Thursday, January 31, 2019

Power Use in the American Home

Americans use a lot of energy in their homes, in businesses, and in industry. Between natural gas, heating oil, propane, electricity and other sources the American home uses about 20% of all energy used in the United States. Most energy use is for heating followed by electric use as broken down tin the pie chart above. Below you can see that the total energy used in the housing sector has decreased falling below even as the number of homes has grown. The nation’s 118 million households consumed 77 million Btu on average in 2015.

In the last survey by the Department of Energy (2015) only about 25% of homes in the United States relied exclusively on electricity for power, heating and cooking. This was up from the last survey, but still the vast majority of homes still use another source of energy for heating in most cases that is natural gas. In the Northeast natural gas and heating oil are both widely used to heat homes. In the rapidly growing south, heat pumps that run on electricity are a popular option. In the coldest climates electric heat pumps are neither cost effective nor practical. Natural gas is still the least expensive widely used method to heat a home in a cold climate.

The breakdown of the energy use in homes is changing. Air conditioning has become a much larger share of energy use in the past decade or so. In the last survey by the Department of Energy they found that 87% of homes use air conditioning having at least one portable unit. Most newer homes have central air conditioning.

In addition, the Department of Energy found that 90% of homes had at least one desktop, laptop, tablet, or smartphone, and 79% have more than one. Although U.S. homes have an increasing number of computers, the number of televisions per home is declining. In 2015, homes had an average of 2.3 televisions, down from an average of 2.6 televisions per home in 2009. More than twice as many households reported not using a television in 2015 compared to 2009. It seems that Americans are viewing entertainment on their phones, tablets and computers instead.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Prince William Well Water Clinic

The Virginia Household Water Quality Program provides affordable, confidential water testing and education to well owners in Virginia. Prince William will be having a water clinic again this year.

Water samples will be tested for: iron, manganese, nitrate, lead, arsenic, fluoride, sulfate, pH, total dissolved solids, hardness, sodium, copper, total coliform bacteria and E. Coli bacteria. What we test for are mostly the naturally occurring contaminants and common sources of contamination: a poorly sealed well or a nearby leaking septic system, or indications of plumbing system corrosion. Though this is by no means an exhaustive list of potential contaminants, these are the most common contaminants that effect drinking water wells.

To avoid having too many people show up on the day of the clinic and long lines for check in this year the program is asking participants to prepay for the analysis. Sample kits will be $55 again this year. Pre-payment can be made in person or by mail at the VCE office at 8033 Ashton Avenue, Suite 105, Manassas VA 20109.

Make checks out to “Treasurer, Virginia Tech”. To register for this class, or to ask questions about the program, please call 703-792-7747 or

The Prince William Drinking Water Clinic has 3 parts:
1. The Kick-Off Meeting on March 25th from 7-8:30 pm at PWC Board Chambers in the McCoart Building, 1 County Complex, Woodbridge, VA 22192 introduces water quality concerns in our area and hands out the water sampling kits.

2. The Sample Drop Off on March 27th from 6:30am-10am ONLY at the VCE Office, 8033 Ashton Ave., Manassas 20109

3. The Results Interpretation Meeting on May 6th from 7-9 pm at PWC Board Chambers in the McCoart Building, 1 County Complex, Woodbridge, VA 22192 will explain the report, include a discussion and answer questions on dealing with water problems.

Water Samples must be dropped off on Wednesday March 27th , between the hours of 6:30am and 10am at the VCE - Prince William Office, 8033 Ashton, Suite 105, Manassas, 20109. NO EXCEPTIONS for sample drop off. However, if you are unable to attend the kick off or results meetings arrangements can be made to pick up a test kit or your results at another time, please call 703-792-7747 or for assistance.

According to the 2017 Annual Report for the Virginia Household Water Quality Program from Virginia Tech, there are 1.7 million Virginians or 22% of the state’s population get their household water from a private well. Municipal water supplies are regulated and regularly tested under the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Act. Private wells are the responsibility of the well owner. Over 2,000 households have their water tested each year through the Virginia Household Water Quality Program.
Water samples will be tested for: iron, manganese, nitrate, lead, arsenic, fluoride, sulfate, pH, total dissolved solids, hardness, sodium, copper, total coliform bacteria and E. Coli bacteria. What we test for are mostly the naturally occurring contaminants and common sources of contamination: a poorly sealed well or a nearby leaking septic system, or indications of plumbing system corrosion. Though this is by no means an exhaustive list of potential contaminants, these are the most common contaminants that effect drinking water wells.

The chart below shows what we found in the 101 private wells tested in the first round of testing we did in Prince William County in 2018.

Household water quality is driven by geology, well construction and condition, nearby sources of groundwater contamination, and any water treatment devices and the condition and materials of construction of the household plumbing. To ensure safe drinking water it is important to maintain your well, test it regularly and understand your system and geology.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

The Treatment Options

This is the water analysis for a recently drilled well for a new home. The test results are summarized in the chart below. Though over 100 substances were tested for, only substances for which there was a finding are listed.

In summary the analysis found levels of: iron at more than 3 times the EPA Safe Drinking Water Act secondary standards and manganese at almost 30 times the EPA Safe Drinking Water Act secondary standards, turbidity was 13 times the standard and the water tested as very hard. In addition, the home purchaser reported that the “water smells like sulphur in the house and very annoying.” I assumed that the purchaser had a hydrogen sulfide problem, there is adequate sulfate present, but the water was not tested for hydrogen sulfide.

As you can see, turbidity the measure of the degree to which the water loses its transparency due to the presence of suspended particulates is a problem. The more total suspended solids in the water, the murkier it seems and the higher the turbidity. Turbidity can be caused by silica, soil finds or iron bacteria. Generally, iron bacteria and other reducing bacteria are not problems in the first couple of years of a well. It takes time for the bacteria introduced during drilling to spread. Iron bacteria are present in most soils and can be introduced into a well or water system during drilling, repair, or service. Though, iron bacteria can produce unpleasant tastes and odors commonly reported as: "swampy," "oily or petroleum," "cucumber," "sewage," "rotten vegetation," or "musty,” it is unlikely that is the problems here. The most common causes of turbidity in wells are dirt and colloidal solids that are too small and too fine to settle out properly.

My recommendation would be to begin by addressing the iron, manganese and assumed hydrogen sulfide problem. A greensand filter often referred to as oxidizing, iron or red water filter can be a good solution. Like most home model water filters the typical manganese greensand filter is a pressure filter, a fully enclosed tank type filters that operates at the same pressure as the water delivery system so that you do not need to buy a booster pump. These devices are used for a variety of water treatment processes such as taste and odor improvement, iron and manganese removal and removal of suspended matter (turbidity) in water. The water treatment performed by a pressure filter is determined by the filter media that is inside the tank. Most companies that sell pressure filters use the same tank for all treatments but change the inside filter media depending on the type of treatment needed.

Iron filters contain a resin designed to remove iron and manganese that is in solution. It will also act as a filter and catch iron and manganese precipitates that have been oxidized before reaching the filter. Typically these filters are effective for iron and manganese removal concentrations up to 10 ppm. However, this type of filter will not tolerate iron bacteria, because the slimy material that is produced coats the greensand and fouls it, and over time iron bacteria builds up in a well. That is why the usual first step is to treat the well for iron bacteria. In addition the greensand filter must be regenerated with a new solution of potassium permanganate when the oxygen is depleted. This process is similar to regenerating a softener. The filter must be backwashed every so often based on the size of the filter. The typical cycle is weekly and there are systems that are automatic.

The iron filters have been less successful in actual practice. First, the well must be regularly treated to knock back iron bacteria. In addition, for the iron filter to work properly the correct flow rate is the secret to effective iron removal. Adequate flow is required to clear the filter bed of sediment before it becomes too dirty. Most well pumps used for private drinking water wells supply 10 to 15 gallons per minute (gpm) of flow. The size filter that can be used is limited by the backwash water available. That is why many of the home pressure filters are tall thin “bottle-type” units that are only 8 inches in diameter. This size filter can be backwashed with 8 to 10 gpm flow. However, the low surface area only provides treatment for a limited water flow of about 2 gpm on average or about 5 gpm for short peak flows. Use of higher volumes of water would result in iron breakthrough, but some of the breakthrough can be picked up by the needed water softening system that has some ability to control iron and manganese.

Another approach for iron, manganese and hydrogen sulfide removal is chlorination. Chlorination and filtration can remove high concentrations of iron, iron bacteria, and hydrogen sulfide gas. The iron, manganese and hydrogen sulfide gas is oxidized by the chlorine in a holding tank. A sediment filter is used to remove the iron and manganese particles followed by an activated carbon filter used to remove excess chlorine and other impurities. The resulting water has an excellent taste. For this system to work the pH of the water must be above 7 so a small amount of neutralizing solution of soda ash (sodium carbonate) or caustic soda (sodium hydroxide) into the holding tank. This raises the sodium content of the water. Potassium can be substituted for sodium at a higher price and may be preferable. Adjust the feeder to provide the correct rate to result in a pH of near 7 that is necessary for chlorination. No other method of home water treatment has as many benefits as chlorination- disinfection and oxidizing agent. Both approaches can be effective, but the pH adjustment using a neutralizing filter will make what is already very hard water harder. And the soda ash or caustic soda can raise the sodium levels which is already elevated and will probably be raised more by a softener.

With the hardness at 270 mg/L a water softener seems necessary. Bath soap combines with the minerals and forms a pasty scum that accumulates on bathtubs and sinks. The minerals also combine with soap in the laundry, and the residue doesn’t rinse well from fabric, leaving clothes dull. Hard water spots appear on everything that is washed in and around the home from dishes and silverware to the floor tiles. Many can live with the water spots and soap scum issues by adding vinegar to dishwashers and using hard water formulated shampoos, but are induced to treat their water because of the potential impacts on plumbing and appliances.

When heated, calcium carbonate and magnesium carbonate are removed from the water and form a scale (lime scale) in cookware, metal hot water pipes, dishwashers and water heaters. As the scale builds up more energy is required to heat the water and hot water heater and small kitchen appliances have to work harder which will burn them out eventually. Thus, in hard water locations hot water heaters and other appliances have a shorter life. However, softened water increases the potential for leaching heavy metal from metal pipes. Not a problem in the new construction.

Eventually the surfaces of the beads in the mineral tank become coated with the calcium and magnesium. To clean the beads, a strong salt solution held in the brine tank is flushed through the mineral tank this occurs two or three times a week and consumes 20-30 gallons of water. Sodium is typically used in the brine tank, but potassium can also be used. The excess sodium solution carrying the calcium and magnesium is typically flushed to the septic system. The amount of sodium in water conditioning systems can be a real problem for humans, the septic system and the environment. There are areas that are banning their use. Softened water is not recommended for watering plants, lawns, and gardens due to its sodium and chlorine content; however, plants are fine with potassium.

Also, you do not want to drink or cook with what is usually high sodium softened water. It might be worthwhile to see if you can do without the water softener, or use potassium chloride instead of the sodium chloride to reduce the sodium. The sodium levels in the water are already elevated, using the potassium versions could reduce this impact. There are no health-based drinking water standards for sodium and potassium. Neither has a secondary drinking standard, but potassium is less harmful to the garden and septic system. Traditionally softened water using sodium chloride can cause toilet paper clogs in septic piping and impair the functioning of the septic tank.

A water softener is necessary if the homeowner wants a reverse osmosis systems to eliminate lead, MEK or tetrahydrofuran. Waste water from reverse osmosis systems is typically connected to the house drains and will add to the load on the household septic system. This is a significant additional water use and load to the septic system and could impact the life and functioning of the septic system and well since a 5 gallon a day reverse osmosis system might waste 50-90 gallons a day. The principal uses of reverse osmosis in are for the reduction of high levels of nitrate, lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, sulfate, sodium and total dissolved solids. Using a soda ash feed on a chemical feed tank will also remove lead an activated carbon filter could also strip out the MEK and tetrahydrofuran (also known as 1,4 dioxane) is an emerging contaminant in drinking water. The technologies that are proven to remove the largest spectrum of contaminants are Granular Activated Carbon and reverse osmosis. In the waste water industry advanced oxidation processes used to remove 1,4 dioxane from waste water.

Overall, the treatment equipment will cost about $15,000-$20,000 installed and require a service contract to keep the system “tuned.” Good thing the homeowner can afford it.

Monday, January 21, 2019

What Do these Water Test Results Mean?

Over the weekend I received several water analysis reports from people who had contacted me through the Rural Household Water Quality program. The extent of the testing varied among the reports. One of the broadest reports was from someone who had purchased the WaterCheck plus pesticides package from National Testing Laboratories, Ltd. This test covers 107 different items; 22 metals, 7 inorganic chemicals, 5 physical factors, 5 trihalo methanes, 47 volatile organic chemicals (solvents), and 20 pesticides, herbicides, organices and PCB’s and bacteria tests. 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.

In order to determine if a finding is a problem or of concern, water test results should be compared to a standard. The standard most commonly used is the U.S.EPA Safe Drinking Water Act (SDW) 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, we can use the standards that we use for comparison. Primary standards are ones that can impact health. Secondary standards impact taste or the appearance of the water. There were some findings that are not regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The WaterCheck with Pesticides test results showed levels of: iron, manganese, turbidity and hardness that were quite high-exceeding the EPA Safe Drinking Water Act secondary standards. These should be address to make the water more acceptable. Detectable levels of copper, calcium, lead, lithium magnesium nickel, potassium, silica, sodium, strontium, zinc, alkalinity as CaCO3, sulfate, chloride, methyl-ethyl ketone, and tetrahydrofuran. The pH was at the low end of the normal range, and the turbidity was very high. All other substance tested for were non-detect. .

Water quality is driven by geology, well construction, age and condition, nearby sources of contamination, and, within the home, water treatment devices and composition of plumbing materials. The type, age, depth of the well, and the recharge rate are unreported.

Methyl-ethyl ketone, (MEK) and tetrahydrofuran are organic solvents. Methyl-ethyl ketone has no EPA MCL limit and the absolute level of MEK was not high at 70 parts per billion compared to the workplace exposure Threshold Limit Value (TLV) 200 parts per million. Though EPA does not have a MCL for Tetrahydrofuran, the state of Minnesota does at 600 parts per billion. Minnesota has found that their regional groundwater had tetrahydrofuran contamination and worked with state and federal agencies to determine a safe level. The well water tested had Tetrahydrofuran at 90 parts per billion. An acceptable exposure level. The question is how were these chemicals introduced into the groundwater.

Though traces of copper, calcium, lead, lithium magnesium nickel, potassium, silica, sodium, strontium, zinc, alkalinity as CaCO3, sulfate, chloride were found, none of the levels of contaminants were above the MCLs or SMCLs of the Safe Drinking Water Act so would be acceptable for public drinking water supplies. Though the water sample from the point tested was below the MCL for lead of 15 ppb, I am one of the many who believe that there is no safe level for lead. The level found was 5 parts per billion and could have been a first flush sample from a home that has not be occupied for some time. A filter that removes lead should be considered for drinking water.

As stated before test results found levels of: iron at more than 3 times the EPA Safe Drinking Water Act secondary standards and manganese at almost 30 times the EPA Safe Drinking Water Act secondary standards, turbidity was 13 times the standard and the water tested as very hard. In addition, the home purchaser reported that the “water smells like sulphur in the house and very annoying.” I assumed that the purchaser had a hydrogen sulfide problem, but the sulfate results bring that into question. However, the water was not tested for hydrogen sulfide.

Some of the weirdest water problems turn out to be iron or reducing bacteria. Generally, iron bacteria produce unpleasant tastes and odors commonly reported as: "swampy," "oily or petroleum," "cucumber," "sewage," "rotten vegetation," or "musty." The taste or odor may be more noticeable after the water has not been used for some time and are not easily explained by other causes. These bacteria when exposed to sulfate can also produce the characteristic rotten egg smell. There is often a discoloration of the water with the iron bacteria. Though the most classic symptom of iron bacteria is a rust colored slime, it may be yellow, brown, or grey if exposed to manganese or sulfate. It is sometimes possible to see a rainbow colored, oil-like sheen on the water. A quick screen for iron bacteria would be to feel the rubber flapper in your toilet tanks. The iron bacteria tends to accumulate there. (This will not work if there is a water softener in the house- the slime will be there, not in the toilets.)

Turbidity is a measure of the degree to which the water loses its transparency due to the presence of suspended particulates. The more total suspended solids in the water, the murkier it seems and the higher the turbidity. Turbidity can be caused by silica, soil finds or iron bacteria.

On Wednesday, we'll talk about the options for treatment. 

Thursday, January 17, 2019

All the Rain Flushed Trash into the Rivers

This past year, the Chesapeake Bay TMDL cleanup plan, now know as the “Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint” was recognized as a model of environmental improvement. This is also the year that record breaking storms delivered more than 160% of the average rainfall. High river flows were prolonged and the rain washed huge volumes of debris and litter off the land into our rivers and streams, in addition to the nutrients and sediment carried with the soil washed from our farms and gardens.

Last spring because of this flush of nutrients, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science were forecasting that the Chesapeake Bay would have a larger-than-average “dead zone” in 2018, due to increased rainfall in the watershed this spring. At that time the scientists thought that last summer’s dead zone, an area of low to no oxygen that can kill fish and other aquatic life, would very large.

However, when the Maryland Department of Natural Resources actually performed their July measurements they found the opposite. Due to the winds and rain, dissolved oxygen conditions in Maryland’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay mainstem were the best ever observed in late July, reported the Maryland Department to Natural Resources. The Bay's dead zones did not grow as originally predicted, last year and the grasses on the bottom a measure of the Chesapeake Bay health survived. The scientists are monitoring the bay for possible longer-term harm, but so far the improved bay health has been resilient.

The rain that soaked the entire Chesapeake Bay watershed however, flushed huge volumes of debris off the landscape, in addition to the nutrients and sediment. Almost 6 times the normal amount of trash and debris was collected at the Conowingo dam, ranging from beverage containers to floating docks. The stormwater management system in Washington DC captured more than 700 tons of trash and debris flowing off streets last year and our own Prince William Soil and Water Conservation District Adopt a Stream program collected 39,364 pounds of trash in our river cleanups.

Nonetheless the summer, fall and winter rains have carried tons of trash into our rivers. There is a lot of work to do to clear our streams. We kick off the year with the Quantico Creek Cleanup in Dumfries on February 23, 2019. This is a great one day volunteer opportunity come out and help us. In 2018, over 1451 volunteers supported the District's Water Quality programs compared to 1057 volunteers in 2017. There is need for more of you to help us.
Saturday Feb. 23
9 a.m-12 noon
Quantico Creek Cleanup in the Town of Dumfries

Saturday Mar. 2
9 a.m-12 noon
2019 PWC Big Stream Cleanup Launching at
Neabsco Eagles Park, Woodbridge.

Sat. March 16
9 am -12 noon
Costco Manassas 4th Phase Cleanup Project.

Sat. March 23
9 am -12 noon
Powell's Creek Cleanup at Montclair

Sat. April 13
Lower Occoquan Cleanup

Sat. April 27,
+25 miles Big Upper Occoquan Annual Cleanup

Monday, January 14, 2019

Trash-Free Potomac

The Potomac Watershed Roundtable met last Friday at the River View at the Jean R. Packard Center in the Occoquan Regional Park. It is a beautiful place to meet and the view of the Occoquan River was amazing. One of the speakers was Samantha Battersby the new Program Coordinator for the Trash-Free Potomac Watershed Initiatives at the Alice Ferguson Foundation.

Established in 1954, the Alice Ferguson Foundation aims to connect people to their local watersheds through education, stewardship and advocacy. The Trash Free Potomac Watershed Initiative seeks to prevent litter and the negative impacts of trash on our waterways. They coordinate the Annual Potomac River Watershed Cleanup working with the region’s soil and water conservation districts, community groups, employers, and schools. The Potomac River Watershed Cleanup is the largest regional event of its kind and happens over several weekends every April. It is a great opportunity to engage with the environment, and help restore the earth.

What started as a few cleanup events along the Potomac River is now a regional event spanning Maryland, Virginia, the District of Columbia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. The Potomac River Cleanup is the largest regional event of its kind. Over the past 31 years 145,000 volunteers have picked up and removed a total of 7 million pounds of trash from the Potomac Watershed.

The Alice Ferguson Foundation has several programs designed for education and outreach: The Hard Bargain Farm which has interactive educational and outreach programs geared to elementary school children. Bridging The Watershed which operates programs for middle and high school students. The Trash-Free Potomac Watershed Initiatives Trash-Free Potomac Watershed Initiatives for citizens at large and the adult populations teaches how trash impacts the watershed and what we all can do to help. The Trash Free School Initiative examines trash at elementary schools with the students to develop plans to reduce trash.

As part of her presentation Samantha divided us into groups and handed each group a bag of trash that had been found in our watershed and asked us to line them up in order of how long it would take for the trash to breakdown. We all did pretty well considering that the room was filled with trash and environmental professionals. In order of decomposition (from fastest to never) we were given:
  1. Newspaper 
  2. Cardboard 
  3. Milk carton 
  4. Steel can 
  5. Aluminum can 
  6. Plastic bag 
  7. Plastic bottle 
  8. Glass bottle 
  9. Styrofoam  (never decomposes)

I will say that no one really knew how long it would take an aluminum can to decompose (400-600 years) we had all only thought about its recycling potential. Aluminum can be recycled over and over and made into food quality cans. Plastic bottles cannot be recycled into new plastic bottles- the fibers cannot be used to make food quality plastic and have to be used for fleece, carpeting or other product. Those plastic water bottles are a real problem. In recycling the problem with glass is that in the combined stream recycling the glass ends up in the bypass stream and there is too much trash ends up stuck to the glass and it cannot be recycled in our Material Recovery Facilities.

The one bin recycle system has failed. Now that China and India will no longer take our mixed recycles waste, we need to change our recycle system and our behaviors. The trash in our water ways ultimately comes from litter and improperly secured or illegally dumped of trash. Unfortunately, it is necessary to hold these river cleanups annually. Year after year volunteers clean our streams, rivers, and streambeds of trash that started as litter and carried along by stormwater and wind into our waterways and parks. Volunteers also remove items that were illegally dumped in the woods like old appliances and tires or carried by off by storms (backyard toys and boating equipment).

To solve this problem we need to change our behavior and reduce or eliminate the single use disposable products in our lives. Alice Ferguson Foundation is just one of the groups working towards that goal. In communities where there are plastic bag fees or outright bans, the number of plastic bags found in trash cleanups has fallen. Every year the Alice Ferguson Foundation holds a Trash Summit this year the theme was “Business Solutions to Plastic Pollution.” You can watch some of the videos at this link to learn about progress and idea to reduce trash. All of the solutions begin with us.

April 13, 2019 is the 31st Annual Potomac River Watershed Cleanup. Lead a cleanup, participate and work on prevention.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

When Buying a House get a Well Inspection

If you are buying a house, you need to make sure that you will have an adequate and safe water supply. A house with a well should have an inspection of the well and its equipment. Most people get a home inspection when they buy a house. Home inspections are not mandatory, but are a good idea. Though they can be weaponized for negotiations, mostly home inspections should allow a buy to make an informed decision of the purchase. The typical house inspection starts looks at the house from roof to the foundation, and most major house system (plumbing, electrical, heating, etc.). They look for indications of faulty wiring, water damage that might indicate mold, infiltration, roof leaks etc. Most inspections also include tests for radon gas. However, home inspections do not typically include inspection of the well nor do they assure the proper functioning of the septic system. These are essential components of an inspection for homes that have these items.

A failed septic system could cost as much as $40,000 to replace the system. An inadequate well or failed well could cost $10,000-$20,000 to replace, but that does not guarantee that an adequate well can be drilled. Not every well produces adequate good quality water. So, before you buy that house, make sure the well is working and the water is of good quality. The Water Systems Council puts out a Guide to Evaluating Water Wells for Home Inspectors at a minimum make sure that is properly filled out by a knowledgeable person. It is best to hire a licensed well driller for this examine the condition of the well.

The essential elements of a well inspection are:
  • Reviewing the Well’s History
  • Examining the Well’s Location
  • Inspecting Well Components
  • Testing the Water Quality
  • Determining the Well Yield/Flow rate

Reviewing the Well’s History. Most states require a permit to drill a well and well drillers to be licensed. There are a few locations where a shallow dug well does not require a permit or license. Do not ever buy a house with a shallow dug well. It is the first to dry out in a drought and very susceptible to pollution. All modern drilled wells should have a well log on file with the local regulators. In Virginia that is the local Health Department. The log will have various details like depth, the types of soil encountered and water zones, the static water level at the time of completion and yield. Depth and casing are also reported. Your well inspector should be able to tell you a lot about your well from the log.

Examining the Well’s Location. The area of the well should be up-gradient of any potential nearby sources of pollution and water should flow away from the well head and comply with regulatory separation requirements for things like property lines, septic systems, foundations, etc.

Inspecting Well Components. The well casing should extend at least 12 inches above the ground surface and should not have any cracks or holes. The well should have a sanitary well cap that is securely attached to the well casing. There are two types of pumps: a jet pump that is above ground and a submersible pump in the well. Jet pumps are only used on shallow wells that you do not want, so the pump should be submerged in the well. Make sure you know the age of the pump- submersible pumps are designed to last about 17 years with normal household use. The pressure tank and wiring should be examined for age and damage.

Testing the Water Quality. In Virginia our Rural Household Water Quality water clinics test for: iron, manganese, nitrate, lead, arsenic, fluoride, sulfate, pH, total dissolved solids, hardness, sodium, copper, total coliform bacteria and E. Coli bacteria. This is a good list to test for. Note that is there is water treatment equipment in the house test both before and after the treatment equipment to understand the quality of the water, if treatment is necessary and if the water treatment equipment is working properly.

Determining the Well Yield/Flow. This has to be done by a well driller. The next best proxy is to turn on the outside hoses (away from the house) and run them for a few hours. The flow rate of a hose is dependent on the diameter (there is more than one), the pressure most pressure tanks provide 30-40 psi and the length of the hose (the pressure falls in a longer hose). So use a 5 gallon bucket and see how long it takes to fill. My 100 foot hose flows at about 4 gallons a minute. So every hour that the hose runs represents about 150 feet of storage depth in the well. Basically, after a few hours you know that the well is recharging faster than the hose is running. You can increase the flow rate by using a short hose. This simple test will tell you if the well yield is adequate to support a household. (Most households can live easily on 5-6 gallons a minute. Ten gallons a minute is the typical pump rate.)

Monday, January 7, 2019

Potomac Pipeline Stopped (for now)

Last Wednesday, Maryland’s Board of Public Works voted NO to granting an easement for the Potomac Pipeline right-of-way that would cross the C&O Canal and Maryland Rail Trail to cross under the Potomac River. Citing ongoing environmental concerns about running the gas pipeline under the Potomac River and a lack of benefit to Maryland for these environmental risks, the three members of the Board of Public Works, Governor Hogan, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp rejected the request for 0.12-acre easement under the Rail Trail west of Hancock.

As you recall, Columbia Gas Transmission is proposing a new 3.9 mile, 8-inch diameter pipeline to connect Mountaineer Gas (the West Virginia consumer gas distribution company) to gas supplies in Pennsylvania. The proposed pipeline would have been driven about 72 feet below the Potomac River bed using horizontal directional drilling. The new pipeline would bring gas from the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania and Utica shale in Ohio to a new proposed Mountaineer Gas pipeline, The Mountaineer Xpress project.

On March 16th 2018 the Maryland Department of the Environment granted a state wetlands and waterways permit for the proposed project that included customized conditions specific to the project and its location to ensure protection of public health and the environment. Nonetheless, the Board of Public Works found the risk to the Potomac River to be too high and denied the request for an easement. The Potomac River supplies drinking water to almost 6 million people and any potential threat to the water supply should be carefully studied and fully mitigated.

This Potomac River crossing is part of a new approximate 165 miles of pipeline and three new compressor stations in addition upgrades to existing compressor stations and a regulating station being developed by Columbia Pipeline Group, Inc. This project called the Mountaineer XPress project (MXP) would be able to move an additional 2.7 billion cubic feet per day of natural gas from the Marcellus and Utica shale production areas to commercial and consumer markets on the Columbia Gas Transmission system, including markets in western West Virginia.

The technological breakthrough in modern methods of fracking, combined with directional drilling, allowed the United States to tap massive new supplies of shale oil and natural gas, cutting domestic and global energy prices dramatically, improving U.S. energy security and slashing pollution by particulates, and carbon dioxide by displacing coal-fired electric power generation. In addition, natural gas is really good at integrating with renewable energy.

The widespread nature of the shale business has therefore raised questions about its local impacts both costs and benefits. The Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC) hosted an event on April 17th 2018 which can be viewed on-line that explored these costs and benefits of fracking based on recent research by Michael Greenstone and others. “It’s not as though, if you ban fracking tomorrow, that you are going to have a step-function increase in renewable energy in a way that could satisfy the nature of energy demand that we have today,” said Sue Tierney, a former assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Energy under President Clinton and a state cabinet officer for environmental affairs for Massachusetts during the EPIC event. “Renewable energy is already entering the market at a fast pace, and a ban on fracking would make coal more attractive in the marketplace.”

Watch the entire panel discussion for more details, but essentially there are both costs and benefits to fracking and pipelines. Though there are local benefits to fracking that according to Michael Greenstone, the Milton Friedman Professor in Economics at the University of Chicago, the benefits of fracking and pipelines accrue mostly to society as a whole (though there is a positive household wealth impact with fracking); the costs of fracking and pipelines are borne by the local populations. It is essential that we make sure the costs are not unreasonable.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

A Wet Year in Virginia

I moved to Virginia for the water. It has been quite the wet year. Total precipitation was almost 71 inches in my yard, while raining almost 69 inches west of Leesburg, just a few miles north.  I know this because I scrolled through all the Virginia reporting rain stations on the CoCoRaHS network Monday morning after entering my data.

The Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network known as CoCoRaHSis 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 20 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. Groundwater recharge is very local in this part of Prince William County Virginia in our fractured rock system. The rainfall in my yard is the best predictor of groundwater recharge and availability for my well.

I joined the CoCoRaHS network in October 2015. You can support the network by becoming a monitor, or more simply donating to fundraising campaign, “$10 for CoCoRaHS” please consider a gift of $10.  If you wish to make a larger donation of $55 or more, they will send you a CoCoRaHS Blizzard t-shirt. To make a donation please click on this link: