Thursday, June 30, 2016

EPA Data Finds Lead Widespread

from NRDC
On Tuesday the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) released their report: “What’s in Your Water? Flint and Beyond.” This report is a review and analysis to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data collected under the 1991 Lead and Copper Rule (LCR).

Since 1991 the Lead and Copper Rule has undergone various revisions, but requires that: (1) water utilities optimize their treatment system to control corrosion in customers plumbing; (2) determine the tap water levels of lead and copper for customers who have lead service lines or lead-based solder in their plumbing systems; (3) rule out the source water as the source of significant lead levels; (4) if lead levels exceed action levels (0.015 mg/L) the supplier is required to educate their customers about lead and actions they can take to reduce their exposure to lead. If a water utilities’ corrosion control treatment plan continues to fail to reduce lead below lead action level it must begin replacing the lead service lines under its ownership.

The NRDC analysis indicates that in 2015, over 18 million people were served by 5,363 community water systems in the nation that violated the Lead and Copper Rule. These violations included; failure to test customer tap water for lead in an appropriate manner, failure to control corrosion that could result in lead contamination from the distribution system or homeowner pipes, and failure to report contamination to state officials or the public. In addition, the NRDC found that in 2015, 1,110 community water systems that supply drinking water to over 3.9 million people found lead levels in excess of 15 parts per billion (ppb) in at least 10% of the homes tested. This level of lead contamination is the regulatory action level established for lead under the Lead and Copper Rule.

In most cases not action was taken. According to the data analyzed by NRDC, the EPA took formal enforcement action against only 11.2 % of the over 8,000 violations that occurred in 2015. In addition, enforcement actions were taken against less than one in five of the violations where lead concentrations exceeded 15 ppm, and penalties were sought or assessed for only 3% of violations. The EPA’s database does not list Flint Michigan among the systems in violation of the Lead and Copper Rule. In fact, Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) apparently still has not officially reported Flint to be in violation of the Lead and Copper Rule. This is characteristic of the data. The EPA itself admits that “audits and assessments have shown that violation data are substantially incomplete.” The EPA has failed our nation in its primary mission and we need to reconsider the methods we as a nation use to ensure the quality of our air and water and the protection of our lands.

The nation’s water infrastructure the pipes, treatment plants and other critical components that deliver drinking water and remove and treat waste water have grown old. In many of our cities water pipes installed when systems were built have only been replaced when they break. The building service lines that connect homes and businesses to the water mains are often the original lines.

For decades instead of replacing lead pipes urban water companies (especially in poor rust belt cities that are shrinking) have used chemicals to control lead and other chemicals from leaching into the water supply. Many at the American Water Works Association and other trade groups have questioned the wisdom of this strategy, there is always some lead leaching and many of us believe that there is no safe level of lead in drinking water. No amount of exposure to lead is safe. Our national goal is to eliminate exposure to lead especially for children, who are both more susceptible to lead poisoning and suffer more severe impacts. Even at very low levels once considered safe, lead can cause serious, irreversible damage to the developing brains and nervous systems of babies and young children. The World Health Organization (WHO) notes that “the consequences of brain injury from exposure to lead in early life are loss of intelligence, shortening of attention span and disruption of behavior.”

Historically, state and federal regulations have stressed safety, reliability and affordability of service and have looked to determine the “most technologically feasible and cost-effective” strategies to maintain water systems. This has not allowed the water distribution systems to price into their fees the costs of planned preventive maintenance and system replacement program. Worse yet many cities and towns have used the water utility revenues to supplement other city services. We have failed to maintain the infrastructure, to stay ahead of water system, equipment and pipe failure. We wait for failure before we fix it that is the wrong approach. The human and society costs as the consequences of getting every last day of use out of a pipe or piece of equipment need to be weighed against the benefit of cheap water. Prices for water will need to go up so that water treatment and distribution companies can maintain replace and upgrade their infrastructure before it fails, doing otherwise is unacceptable.

Monday, June 27, 2016

The Monsoon finally Arrived in Maharashtra

On June 6, 2016 the total water available from the 91 reservoirs in India monitored by the Central Water Commission was down to 23.786 billion cubic meters or 15% of the total storage capacity . These reservoirs are sized to capture the Monsoon rains, but the Monsson rains failed completely last year. On Sunday after a delay of about 10 days as the southwest Monsoon has finally arrived in drought-hit Marathwada as well as 90% of Maharashtra.

The Indian government is still predicting a strong Monsoon season and that is expected to bring relief for the building water crisis especially to Maharashtra. However, longer term, things must change to overcome the significant water management challenges that is growing from the competition for diminishing groundwater supplies and limited surface water resources among farmers, industries and cities. The monsoon is vital to the water supply and prosperity of India's agricultural sector responsible for 16% of the country's gross domestic product, but providing the livelihood of 700 million people more than half of the population. However, water resource management and conservation is necessary for India to move into the future.

The Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite mission from the National Aeronautics Space Administration (NASA) has been collecting data for more than a decade. Two recent papers from a group of researchers assembled from the University of California- Irvine, National Taiwan University, and National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder Colorado and the Hydrological Sciences Branch at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center have worked in partnership to apply 10 years of collected data to quantify groundwater use, resilience and stability.

The GRACE scientists found that the Indus Basin aquifer of northwestern India and Pakistan is the second-most overstressed aquifer on earth and using up their groundwater faster than it is being replaced. The Maharashtra aquifer is not as overdrawn. Through most of history, surface water and rain have served as the principal freshwater supply used by mankind. However, the importance of groundwater has increased in recent decades as mankind’s demand for water has surpassed surface supplies and our ability to access groundwater has increased with technology. Fresh surface water and rains used in the old ways can no longer support the needs of mankind.

Accessing groundwater allowed populations to increase, and provide reliable water as surface water has become less reliable and predictable as weather patterns change and regions experience extended droughts. However, using groundwater without ensuring adequate recharge endangers the supply. Regions of the earth have come to rely more heavily on groundwater as the primary water supply source. Groundwater represents almost half of all drinking water worldwide, though a lesser proportion of irrigation water.

While insufficient rainfall is a reason for drought, it’s not the only reason. Even while having the largest number of dams in the country exclusively for irrigation, and being in central India where groundwater is not as overdrawn; Maharashtra had the worst drought in the region. Poor selection of crops, inefficient methods of irrigation and imbalanced use of ground and stored water worsened the situation. Water is not unlimited; yet Maharashtra does not manage their water resources and has created a situation called ‘man-made drought’.

Maharashtra has been facing this man-made drought since 2012. While villages like Hiware Bazar and Pulkoti in the heart of the drought-prone area, have managed to escape the drought, by changing their crops (away from sugar) and methods or irrigation and managing their use of groundwater. These communities utilized rainwater harvesting and water conservation. The villagers built dozens of earthen bunds, stone bunds, and permeable dams which served to capture rainfall and recharge groundwater. Maharashtra needs to follow their example.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

He Always Has Brown Water after a Storm

I often get questions from readers and as part of the VAMWON network. Often the questions do not have enough detail for me to be helpful. Like when someone tells me their well stopped working what’s wrong. My first thought at those times is to secretly think “I don’t know, my crystal ball isn’t working.” Usually, I just begin asking questions. To be of any help I need information on your well, a description of the problem and its history and pictures would be helpful. Recently I received the following in response to my blog on storm impacted wells:

“I am not sure if you could share some thoughts as I have had a problem with my 38 foot deep 2 foot Diameter shallow well in rural Spotsylvania County that I have been fighting for the past 9 years. My issue is pretty synonymous with the symptoms which you stated.
The water pumped into the house from the well by way of the internal well pump will stay brown for about 2 weeks after a series of heavy rainstorms. Consequently, we always use bottled water during that time and wait for things to clear up.
I have regularly tested the well after things have cleared up over the years by using the WaterSafe test kit and have never noticed bacteria. (I have never tried it when it was brown though).
The water entering the house is pre-filtered by a pleated 10 inch 50 micron filter. When the heavy rains start, I have (with some success) put in a 5 micron carbon filter in it’s place. This seems to help when things aren’t so bad, but it doesn’t do very much when there are storms going on for days on end  like the ones we had.
I was thinking of going with an even lower micron filter as a temporary measure when the storms are bad. I know it probably won’t last more than a week, but if I knew the right micron, it might work. (I am very surprised that I am getting colored sediment even with a 5 micron filter though.”

I responded to the email: 
Wow, 38 feet is a very shallow well and likely to be impacted by surface infiltration, and drought. Typically rain water and snow melt percolate into the ground and the deeper the well the further away is the water origination and the older the water. The groundwater age is a function of the depth of the well, the geology of the area, the precipitation, recharge of the aquifer and pumping rates of the aquifer that control the rate of flow of water to a well. The age of the water in an aquifer provides insight into the likelihood of contamination from both anthropogenic and natural sources. Very young groundwater that has recently infiltrated into the aquifer is more vulnerable to contamination from human activities near the land surface than older, deeper groundwater that has had more time to be filtered by soils. Old groundwater, however, is not necessarily free of contaminants. The older groundwater can contain naturally occurring chemical elements and contamination from years past. The land surface through which groundwater is recharged must remain open and uncontaminated to maintain the quality and quantity of groundwater. 

It is always best to do a complete water analysis while the water is still brown to ensure that there is not another cause for the discoloration. Also, you do not indicate what you tested for, there are other causes of brown water, but it is a reasonable guess given your history that you are not experiencing episodic iron. However, you really should spend the money to do a complete analysis both before and after the water clears.

Filter cartridges for sediment removal are rated in microns. As you know, the micron rating for a water filter is a way of indicating the ability of the filter to remove contaminants by the size of the particles. A filter that is marked “5 microns” has some capability in capturing particles as small as 5 microns. However, there is no one accepted method to measure and describe the size of particles that a filter can capture or the total amount of particles that the filter can hold. Filter micron ratings for water are usually Nominal or Absolute. For sediment removal, Nominal rated cartridges are most common. Absolute ratings are needed for example, in removing Giardia, a type of parasite, when it becomes important that the filter cartridge absolutely must be rated at 1 microns. A Nominal Micron Rating (NMR) usually means the filter can capture a given percentage of particles of the stated size. For example, a filter might be said to have a nominal rating of 90% at 10 micron.

The breakthrough you are experiencing could possibly be resolved by having two or three filters in series, a 50 micron followed by a 25 micron followed by a 5 micron; however, I have a basic concern that there is the possibility that your well could be impacted not only by bacteria but by parasites and spores that have the potential to be fatal in vulnerable populations. Though I would encourage you to drill a well at least 100 feet below grade to ensure the health of your family, surface water can be treated. You need a series of filters meticulously maintained to reliability remove the discoloration, a series of two or three should do it. (This will impact your water pressure that you may need to boost it.) Make sure you match the flow to the capacity of the filer. Then after the water is clear you need to disinfect using a using a UV light.

Finally, you will need a point of use filtration system for any water that is likely to be drunk because of the potential for cysts, parasites etc. Giardia is a fairly common microscopic parasite that causes diarrhea. Once an animal or person is infected with Giardia, the parasite lives in the intestine and is passed in feces. Because the parasite is protected by an outer shell, it can survive outside the body and in the environment for long periods of time extending to months. Millions of Giardia parasites can be released in a bowel movement of an infected human or animal. Human or animal waste can enter water through sewage overflows from flooded septic systems, polluted storm water runoff, and agricultural runoff. Wells may be more vulnerable to such contamination after flooding, particularly if the wells are shallow, have been dug or bored, or have been submerged by floodwater for long periods of time.

The CDC usually recommend boiling water, but that may be impractical unless you are sure that the water is impacted. An alternative to boiling water is using a point-of-use filter. Not all home water filters remove Giardia. Filters that are designed to remove the parasite should have one of the following labels:
  •  Reverse osmosis,
  •  Absolute pore size of 1 micron or smaller,
  •  Tested and certified by NSF Standard 53 for cyst removal, or
  •  Tested and certified by NSF Standard 53 for cyst reduction.

I hope this helps.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Community Scientists Track Rain in Virginia

Quite the storm blew through here Thursday night. It rained 1.32 inches in my yard, while raining 2.72 inches west of Leesburg, just a few miles north. I know this because I scrolled through all the reporting rain stations on the CoCoRaHS network Friday morning after entering my data.

The Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network known as CoCoRaHS is a unique, non-profit, community-based network of volunteer citizen scientists of all ages and backgrounds working together to measure and map precipitation (rain, hail and snow). We use low-cost measurement tools, and enter our data into an interactive Web-site. Through education and training videos and help from other volunteers we aim to provide the highest quality data for natural resource, education and research applications.

The CoCoRaHS network just turned 18 years old and was started at the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University. CoCoRaHS was originally founded as the "Colorado Collaborative Rain and Hail Study" in response to the July 28, 1997 Fort Collins Flood. That flash flood producing storm dumped nearly a year's worth of rain (over 14" at the center) in a few hours, claimed 5 lives and did extensive damage to the Colorado State University campus and nearby communities.

In the early days of CoCoRaHS, the website was much more simplified. Many of the early volunteers called in their reports by phone as they did not yet have internet access. CoCoRaHS began studying local intense storms just in Colorado and didn't think volunteers would be interested in doing measurements of winter snow, too. Little did they know.

Today the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) are major sponsors of CoCoRaHS, but many of the volunteer station monitors also donate cash as well as time, and equipment. CoCoRaHS is now in all fifty states and Canada. Virginia was the seventh state to join the network. I got introduced to the program by a local farmer who volunteers with me as a director of the conservation district.

The data we collect is used by the National Weather Service, other meteorologists, hydrologists, emergency managers, city utilities (water supply, water conservation, storm water), insurance adjusters, USDA, engineers, mosquito control, ranchers and farmers, teachers, students, and neighbors in the community are just some examples of those who visit our Web site and use the data.

I got involved through my interest in groundwater and noticing that often it rained in parts of the county, but not others. Since I depend on a private well for water, keeping an eye on local rain and water conditions is important. Private wells draw their water from groundwater, and water recharge is very local in Prince William County. The rainfall in my yard is the best predictor of groundwater recharge and availability.

The image below is the month summary and annual rainfall of a nearby proxy well. I used a proxy because my data does not go that far back. I joined the CoCoRaHS network in October 2015.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Spring Valley Munitions Disposal Site Cleanup

During and after World War I, from 1917 to 1920, the U.S. Army conducted chemical warfare research, experiments and testing at its Washington, D.C. American University Experiment Station in an area now occupied by the Spring Valley neighborhood. Following WWI, some of the chemical agents, ordnance, and laboratory wastes generated at the site were disposed of at American University Experiment Station and in an adjacent area known as Spring Valley. Discovery of those buried munitions and chemical agents have resulted in both the Spring Valley neighborhood and the American University being designated a Formerly Used Defense Site (FUDS). If this site was not a military facility it would have been named a Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, or CERLCA site . This designation authorizes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to address environmental contamination resulting from past Department of Defense activities at the American University/Spring Valley site using the CERCLA process. Though the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Baltimore District (USACE) has the lead responsibility for investigation and cleanup actions at the Spring Valley FUDS, they have entered into a formal partnering process with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Washington, D.C. District Department of the Environment (DDOE).

Since 1993, the USACE has been investigating the Spring Valley Community to determine where and to what extent the Army disposed of buried ordnance, explosive wastes, and hazardous substances. USACE found several burial pits containing munitions and chemical agents as well as arsenic in soil exceeding background levels. The primary chemical agents found were mustard agent, lewisite, and their degradation products.

Army Corps of Engineers returned to the site in 1998 to further investigate potential ordnance burial pits on the residence of the Ambassador of South Korea. During this investigation, USACE discovered two burial pits containing munitions items and laboratory glassware, some of which contained traces of chemical agents. The Army Corps of Engineers has conducted an extensive soil investigation to determine the nature and extent of soil contamination within the site area. As part of this effort 1,632 residential, federal and District of Columbia, and commercial properties were sampled for arsenic, the main contaminant of concern in Spring Valley. Of the properties that were sampled, the Army Corps of Engineers identified 177 properties/lots that required remediation. The primary method of remediation was through excavation of the arsenic-contaminated soil.

In 1999, the EPA prepared a human health risk assessment for the site, conducting an analysis of soil sampling data collected between 1993 and 1995 at 16 locations throughout Spring Valley and American University site. The D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs and recommended site-wide comprehensive geophysical investigations, soil sampling, and a health study. In response to significant community and regulator concerns regarding possible soil contamination, the Army Corps of Engineers in consultation with the EPA Region 3 and the District of Columbia Department of the Environment (DDOE), developed a comprehensive plan to conduct arsenic soil sampling on every property within the SVFUDS and conduct additional geophysical investigations focusing on identifying additional potential burial pits as well as individual buried munition and explosives. In 2002, the Army Corps of Engineers determined that three artillery shells found at the Glenbrook Road burial pits contained arsine gas.

The Army Corps of Engineers also conducted an investigation to determine to what extent American University Experiment Station-related activities may have impacted the groundwater within the site. The investigation involves the installation of monitoring wells and the collection of samples from the wells and surface water locations. To date,the Army Corps of Engineers has installed 53 groundwater monitoring wells and sampled surface water at 25 locations. Perchlorate has been detected at levels above the EPA interim drinking water health advisory level of 15 parts per billion (ppb) at 2 locations in the project area. Arsenic has been detected in groundwater above the maximum contaminant level (MCL) for drinking water in one area. There are no known users of groundwater in the site. Though the Dalecarlia Reservoir is near the contaminated groundwater, any groundwater interchange is overwhelmed by the volume of water pulled daily from the Potomac. In addition, the drinking water is tested daily for perchlorate and arsenic.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has released the final Feasibility Study report in accordance with the CERCLA or Superfund procedures. The purpose of the FS is to develop, screen, and provide a detailed analysis of remedial alternatives to mitigate: 1) unacceptable risks posed by soil contamination resulting from chemicals of concern (COCs), and 2) potential unacceptable explosive hazards due to munitions and explosives that may remain within the Spring Valley site. It is based on information, site characterization, and determination of potential risks or hazards to human health which is contained in the Site-Wide Remedial Investigation (RI) Report and Feasibility Study (FS). These are the final investigative reports in the CERCLA process.

The Feasibility Study has recently been released. The purpose of the Feasibility study is to develop, and provide a detailed analysis of remedial alternatives to mitigate: 1. unacceptable risks posed by soil contamination resulting from the chemicals of concern that remain in the soils of the area, and 2. potential unacceptable explosive hazards due to munitions and explosives that may remain within the site. It is based on information, site characterization, and a risk analysis determining the potential risks to human health and safety. The consultants examined the two identified areas of risk separately to make sure that both risks were fully addressed.

Based on the detailed analysis of contaminated soil remedial alternatives for the Spring Valley Site, the Feasibility Study recommends “Alternative 4,” which is Excavation and Off-site Disposal, as the most favorable remedial alternative to meet the soil remedial action goals of protecting human health and the environment at the most reasonable cost to the American people. Alternative 4 will meet the remedial action goals in the shortest time, with the fewest unknowns. It will address all chemicals of concern and it has been successfully conducted many times throughout the Spring Valley site.

Based on the analysis of the remaining explosive hazards the feasibility study recommends, Alternative 6, “Digital Geophysical Mapping of Accessible Areas and Remove Selected Anomalies,” as the most favorable remedial alternative to complete remediation. In both areas munitions and contaminated soil, the final selection of a preferred alternative will be formerly proposed and documented in the Proposed Remedial Action Plan.

The next step in the CERCLA process now that the Feasibility Study has been finalized will be for the Army Corps of Engineers to release the Draft Final Proposed Plan which is expected by the end of this week. The Proposed Plan formally presents the Army's preferred alternatives. A formal public comment period will be held to allow the community an opportunity to review and comment on the Proposed Plan before it is finalized. This is your opportunity to make sure that all your concerns are addressed. The best way to do this would be through the Restoration Advisory Board.

The Restoration Advisory Board is comprised of 13 Spring Valley community stakeholders as well as representatives from the Army Corps of Engineers, Environmental Protection Agency, the District Department of the Environment, as well as the nearby public school and American University. The RAB acts in an advisory capacity to assist the government agencies engaged in the investigation and cleanup of the Spring Valley site. The primary purpose of the Restoration Advisory Board is to involve the local community in the decision making process.

The next Restoration Advisory Board meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, July 12 at 7 pm. These meetings are open to the public. Currently, the Restoration Advisory Board (RAB) meets on the second Tuesday of every odd month for about 60-90 minutes in the ‘Undercroft’ meeting room at St. David’s Episcopal Church, 5150 Macomb Street NW, Washington, D.C.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Scientists Capture and Fix Carbon in Rock

In a paper released Thursday a team of scientists fromLamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, Institute of Earth Sciences at the University of Iceland, Department of Ocean and Earth Sciences at the University of Southampton , and Reykjavik Energy confirm the success and rapid storage of captured carbon dioxide as carbonate minerals in basaltic rocks. The scientists found that 95% of the CO2 injected at their CarbFix site in Iceland was mineralized to carbonate minerals within the rock in less than two years, much sooner than the scientists had originally predicted.

The capture and storage of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in deep geologic formations has been part of every proposed plan to reduce greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. Carbon capture is really three activities: Gathering or capturing of CO2 from point sources (power plants, industrial plants, and refineries), transporting the captured CO2 to a geological storage site, and injecting the CO2 into the ground for permanent storage.

Until now, achieving permanent storage has been just a dream. CarbFix is a pilot project that has been running in Iceland since 2012. The project was created to test and optimize in situ mineral carbonation in basalt. The pilot consists of a CO2 pilot gas separation plant, CO2 injection pilot test, laboratory-based experiments, confirmation testing and numerical modeling.

The project was designed to inject 2.200 tons of CO2  and CO2 mixed with H2S per year in Iceland to test the feasibility of in situ mineral carbonation in basaltic rocks in the real world. The test site is at the Hellisheidi power plant in the southwest portion of Iceland. The Hellisheidi power plant is the world’s largest geothermal facility; it and a companion plant provide the energy for Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, plus power for industry, by pumping up volcanically heated water to run turbines. While the process produces only about 5% of the CO2 of a coal fired plant, the process is not completely clean; it also brings up volcanic gases, including carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide (H2S).

The rocks in the area are basalt rocks which contain up to 25% by weight of calcium, magnesium, and iron. Basaltic rocks are highly reactive and are common covering  about 10% of continental surface area and most of the ocean floor.  The potential for carbonization is limited in sedimentary rock due to the lack of calcium-, magnesium-, and iron-rich silicate minerals required to form carbonate minerals .

The fate of the injected CO2 was monitored using isotopic tracers and chemical dyes. The injected CO2 was spiked with carbon-14 to monitor its transport and reactivity and the dyes were used to follow the water solution. The CO2 and CO2/H2S mixture, together with Carbon-14 tracers  were injected into the target formation fully dissolved in water pumped from a nearby groundwater well and then mixed with dyes. Typical injection ratio was  25-42  pounds of water for each pound of CO2 or CO2 and H2S.

The results of this study demonstrate that nearly complete in situ CO2 mineralization in basaltic rocks can occur in about 550 days. While the dyes were found downstream, the CO2 and Carbon -14 mixture was gone.

Scientists can now capture and permanently fix CO2.  Once stored within carbonate minerals the CO2 is fixed and stable, the risk of leakage is eliminated and any monitoring program of the storage site can be significantly reduced or eliminated entirely. The scaling up of this basaltic carbon storage method requires both massive quantities of water and porous basaltic rocks.  However, there are places where both are widely available . Typically this would be on the continental margins, such as off the coast of the Pacific Northwest of the United States.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

It’s Hot – What’s Wrong with my AC?

When the weather turns warm is when we discover that the air conditioning is not working properly or simply not working at all. According to the U.S. Department of Energy 6% of the average home’s energy use goes to cooling. Only two thirds of homes in the United States have air conditioners; fewer still have central air. Here in the south, our air conditioning bills are probably higher and most homes built in the last decades have central air conditioning.

The most common types of central air conditioning systems currently in use are the air heat pump and the conventional air conditioner. Heats pumps are used in more moderate temperature zones. In a dependability survey of over 16,000 members Consumer Reports found that the most likely parts to fail are the evaporator coils and the controls on both types of systems. Air heat pumps are also prone to have the compressors or the condenser coils fail. According to the Department of Energy, the most common air conditioning problems are:

Refrigerant. The refrigerant could be low and this could be from a slow or not so slow leak and is usually a symptom of the evaporator coils failing. The leak needs to be identified and repaired before the system is recharged. Some typical places to find leaks are the unit pressure ports, weld/braze connections, or places where rubbing has produced a hole in the tubing. Unless there is a leak from somewhere the system should never need to have the refrigerant recharged- it does not get used up.

R-22 (also known as HCFC-22) had been the refrigerant of choice for residential heat pump and air-conditioning systems for more than four decades. Unfortunately for the environment, releases of R-22, from leaks, contribute to ozone depletion and R-22 is being phased out as part of the international agreement to end production of HCFCs, new residential air conditioning systems are now designed to use more ozone-friendly refrigerants typically R-410a.

The Department of energy also identifies compressor and fan controls as areas likely to fail. The other common problems identified by the Department of Energy are routine maintenance issues that have been ignored. Check those first before calling a service company.

Sensor and Thermostat Issues. Window units have sensors that can be knocked loose when installing a window unit. Check them. For central air systems, check the thermostat to make sure that it is set into air conditioning mode and the correct temperature is set. This is a simple mistake that happens. One of my thermostats toggles between air conditioning mode and heating mode, but my heat pump needs to be set to the correct mode. I have trained my family not to touch.

Drain line blockage. The drain line from the ac unit can get clogged and prevent the system from working properly. Also, the filters might need to be changed. A clogged filter restricts airflow through the unit reducing its ability to effectively cool. This can seem like the system is low in refrigerant, but is easily fixed by replacing the filter. Pull the filter and see if it’s dirty. These are the easy things to fix.

According to the data collected by Consumer Reports 31%-50% of heat pumps are likely to have a failure or serious breakage at five years depending on brand. That is quite a difference and if you are going to replace your heat pump this year, you might what to check the Consumer Reports reliability data before purchasing a new system. My last heat pump had an evaporator coil failure at 5 and half years. At that time I replace the system rather than pay $2,500 to repair a heat pump that I was not satisfied with. Most surveys have found that the average life of a heat pump is between 8 and 15 years. Heat pumps operated all year long and do not last as long as matched conventional systems. For conventional central air conditioning units, 20%-30% of the systems are likely to fail at five years. You will need to determine for yourself the cut-off point for repair or replace.

An air heat pump is usually a split heat-pump systems consisting of two parts: an indoor (coil) unit and an outdoor (condensing) unit. Both units are designed to work together. Heat-pump systems manufactured today, by law, must have a seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER) of 13 or higher depending on what part of the county you live in. Beginning this year the federal standards differ by region with central air conditioning systems in the South and Southwest required to meet stricter standards than those installed in the North. The new yellow Energy Guide label now includes a map of the U.S. indicating where the equipment can be installed.
from DOE
Seasonal Energy Efficiency Rating (SEER) or Heating Seasonal Performance Factor (HSPF) for heat pump systems are the efficiency ratings on heat pumps, the higher the SEER/HSPF, the more efficient the equipment. The SEER is measured in average Btu output over the season divided by the watt hours and is the standard measure of energy use efficiency. The Air Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI), defines the method and conditions to measure SEER, and they are not realistic in the humid south. However they are a good measure of relative efficiency. Generally, the higher the SEER/HSPF of a unit, the higher the initial cost and lower the operating cost. For a high-efficiency systems to work properly, the outdoor unit and indoor unit must be perfectly matched, properly sized and correctly ducted to deliver the right air flow.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Yet More Solar Repairs

Solar Panels have turned out to have regular problems and be far from trouble free. Starting in the second year of ownership I have had an ongoing series of failures of micro inverters, panels or wiring. For two and a half years I struggled to resolve the continual failures of random panels or micro inverters. I ended up having the entire solar photo voltaic system rewired the winter before last. That seemed to solve the problems I had been having for more than a year. However, this spring when I finally had the shingles on the roof that were damaged by the solar repair work replaced, I started once more to have solar panel problems. At the moment I have two panels that are not reporting. I called my solar panel repair guy, the subcontractor of the original installer and he came out to look at the situation.

My relationship with my solar panels is a turbulent one because problems with the system are so hard to identify and address; and there have been problem after problem. The original installation was problematic, the electrical wiring was not correctly done, many of the components used in the installation turned out to be rated for interior use and the system was not set up correctly. Ultimately, I had the system rewired using rain tight fittings, replaced conduit with prefabricated fittings and proper grounding. When they were finally done and the system turned back on I had all 32 solar panels producing and reporting. Just in time for the sunny spring last year.

All seemed well until this spring when I had to have some roof repairs done to repair the damage all that climbing on the roof caused in addition to the damage from the harsh winter. When the roof work was finished, suddenly I had one panel not reporting. The roofer came back and checked the plugs. Two days later the panel was once more reporting, but shortly after that the panel seemed to fail again along with a second panel. I called the solar repair company. They got back to me a couple of weeks later.

After climbing on the roof and examining the system, the repairman showed me pictures of what he believed to be the latest set of problems. Half of the racking system that holds the solar panels on the roof had lifted up slightly. It was probably all the snow last winter. In addition, there was at least one Enphase inverter that had failed. The repair people assumed that the second inverter had also failed, despite having a green light.

So the newest proposal is to Replace & Repair the solar panel racking for ½ of the system, 16 panels, for  $ 3,742. The scope of work is:
  • 16 PV panels & inverters will be dismounted to be tested & cleaned
  • All L-Feet & associated flashing will be removed & roof penetrations sealed
  • New IronRidge Flashing Feet will be installed on an off-set location from original feet locations
  • New IronRidge Mid Clamps will be installed to secure PV Panels into new Rails
  • All mounting rails will be replaced with IronRidge XR-10 series rails
  • In addition, the 2 malfunctioning Enphase Micro Inverters will be replaced.

The charge for the materials for the work are 60% of the expense - $2,242 (Items: $1,892 + S&H:$350)
  • IronRidge XR-10 Series Rails
  • IronRidge L-Feet with Flashing
  • IronRidge 2.0” Mid Clamps
  • Electrical Grounding Hardware
  • Roof Sealants
  • Roof Shingle Flashing

The solar photo voltaic array turns out to need regular maintenance and repairs, and is subject to damage from snow, rain, wind and roofers. There is no certification or license for solar panel installers or repair companies that I can check.  The solar company is working under a valid class A contractor’s license, and have all the proper insurance. Since this is the repairs to the racking system and the lift of the system could be seen in the pictures that they took, it is a safety issue; the solar panels could fall off of the roof and injure someone. This should be addressed as soon as possible. We will move ahead with the repair. Though, I look ahead and see a continual series of repairs. I need to understand at least in my own mind, how I would determine the point I give up. It comes down to money and time.

Though troublesome, my solar panels still make financial sense. The market cost of solar panels and installation has been falling for years, but so have the financial incentives. When I signed the contract to purchase my roof mounted solar system in 2009 (though it was not installed until May 2010) the cost per kilowatt for the Sharp panels I bought was about $6,700 plus permits and installation. These days that cost is about $1,800 and may be even lower. 

However, back in 2009 I was able to obtain a state rebate of $12,000 which is no longer available in Virginia. I also used the 30% federal tax credit which was recently extended and is still available. The net cost of the solar system in 2010 after rebates and tax credits was $32,578. In addition, today there is a property tax exemption in Prince William County (and most counties in Virginia). The exemption is based on the Energy Efficient Buildings Tax Exemption (Code of VA §58.1-3221.2) which allows any county, city, or town to exempt or partially exempt energy efficient buildings from local property taxes. In Prince William County the amount of the exemption is based on the installed cost of solar array and I applied for the exemption and was approved recently. My property assessment will be reduced for five years by the cost of my solar array. Based on the county property tax rate for this year that translates to a savings of $656.82 each year for the next 5 years.

The largest portion of my return is from something called a SREC, a solar renewable energy credit. A SREC is a credit for each megawatt hours of electricity that is produced, but used elsewhere. SRECs have value only because some states have solar set asides from their Renewable Portfolio Standards, RPS, which require that a portion of energy produced by a utility be produced by renewable power. There are no RPS solar requirements in Virginia, thus no value to SRECs in Virginia today beyond the $10-$15 that a RPS credit is worth.

However, my SRECs have value. When I installed my solar array, my system was eligible to sell SRECs in Pennsylvania and Washington DC and I registered my Virginia based solar photovoltaic array in both markets. The Pennsylvania market has collapsed, but the District of Columbia passed a law in 2011 which made the SRECs quite valuable for a number of years. The law prevents out-of-state systems from registering after January 31st 2011 is registered mine well before that. DC is currently the only under-supplied SREC market in the nation, because of the lack of large commercial solar farms and large industrial installations. Washington DC is a city with limited non-governmental buildings and no available private land beyond the reservoirs and Blue Plains waste water treatment plant.

The dollar value of the solar power I generate from my solar panels is worth less than I have sold my SRECs for over the past five years. However, there is no guarantee that my SRECs will be worth anything next year and as more solar power is registered in DC and the penalty price of failing to meet the solar carve out falls the value of my SRECs will decrease. My SRECs potentially have some value until 2025. Once my system no longer has the solar incentives available to it, I will have to reevaluate how worthwhile the system is to maintain going forward, but for now, this just extends the payback time for the system.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

New Cell Phone Study Raises Cancer Concerns

Last week the National Toxicology Program part of the National Institutes of Health released some of the results of a new study that found that male rats had a higher incidence of two kinds of tumors when exposed to the same type of radiation emitted by cell phones. The complete study results would be released by the fall of 2017. This study began in 2005, when the IIT Research Institute in Chicago was selected to carry out the experiments. The parameters of the tests took several years to design and build.

The results are not conclusive, and the overall relevance to human cell phone use is not at all certain. While animal studies can validate results of previous observational studies in humans, previous human studies have been inconsistent or only suggested at an association. The three largest studies used cell phone use data collected by questionnaire or cell phone bills. The largest study, the “Interphone” study was connected by a consortium of researchers in 13 countries. According to the CDC one analysis of the data found a statically significant, but modest increase in the risk of glioma among the participants who reported the highest cell phone use.

The “Danish Study” linked billing information from 358,000 cell phone subscribers with brain tumor incidence data from the Danish Cancer Registry and found no association with the incidence of glioma, meningioma or acoustic neuroma for the time frame of the study (according to the summary on the CDC website).

Finally, the “Million Women Study” was a study conducted in the United Kingdom using questionnaires. Though the original published findings reported an association with an increased risk of acoustic neuroma, this association disappeared after additional follow-up of the cohort.

Those studies, which track large groups of people over time, can look for associations between how many hours people said they used cell phones every day and the incidence of cancers in those people, but they can't prove a cause and effect relationship. In addition, the accuracy of recall studies are limited by recall bias, inaccurate reporting, morbidity, mortality, and participation bias, duration of exposure and finally changing technology. In less than 20 years radiation frequencies and signal modulation used in cell phones have gone from 2G (GSM or CDMA) to 3G (such as UMTS or CDMA2000) or 4G (LTE), which may have lower power outputs and different signal modulation.

Until now, the U.S. government’s official position is that the weight of scientific evidence hasn’t indicated health risks. Cell phones have been believed to be safe because scientists thought that the radiation from cell phones could only damage cells by heating human tissue. The Federal Communications Commission’s cell phone emission test ensures that the emission limit the heat output from the radio frequencies. However in 2011, scientists at the NIH found that low level radiation, held close to the head, could alter brain cells without raising body temperatures; the World Health Organization declared cellphone radiation was a group 2B possible carcinogen, but so is coffee and shift work. Then in 2015, German researchers reported that the same type of radiation emitted by cell phones could promote the growth of brain tumors in mice without raising body temperatures.

In the current study, scientists studied the effect of 2G (GSM or CDMA) radio frequency on rats over a two year period and compared the results to a control group of similar non-exposed rats. The NTP study controlled for heating, keeping the body temperature of the rats within 1° C (1.9° F. The rats were exposed for nine hours total each day, at intervals of 10 minutes on, 10 minutes off, for two years.

The researchers found that male rats exposed to the radiation had a higher incidence of two kinds of tumors. The tumors were gliomas, which are in the glial cells of the brain, and schwannomas of the heart. The association was not found with female rats.

This study raises more questions, but answers few. Consumer Reports has been concerned about cell phone radiation for years and did an excellent job of reviewing the available report. Consumer Reports recommends that you:
  • Try to keep the cell phone away from your head and body especially when the signal is weak because phones may increase their power then to compensate. 
  • Text or video call when possible 
  • When speaking, use the speakerphone on your device or a hands free headset. 
  • Don’t stow your phone in your pants or shirt pocket.