS rules, at least 50% of the solar requirements must come from in-state sited systems, but oversupply in both halves of the market has pushed prices down.

When SREC prices are high within a market, because a market is under supplied, there is an incentive to build. The market can be thoroughly changed in short order by the construction of a few large capacity projects. Within the SREC market the largest solar installations are the PSE&G utility pole mount project in New Jersey at 25.1 MW, the second largest is in Maryland at 16.1 MW and the third largest system at 12.5 MW, is also located in New Jersey. Commercial projects at more than a thousand times the typical residential system can rapidly overwhelm a market with excess supply and make residential SRECs worthless. There are other incentives beyond the SREC prices which can encourage the overbuilding in commercial projects and crush the SREC market that was heavily considered in the return of residential projects.

The US Department of Energy (DOE) Renewable Energy Loan Guarantee program which ended on September 30th 2011 included on the last date the closing of a DOE government loan guarantees for Project Amp. DOE made a $1.4 billion loan guarantee to Bank of America Merrill Lynch to support Project Amp; the installation of 752 megawatts of photovoltaic solar panels on 750 existing rooftop owned by Prologis. This represents 57% percent of the total amount of PV installed in the U.S. in all the SREC markets combined. Depending on where these solar photovoltaic panels are installed they could significantly impact pricing and economics in the solar market, SREC market and the cost of electricity across the nation. 

Since installing my solar PV system I have come to understand the solar SREC market. DC may remain stable for a few years because as a city it has no large capacity projects. The city would have to oversupply on putting solar panels on government buildings, University dorms and museums a much slower build out. I hope that is the scenario that plays out because that is where I am selling my SRECs. In my cost and return projections for my project I included $10,000 over five years from SRECs and I am almost half way there in less than two and a half years. This happens to be an instance of luck rather than true understanding of the market at the time.  

Monday, October 22, 2012

Yankey Farms- Conservation Agriculture in Virginia

Conservation agriculture and organic farming both strive to achieve balance between people and the land, but take different approaches to feeding  people without damaging the earth. Many of us know about organic farming methods which avoid artificial pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Less well known is conservation agriculture which emphasizes sustainability of the farming operation and maintaining soil and its humus by minimizing soil disturbance, maintaining a permanent soil cover and utilizing crop rotations to retain soil nutrients. Conservation agriculture is a way to combine profitable agricultural production with environmental concerns and sustainability and is a proven method of sustainable land management that can be used on farms small and large.

I spoke with Jay Yankey who is both the Manager of the Prince William County Soil and Water Conservation District, PWSWCD, and the third generation of his family to farm in Prince William County Virginia. (Before the 1940’s Jay’s family farmed in Rockingham County and today Jay and his brother-in-law grow small grain on land they own in Rockingham.) After graduating from Ferrum College in 2000 with a degree in Agricultural Business and Environmental Science, Jay built his own retail based farming operation based on a conservation agriculture model beginning in 1997. Yankey Farms operates a pick your own berries and sweet corn in the early summer and pumpkin patch in the fall. The berries this summer were amazing.

For the past several years (but not planned for 2013) Jay has also operated two farm stands and a community supported agricultural, CSA, boxes program where “neighbors” could sign up and purchase a weekly box of vegetables during the growing season. These operations have been successful and profitable for Yankey Farms; however, now that Jay is also the Director of the PWSWCD he has had to streamline his farming operation. His attempts to hire an intern to help manage the CSA program were not satisfactory- he needed more time for on-site management to operate the CSA program than he has these days.

Yankey Farms grows about 15-20 acres of produce and 50 acres of small grain based on a model of conservation agriculture, which is  an integrated model of lest toxic, cost effective farming, utilizing crop rotation, field borders, cover crops and low till or no-till to reduce erosion. Yankey Farms leaves a permanent cover crop and drills through the upper layers to plant the seeds, always working to minimize erosion. Conservation agriculture uses herbicides (the least toxic) and active manipulation of organic matter in the soil to deal with weed problem. Organic farming requires that farmers till the land, churning up the crop land, pulling up weeds and mixing them into the soil and does not use chemical herbicides.

Many at the US Environmental Protection Agency and the US Department of Agriculture attribute erosion to the plowing of soil before planting. Disturbing the soil cover, loosening it so it's no longer tightly packed, leaves it more susceptible to being washed away by rain and wind and ultimately finding its way into streams and rivers. No till, reduces sediment, nitrogen and phosphorus runoff and ultimately contamination of water bodies like the Chesapeake Bay. Leaving the soil intact also increases its ability to hold onto carbon dioxide, which means less carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere. Instead of plowing up the ground to plant the crops, Yankey Farms uses a machine that punches the seeds or plant into the ground. No till farming can reduce erosion up to 90%. No till farming also reduces reliance on fertilizers.

Yankey Farms has about 5 acres of irrigation ponds used in a sustainable irrigation model. These ponds are filled by rainfall and are used to ensure that the crops get at least one and a half inches of rain a week. The vegetable crops and berries are irrigated by a drip irrigation tape that is replaced every couple of seasons and the small grain crops are irrigated by the less efficient overhead irrigation. Though it varies from year to year depending on weather, the vegetable crops required 15,000 gallons per acre per week and the grains 40,000 gallons per acre per week. During this past summer at the low point during the crop drought the irrigation ponds water level was down about 3 feet, but the rainfall of late has refilled them.  

Conservation agriculture and organic farming both strive to achieve balance between people and the land so that the land can continue to feed people without damaging the earth. Conservation agriculture emphasizes sustainability of the farming operation and maintaining soil by minimizing soil disturbance, maintaining a permanent soil cover and utilizing crop rotations to retain soil nutrients. Conservation agriculture is a way to combine profitable agricultural production with environmental concerns and sustainability and is a proven method of sustainable land management.

The ten year Iowa State Marsden Farm study found that low chemical use combined with high-diversity crop rotations increased crop yield over conventional practices and though low value crops were utilized in the rotation the farm produced similar profits over the longer run. According to the study done at the Iowa State University demonstration farm conservation agriculture is less damaging to the environment than industrial agriculture,and produces a richer, more diverse mix of foods. It's productive enough to feed the world, and efficient enough to succeed in the marketplace.  These practices are on the ground, so to speak in Prince William county and succeeding here.  Unfortunately current U.S. agricultural policy manifest in the Farm Bill favors industrial food production. 

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Farm Exports- Selling Our Water and Future to China

Paradise, CA

According to the US Census Bureau there are 312 million people in the United States. As population rises, the demand for fresh water for drinking, domestic use, for industry (especially power generation) and for agriculture increases. The demand for food and the water that is essential to produce food grows with population and wealth. Globally, farming is estimated to account for 92% of water footprint of mankind. Farmers in the United States feed 20% of the world’s population on just 10% of the earth’s surface which has resulted in the United States being the largest virtual water exporter on the globe.

Though “on average” the United States actively uses less than 8% of the water that falls as precipitation within our borders annually, the rain and snow does not fall where needed and when it is needed, our groundwater aquifers are necessary to maintain year round water and supplement surface water supplies. However, we are depleting key aquifers in the United States. In the High Plains that was open range land until the groundwater from the Ogallala aquifer was used to turn the range land into irrigated crops, agriculture is depleting the aquifer because the groundwater within it is predominately non-renewable. In the central valley of California where three crops a year can be grown and crop production is only limited by the amount of water delivered for irrigation, the groundwater is used to increase irrigation waters making up an estimated of 30% of water for irrigation from an aquifer that is also predominately non-renewable. So much water has been pumped that the land above the aquifer- the fine-grained confining beds of sediments- that the land has subsided and can never recover. The water level in both these aquifers has fallen hundreds of feet in the past few generations.  

This year it is estimated that the Western United States will ship more than 3.6 million tons of hay and alfalfa whose water footprint is more than 50 billion gallons of water to China this year. We do this in a drought year when the limited water of the Colorado River could be better used elsewhere in the United States and by consuming non-renewable groundwater. Farmers pay almost nothing for water- only what it costs to deliver it, not what it is worth. So, for less than $180 American farmers are selling 13,900 gallons of water to China. This water is both the limited flow of the Colorado and non-renewable groundwater resources.  

In many parts of the United States, water resources are limited and strained. Without irrigation even a single crop is impossible with less than 20 inches of rainfall. Yet, we still behave as if water were unlimited and almost free. Irrigated agricultural consumes over 75% or more of the delivered water in California, which produces about half of U.S. grown fruits, nuts, and vegetables. In the United States we have used the various complicated, layered and hidden subsidies within the various water rights arrangements and subsidized water to complicate the business of farming and obscure the true costs of food in America and now we are consuming our non-renewable water resources and subsidizing the water cost for hay and nuts for China. The basic laws and regulations governing water and water rights have not been updated to account for today’s water realities and for recent advances in scientific and technical understanding of the relationship between water, groundwater and ecological services that water perform.

The system of water rights that developed in the west assured for generations the allocation of water to agriculture. The water rights system as conceived and administered in the western states was not designed to conserve water. It was developed in a time when population was still sparse, water supplies were believed to be more than plentiful and development and growth were to be encouraged. The system was designed to protect the water and work necessary to build farms in the west and the government actually encouraged the conversion of over 91% of the range land into cultivated agriculture. This management scheme has resulted in non-sustainable use of groundwater and unsustainable agricultural practices. We are draining the High Plains Aquifer and the Central Valley aquifers though agricultural crop volume per gallon of water has increased over the past generation by adopting more efficient irrigation technologies.

The states of the Colorado Compact need more water. The allocations promised under the Compact were more than 100% of the water available , and the water needs of the states have grown over the years. The water allocated under the Colorado Compact was based on an expectation that the river's average flow was 16.4 million acre feet per year. According to the University of Arizona, a better estimate would have been 13.2 million acre feet at the time of the Colorado Compact and there are indications of periods of mega-droughts in the distant past. During the drought of 2001-2006 the Colorado River flow was estimated at 11 million acre feet and hit a low of 6 million acre feet in 2002.  Overuse is killing the Colorado water basin which suffers from decimated aquatic ecosystems, overdrawn and irreparably damaged groundwater aquifers, and polluted agricultural and urban runoff.

California farmers have nontransferable water rights to 20% of the flow of the Colorado River exceeding by an order of magnitude the rights of the state of Nevada. Even with such a large share of the Colorado’s flow California has failed to develop a sustainable water budget. There is little incentive for farmers with senior rights to fully implement water saving strategies- the water is priced too cheap and farmers are unable to sell water rights. By prior appropriation water rights belong to the agricultural irrigation districts despite the changing needs of our nation and a changing understanding of water. The states of the Colorado Compact, the states of the High Plains, and the other major watersheds need to rationalize our water policies and create a sustainable and workable water budget for their communities and our nation as a whole and stop exporting the non-renewable water resources as cheap grains and hay.  

Monday, October 15, 2012

Water Clinic in Prince William

The Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) Office will be hosting a drinking water clinic for well, spring and cistern owners in Prince William County as part of the Virginia Household Water Quality Program. The Prince William VCE welcomes our neighbors from Loudoun, Fairfax, and Fauquier (and anyone else in Virginia willing to drive to the clinic to join us). A statewide grant from USDA Cooperative State Research, Extension and Education Service that allow Virginia to hold and subsidize the cost of the analysis for the water clinics in a dozen or more counties each year. To sign up for the program please call 703-792-6285 or email Please register as soon as possible so that the Prince William VCE Office can order enough test kits.

The program consists of two meetings- one to get instructions and test kits, and the other a month later to get results and provide interpretation and recommendations. Samples will need to be dropped off at the VCE Prince William Office for analysis a day and a half after the first meeting. The samples will be analyzed for 14 chemical and bacteriological contaminants and cost only $49. Comparable analysis at a private commercial lab would cost $150-$200. Samples will be analyzed for: iron, manganese, nitrate, lead, arsenic, fluoride, sulfate, pH, total dissolved solids, hardness, sodium, copper, total coliform bacteria and E. Coli bacteria.

 The Kickoff Meeting will be on November 5, 2012 at 7 - 8:30 pm at the Old Courthouse, 9248 Lee Avenue  in Manassas, VA 20110
A brief presentation will be given to discuss common water quality issues in our area and instructions for how to properly collect the water samples from your tap. Water sampling kits will be distributed with written sampling directions and a short survey about your water supply for data gathering purposes. Checks (or money orders) for $49 to cover the cost for the analysis and sampling kits will be collected. A friend or neighbor may drop off your check and pick up your sampling kit.

The samples should be taken early Wednesday morning and then dropped off on Wednesday November 7, between 6:30am and 10am at the VCE  Prince William Office, at 8033 Ashton, Suite 105, Manassas  20109

Results Interpretation Meeting will be held on December 5, 2012, 7-8:30 pm once more at the Old Courthouse 9248 Lee Avenue, Manassas, VA 20110
Participants will receive their confidential water test results. A presentation will be given that explains what the numbers on the test report mean and what possible options participants may consider to deal with water problems. Experts will be on hand to answer any specific questions you may have about your water and water system. I will be one of volunteers present to help with the program. Come join us.

Just because your water appears clear doesn’t necessarily mean it is safe to drink. You cannot taste bacterial contamination from human and animal waste, nor nitrate/ nitrite contamination which can in excessive levels be deadly to newborns and infants. Since bacterial contamination cannot be detected by taste, smell, or sight, all drinking water wells should be tested at least annually for Coliform bacteria and E Coli. Testing is the only way to detect contamination in your water. Testing is not mandatory, but should be done to ensure your family’s safety. The Virginia Private Well Regulations only specify construction requirements. There are no requirements for maintenance or water testing after a well is approved either on a state or national level. Maintenance of your well and ensuring that water is safe to drink is the responsibility of the owner.

 Under the Safe Drinking Water Act the U.S. EPA requires that all public water supplies be tested for a list of 80 primary contaminants on a regular basis and meet these minimum standards. In addition, EPA has secondary standards for less hazardous substances based on aesthetic characteristics of taste, smell and appearance, which public water systems and states can choose to adopt or not. Neither the primary nor secondary safe drinking water standards apply to private wells, but these standards can be used as guidance to determine what levels of water constituents is too high and should be addressed.  Contamination from human and animal waste and chemicals can be real health hazards and should be addressed immediately. However, most of the water quality issues with private wells are from naturally occurring contamination or impurities. While many natural contaminants such as iron, sulfate, and manganese are not considered serious health hazards, they can give drinking water an unpleasant taste, odor, or color and be annoying and persistent problems and EPA has established secondary standards that can be used as guidance. Excessive levels of sodium, total dissolved solids, harness, can be an annoyance and impact appliances.  Several of the naturally occurring contaminants that commonly appear in well water are primary contaminants under the Safe Drinking Water Act and can be a health hazard at excessively high levels- nitrate, lead, arsenic, floride, and copper. The VCE Drinking Water Clinic will test for these.  

The goal of the Virginia Household Water Quality Program is to educate well owners, improve the water quality and protect the health of Virginians with private water supplies, such as wells, springs and cisterns. This all begins with testing and understanding your water and properly maintaining your water system. In 60 of Virginia’s 95 counties more than half the households rely on private wells, springs, and cisterns. In total there are more than 1,500,000 households in Virginia with private water supplies. Homeowners relying on private water supplies are responsible for all aspects of their water system’s management, but may lack the knowledge and resources to effectively and properly manage and maintain their wells and water systems. Until a big problem arises, many homeowners ignore their private water systems, but they should be routinely tested every 1-3 years (every year for bacteria). If there is a pregnant woman or infant in the home the water should be tested. If there is any change in the taste, appearance, odor of water or your system is serviced or repaired then water should be tested to confirm that no contaminants were introduced.  

In addition running  the drinking water clinics VCE has established the Virginia Master Well Owner Network (VAMWON), a group of Virginia Cooperative Extension educator/agents and screened volunteers trained in proper well construction and location, appropriate maintenance and protection of wells and springs, interpretation of water tests, and water treatment options. These educator/agents and volunteers form an excellent resource base for homeowners. If you are a private water system owner, consider contacting a Master Well Owner in your area if you cannot join us for the water clinic.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Iron Bacteria

It was time for my semi-annual Alternative On-Site Sewage (AOSS) System service/ inspection as required by the manufacturer and under Virginia regulations. At the scheduled time my service company arrived and I followed them around to chat about how the system was holding up. Unfortunately, my Delta Whitewater system and drip field have had many problems over the years, and I prefer to take advantage of the inspection/ service to ask, listen and learn. Once more the “zoner” valve was leaking, but fortunately a new gasket solved the problem and this year I escaped replacing the zoner again. However, the scum level appeared to be quite thick. This was perplexing since 5 months earlier when I was away on vacation the septic company had supposedly pumped the tank and charged me for it.  I looked at the scum layer and took a couple of pictures- yeah, I know, gross. The field service technician went back to headquarters to try and determine what could have caused so much scum. The company determined that they must have mistakenly not pumped the tank and sent out the truck to pump my tank.

Looking at the pictures and thinking about my previous experience with my septic tanks- I had never previously had that level of scum even with several years between pump outs. This is a two person household and I am careful with grease, fats, oils and scraps.  So, I asked around and searched for other solutions. I received one from Sandra Gentry of Gentry Septic Tank Service and Secretary of Virginia Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association (VOWRA). Though Sandra did not know the answer off the top of her head she was able to tap into her network of contacts and find a possible cause for my problem.Sandra suggested that the cause might be iron bacteria. That bacteria reportedly just love all the excess oxygen in an ATU (the second tank in my AOSS that the system blows air into 24/7). According to Sandra the iron bacteria should look a bit like a brown Jell-O. I examined the pictures I took and thought, maybe.

Though I test my well water each year for all primary and secondary pollutants, iron bacteria is not part of that suite of tests and frankly I had not thought to test for iron bacteria. Generally, there are symptoms of iron bacteria.  Iron bacteria often produce unpleasant tastes and odors commonly reported as: "swampy," "oily or petroleum," "cucumber," "sewage," "rotten vegetation," or "musty." The taste or odor may be more noticeable after the water has not been used for some time and are not easily explained by other causes. Iron bacteria do not produce the "rotten egg" smell common to hydrogen sulfide, but do create an environment where sulfur bacteria can grow and produce hydrogen sulfide. There is often a discoloration of the water with the iron bacteria causing a slight yellow, orange, red or brown tint to the water. It is sometimes possible to see a rainbow colored, oil-like sheen on the water. Though the classic symptom of iron bacteria is a rust colored slime, but may be yellow, brown, or grey. I had noticed none of those symptoms and I drink my water without further treatment.

However, I had on occasion noticed a subtle bit of white filament on the bottom of pitchers of water and that could be a symptom.  So, I ordered an Iron Bacteria Test from National Testing Laboratories took a water sample following the instructions and overnighted the shipment to the laboratory who found “Iron Related Bacteria” present with an estimated population of  2,300 cfu/mL.  This level of iron bacteria is “top tier” and needs to be addressed. Iron bacteria once introduced into the well will not get better, but continue to get worse destroying your pump and ultimately fouling the well. Left unaddressed sooner or later I would no doubt experience some of the very unpleasant symptoms of iron bacteria. Although iron bacteria can make water unpleasant in taste or smell, there is no health risk associated with the bacteria. They are harmless, but annoying. 

Elevated levels of iron or manganese in groundwater are an ideal media for iron bacteria to grow. Iron bacteria are present in soils and surface water in this area of Virginia and in many parts of the country. Iron bacteria can be introduced into a well during drilling, repair, or service if  tools, equipment, or devices used during well drilling or pump servicing were not properly disinfected. It is believed that the bacteria must be introduced into the aquifer and cannot infect the water without human help. Some health departments in parts of the country that are also iron rich recommend  chlorinating the well once a year or anytime it has been opened or serviced as a method of prevention and control of the bacteria. Elimination of iron bacteria once a well is heavily infested can be extremely difficult. Normal treatment for a problem such as this would be to chlorine “shock,” but iron bacteria can be particularly persistent and chlorine treatment of the well may be only partly effective.

Physical removal is typically done as a first step in heavily infected wells where the functioning of the pump and well production have already been impacted by the bacterial slime buildup. The pumping equipment in the well must be removed and cleaned, which is usually a job for a well contractor or pump installer. The well casing is then scrubbed using (disinfected) brushes or other tools. Physical removal is usually followed by chemical treatment with chlorine (or less commonly acids). Chlorine is inexpensive and easy to use, but may have limited effectiveness and may require repeated treatments. Effective treatment requires sufficient chlorine strength and time in contact with the bacteria, and is often improved with agitation. Though typically a chlorine concentration of 200 parts per million for decontamination of a well, a higher concentration is recommended by the literature for iron bacteria. Recommended concentrations are between 500-1,000 parts per million. Be warned that too high a concentration can make the well to alkaline and reduce effectiveness. In addition high concentrations of chlorine may affect water conditioning equipment, appliances such as dishwashers, and septic systems. You may want to check with the manufacturer of the appliances before chlorinating.

Though it is relatively easy to bypass equipment, iron bacteria may remain in the units and reintroduce the iron bacteria into the plumbing system. The recommended strategy is to treat the well with a 500-1,000 parts per million chlorine and then dilute the remaining water in the well. This can be accomplished by allowing a significant amount of the water to runoff to a safe disposal location using hoses until the water runs clear, and allow the well to refill and dilute the concentration then introduce the water into the house water system to disinfect the household treatment units, appliances and piping with lower concentrations circulated through the water system. The Idaho Water Resources Research Institute recommends an initial treatment at 1,000 ppm including scrubbing and disinfecting the pump and an annual maintenance disinfection of 500 ppm leaving the pump in place. Constant chlorination (which should be followed by activated carbon filtration to remove the carcinogenic chlorine breakdown products)  is not typically necessary and falls into the category of over treatment. The less treatment the better.  

Pasteurization of the well is another technique that has been successfully used to control iron bacteria. Pasteurization involves a process of injecting steam or hot water into the well and maintaining a water temperature in the well of 60°C (140 degrees Fahrenheit) for 30 minutes. Pasteurization can be effective, however, the process may be expensive and all the well equipment needs to be pasteurized as well and holding temperature for thirty minutes can be difficult especially in deep wells. Chemical treatment with chlorine is the most commonly used iron bacteria treatment technique and the one I used. I coordinated the well treatment with pumping the septic tanks and then as recommended to me by Sandra to chlorinate the heck (she did use a slightly different word) out of all my septic tanks to kill the iron bacteria that is already there (as well as all the other bacteria) and then allowed the system to return to normal function naturally.

I hired a well driller for this job, to have him pull and clean the pump, chlorinate the well and water system and used pumping my septic tank to dispose of the high chlorine concentration water. However, if you want the instructions to calculate the amount of chlorine bleach to use and the steps to take to treat your well read the instructions from Minnesota (which includes instructions for water softeners and other water treatment systems), but use 4 times the chlorine they suggest for the initial well treatment since these are the instruction for the less persistent chloroform bacteria.  A couple of months after the job was done, confirmation testing confirmed the success of the project. In the future I plan to test my water regularly for iron bacteria and only chlorinate my well as necessary. My approach is to always perform the least amount of treatment necessary on my well and water. 

Monday, October 8, 2012

Sewers in America are Failing

In the United States there are estimated to be 600,000 miles of wastewater sewer lines; networks of pipes, pumping stations, and other equipment that move sewage from toilet and sink to wastewater treatment plants. Many of the oldest sewer systems dating from before the turn of the 20th century are still in service in our largest and oldest cities, and much of the sewer piping in the United States is original. As cities grew, the need for sewage and stormwater removal became necessary to protect human health. The oldest sewer systems were designed to carry both the stormwater and sanitary waste together in one system (to save money the sanitary sewers tapped into existing drain, storm and canal systems) to the nearest natural water body. Our rivers and bays had a limited capacity for dilution and as populations grew were overwhelmed by the sewage and became open cesspools of vermin, filth and foul orders devoid of all aquatic life. To alleviate the health hazards and disgusting pollution we began treating sewage waste. Until the 1960’s many sewage treatment plants only used screens and large settling tanks to remove solids and debris from sewage before releasing the effluent.

Today those steps are called primary treatment and all sewage treatment in the United States includes additional steps to ensure public health. Secondary treatments usually include biological and/or chemical treatment. One of the most common biological treatments is the activated sludge process; in which primary wastewater is mixed with bacteria that break down organic matter and cleans the water. Oxygen is pumped into the mixture. A clarifying tank allows sludge to settle to the bottom and then the treated wastewater moves on for tertiary treatment at advanced wastewater treatment plants. Coagulation, filtration and disinfection take place in tertiary treatment which also serves as a barrier to viruses, captures organics leaving secondary treatment, and precipitates heavy metals and other suspended particles.

The existing wastewater treatment systems in our cities cannot process the combined flow of stormwater and sewage and our cities struggle with solutions that they can afford. Some, like San Francisco have built a system of storage/transport boxes. The storage/transport boxes are huge underground rectangular tanks or tunnels that surround the City, the SFPUC describes them as a moat, a fitting image as the storage boxed ring the city. The storage/transport boxes catch the combined stormwater and sewage as it overflows the sewer system, but before it reaches the shoreline of the Bay or Pacific Ocean and hold the water until it can be processed. The storage/transport boxes in San Francisco have a total storage capacity of 200 million gallons and hold stormwater and sewage for later treatment at one of the wastewater treatment plants. 

In Washington DC, the Blue Plains sewage treatment plant is currently engaged in a $7.8 billion 20 year improvement program -the Clean Rivers Project adding a new stormwater storage tunnel that will hold 31 million gallons to the existing system storage for a total of 157 million gallons spread over the Anacostia River tunnels system and the new Blue Plains Tunnel. This will allow flow from the sewer collection system that exceeds the treatment capacity of the plant to overflow to the tunnel and be dewatered through a new enhanced clarification facility with a capacity of 225 million gallons a day. Retention basins, tunnels or storage tanks that can hold sewage until the water volume has eased or reconfiguring or expanding treatment facilities to increase maximum flow rates are capital intensive projects. Some cities like New York and Philadelphia, have targeted reducing stormwater flow using “green infrastructure” and low impact development strategies (LID) with BMPs (best management practices) to increase infiltration of rain and reduce the volume and velocity of stormwater.

In an existing city it is extremely hard to implement and maintain enough LID strategies to eliminate all excess stormwater flow and in NewYork City they are attempting to use the sewer piping system itself for additional storage by installing inflatable dams to block the flow of rainwater and sewage into New York Harbor in Brooklyn.  If the water pressure in the pipes gets too high, threatening to back up sewage into homes or onto streets, sensors are supposed to deflate the dam to release some water. It is a really interesting idea costing only $15.7 million for two inflatable dams, but runs the risk of increasing pressure on an aging sewer pipe infrastructure. No doubt this has all been considered and the inflatable dams are located in areas where sewer pipes have been replaced, relined or repaired. Effective storage volume increase will be 2 million gallons for each dam.   

No piping system can last forever and without continual maintenance, replacement and upgrade we have increasing instances of sewer pipe and system failure.  Failing sewer pipes can pose a significant threat to public health and the environment.  Systems with inadequate hydraulic capacity and/or blockages in the sewer pipes (not from inflatable dams) may lead to sanitary sewer overflows and sewage backing up into homes or onto streets. Untreated sewage potentially contains pathogenic microorganisms such as viruses, bacteria, and protozoa. Pipe failures can be caused by hydraulic restrictions (e.g. blockages intentional or caused by debris and fats, oil and grease buildups), hydraulic capacity (the pipe being too small for the flow), and structural condition of the pipes (failure due to deterioration).

Our growing and shifting population requires investment for new sewage infrastructure and maintenance and upgrade of the existing sewage infrastructure. In addition, current sewage technologies and management approaches may not be adequate to address emerging contaminants and health threats and are certainly not adequate to maintain reliable and sanitary sewage service to the 70%-75% of the homes and businesses that are on public sewers. The U. S. EPAhas estimated that if spending for capital investment and operations andmaintenance remain at current levels throughout the country, there will be ashortfall of approximately $270 billion  over twenty years for maintaining, replacing and upgrading our wastewater infrastructure, and no source of funding to make up the shortfall.

As Rose George author of the “Big Necessity” who has studied sanitation issues and practices around the world (and written a very interesting and engaging book), points out it is not a socially acceptable topic of conversation. She believes that may be one of many reasons why wastewater infrastructure is crumbling in the United States, despite its critical importance. Out of necessity (or eroding manners) the unspeakable is becoming more often spoken of. We can no longer ignore our sewage infrastructure. No infrastructure lasts forever and we have failed to properly maintain and plan for the orderly replacement of sewage collection and treatment systems. In the United States we have never experienced the need for pipe replacement on a large scale and have taken for granted what we were given. Now we need to find a way to maintain, improve and upgrade our sewer systems and wastewater treatment plants as they become essential components of our water supply systems because the United States has slowly and quietly begun to address the availability of water by recycling wastewater. Sewage is after all 99.9% water. 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

After Your Well Goes Dry-What Can Be Done

In my corner of Northern Virginia there seem to be a slew of well failures lately-maybe more than usual or maybe it just seems that way. There was no snow melt this year and we flirted with drought all summer. Even if an aquifer is sound a well may fail. In a well, a diminished water supply is characterized by a short period of adequate water in the morning (or after resting the well for hours or days) and then almost a complete loss of water. Another typical symptom is loss of water after doing a load of laundry. (A top loading washing machine uses about 51 gallons of water and a front loader uses 27 gallons.) What is happening is overnight the well bore hole is filling with as much water as it can still produce and the pressure tank gets filled- a tenth of a gallon a minute will still be able to fill the pressure tank overnight and give you enough water for a bit of a wash up (depending on whether you have low flow toilets, sinks and showers). This low flow to the well can be caused by drop in water level in the well due to drought or over pumping of the aquifer, or the well could be failing due to a buildup of dirt, sediment and gravel reducing the flow to the well. There are times that the steel casing that lines the first 40-60 feet of a well does not extend deep enough and the well walls crumble over time filling the well with dirt and gravel. One or more of these factors could be the cause of a well problem.

The natural fluctuations of groundwater levels are most pronounced in shallow wells and wells that are failing, both tend to go dry in the fall of a drought year. Groundwater levels are usually highest in the early spring in response to winter snow melt and spring rainfall when the groundwater is recharged. Groundwater levels begin to fall in May and typically continue to decline during summer as plants and trees use the available shallow groundwater to grow and streams draws water from the groundwater aquifer to keep flowing. Natural groundwater levels usually reach their lowest point in late September or October when fall rains begin to recharge the groundwater again.Geology also impacts groundwater, fractured siltstone is very porous and filled with water while diabase stone has very low yielding wells.

Groundwater supply can change because groundwater systems are dynamic. The Piedmont where I live is bordered by the “fall zone” on the east and the Blue Ridge Mountains on the west. The Piedmont is the largest geological region in Virginia and has a diverse geology largely dominated by igneous and metamorphic rocks, with some areas of sedimentary rocks. The fractures and fault lines formed in the rocks store and transmit groundwater. The size and number of water bearing fractures decrease with depth so significant supplies of water are generally located in the first few hundred feet. There is a wide variation in groundwater quality and yield ranging from under 1 gallon per minute to over 50 gallons a minute depending on location and specific site geology. The largest yields are obtained where fracture and fault system are extensive. In other areas of the Piedmont there are carbonate rocks within the areas of Karst terrain with the most robust and easily contaminated wells and finally there are also area where disintegration of the granite bedrock forms a zone of granular material with slow recharge and relatively high and annoying amounts of iron and sulfur. To be productive a well must be located within a fracture or pass through them.

In the Valley and Ridge of Virginia the geology is characterized by unconsolidated overlay underlain also by fractured rock. Fractured rock systems tend to be water rich areas of Virginia, but not uniformly so. Fractures can run dry. In unconsolidated sediments of the coastal plain ground water is pulled from the saturated zone which is being overtaxed and may be significantly impacted by drought. In the Appalachian Plateau which is a flat layered rock system with horizontal fractures, the coal seams are typically the aquifer and groundwater is typically shallow. Coal country is the location of many shallower dug wells which tend to follow the weather and be noticeably drier every fall.

If your well has gone dry or is down to a dribble you have four basic options: do nothing and hope the well replenishes after the winter, drill a new well, hydrofracture the existing well, or re-drill the existing well down to a lower aquifer. What is the best solution is dependent on geology, the condition of the aquifers, whether there is another likely location for a well on your property, and your financial resources. In many parts of the Piedmont, with enough money you can fix a well. Many wells draw water from more than one aquifer- there is more than one water zone. If you look at the water well completion report that you can obtain from the County Department of Environmental Health, VA DEH, you will see more than one water zone. Recently, I have seen wells where the shallow water zone appears to be dry and the lower aquifer still has some water, but is not providing enough flow to support a household.

It is impossible to look at a well and know if the aquifer has failed or just the well. The best proxy is the U.S. Geological Survey, USGS, monitoring wells and other wells in the neighborhood. Checking with VA DEH, the USGS and neighbors and the HOA will give a better picture of the aquifer. Several wells in a particular neighborhood in Prince William County have failed, though it did not seem apparent to individual homeowners, the problem was with the shallow aquifer. According to the nearest U.S. Geological Survey monitoring wells the lower aquifer appeared to be fine, and there is a possibility that there is some flow left in the shallow aquifer (around 60 feet) foot aquifer even in the drought water levels have fallen only about 10-12 feet in the USGS monitoring well. The aquifer itself cannot be seen so intelligent speculation is the best that can be done.

In Prince William County, the aquifers are not over pumped, but wells can still fail. Over time debris and deposits can build up in a well and the small earthquake that occurred last fall could have increased the deposits then this year’s drought reduced the water quantity and suddenly the well has failed. Fall and winter rains might recharge the shallow aquifer and the problem could be a seasonal or drought related problem, but drought can go on for years and living with limited water for months or having the well bore dry out even more is not an good solution. Using hydrofracking to flush out the hole by might get enough flow back into the well now to function adequately to keep the well itself full of water. Every two feet of well can hold just under 12 gallons of water, so a well producing half a gallon a minute with 100 feet of well below the static water level can support a household.

Hydrofracturing, commonly referred to as hydrofracking, is a well development process that injects water under high pressure through the well into the bedrock formation. This process is intended to flush and remove fine particles and rock fragments from existing bedrock fractures and/or increase the size and extent of existing fractures, resulting in an increased flow of water, and a larger network of water bearing fractures supplying water to the well. The procedure is often used to increase well yields of new deep drilled wells with inadequate water production rates. It may also be used for older wells that have diminished water recovery rates over time, which is usually caused by the build up of minerals and fine particles in the rock fracture over time. It can be very successful in parts of the Piedmont and other bedrock rock formations, but the improvement may not last beyond a few weeks or months. In diabase hydrofracking may do nothing and in siltstone it is unpredictable what may happen to the fractured system. I could not find statistics on long term failure rates for hydrofracking (only the impressions and experience of the VA DEH and USGS), but hydrofracking could work at least for a period of time- whether that time is weeks, months or years can not be predicted. Hydrofracking a water well should cost $3,000-$4,000. It is a good first step in trying to restore a well with a viable aquifer, and that is structurally sound.

If restoring an existing well does not work or does not appear to be an option because of geology or the condition of the aquifer, then it will be necessary to drill a new well or re-drill the existing well to a lower aquifer. There are times on a small property with only an acre or two of land that there are no other likely locations for a new well or that the cost to pipe the water from a distant corner of the property makes using the existing well bore the best choice. With the right equipment, an existing well can be re-drilled to a lower aquifer. Not every well driller has the expertise and equipment to hydrofrack or re-drill wells, and locally based well drillers are familiar with the geology of a region. Well drilling equipment is expensive to move great distances- if your hire an out-of-town well driller, chances are they will subcontract the actual drilling anyway. Stay local when hiring well drillers. Get references, check insurance, and licenses. Since 1992 private drinking water well construction has been regulated in Virginia and well drillers have to be licensed. In many other places well drilling and water wells are still not regulated. Generally speaking, a new well or re-drilled well costs $12,000-$20,000 plus other costs for piping to the house, pumps and pressure tanks.

If a property has a low producing well in the neighborhood of 0.5 gallons, there are ways to deal with it. First is water conservation and the second is to increase water storage within the system. Water conservation involves changing water–use behavior such as taking shorter showers, but usually involves installing water saving devices like a front-loading washer (saves over 20 gallons of water for each load- about half), low flush toilets, flow restricting faucets and shower heads. Installing water saving appliances can reduce household water use by up to 30%. Water conservation may solve the problem of a 4 gallon a minute well, but increasing water storage can make a reliable 0.5 gallon a minute well viable for a modern household. An intermediate storage system can either be the well itself if deep enough or a storage tank, reservoir or cistern that can be installed between the well and pressurized distribution system. The reservoir or storage serves as the primary source of supply for the pressure pump supplying peak demand. Ideally, the storage tank or cistern should be able to hold at least a day’s water supply and be regulated by a float switch or water level sensor. A 0.5 gallon a minute well can pump 720 gallons per day more than adequate for a household. The rule of thumb is to size a storage tank or cistern at 100 gallons per person in the household. Every two feet of well below the static water level holds almost 3 gallons so that 120 feet of well below the static water level will hold about 175 gallons this may be adequate only if water use is spread out throughout the day.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Can the Grease to Keep Sewers Flowing

Starting this week you might begin to see utility trucks in Fairfax with signs to “Can the Grease” or “Stop the Grease.” Fairfax County Department of Public works is launching a new education and public awareness campaign to get you to stop pouring grease down the drain. When you flush it down the toilet, grind it in the garbage disposal, pour it down the drain in Fairfax county, most likely the wastewater and all that it carries with it travels through the 3,300 miles of sewer pipes within Fairfax county and ends up at one of six regional waste water treatment plants for the county: Noman C. Cole, Upper Occoquan Service Authority, Blue Plains, Alexandria Renew Enterprise, Arlington and Mooney in Prince William.  There are still a few areas in Fairfax that have septic systems covering the rest.

Fats, Oil and Grease, FOG as it is called in the waste industry comes primarily from food such as cooking oil, lard, shortening, meat fats, sauces, gravy, mayonnaise, butter, ice cream and soups. Sinks, dishwashers, cleaning wastewaters and food scraps put down disposals deliver the FOG to the sewer system, it can be liquid or solid when you put it down the drain, but turns viscous or solid as it cools in the miles of underground sewer pipes. As the FOG builds up, it restricts the flow in the pipe and can cause sewage to back up into homes and businesses, or premature failure of the sewer pipes, increased incidence of sinkholes. I was fortunate to be able to speak to Tom Russell, Director, Wastewater Collection Division Fairfax County, VA DPWES who manages the 140 employees and construction programs that keep the sewage flowing in Fairfax and has been with Wastewater Collection 16 years- about half his career as an Engineer and manager with Fairfax. Tom made sewer pipe maintenance sound so interesting that I took way too much of his time during an early morning interview.

FOG only really creates problems for the sewer lines if there is a disruption, like a tree root in a joint, or sag under a highway, a pumping station or something that might give the FOG a chance to catch on the pipe surface and cling to the walls of the sewer system. Since all pipes have some friction points, FOG is always a problem.  The FOG builds up one layer at a time making a smaller, narrower path for the water and waste to travel through, ultimately causing a backup or pipe to burst. Restaurants and fast food places produce much larger volumes of FOG than residences, so in Fairfax there is more aggressive monitoring of sewer pipes and manholes downstream of the malls and shopping centers. Time creates wear and tear on a pipe and without the aggressive maintenance in Fairfax there would be a much larger problem. In addition, restaurants and commercial kitchens are required to have grease traps between the sink and floor drains and the sewer connection and capture and recycle their grease, by having it hauled away. Nonetheless, this past year, there was a massive sewage back up along the side of I-66 across from Fair Oaks Mall. The 18 inch sewer main under I-66 will be replaced at a cost of $1,000,000 and completed in spring 2013, the Wastewater Collection Division has managed to prevent additional backups in the interim by getting the Health Department to address the compliance of the restaurants in the mall with the county regulations for grease and commercial kitchens. Better control of the grease in the mall food court prevented further backups in the damaged section of piping.

Maintaining the sewer pipes, clearing tree roots and keeping grease out of the system can prevent most sewer backups. Every day the Wastewater Collection Division does visual inspections of sewer lines and manholes using portable cameras put down manholes and a special closed circuit TV camera, CCTV, that the crews use. The manhole inspections are generally done in the neighborhoods and the larger sewer mains are checked using CCTV. The CCTV crews use their equipment to view 240 miles of sewer lines each year. Sewer lines range in size from 8-72 inch diameter, and the CCTV is used to monitor deterioration in the lines. There are 88,000 manholes in Fairfax and each manhole is viewed every 3-5 years depending on the age and material of the pipe and whether the pipe has already been rehabilitated. There are some county sewer lines that are inspected quarterly or even monthly if necessary.  Neighborhoods built after 1970’s contain PVC pipe are checked less frequently because PVC has been demonstrated to last longer, 50-100 years in other parts of the country.  

The sewer system in Fairfax County was built out over the last 70 years as the county developed. Every year Fairfax County spends $6,000,000 in a planned program to rehabilitate 125,000 feet of pipe within the sewer system. Rehabilitation of sewer pipes involves sliding a resin impregnated fiberglass liner into the pipe at a manhole and using steam to rapidly cure the lining and have it bond with the existing asbestos cement (transit) or cement pipes. After the lining is in place the connections of the lateral sewer pipes is cut out. The curing process leaves an indentation where the lateral joins the sewer main and the vendor the county hires to do the work cut out the “coupons” to open the laterals. Rehabilitating a sewer main takes just one day from early morning until late afternoon and then the residences or businesses can go back to normal use of water. The sewer system in Fairfax is fairly young, and the current program of planned replacement is a fraction of a percentage of the piping in the system.  Nonetheless, during the last fiscal year ended July 1, 2012 Fairfax had only 19 backups and manhole overflows in the Fairfax owned system and 2 pipe collapses attributable to maintenance issues.

You might be thinking that there were more sewage backups in Fairfax during the past year after all, how would the rooter companies (like Rotor-Rooter and Rescue Rooter) make a living if sewage did not backup with certain regularity. It is true, there are more sewage backups in Fairfax, but they do not belong to the county. In Fairfax County there is private ownership of the lateral sewer lines from the building until it ties into the county sewer main. The homeowner or building owner in Fairfax is responsible for the entire lateral line (even past the property line) and the connection. So, when sewage backs up into your house and you call the county they will dispatch a crew to open the manhole on your street and see if the sewer main in blocked. Chances are that the sewer main is clear and Fairfax will tell you the problem is yours. They do not count these backups in their statistics.

In the sections of the county that developed after World War II and until 1970 Orangeburg pipe was used for the sewer laterals. Orangeburg pipe was piping made by Orangeburg Manufacturing Company of  ground cellulose fibers bound together with a special water resistant adhesive, and then impregnated with liquefied coal tar- basically tar impregnated cardboard pipes. The joints were made with couplings of the tar impregnated cardboard. Over time, the pipe have proven susceptible to deformation and root intrusion two things when combined with a lot of grease cause sewer backups. This year could be a very bad year for sewer backups into homes because during droughts tree root seek the moisture in the sewer pipes and infiltrate the pipes especially the old Orangeburg pipes. Because these sewer laterals are essentially made of cardboard, using a spinning rotor to cut out the roots is likely to ultimately abrade away the pipe wall, but can be done several times before the pipe fails.

The grease from holiday cooking combined with the root infiltration from a dry summer are likely to result in a sewer backup in your home at the most inopportune time. The worst maintained pipes in Fairfax County are the laterals owned by the property owners. It is very expensive to replace your lateral sewer pipe because the homeowner not only has to trench their yard but also cut the roadway and curb to replace the pipe and connect a new lateral to the sewer main. After the pipe repair is complete the property owner is responsible for repairing the road and curb. In the late 1960’s PVC (polyvinyl chloride) pipe replaced Orangeburg pipe. There are a lot of sewer backups in Fairfax and there are other problems caused by the historic residential construction. The sanitary sewer system in Fairfax is an entirely separate system than the storm sewer system, but there are still storm related increases in flow due to the infiltration of stormwater into the sewers and flow of stormwater into drains and sump pumps illegally discharging in the sanitary sewer system. That excess flow can result in more than 150% of the average daily sewage flow.  When many of the homes in Fairfax were built, it was perfectly legal to connect basement drains to the sewer lateral and use the sewer system to transport the groundwater out of the neighborhood. Excess flow, root infiltration in the pipe and grease build up will ultimately cause the lateral to rupture. So, the County’s advice to “Can the Grease” is good advice for homeowners to save yourself some money and prevent sewer backups in your home.

I would like to thank Irene Haske and Tom Russell of Fairfax County Virginia Department of Public Works and Environmental Services for their time and help in researching this topic.