Monday, October 29, 2018

Testing the Water in a Private Well

When you are considering buying a home with a well, you need to understand the well and the water chemistry. For purchase I would recommend a broad stroke water test that looks at all the primary and secondary contaminants regulated under the safe drinking water act as well as pesticides. No testing is required by the federal, state or local governments in Virginia; however, most lenders require testing for bacteria, and some for nitrate and lead in order to issue a mortgage. Comprehensive broad stroke tests exist and will ensure you are purchasing a house with good water. Buying a package reduces the cost though the drawback is these packages are performed at a lower sensitivity level.

A test like the WaterCheck Deluxe plus pesticides test kitfrom National Testing Laboratories which is an EPA certified laboratory would work. This is the most economical test I could find. It comes with sampling bottles, an ice pack that needs to be frozen and a cooler to use when you FedEx the water samples back. Time is of the essence when dealing with bacteria samples. If the home has any water treatment or filters it is important to test both the raw water coming from the well and the water after treatment. This allows you evaluate the appropriateness and effectiveness of any treatment. You will need two water test packages.

The WaterCheck Deluxe with pesticides is a broad stroke test, testing the water for 103 items including Bacteria (Total Coliform and E-Coli), 19 heavy metals and minerals including lead, iron, arsenic and copper (many which are naturally occurring, but can impact health); 6 other inorganic compounds including nitrates and nitrites (can indicate fertilizer residue or animal waste); 5 physical factors including pH, hardness, alkalinity; 4 Trihalomethanes (THMs) and 47 Volatile Organic Chemicals (VOCs) including Benzene, Methyl Tert-Butyl Ether (MTBE) and Trichloroethene (TCE). The pesticide option adds 20 pesticides, herbicides and PCBs. The package costs $229.99. You will also have to pay overnight shipping cost ($40-$70) to return the package. You may also have to purchase a local Bacteria test if there was a delay in the shipping.

The WaterCheck package compares their results to the The US EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Act limits for the primary and secondary contaminants are a good standard to compare water to when testing a well. Since there are no regulation for private well water, that is a reasonable standard to compare the water test results to. Be alert to anything that should not be in groundwater. The presence of low levels of man made contaminants may be an indication of a bigger problem. Also, make sure you check for residual levels of chlorine. The presence of residual levels of chlorine could indicate that someone had recently chlorinated the well to try and cheat the bacteria test- not nice. So, be alert when you review your results. Not all of the impurities and contaminants in groundwater are bad, some make water taste good. However, any traces of solvents or hydrocarbons or contaminants that are not naturally occurring would be concerning. Penn State Extension has an online tool to compare testing results to EPA Safe Drinking Water Standards and offers some suggestions.

After the first test getting to know your water chemistry, then you should test your well annually for coliform bacteria and nitrate/nitrite. These are easy to test for and cheap. Coliform bacteria is not naturally found in groundwater, if it is found to be present, typically the lab tests for fecal bacteria. If the well is contaminated with coliform but not fecal coliform or E. coli, then you may have infiltration from the surface from rain or snow melt. Typical causes are improperly sealed well cap, well repairs performed without disinfecting the well, failed grouting or surface drainage to the well. The local department of health should have a list of local labs that are certified to perform the test.

As recently as 10 years ago it was uncommon for health departments to recommend regular annual testing of coliform, now it is almost universal. The U.S. Geological Survey has found increasing levels of contamination in groundwater in unconfined (water-table) aquifers. This is believed to be because they usually are within a few hundred feet of the land surface and lack an overlying confining layer to impede the movement of contaminants. In the United States almost half of all drinking water is supplied by wells only the public supply well are routinely tested. Domestic wells are not subject to the EPA Safe Drinking Water Act regulations.

In Virginia, testing of existing private wells is not required. However, the Virginia Household Water Quality Program has been running water clinics testing private wells at a bargain price in Virginia for over 10 years. Their program analyzes samples for: iron, manganese, nitrate, lead, arsenic, fluoride, sulfate, pH, total dissolved solids, hardness, sodium, copper, total coliform bacteria and E. Coli bacteria. Overall the statewide sampling has found that 41% of the wells have coliform bacteria, and 9% have E. coli bacteria. Though 28% of wells were found to have acidic water (low pH), only 17% of homes have first flush lead levels above the EPA safe drinking water standard maximum contaminant level of 0.015 Mg/L. Lead and copper leach into water primarily as a result of corrosion of plumbing and well components, but can also result from flaking of scale from brass fittings and well components unrelated to corrosion. This type of analysis would be appropriate to perform every few years. Over time a well wears out and deteriorates and this can impact water quality.

Domestic wells draw groundwater primarily from the area surrounding the well. Depending on the depth of the well and the local geology groundwater drawn into a private domestic drinking water well is typically young water-it could be weeks, months or several years old. Even though the ground is an excellent mechanism for filtering out particulate matter, such as leaves, soil, and bugs, dissolved chemicals and gases can still occur in large enough concentrations in groundwater to cause problems. Groundwater can get contaminated from industrial, domestic, and agricultural chemicals from the surface. This includes chemicals such as pesticides and herbicides that many homeowners apply to their lawns, improperly disposed of chemicals; animal wastes; failing septic systems; wastes disposed underground; and naturally-occurring substances can all contaminate drinking water and make it unsuitable for drinking or make the water unpleasant to drink. Groundwater is dynamic and can change over time. Regular monitoring of your water quality is important and entirely up to you.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Moving the Goal in the Chesapeake Bay Cleanup

The entire Chesapeake Bay watershed is under a federal mandate to reduce sediment and fertilizer runoff into the bay in order to improve water quality. Excess nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment from waste water treatment plants, agriculture, urban and suburban runoff, septic systems, air pollution and other sources have impaired the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal waters. These pollutants cause algae blooms that consume oxygen and create dead zones where fish and shellfish cannot survive, block sunlight that is needed for underwater grasses, and smother aquatic life on the bottom.

The EPA set a limit for release of nutrients into the Chesapeake Bay watershed. This limit is called a TMDL and under the recently revised model is of 201,413,934 pounds of nitrogen, 14,174,003 pounds of phosphorus and 6.45 billion pounds of sediment per year which was about 25% reduction in nitrogen, 24% reduction in phosphorus and 20 % reduction in sediment from the 2011 levels. The pollution limits were then partitioned to the various states and river basins based on the Chesapeake Bay computer modeling tools and monitoring data.

To keep efforts on track, the EPA also required states to develop detailed plans and set interim two-year cleanup goals, which are evaluated by EPA. The plans were supposed it ensure that by 2017, the halfway point, 60% of the needed cleanup actions would be accomplished. In 2017 the EPA completed the midpoint assessment of the Chesapeake Bay. At the mid-point assessment the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program found that overall “Virginia has made progress in wastewater and agriculture, but needs to improve stormwater cost-share programs, account for growth in poultry farming, and strengthen MS4 requirements.”

Right now Virginia and all the other Bay states have begun work on the third and final iteration of their clean-up plans. These plans will describe actions to take, between now and 2025. The EPA has just completed the 6th revision to the Chesapeake Bay Model and issued revised cleanup goals, or “planning targets,” as the regulators like to call them. The revised model uses improved land cover data, new information about soil types and better information about nutrient movement through rivers as well as updated data about fertilizer sales, animal populations and the implementation and effectiveness of “best management practices” to reduce pollution.

The updates to the model shows less nitrogen reductions achieved from non-point sources than we previously thought. Now the model recognizes the importance of where nutrients are generated. Nutrient reductions from the Potomac River basin have greater impact on Bay health in the latest version of the model. Below are the revised goals. Note that West Virginia and Washington DC have already achieved their goals.

Virginia has made substantial progress towards addressing pollution to satisfy the Chesapeake Bay  goals, we have already met the phosphorus target, but still have work to do in nitrogen. Most of our progress comes from upgrades to wastewater treatment plants but also in agriculture. There has also been progress reducing polluted runoff from urban and suburban areas, although any progress has been overshadowed by increased land conversion from agricultural to suburban and residential and an increase in releases from septic systems. Virginia exceeded its 2017 goals largely because of the money spent on upgrade to its wastewater treatment plants. However, now the hard work of addressing all non-point pollution sources needs to be done. To succeed it is necessary for all to practice conservation and good land management. We all need to start in our own yards. 

Monday, October 22, 2018

Farm Field Days 2018

Last week, I along with dozens of others spent time at the Prince William County Fairgrounds volunteering at the 29th annual Farm Field Days. All in about 1,200 fourth graders, their teachers and chaperons enjoyed our interactive learning program bringing the farm to the students. The Prince William Soil and Water Conservation District runs this annual field trip at no cost to the schools using volunteers and donations. To pull off this annual two-day event requires many more people than the 6 person staff at the Conservation District, it required the help of more than 100 volunteers including Ecology Club students from Stonewall Jackson High School, the Master Gardeners, County Staff, Master Naturalists, “Homesteaders,” and our loyal friends and volunteer who year after year make this a great event.

Farm Field Days annually introduces the fourth-grade students from Prince William and Manassas schools to some of the basics of farming and natural-resources conservation. Students spend the day rotating through seven barns, with each barn highlighting an aspect of life on the farm using hands-on lessons. The animal barns never fails to amaze the kids by not only showcasing the full range of farmyard critters from bees to chickens and cows, but feature interactive demonstrations of how common products are made.

Demonstrations included wool spinning, butter churning, agricultural and industrial Regions of Virginia, trees and photosynthesis, and soil erosion through a science experiment, to name a few. These demonstrations are geared to meet Virginia SOL (standards of learning) measures. Farm Field Days is a fun and engaging hands-on approach to teaching students about the agricultural world around them, and opening their eyes to the importance of protecting our natural resources.

This year I was at the butter churning station in the animal barn. We used kid energy enthusiasm to actually make butter that I spread on pretzels for the kids to taste. Some were a little hesitant to taste the product of their labor, but curiosity and hunger won out. The kids were amazed that they could make butter, good tasting butter. It was warm, and hadn’t had all the moisture pressed out so it was creamy and delicious with the salty pretzels.

The Prince William County Conservation District, which focuses on protecting and enhancing the county’s water and soil resources, puts on programs that teach students about agriculture and environmental science. Farm Field Days is our oldest program.

But funding from the county that used to go to those programs was redirected to cover the Chesapeake Bay cleanup, so the Prince William Environmental Excellence Foundation, the nonprofit affiliate of the conservation district, to fund the beyond-the-classroom learning opportunities, such as Farm Field Days and Meaningful Watershed Educational Experiences continued. We raise money for these programs and our river monitoring programs through grants, donations, and the Farm to Table event in late August. None of this would be possible without the volunteers and support of the community. Thank you.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Why is there No Water from the Well?

If you have a private drinking water well and turn on the faucet and nothing happens, you will have to determine how to get your water back “on.” There are a number of reasons why a well might suddenly stop producing water, but basically they all break down into:
  • Frozen Pipes 
  • Electrical or power failure, 
  • Equipment failure 
  • Well failure 
  • Depletion of the Aquifer or other groundwater problems 
If on a very cold day you turn on a faucet and either get nothing or just a trickle comes out, suspect a frozen pipe, first. If your well supply line or the water main is not frozen, you may have water in part of the house, but not others. The most likely pipes to freeze are against exterior walls of the home, or are exposed to the cold, like outdoor hose bibs, and water pipes in unheated interior areas like basements and crawl spaces, attics, garages, or kitchen cabinets. Pipes that run against exterior walls that have little or no insulation are also subject to freezing. In sub-zero weather wells with separate well houses can freeze. Keeping the temperature in a well house above freezing will prevent this.

There is no quick way to fix frozen pipes and calling a plumber does not help until the pipes warm up and you can see if any pipes burst. Make sure you know how to turn off the water in case you have a burst pipe (cutting the well power switch will do it). Turn the heat up, open cabinets under the sinks in the frozen bathrooms and kitchens and use ceramic heating cubes if you have them to warm up the area where the pipes are frozen. Plastic piping is considerably more tolerant of freezing than copper pipes. There is a real shot that a plastic pipe can freeze without bursting if all the connections and elbows are sound.

If it’s not frozen pipes and you have the modern and increasingly common drilled well with an immersion pump in the well and some equipment in the basement, the next thing you should do is go downstairs and take a look. Though I admit that it is hard to differentiate problems just looking at the equipment in the house, sometimes you can.

First check the electrical power. Well pumps run on electricity- no power, no pump. If you have power check the electrical panel for tripped circuit breakers (the pump takes two) or blown fuses. Lightening can short out a pump, but so can a wire worn by friction or wire that worked itself loose by vibrations. This all happens and are relatively easy fixes by a professional. A well driller or licensed contractor is who you should call. They should be licensed for your county or state. Many jurisdictions require a license to work on wells, but not all. In areas where there is no state license ask if they are certified by the National Ground Water Association. In some states, NGWA certification is a requirement to get a drilling license. Look for a full service well company- they should drill wells, install pumps, replace water lines, and repair and replace water system equipment.

The components within the basement include the pressure tank and any water treatment equipment. The pump moves water into the water pressure tank, which 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 typically maintains the water pressure between 40-60 psi (or sometimes 30-50 psi- it can be adjusted slightly but the actual range is preset when you buy a switch).

After the pressure drops below 40 psi, the diaphragm pops and the electrical contacts touch and the switch turns on the pump and the pressure in the tank increases. When the top pressure is reached the contact is broken. The pressure switch can last a fairly long time, but lots of things can go wrong with it.

Read the pressure gauge on your pressure tank. If it is not showing a pressure of 40-60 psi (or 30-50 psi) that could be a sign that the pump is not turning on. The question is why. The pump could have failed, the well could be dry or not have enough water to operated (there is a cut off on the pump to protect it when the water level is low), the pressure switch could have failed to pop or the contacts could be corroded. Hope the problem is the inexpensive and easy to fix pressure switch. Many models have a manual bypass lever. If yours does you can force the pump on using the lever. If the pressure starts to rise then you need a new pressure switch. The last one I bought was $25.

If the pressure on the gauge was in the desired range, it could be several things. First tap the gauge with the back of a screw driver (gently) and see if the gauge moves. The gauge can clog with sediment so can the pressure switch. Also, you might want to carefully take off the cover to the pressure switch to see-remember there is 240 volts in there and do not touch the contact or better yet cut the power first.

The pressure tank could be water logged, or if you have a tank with a bladder it could have burst or sprung a leak. Check the pressure on the pressure tank using a tire pressure gauge. Is the reading on the gauge in agreement with the tank gauge? Drain the water out of the pressure tank. You should hear a ping from the pressure switch. If the electricity is on and the pump is working it should turn on and water should start to fill the pressure tank or flow into the house. If the bladder has sprung a leak or burst you will need a new pressure tank. However, the pump is the piece of equipment subject to the most wear and tear and often fails.

Unfortunately, to examine a pump you need to pull it out of the well. Never pull an immersion pump out of a well without the proper equipment. If you are going to pull a pump to check it, you might as well replace it (the pump itself is not the most expensive portion of the operation). Make sure you have a licensed well driller with the right equipment. Make sure they have the equipment to pull a pump from directly above to smoothly remove it. Pulling a pump requires more skill than dropping one in. If the you are careless in pulling the pump you can catch the casing (which in most of Virginia  typically only runs down 50 feet) and destroying the well.

Well problems are rarely sudden. For the plumbing system to function properly, the recharge rate in the well would have to equal at least the pump rate. The recharge rate or the well recovery rate is the rate that water actually flows into the well through the rock fissures. If the well cannot recharge at the same rate at which water is being pumped out of the well, the system would suffer intermittent episodes of severe water pressure loss or possibly water loss. 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 when doing laundry or taking a shower. Then you may have a groundwater or well problem. Call the extension office and a well driller.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Bring Oyster Shell Recycling Program to Northern VA

At last Friday’s meeting of the Potomac Watershed Roundtable, Todd Janeski, the Director of the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program at VCU-Rice Rivers Center came to talk about the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling program. The Rice Rivers Center, a VCU field station on the James River, is home to graduate-level water environmental research and education. So it saw the connections and the need for the program.

Oyster shells have long been treated as a waste product. They were crushed into aggregate for cement or used as decorative material in landscaping. Yet there is tremendous ecological value in returning the oyster shells to the waters they came from to promote oyster habitats that are essential for preserving water quality.

Oysters are the Chesapeake Bay's best natural filters. A single adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day. Oysters also provide essential habitat for fish and other Bay creatures. The eastern oyster is one of the most iconic species in the Chesapeake Bay. For more than a century, oysters made up one of the region’s most valuable commercial fisheries, and the oysters which are filter-feeders continues to clean our waters and offer food and habitat to other animals.
However, over-harvesting, disease and habitat loss have led to a severe drop in oyster populations. Scientists are working to manage harvests, establish sanctuaries, overcome the effects of disease and restore reefs with hatchery-raised seed in an effort to bring back the oyster. In 2010, Maryland and Virginia embarked on a tributary-based restoration strategy that will build, seed and monitor reefs in several Maryland and Virginia waterways. This commitment was incorporated into the Chesapeake Bay TMDL restoration plan. Building these reefs requires oyster shells.

Since 2013, under the direction of Todd Janeski, the VCU-Rice Rivers Center has facilitated the collection of waste oyster shells from restaurants and returned them to the Virginia portion of the Chesapeake Bay to help build oyster habitat and reefs and restore wild oyster populations, improve water quality and provide new fish habitat.

Natural oyster shell is the preferred substrate for growing new oysters, but many restoration projects rely on reclaimed clam shells, crushed concrete or reef balls as surrogates. According to Mr. Janeski,

“When oysters reproduce they need hard surfaces, but real shells also provide the nutrients needed to grow and thrive.” Currently, the program recycles about 90,000 pounds of shell annually.

The Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program kick-starts the reproduction process by seeding the shells with oyster larvae before placing them in an Oyster Sanctuary. Using this method over 24 million oysters will be re-introduced to the Chesapeake Bay through the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program this year.

The Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program partners with restaurants and community groups to collect the oyster shells at the restaurants and transport them to 30 yard (donated) dumpsters to collect oyster shells, and when the bins are full, the shells travel to a curing site. “Once you take in the shell, you have to let it age for a year to decompose any other organic material,” Todd explained to us.

After aging the shells, the team moves them to a large tanks (repurposed Jacuzzis) using plastic mesh bags. Inside these tanks, the shells are seeded with young oysters that will attach to the shells. Young oysters free-swim early in life, searching for something to attach to. Todd explained that they “prefer shell since it releases calcium and provides a unique complex structure to protect oysters when they are on the reef.”

After oysters are introduced into the tank, it takes about 10 days for them to attach to the shells. From there, the shells and oysters are transported to a sanctuary site in the bay. This location is often close to a commercial, private or public harvesting site, but it introduces new oysters to the ecosystem both within the sanctuary and outside of it.

Northern Virginia, Prince William, and Loudoun Conservation Districts were so inspired by the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program and Todd Janeski’s talk that we’d like to work with our partners to bring the program to Northern Virginia. Contact the PWSWCD or NoVASWCD for more details.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Plastic Trash in our Oceans

The Earth Day Network has given 2018 the theme to “End Plastic Pollution.”  With all this attention on plastic in our oceans we’ve all heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not the only garbage patch the in the oceans, it’s just the most famous. Garbage patches exist all over the earth’s oceans and are large concentrations of marine debris formed by rotating ocean currents formed by the Earth’s wind patterns and rotation called gyres that suck in the debris and concentrate it. The area in the center of a gyre tends to calm and stable. The circular motion of the gyre draws debris into this stable center, where it becomes trapped.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch spans waters from the West Coast of North America to Japan. It is actually composed of two garbage patches, one located near Japan, and the other garbage patch, located between the Hawaii and California. The “garbage patch” is not an island of trash floating on the ocean. These patches are almost entirely made up of tiny bits of plastic, called microplastics. Microplastics can’t always be seen by the naked eye. Even satellite imagery doesn’t show a giant patch of garbage floating in the ocean. The microplastics of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch simply make the water look cloudy, but their damage to the planet and marine life is clear.

As microplastics and other trash collect on or near the surface of the ocean, they block sunlight from reaching plankton and algae below. If algae and plankton communities are threatened, the entire food web may change. Animals that feed on algae and plankton, such as fish and turtles, will have less food. If populations of those animals decrease, there will be less food for predator fish such as tuna, sharks, and whales.

A 2015 study by Jambeck et al. estimated that approximately eight million metric tons of plastic end up in our ocean every year. We use plastic for so many things and unfortunately, many of these are used only once. Single-use plastics are a major issue, as they’re often used for an extremely brief amount of time before being discarded. And way too much of that discarded plastic is making its way into our oceans. Some trash is dumped directly into the oceans from ships and boats, some is from litter on the shoreline, but a large amount is carried by rain and wind to our streams and rivers and makes it way to the ocean.

Plastic is durable and is designed to last. This can be a really useful characteristic that can serve some really important purposes; however, plastic’s durability is also one of the characteristics that make plastic debris so damaging. Plastic items don’t biodegrade like many other items do and never truly go away. Instead, as they’re exposed to elements like the sun and saltwater, they break into smaller and smaller pieces. Once they’re less than five millimeters in size, we call them “microplastics.” Microplastics may include small plastic pieces resulting from larger items breaking apart, “microbeads” coming from personal care products, or even “microfibers” resulting from people washing synthetic clothing. Unfortunately, once they’re in our waters, microplastics are really difficult to remove.

According to Christian Schmidt, a hydrogeologist at the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research in Leipzig, Germany today 10 rivers carry 93 % of that trash that ends up in the oceans. They are the Yangtze, Yellow, Hai, Pearl, Amur, Mekong, Indus and Ganges Delta in Asia, and the Niger and Nile in Africa. The Yangtze alone dumps up to an estimated 1.5 million metric tons of plastic waste into the Yellow Sea.
from Scientific American

Scientists estimated that 8,300 million metric tons of virgin plastics have been produced since the dawn of the age of plastics, so we have a large hand in the trash that exists in the oceans today and need to participate in the solution preventing marine debris. The United States is better than many at managing waste, today; but we are particularly bad at recycling our plastic and we still generate too much litter and storm carried trash. Year after year volunteers clean our roadways, streams, rivers, and streambeds of trash that started as litter and carried along by stormwater and wind into our waterways and parks. The volunteers also remove items that were illegally dumped in the woods or carried by off by storms.

We all need to participate in the solution, remember that the eastern portion of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is between California and Hawaii. Follow and teach your children to follow the “4Rs”— Refuse unnecessary single-use items, Reduce the amount of waste you produce by choosing products with less packaging; Reuse items and choose reusable items over disposable ones; and Recycle as much as possible— learn how to properly recycle your trash.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Fixing a Wet Basement

It is estimated by the American Society of Home Inspectors that 60% of U.S. homes have wet basements. Even if you had not previously had any problems with a wet basement a very wet year like we’ve just had in the southeast can uncover new or suddenly bigger problems.

Water or moisture in a basement can come from three sources: seepage of groundwater, condensation and rain. Condensation often occurs where cold meets warm air. Groundwater often happens in soils with a high clay contents after a heavy storm, but quickly dissipates in a day or two. However, most often basements get wet when rainwater or melted snow runs toward the walls of houses from roofs, yards and driveways and infiltrates.

Concrete is not waterproof neither is cinder blocks or mortared stones or bricks. Overtime mortar cracks and water that isn't routed away from the house percolates through porous topsoil and then stops at the compact soil near the base of the foundation. Hydro-static pressure forces the water through gaps or cracks in walls and footings. Water also moves through porous walls by capillary action.

Even modern homes built with an existing underground French drainage system can after a decade or two begin to have wet basement problems. Unfortunately, the drainage system often breaks apart or fills with silt over time.

Depending on how bad your moisture problem is there are a few cheap and effective solutions to try first. Simply moving the water away from the house may solve your problems. First thing you should do is check your gutters and downspouts. Clean out the gutters, repair or replace any damaged gutters and extend your downspouts away from your house. Water from down spouts should be directed away from the house, discharging at least a few feet from the foundation. If the natural flow of water is to pool in any location, it may be advisable to direct all down spouts to a dry well system or pipe to a more natural drainage location. In my own home I utilized the natural slope of my yard and a French drain to move all the water from my downspouts away from the house and to a rain garden.

Next, rain water should not run up against the house (nor should plant irrigation water). The soil level against the exterior walls should slope away from the home and often after years of mulching your beds this is no longer true. Fix it.

Even in areas where the natural topography is towards the house an artificial slope should be created in a shallow “V” to prevent water from pooling around the foundation. The ground around the home's foundation should be graded to slope down and away from the house at a rate of 1/2" to 1" per linear foot to drain surface water away from the house. If needed, a French drain should be dug to an adequate distance from the house. Most houses are built with the soil level sloped away from the building, but landscaping and time can undermine this. Plants should not be planted closely against a structure to avoid “watering the building” instead of the plants.

Test any underground drains with a hose to make sure they are working properly. Often underground drains become blocked with debris or broken and allow water to drain against the building. Drains that are not working should be repaired or replaced. Be sure that driveways, sidewalks, and patios slope down and away from foundation walls at 1/4" per linear foot.

If these solutions do not eliminate a moisture problem then the next steps will have to be taken. In extreme cases, you may have to dig out around the foundation and replace the fill with an exterior drain tile and with a good draining material such clean gravel. Replacing an entire exterior French drainage systems on a fully subterranean basement, is the most complicated and expensive solution. This is true because it requires removing the landscaping, excavating to expose the foundation, covering it with a waterproof membrane and laying perimeter footing drains in a bed of gravel at the base of the footings. Because this can be very expensive in existing homes, all the previous solutions should be rigorously tried first. With a basement that is mostly daylight this can often be accomplished for a more modest cost.

A lower cost alternative often suggested by waterproofing contractors would be to install an interior drainage system. This is still expensive and messy, but is more easily accomplished. When an interior drainage system is installed it is usually combined with a sump pump sometimes with lateral drains, a dehumidifier and wall curbs or wall weeping systems. Basically, a waterproofing contractor will recommend installing most of these systems to ensure your basement stays dry. This is also very expensive and messy, but is extremely effective. Get more than one bid and check references and warranty. My experience in contracting the work at my mother’s home was the prices varied by over 50% and quality, warranty and reputation were not correlated with price.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Earth will soon be Knee Deep in Trash

The World Bank just released their peer reviewed survey of solid waste generation and management around the world; “What a Waste 2.0: A Global Snapshot of Solid Waste Management to 2050.” Solid waste management is a critical, yet often overlooked, part of achieving sustainable and healthy communities. As populations grow richer waste generation increases.

According to the report, the world generates 2.01 billion metric tons (tonnes) of municipal solid waste each year. It is estimated that at least one third of that waste is not managed in an environmentally safe manner. It is hard for us living in the 21st Century United States to picture, but much of the world does not collect their trash. Mountains and rivers of trash plague much of the world.

Waste disposal or treatment using controlled landfills or more stringently operated facilities is almost exclusively the domain of high and upper-middle-income countries. Lower-income countries generally rely on open dumping 93% of waste is dumped in low-income countries and only 2 % in high-income countries.

Worldwide, waste generated per person per day averages 0.74 kilogram but ranges widely, from 0.11 to 4.54 kilograms. High income countries generate the highest per capita waste, and Bermuda, Canada, and the United States are the countries that produce the highest average amount of waste per capita, 2.21 kilograms per day. Since waste generation generally increases with economic development and population growth, regions with high proportions of growing low-income and lower-middle-income countries are anticipated to experience the greatest increase in waste production.
from World Bank

The World Bank reports that Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia regions are expected to see their waste levels approximately triple and double, respectively, in the next thirty years. While the more prosperous nations of North America, Europe and Central Asia, are expected to see waste levels rise more gradually. This is a result of the countries having reached the point of economic development at which materials consumption is less linked to gross domestic product growth. Nonetheless, though they only account for 16% of the world’s population, high-income countries generate about 34%, or 683 million tonnes, of the world’s waste.
from World Bank

The composition of the trash generated varies by the wealth of the country or region. On a global level, the largest waste category is food and green waste, making up 44% of global waste. Dry recyclable waste (plastic, paper and cardboard, metal, and glass) amount to another 38 % of waste. However, the composition of our trash varies considerably by national income level. The percentage of organic matter in waste decreases as income levels rise. Consumed goods in higher-income countries include more materials such as paper and plastic than they do in lower-income countries. Recyclables make up about 50% of trash in high-income countries. This represent an opportunity for increasing the recycling. 
from World Bank

To read the entire report see:

Monday, October 1, 2018

Water Test Results Tell a Story

The quality and safety of private or domestic wells are not regulated under Federal or, in most cases, state law. In Virginia only construction of wells is regulated, and the absence of bacteria at well completion is the only water quality test required. Individual homeowners are solely responsible for maintaining their domestic well systems and for any routine water-quality monitoring that may take place. However, private well owners often lack a basic understanding of groundwater and wells and the mechanical components in private water systems and are often unaware of common issues with wells, and lack access to objective information and a framework for understanding their water quality.

Because private drinking water wells serves 1.7 million, or 22% of its population, Virginia has taken steps to assist private well owners monitor, understand and maintain their wells. The Virginia Household Water Quality Program (VAHWQP) was created by the Virginia Cooperative Extension to provide affordable water testing and education about private water wells to residents of the Commonwealth. Volunteers and Extension Agents hold drinking water clinics and other outreach programs. During the water clinics in 2017 -2,178 samples analyzed in 87 counties. I am one of the volunteers and help run the water clinics in Prince William and Fairfax Counties.

Over the years I have looked at a lot of well water results and helped well owners understand their water. Water quality is driven by geology, well construction and condition, nearby sources of contamination, and, within the home, water treatment devices and composition of plumbing materials. Though there are anomalies, water tells me a story. Though that was not always true, years ago even with graduate degrees and a working knowledge of water contamination I was not confident about interpreting groundwater analysis especially in unfamiliar geology.

The other day someone emailed me their water test results. They had purchased a WaterCheck with Pesticides package from National Testing Laboratories. This is an informational test packages targeted to be an affordable option for consumers. The WaterCheck with Pesticide covers 15 heavy metals, 5 inorganic chemicals, 5 physical factors, 4 trihalo methanes, 43 volatile organic chemicals (solvents), and 20 pesticides, herbicides and PCB’s. The Minimum Detection Levels, which are the lowest levels at which the laboratory detects that contaminant are below the levels established by the Safe Drinking Water Act, so this relatively affordable test will serve as a broad screen of drinking water.

The WaterCheck with Pesticides test results showed detectable levels of copper, iron, silica, sodium, zinc, alkalinity as CaCO3, nitrate, chloroform, THMs, turbidity, total dissolved solids, . All other substance tested for were non-detect this included hardness, calcium, manganese- things that are common in Prince William County groundwater.

In order to determine if there is a problem, water test results should be compared to a standard. The usual standard is the U.S.EPA Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) limits. Though private wells do not fall under the regulatory authority of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the Safe Drinking Water Act, the SDWA has primary and secondary drinking water standards that can be used for comparison. Primary standards are ones that can impact health. Secondary standards impact taste or the perceived quality of the water.

The EPA primary contaminants found to be present were nitrate, copper, and total THMs. All these substances were below the EPA SDWA standard called the Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL). The presence of copper at 0.227 mg/L less than a fifth of the MCL with a neutral water pH spoke of copper pipes. So we know this home was built before 1979. Over time, even neutral water will wear away the pipes. The pH of the water and copper levels should be monitored regularly. The nitrate level was 6.1 mg/L with an SDWA MCL of 10 mg/L.

Nitrate in groundwater can come from septic systems and livestock facilities, fertilized cropland, golf courses, lawns, and gardens, or even naturally occurring sources of nitrogen. This level of nitrate is most likely from septic systems that are too close together. If a property has 3 or more acres you do not typically see this level of nitrate without E. coli being present. It turns out that this house sits on only one acre.

The total THMs was 0.003 mg/L with a SDWA MCL of o.80 mg/L. Potential sources of THMs to drinking water wells include the discharge of chlorinated drinking water and wastewater that may be intentional or inadvertent also, with the chloroform it can simply be a residual for a recent chlorine shocking of the well. It turns out that a couple of months before the homeowner had chlorine shocked the well to treat a finding of coliform bacteria. No E. coli had been present. Over time the THMs and chloroform should disappear.

The sodium level was 126 mg/L and chloride was 42. mg/L. The sodium was above the secondary standard for sodium of 20 mg/L. Also, there was no hardness detected. This level of sodium, an absence of hardness and a 6.8 pH says water softener. Though road salt and salt water infiltration can both raise sodium levels. The question is does this home need a water softener? With extremely hard water, a softener would leave a bit of hardness. Most people prefer some hardness in their water so modern softeners are designed to be adjustable and leave a little hardness. Water softeners are often used in combination with neutralizers to remove some hardness. When I asked there was no neutralizer on this system. Water softeners can also remove some iron and manganese. The residual iron level is 0.021 mg/L with a SDWA secondary recommended MCL of 0.3 mg/L. It could be that the water was installed to control iron, but when I asked the homeowner, she stated that the softener was installed to control the rust slime in the back of the toilet.

That rust colored slime is iron bacteria and would not be controlled by a water softener. A water softener can make it worse. However, the homeowner confirmed that the rust colored slim in the back of the toilet was not helped by the softener. However, the recent installation of a UV light to control coliform bacteria that was not eliminated by the shock chlorination had eliminated the rust colored slime. This is interesting, iron and sulfur bacteria are more resistant than other bacteria because they occur in thick layers and are by the slime they secrete. This is interesting observation on the part of the homeowner. However; the UV light was purchased after the chlorine shocking of the well failed to eliminate the coliform bacteria. It is just as likely that the recent chlorine shocking of the well pushed back the iron bacteria. This is a data point to be verified and filed. UV light is a powerful disinfectant that can kill bacteria, viruses and parasites, provided the water is perfectly cleear, low in minerals, and free of iron and sediment. This is why UV systems are often installed after a water softener or filtration system. To reduce the sodium, the homeowner might dial back the water softener or replace it with an appropriate filter.

The other findings were silica, zinc, total dissolved solids, and turbidity that were all within the normal amounts seen in the county and less than the SDWA secondary MCL. These substances are naturally present at these levels in our geology and have not impaired the water taste or quality.

Overall, their water is pretty good. The sodium content of the water is too high and might impact the taste. The UV light is working and the homeowner might want to test the raw water (before any treatment) so see if the water softener can be replaced with a filter to eliminate the sodium problem.