Thursday, November 28, 2013

ISON Comet hits Perihelion

from NASA
Today, November 28, 2013, Thanksgiving Day, Comet ISON will sling shot around the sun. The comet was first spotted by astronomers when it was 585 million miles away in September 2012. The comet created in the Oort cloud, began it journey to the sun over a million years ago and almost a light year away. According to NASA the ISON is made of pristine matter from the earliest days of the solar system's formation, its top layers never having been lost by a trip near the sun.

Since its first discovery of ISON, NASA has used its vast fleet of space-based and Earth-based telescopes to learn more about this comet which is believed to be a time capsule from when the solar system first formed. Today the comet’s inward journey through the solar system will end as it slingshots around the sun-- either to break up in the intense heat and gravity of the sun, or to survive perihelion intact, and slingshot out, never to return.

NASA’s Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory, or STEREO, will be the only observatory able to see the comet transit across the face of the sun. Other observatories around the world will be watching at the comet passes through their field of view. NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO, will view the comet for a few hours during its closest approach to the sun- perihelion. The X-Ray Telescope on the JAXA/NASA Hinode mission will also be looking at Comet ISON for about 55 minutes during perihelion. Check this link for the latest pictures if you want to escape family togetherness. I will be in my kitchen, But NASA is broadcasting the slingshot around the sun in December when I will be watching...


While the fate of the comet was not confirmed on Friday, it is likely that it did not survive the slingshot around the sun. NASA reports that the comet grew faint while within both the view of NASA's STEREO, and the joint European Space Agency and NASA's Solar and Heliospheric Observatory. The comet was not visible at all in NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. Sadly,  this means that Comet ISON will not be visible in the night sky in December.  NASA believes that the observations gathered of the comet over the last year will provide some further areas of research.  

Monday, November 25, 2013

Warsaw Climate Conference Ends

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has just concluded their most recent meeting to once more discuss, negotiate and talk about climate change without any notable progress. This meeting was in Warsaw. The delegates manged to agree how on calculate emissions reductions and a method to address impact from rising sea levels at the last minute. The true failure was that China, the largest emitter of CO2, was left without commitments and only agreed to "contribute" towards treaty goals.. The goal of all these meetings is to negotiate a new agreement by 2015 that will become effective by 2020 to replace and expand the Kyoto Protocol. Though officially, the goal is to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report on climate change released in September 2013 expects global surface temperatures for the end of the 21st century to likely increase 2.7°F to 3.6°F relative to 1850 to 1900 time period.  The IPCC Working Group also found that it is “extremely likely that the changes in our climate system for the past half a century are due to human influence.”

The Warsaw meeting experienced more setbacks than progress by the organizers. Japan has been forced by the loss of its nuclear power plants in Fukushima caused by the earthquake that hit the region to reduce its previous commitment under the Kyoto Protocol. Environmental activists and climate scientists, the Alliance of Small Island States, the Africa Group and the Least Developed Countries group all walked out of the meetings in protest for failure of the developed world to accept responsibility to global warming. While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPS) is developing regulations on limiting CO2 emissions on existing power plants, Australia’s House of Representatives have voted to repeal their carbon tax. Organizers of the UNFCCC meetings have pinned their hopes for true progress on the 2015 Paris meeting. No real progress was made at this meeting.

IPCC and the scientific consensus have pivoted slightly in their focus to the oceans, sea level rise and extreme weather event frequency because of a failure of the climate models to explain the current global temperature anomaly.  The climate models cannot account for the recent pause in global temperatures. From 1970 to 2000 the median surface temperature as recorded by measurements increased 0.3 ± 0.04°F per year. However, there has been little further warming of the surface of the planet, particularly over the oceans in the most recent 10 years.
From NOAA web site
We cannot even stabilize the world CO2 emissions yet the UNFCCC continues to meet and talk. As each region or county industrializes the world CO2 emissions have grown. World CO2 emissions are 146% of 1990 levels. Europe has stabilized their emissions and with effort under the Kyoto Treaty has decreased them 2.8% from 1990 levels. The U.S. seems to have finally begun its stabilization and reduction process in the past few years, but since 1990 has increased emissions by 9.5% and the cost of stabilizing the CO2 emission might be the economic contraction of the 2008 recession and the stagnant economy since that time. The far more populous emerging nations have blown past us in CO2 emissions. Asia (including India) has increased their CO2 emissions by 270% since 1990, and China has increased their CO2 emissions by 352% since 1990. There appears to be a lack of progress towards any goal or agreement at UNFCCC conferences.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Hard Water, Water Softeners and Septic Systems

In many parts of the country groundwater contains high levels of dissolved minerals and is commonly referred to as hard. Groundwater very slowly wears away at the rocks and minerals picking up small amounts of minerals and metals that can be a nuisance in elevated concentrations, but in small enough quantities improves the taste of water. Calcium and magnesium ions are the minerals that make water hard. Water contains traces of minerals that are essential for human health. Though research has found conflicting results relating the mineral content of water to the risk of cardiovascular disease, the majority of studies indicate the lowest risk when minerals in water are highest and highest cardiovascular risk when the water is soft.

Water containing approximately 125 milligrams of calcium, and magnesium per liter of water (ppm) or 7 grains per gallon can begin to have a noticeable impact and is considered hard. (Some label water hard at 100 ppm.) Certainly, concentration of magnesium and calcium above 180 milligrams per liter (10.5 grains per gallon) is considered very hard. As the mineral level climbs, there are observed impacts in our homes. Bath soap combines with the minerals and forms a pasty scum that accumulates on bathtubs and sinks. The minerals also combine with soap in the laundry, and the residue doesn’t rinse well from fabric, leaving clothes dull. Hard water spots appear on everything that is washed in and around the home from dishes and silverware to the floor tiles and car (though commercial car washes use recycled water and are more environmentally friendly).

Many can live with the water spots and soap scum issues by adding vinegar to dishwashers and using hard water formulated shampoos, but are induced to treat their water because of the potential impacts on plumbing and appliances. When heated, calcium carbonate and magnesium carbonate are removed from the water and form a scale (lime scale) in cookware, metal hot water pipes, dishwashers and water heaters. As the scale builds up more energy is required to heat the water and hot water heater and appliances have work harder which will burn them out eventually. Thus, in hard water locations hot water heaters and other appliances have a shorter life. However, softened water increases the potential for leaching heavy metal from pipes, solder, and plumbing fixtures. Increased levels of copper, lead, zinc, and cadmium are found in soft water, particularly when it stands overnight in the plumbing system.

The classic water softening is an ion exchange system consisting of a mineral tank and a brine tank. The water supply pipe is connected to the mineral tank so that water coming into the house must pass through the tank before it can be used. The mineral tank holds small beads of resin that have a negative electrical charge. The calcium and magnesium ions (along with small amounts of other minerals) are positively charged and are attracted to the negatively charged beads. This attraction makes the minerals stick to the beads as the hard water passes through the mineral tank. Sodium is often used to charge the resin beads. As the water is softened, the sodium ions are replaced and small quantities of sodium are released into the softened water, thus the taste and potential health impacts that requires bypassing the kitchen sink or additional treatment.

Eventually the surfaces of the beads in the mineral tank become coated with the calcium and magnesium. To clean the beads, a strong salt solution held in the brine tank is flushed through the mineral tank this occurs two or three times a week and consumes 20-30 gallons of water. Sodium is typically used in the brine tank, but potassium can also be used. The excess sodium solution carrying the calcium and magnesium is typically flushed to the septic system. The amount of sodium in water conditioning systems is a real problem for humans, the septic system and the environment. Softened water is not recommended for watering plants, lawns, and gardens due to its sodium and chlorine content. Water used in recharging a water softener is discharged into the septic tank and soil absorption field if you have a septic system. Otherwise a separate holding tank or discharge, which could be emptied by a vacuum truck would have to be installed into the plumbing system.

Salt water is heavier than fresh water and interferes with the passive functioning of the septic tank. The salt water sinks to the bottom of the tank occupying space that is designed for the settling of heavier solids interfering with the proper formation of layers in the tank and driving the solids and grease into the drainfield. In addition, while some studies have shown that sodium does not interfere with bacterial action in ATU tanks in alternative septic systems, David Pask, Senior Engineering Scientist of the National Small Flows Clearinghouse has seen septic distribution pipes plugged with a “noxious fibrous mass” that was grease and cellulose from toilet paper that only occurred in homes with water softening systems. He felt the brine in the conventional septic tank had interfered with the digestion of the cellulose fibers and might be carried over into the septic systems drain field. Field practitioners reported to the Small Flows Clearinghouse negative impact from water softening regeneration brines. A study involving two adjacent septic field dispersal systems in a shared mound have shown that the trenches that received the septic effluent with water softener brine discharges formed a thick, gelatinous slime layer that clogged the infiltrating surface, while the trenches receiving no salt water discharge remained open with a normal microbial clogging layer.

All of the salt that is released into the septic system and ultimately the leach field and groundwater can impact the ecology. According to the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, chloride concentration above 180 mg/L interferes with nitrogen fixation in the environment. Chloride concentration in the regeneration discharge can reach into the 10,000 mg/L and sodium concentration can reach 6,000 mg/L. According to Orenco Systems a field study of 18 on-site wastewater treatment systems in Virginia clearly showed that nitrogen removal was inhibited in systems receiving water softener backwash brine.

To solve the taste problem or health concerns associated with drinking softened water reverse osmosis systems are often sold as an accessory item when a whole house water softener is installed or for other actual or imagined problems without proper testing. Waste water from household systems is typically connected to the house drains and will add to the load on the household septic system. This is a significant additional water use and load to the septic system and could impact the life and functioning of your septic system and well since a 5 gallon a day reverse osmosis system might waste 90 gallons a day. The principal uses of reverse osmosis in are for the reduction of high levels of nitrate, lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, sulfate, sodium and total dissolved solids.

No treatment is without consequences and an inappropriate treatment could create other problems without providing any measurable benefit. Before considering purchasing any treatment system test your water yourself to get a full picture of the nature of your water supply. Never purchase a water treatment system without first fully testing your water for at least iron, manganese, nitrate, lead, arsenic, fluoride, sulfate, pH, total dissolved solids, hardness, sodium, copper, total coliform bacteria and E. Coli bacteria, appearance, taste and anything else of local concern. (Prince William County is holding a subsidized water clinic on March 31, 2014.)

Personally, I did extensive water testing on my well before I purchased the home to ensure that I could live with the well water without further treatment. This does not guarantee me a lifetime of problem free well water since groundwater is a dynamic system that can vary over time and wells age and do die, but it is a start. If you must soften your water, potassium chloride can be used instead of sodium chloride in a typical water softener. Potassium chloride works exactly the same way that sodium chloride does in the softening process and the potassium chloride reduces the amount of sodium in drinking water, the potassium in the treated water is a necessary mineral and it eliminates the excess sodium in the septic system, drain field and released into the environment, but not the chloride problem. The impact of potassium chloride on septic systems has not been studied. Potassium chloride costs much more than sodium chloride. A forty pound bag of pellets costs about $40 for Potassium chloride and under $8 for sodium chloride.

One final note, though magnetic water softening is sold, according to research done at Purdue University in the 1990’s this method of water conditioning was not effective. Mike R. Powell, P.E., author of an exhaustive discussion of the research relating to magnetic water treatment entitled “Magnetic Water and Fuel Treatment: Myth, Magic, or Mainstream Science?” states “Much of the available laboratory test data imply that magnetic water treatment devices are largely ineffective, yet reports of positive results in industrial settings persist ….” “Consumer Reports magazine tested a … magnetic water treatment device…. Two electric water heaters were installed in the home of one of the Consumer Reports staffers. The hard water (200 ppm) entering one of the heaters was first passed through the magnetic treatment device. The second water heater received untreated water. The water heaters were cut open after more than two years and after more than 10,000 gallons of water were heated by each heater. The tanks were found to contain the same quantity and texture of scale. Consumer Reports concluded that the … unit was ineffective.” I called Consumer Reports to obtain a copy of the article and permission to cite it.. The full 280 word article can be found in the February 1996 volume of Consumer Reports on page 8. It appears that bottom line is, don’t waste your money on magnetic water treatment.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Identify and Solve Problems with an Older Well

After a wet summer it has been an unusually dry fall. These are the perfect conditions to discover if your old well is failing. Unlike machinery wells failure can be a slow and gradual process, for a small household that thoughtfully conserves water an old well can be nursed through several dry spells before having to address the problem. Natural groundwater levels usually reach their lowest point in late September or October, but the oddly dry fall has resulted in declining water levels into November. The highest groundwater levels tend to be during March and April, but the unusually dry fall has produced a slew of failing wells around here. Remember, a mechanical component is much more likely to fail than the well itself. If your water supply has lost pressure, and seems to be drizzling out of your faucet your problem could simply be a loss of pressure in the pressure tank or damage to or a leak in the bladder in the pressure tank. If your water pulses as it comes out of the faucet, the most likely cause is short cycling of the pump, which could be caused by inadequate water supply or another faulty component in the pump system. However, there are times that the problem is the well and the water supply.

A well that is going dry may produce water that looks muddy or here in Virginia with so much red clay it may look rusty. The water flow might sputter as air comes through the line instead of water as the pump draws air. If you have water first thing in the morning and again when you get home from work, but the supply seems to run out especially after doing a load of laundry or taking a shower. Then you may have a groundwater problem. According to Marcus Haynes of the PW Health District the effective yield from a well can fall 40-50% or more over 20-30 years, so a low yielding well ( a well that recharged at under 5 gallons a minute at completion) might have an effective life of only 25 years. Over time sediment and mineral scale build up inside the well closing the fractures that allow water to flow into the borehole.

To avoid be penny wise and pound foolish the first thing you need to do is figure out what is going on with your well. Do not call a plumber. A plumber is not trained to ascertain what is wrong with your well and the first thing that must be determined is if the problem is with the well or the mechanical components. Make sure that the service provider is licensed to service wells in Virginia (not all states require well drillers and well repair companies to be licensed). In Virginia a well driller should have at least a Class B contractor license and the service provider must be Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation, DPOR, certified Well Water Providers. 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.

You can waste a lot of money if you do not understand what is going on with your well and implement the wrong repairs. You will need to spend money to test the well, test the well equipment and test the water quality. When you have a private well you pay for your water in the maintenance of your well and pump system. To isolate the problem with your water supply both your well and pump system need to be tested and examined. It costs about $200-$300 to have a well driller to do a flow test on your well and determine the water level. The flow test will tell you how quickly a well is recharging essentially telling you if your well has water and how much. You also need to know the condition of your pump and pressure tank which will cost about $200 to have those checked. The pump should be checked for amp load, grounding, and line voltage, and the pressure tank checked for psi, a functioning pressure switch (check the contacts for corrosion), and checked for leaks. Call the County Health Department to get a copy of your well completion report that will tell you how deep your well is, how old, the location of the water recharge zones and flow rate at completion. Ask the well specialist about the geology in your immediate location to know what can be done to restore the flow. Finally, you should test your water quality. At a minimum test of your water for iron, manganese, nitrate, lead, arsenic, fluoride, sulfate, pH, total dissolved solids, hardness, sodium, copper, total coliform bacteria and E. Coli bacteria, appearance, taste and anything else of local concern. Virginia holds a series of subsidized water testing clinics at various locations throughout the year at a cost of $49 privately this analysis could cost $100-$200. To identify the problem with your well and water supply will cost $500-$700.

At this point you should know what is wrong with your well, but the best way to fix your well is not always black and white. If the problem is the well, you have more options than just drilling a new well. Generally speaking, a new well costs $12,000-$20,000 plus other costs for piping to the house, a new pump and pressure tank. However, drilling a new well is not always the best answer. Cleaning a well or hydrofracking a well may restore the flow to a usable rate, but this can only be accomplished in bedrock. Hydrofracking can cost $3,000-$4,000, cleaning is cheaper.

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, to increase the flow of water to the well. This technique can be used for older wells and can be very successful in parts of the Piedmont and other bedrock rock formations, but the improvement may not last beyond a few months. In diabase geology 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 months or years cannot be predicted. It is a good first step in trying to restore a well with a viable aquifer, and that is structurally sound.

There are times that the water table has fallen and lowering the pump or re-drilling a well might restore the well to a lower aquifer. Lowering the pump is the cheapest fix, for several hundred dollars you might be able to restore water to your home. However, there is generally only about 50 feet below the initial pump level to the bottom of the well. With the right equipment, an existing well can be re-drilled to a lower aquifer. Re-drilling a well can cost $10,000-$20,000 depending how deep you have to go to hit a viable aquifer, and not every well hits water. 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.

If the well testing you performed tells you the well is still reliably producing water 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%. Disconnect any water treatment systems that consume water. Water softening systems typically use 25 gallons in the 10 minute for each backwash cycle. Reverse osmosis systems use a lot of water. They recover only 5%-15% of the water entering the system. The remainder is discharged as waste water. A reverse osmosis system delivering 5 gallons of treated water per day may discharge 40 to 90 gallons of waste water per day to the septic system. Also, check for plumbing leaks. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency one out of every 10 homes has a leak that is wasting at least 90 gallons of water per day.

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 pressure tank. The reservoir or storage serves as the primary source of supply for the pressure tank 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, you just need to capture it. 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 12 gallons so that 120 feet of well below the static water level will hold 720 gallons. It is important to use disinfection if you have a cistern.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

What to Do About Maintaining and Fixing Your Well

Here in Prince William County information on all private wells drilled in the county after 1977 are in the files of the Prince William County Health District. Other counties should have similar records, though they may not go back as far. Virginia adopted statewide regulations on well construction in 1992 which conformed fairly closely to the PW County regulations and require filing of information on the well. The “Water Well Completion Report” can tell you the age of the well, the depth of the well and casing, the approximate water zones and the yield at completion.

While many wells will last decades, it is reported that 20 years is the average age of well failure that is well failure, not pump failure. Well casings are subject to corrosion, pitting and perforation. According to Marcus Haynes of the PW Health District the effective yield from a well can fall 40-50% or more over 20-30 years, so a low yielding well might have an effective life of only 25 years. The mechanical components of a well; however, are usually the first to fail and some components fail much sooner. Some kind of equipment failure usually occurs in the first 10-20 years.

The essential components of a modern drilled well system are: a submersible pump, a check valve (and additional valve every 100 feet), a pitless adaptor, a well cap, electrical wiring including a control box, pressure switch, and interior water delivery system. There are additional fittings and cut-off switches for system protection, but the above are the basics. To keep the home supplied with water the system and well must remain operational.

To ensure water reaches the tap, the well system within the house must also function. The components within the basement provide consistent water pressure at the fixtures. The pump moves water to the basement water pressure tank, inside the tank is an air bladder that becomes compressed as water is pumped in. The pressure tank moves the water through the house pipes so that the pump does not have to run every time you open a faucet. The pressure tank maintains the water pressure between 40-60 psi. After the pressure drops to 40 psi, the switch turns on the pump and the pressure in the tank increases. Each component can break or fail.

Submersible pumps used in modern drilled wells are more efficient than older style jet pumps and should last longer, but silt, sand, algae and excessive mineral content can impact their life. There really is not good data on equipment life in private well market, most of the data is from light industrial and community systems and the life of the single family home pump is extrapolated from that and equipment tests. A submersible pump operating in low-sediment water may have a 15 year life while the same pump in high sediment water and without adequate sediment and check valve protection may fail in 5 or 6 years. About 10% of the pumps in my neighborhood have failed in the first 8 years and another 10% have had component failure requiring a repair in that time.

High sediment and mineral content of the groundwater acts as an abrasive and can wear out the pump bearings and other moving parts, causing the pump to fail prematurely. The check valves protects the water pump from loss of prime and having to work as hard each time the pump is activated. A failure of a check valve can result in premature failure of the pump. So, if a problem with the check valve is identified the pump could be repaired before it fails prematurely. A loss of water or a failed pressure switch both result in no water when you turn on a tap. Any change in your water should be looked into, not ignored.

If you have a well, maintaining water to your home is your job. Understanding your well, and water system is important. First of all you should know your system. You should have a copy of you well completion report to know the basics of your well. Also, after five years and every couple of years after that you should have a well maintenance inspection. According to a poll conducted by the National Groundwater Association 80% of respondents had never had a well maintenance inspection and truthfully if you called a service provider they probably would not know what you were asking for. It seems that the expected behavior is to wait until your pump or well do not work and then spend possibly days without water while you call around to find someone to get your water back on. The first time you think about your well (after the initial bacteria test when you bought your house) should not be when the well stops working.

In the past couple of years the Virginia Rural Household Water Quality Program has been working with well drillers and licensed well professionals do develop an affordable and effective well inspection service. It is still in the works, but the basics of such an inspection are:
  1. A flow test to determine system output, along with a check of the water level before and during pumping. This can cost several hundred dollars, but is important before purchasing a home especially when a well is over 20 years old. 
  2. A pump motor performance (check amp load, grounding, and line voltage). 
  3. Check pressure tank psi, pressure switch contact, and check for leaks. 
  4. Inspect the well equipment to assure that it is sanitary and meets local code requirements, the well cap is still secure and the exposed well pipe is still sound. 
  5. Test of your water for iron, manganese, nitrate, lead, arsenic, fluoride, sulfate, pH, total dissolved solids, hardness, sodium, copper, total coliform bacteria and E. Coli bacteria, appearance, taste and anything else of local concern.
In general, never call a plumber for a well problem. You need to make sure that the service provider is licensed to service wells in Virginia (not all states require well drillers and well repair companies to be licensed). In Virginia a well driller should have at least a Class B contractor license and the service provider must be Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation, DPOR, certified Well Water Providers. According to state regulations in Virginia (§ 54.1-1129. Necessity for licensure): “Beginning July 1, 2007, no individual shall engage in the drilling, installation, maintenance, or repair of water well or water well system unless a certified water well systems provider is onsite at all times.” Most plumbers are not certified as Water Well Providers (though I am sure that there are a couple out there)- ask. Identify one or two licensed Well Water Providers and check their references before your well fails. Having your well serviced might just be a good way to do that.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Structural Damage Caused by Water Infiltration- Adventures in Home Ownership

I am an engineer so I have a maintenance schedule for my home, but no home is immune to system failure, time and weather. Buildings and their systems have limited lives, and over time all systems fail; however, the late 2004 vintage house I bought in 2007 has experienced premature structural component failure. As the housing bubble heated up builders started throwing up houses and scrambling for construction workers. Inexperience and speed inevitably lead to quality control problems with the structure of my home (built by Patriot Homes a subsidiary of Lennar Homes)- over the years we have discovered insulation that was forgotten, attic vents that were not installed, a section of the floor plate that extended through the foundation, settling around the house, improperly installed flashing that lead to all sorts of leaks, concrete walks and steps that cracked and chipped in less than a decade and now a significant water infiltration problem due to a series of construction faults that has resulted in a serious potential structural problem.

Moisture and water infiltration is the major route of home destruction and needs to be addressed before your home is consumed by the elements and nature. Water stains can be caused by roof leaks, or condensing moisture. There's a lot of moisture generated inside homes. Bathrooms without exhaust fans or fans not vented to the exterior, leaking dryer vents, damp basements, kitchens and crawlspaces and basements can be the source of moisture in the in the home or attic. Improper roof ventilation or uneven insulation can create "cold spots" in summer or winter where moisture condenses to the point of dripping onto the ceiling or wet areas on the underside of the roof sheathing. Air conditioning equipment or heat exchangers in the attic can result in condensate dripping out of the system or off of the refrigerant lines or ducts. Water stains on a window sill and around the door were the first indications of my problem. Small water leaks of all kinds can be ignored for a long time, don’t. Though I made three previous attempts in the last few years to locate the source of the moisture, it took ripping off the framing around the front door to get even a hint of the extent of the problem.

Before I am done it is going to cost me around $50,000 to rip the stone facing off my house, jack hammer the front steps, rebuild the support beams for the cantilevered floor that shields the front door, replace the headers for the door and the palladium window, correctly flash the new structure, extend the roof overhang, re-insulate the house, re-sheath the house (this time will concrete board) and replace the stone facing and rebuild the front steps. This all needs to be done before winter sets in. Failure to maintain a home or poor construction are not covered by homeowners insurance. Typically, this type of damage is not covered by insurance unless the water damage that caused the structural damage was caused by what insurance people call a covered peril such as a storm. There is no insurance coverage and I have no recourse against the former owner (Fremont Bank)- this is on my dime and I am cutting no corners in this project. The structural repair if done right will last a lifetime and appearance of the home will be improved (at least to my eye). It is fortunate that I just love a good construction project and that I have saved 2% of the cost of the house each year for repair and maintenance. The rule of thumb for home ownership has always been that 2-3% of a home’s value will be spent on average each year to maintain, repair and upgrade a home. A newer or well-maintained home can usually use the lower number.

The life expectancy of the components that make up a home depend on the quality of materials, the quality of installation, the level of maintenance, weather and climate conditions, and the intensity of use. Earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, lightning and Derecho that do not appear to damage a home can stress components and shorten their life. Some components of a home have a shortened life expectancy due to intensive use and there are systems and components that become obsolete. In 2006 the National Association of Home Builders estimates that there were 124 million homes in the United States, with a median age of 32 years. Ten million of these homes were built between 2000 and 2006. Old age, poor maintenance and poor quality of initial construction are the usual causes of structural damage to homes. Water infiltration is the single largest underlying cause of structural damage.

Lennar Homes has an excellent check list on their website for regular and routine maintenance of your home. Home ownership requires maintaining your property. You can also read the National Association of Home Builders Study of Life Expectancy of Housing Components to estimate the life of all the components in a home and budget for replacement of things like hot water heaters which have an expected life of 10 years for gas and 11 years for electric and air conditioners with a life of 10-15 years or heat pumps with a life expectancy of 16 years. Be aware that all these items are likely to break and need to be repaired (repeatedly) in the second half of their life. I admit that last year I replaced my heat pump rather than repair it in order to improve the heating and cooling efficiency and comfort in my home. However, my current problem is about the structural integrity of the home. The framing and other structural systems were intended to last a lifetime and here I am rebuilding the front of the house.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Water and Sewage in Loudoun County

In the past generation Loudoun County has grown from a predominantly rural area with a few small towns like Middleburg, and Leesburg to a booming high density suburb. The population has exploded to an estimated 336,000 in 2013. With people comes human waste-sewage. Under the terms of an agreement dating back to the first development of the Dulles Airport area the sewage from Loudoun County that was not handled by private septic systems was pumped to be treated by the District of Columbia’s sewage treatment plant.

The District of Columbia's sewage system, one of the oldest in the United States is located on the southernmost tip of Washington DC and called the Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant. While there are larger sewer treatment plants, that remove the solids and bacteria, the modern day Blue Plains also has Tertiary Treatment to remove nitrogen and phosphorus making Blue Plains the largest advance treatment plant in the United States. The plant sits on 150 acres and has a rated average daily capacity if 370 million gallons per day and a peak wet weather capacity of 1,076 million gallons a day. The system needs such a large storm rated capacity to accommodate the old central city combined sewer system that overflows with predictable regularity during large storms. Blue Plains is under a consent order from the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, to meet new effluent limits for total nitrogen released and better control of the system during storms.

These problems and distance limited the long term ability of Blue Plains to treat waste water from Loudoun County. Today, 13.8 million gallons per day of the wastewater Loudoun County Service Authority (Loudoun Water) collects from the sewer system gets treated at Blue Plains Treatment Plant. Though that is still most of the waste water, Loudoun Water began treating waste water in Loudoun County in 2008. This was carefully tested and studied because Loudoun Water’s discharge is upstream of the of drinking water intakes for the three major Washington area water utilities, Washington Aqueduct, Fairfax Water, and Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission. These utilities serve over three million people in the Washington, D.C. region. While sewage treatment discharges upstream of drinking water intakes are not uncommon in Virginia, a more stringent set of regulations were developed for the Washington D.C. metropolitan area drinking water supplies. The goal of the regulation is to provide an even higher level of assurance that the drinking water supply for the millions of regional residents is protected. The Dulles Watershed Regulation specifies:
  • The number of sewage treatment plants is limited to two and ownership is specified;
  • The two sewage treatment plants must be a minimum of 10 miles upstream of a drinking water intake or proposed intake;
  • The effluent limitations are very stringent, far exceeding what might otherwise be required to protect water quality standards and exceeding effluent standards that have been achieved elsewhere. 
Loudoun Water began planning more than a decade ahead of the need and were able to work with Virginia Tech‘s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, the Occoquan Watershed Monitoring Laboratory, to develop a treatment strategy and pilot the program to demonstrate its effectiveness. Loudoun Water staff and its consulting team presented their findings in May, 2001.

After demonstration of the technology, Loudoun Water built the Broad Run Water Reclamation Facility (Broad Run), a state-of-the-art plant that treats wastewater to the limits of today’s technology. In 2008, Loudoun Water began collecting more wastewater than they could send to Blue Plains, and the Broad Run plant went on-line on May 2, 2008, meeting permit requirements on the very first day. The facility discharges to Broad Run, a tributary to the Potomac River, can treat up to 11 million gallons a day and has demonstrated the waste water technology of the future as well as a water resource management strategy emphasizing water reuse.
From Loudoun Water web site- Broad Run

The Broad Run plant uses preliminary screening/grit removal, primary clarification, fine screening (2 mm), flow equalization, a membrane bioreactor, and activated carbon and UV disinfection. The membrane bioreactors are dispersed in twelve membrane tanks. Membrane filtration eliminates the need for clarifiers and settling tanks, and results in improved water quality that enables water reuse. The first water reuse projects in the county have been completed. So far Loudoun Water has installed over 30,000 feet of reclaimed water pipe called “purple pipe” to two data centers and the National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corporation located along Route 28. These customers receive reclaimed water for irrigation, cooling towers and other non-potable uses, in order to meet LEED (Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design) criteria and other environmental and economic goals (recycled water is cheaper). Waste activated sludge from the Broad Run plant is centrifuge thickened, combined with primary sludge for stabilization in anaerobic digesters, and centrifuge dewatered prior to land application. Loudoun Water is proactively planning for the future of their region.

There are sections of Loudoun County that are not served by Loudoun Water. These area are either served by private well and septic system or community systems. As Loudoun County was expanding, developers began building free standing Community Water and Wastewater Systems. These systems provide water to a rural development, village or hamlet and may also provide wastewater treatment utilizing what is called a packaged treatment facility. Treated wastewater is discharged either on site (to a drip irrigation field) or to local streams and rivers. These packaged systems are limited and have a permitted capacity of about 170 gallons per day of waste water per house that should not be exceeded. Loudoun County's Comprehensive General Plan does not allow central water and sewage service into the Rural Policy Area. To get this changed would require a Comprehensive Plan Amendment (CPAM).

Monday, November 4, 2013

Preparing for Climate Change- First Save Some Money

Total National Debt US
On Friday, November 1, 2013 to little notice the White House released an executive order for preparing the nation for climate change. The new executive order establishes an interagency Council on Climate Preparedness and Resilience replacing the Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force established by executive order in 2009. That task force created a framework for coordinated Federal action and planning on climate change. The new Council will move forward continuing and building upon the Adaptation Task Force's work.

The executive order states that “the impacts of climate change -- including an increase in prolonged periods of excessively high temperatures, more heavy downpours, an increase in wildfires, more severe droughts, permafrost thawing, ocean acidification, and sea-level rise -- are already affecting communities, natural resources, ecosystems, economies, and public health across the Nation.” Though, that change has not been particularly noticeable around here.

The President states that the impacts of climate change “are often most significant for communities that already face economic or health-related challenges, and for species and habitats that are already facing other pressures.” “Managing these risks requires deliberate preparation, close cooperation, and coordinated planning by the Federal Government, as well as by stakeholders, ...”to improve climate preparedness and resilience; help safeguard our economy, infrastructure, environment, and natural resources; and provide for the continuity ...of agency operations, services, and programs.”

“The Federal Government must build on recent progress and pursue new strategies to improve the Nation's preparedness and resilience.” The executive order requires that within 9 months the heads of the Departments of Defense, the Interior, and Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, NOAA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, and other agencies... shall complete an inventory and assessment of proposed and completed changes to their land- and water-related policies, programs, and regulations necessary to make the Nation's watersheds, natural resources, and ecosystems, and the communities and economies that depend on them, more resilient in the face of a changing climate.”

Each Agency is ordered to develop an “Adaptation Plan” that will include: identification and assessment of climate change related impacts on the agency's ability to accomplish its missions, operations, and programs and evaluate the most significant climate change risks and vulnerabilities in agency operations and missions for both the short and long term. Finally, each agency is to outline actions it will take to manage these risks and vulnerabilities. Each agency shall develop, implement, and update comprehensive plans that integrate consideration of climate change into agency operations and overall mission objectives.

If you recall when the President spoke at the Copenhagen climate meeting in 2010 he promised that the United States will reduce their CO2 emissions to 17% below the 2005 levels by 2020. In addition, The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is winding up a series of “public listening sessions” across the country to solicit ideas and input from the public and stakeholders about the best Clean Air Act approaches to reducing carbon pollution from existing power plants allowing the agency to develop new rules that would tighten regulations on coal-burning power plants and possibly phase out coal burning power plants completely.

Annual US Budget Deficit
 Five years into the economic recovery of the recession of 2008 our federal government is running an annual deficit that is over $900 billion and our total national debt continues to grow. As a nation we need financial resources and resilience to address whatever the impacts of a changing climate may bring. In 2012 there was more than $110 billion in damages from natural disasters according to the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) which has been keeping records since 1980. The 2012 total damages rank only behind 2005, which incurred $160 billion in damages due in part to four devastating land-falling hurricanes including Katrina