Monday, March 30, 2020

Replacing My Well Pump and Pressure Tank

While hanging around the house practicing social distancing the time had come to replace my well pump and pressure tank. Pump companies provide an essential service and were operating. So, last Friday, Monticello Pump Service came out to do the job (while staying 6 feet from me). Like 1.7 million other Virginians I rely on a well for my water supply and the responsibility for routine testing, care and maintenance of that system is mine. I had  planned to replace the mechanical components of the well when it reached 17 years old because the design parameters for an immersion pump is about 25,000 hours that gives you about 14-17 years of residential operation depending on how your household operates.

However, last summer I decided that this year I would replace my well mechanical equipment. In the last couple of years I had experienced minor little problems... I sheared a bolt on my well cap in 2018 when I opened the well to chlorine treat it. I chlorinate my well on even number years to prevent  bio-fouling of the well by the iron bacteria. Several months after that I had to take apart the pressure switch and clean the contacts.

Then last summer the water supply burped, and I had a short lived episode of brown tinged water. When checked the pump was pulling a steady 7.5 amps without so much as a flutter. The pressure gauge was not working, but the pressure switch was working fine and the pressure tank was still also working fine delivering water throughout the house. The pressure gauge does not control the pressure switch it is just an indicator (like the gas gauge in your car). The water cleared quickly, the well tested negative for coliform bacteria and the system seemed to be fine- but still I decided that was my warning and I should plan to replace the well’s mechanical equipment in the spring of 2020 when I would be chlorine treating the well anyway and be without water for a day or more anyway.

Friday was the day. Jason of Monticello Pump Service in Manassas came out to replace the well pump, the wiring, the pressure tank, pressure switch and gauge and the well cap. I went with a Schaffer 3200 series ¾ horsepower 15 gallon a minute pump (pictured below). Schaffer is the renamed pump from Franklin. Jason started with the pressure tank. It took about an hour and a half to replace the pressure tank and control center and test its performance. Then it was onto the well. My well is not that deep and Jason and his associate were able to pull it by hand over a wheel hooked to the well casing.
Shaffer 3200 series 3/4 hp 15 gpm pump.

New pressure tank and controller

connecting the torque arrestor

dropping the pump into the well

testing the pump

The pump came up and was showing its age. They replaced the pump, the wires (including a ground) the brass insert adapter, the check valve, added wire guards and a torque arrestor. Instead of wire guards the wire had just been taped to the 200 series poly pipe. In two and a half hours the new pump was in the well with a couple of cups of high-test calcium hypochlorite. The wiring converted to a two wire from a three. The pump tested, and new well cap in place. After that all I had to do was wait for 24 hours for the well to settle and the chlorine to disinfect the well.

the old pump

After about 21 hours Saturday afternoon the hose was turned on and left to run for the next 12 hours. I cannot run my well dry-it recharges faster than I can pump. So, I need to keep diluting the chlorine solution by pumping the well to rid my well of it. After about 12 hours the chlorine tested below 2 ppm on the pool test strips and looked clear. It was time open the valve to the hot water heater and let begin using the water again. It would still be a couple of days before all trace of the chlorine was flushed from the system, but we were good with filtered water for coffee until then. 

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Virginia Declares a State of Emergency

On Monday Governor Ralph Northam expanded the restriction in Virginia and declared a state of emergency in response to COVID-19 and the increasing number of cases in Virginia. Effective 11:59 p.m., Tuesday, March 24, 2020 until 11:59 p.m., Thursday, April 23, 2020, all public and private in person gatherings of 10 or more individuals are prohibited in Virginia.

The Executive order which you can read in full here also contained these additional measures:
  • Cessation of all in-person instruction at K-12 schools, public and private, for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year.
  • Closure of all dining and congregation areas in restaurants, dining establishments, food courts, breweries, microbreweries, distilleries, wineries, tasting rooms, and farmers markets.
  • Closure of all public access to recreational and entertainment businesses. Theaters, performing arts centers, concert venues, museums, and other indoor entertainment centers;
  • Fitness centers, gymnasiums, recreation centers, indoor sports facilities, indoor exercise facilities;
  • Beauty salons, barber shops, spas, massage parlors, tanning salons, tattoo shops, and any other location where personal care or personal grooming services are performed that would not allow compliance with social distancing guidelines to remain six feet apart;
  • Racetracks and historic horse racing facilities;
  • Bowling alleys, skating rinks, arcades, amusement parks, trampoline parks, fairs, arts and craft facilities, aquariums, zoos, escape rooms, indoor shooting ranges, public and private social clubs, and all other places of indoor public amusement.
Businesses in violation of this order may be charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor.

Although business operations offering professional rather than retail services may remain open, they should utilize teleworking as much as possible.Essential retail businesses may remain open during their normal business hours. Such businesses are:
  • Grocery stores, pharmacies, and other retailers that sell food and beverage products or pharmacy products, including dollar stores, and department stores with grocery or pharmacy operations;
  • Medical, laboratory, and vision supply retailers;
  • Electronic retailers that sell or service cell phones, computers, tablets, and other communications technology;
  • Automotive parts, accessories, and tire retailers as well as automotive repair facilities;
  • Home improvement, hardware, building material, and building supply retailers;
  • Lawn and garden equipment retailers; 
  • Beer, wine, and liquor stores;
  • Retail functions of gas stations and convenience stores;
  • Retail located within healthcare facilities;
  • Banks and other financial institutions with retail functions;
  • Pet and feed stores;
  • Printing and office supply stores; and
  • Laundromats and dry cleaners.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Keeping Your Home Supplied with Water

While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates public water systems, if you have a well, you are on your own. The responsibility for ensuring the not only the safety, but also a consistent supply of water from a well belongs to you. To keep the water flowing to your home you need to maintain your well and the equipment. 

To ensure your water is safe to drink you should test your water at least annually.The water should be tested for safety and quality- iron, manganese, nitrate, lead, arsenic, fluoride, sulfate, pH, total dissolved solids, hardness, sodium, copper, total coliform bacteria and E. coli bacteria, and anything else of local concern. If you have water treatment equipment, the water should be tested both before and after any treatment to verify that the equipment is working properly.

Annual well maintenance starts with regular well inspections. Begin by walking out and looking at your well. The well should have a sanitary, sealed well cap, firmly seated and bolted to prevent contamination from insects from entering the well. Next make sure the soil is packed so that it slopes away from your well to prevent surface water from pooling around the casing, which can allow storm water to seep into your well. Sooner or later all well grouting will fail (even if you never hit the well with your lawn tractor) and sloping the soil helps to keep the surface water away from the well casing. Look to see if your well casing is rusted through, if you have an old steel casing, it will happen someday. To extend the life of well with a failing casing or grout,  you can line a well casing with a slightly narrower pipe-once. Both wells and the mechanical components of a well have a limited life. Someday the well components and well its self will have to be replaced- plan and budget for it because you cannot live without a water supply.

While many wells will last decades, over time the amount of water a well yields can decrease. That can be caused by the water table falling due to extended drought, increased use or building in the recharge area. Mineral encrustation and reducing bacteria buildup can cause plugging of holes in the well screen or the filling of openings in the geologic formation itself. According to Penn State Extension the fall in well yield over time can be caused by changes in the water well itself. These changes can include:
  • Encrustation by mineral deposits
  • Bio-fouling by the growth of microorganisms
  • Physical plugging of groundwater aquifer by sediment
  • Well screen or casing corrosion
  • Pump damage
Both wells and the mechanical components of a well have a limited life. Someday the well components and well its self will have to be replaced- plan and budget for it now because you cannot live without a water supply. To avoid costly mistakes, the time to research well contractors and equipment is before your well fails. Mechanical failure of well equipment varies all over the place. It is impacted by the type of well, the geological conditions, how it is operated and maintained and luck. However, if your pump and well are 15 years old you should be thinking about that now.

A pump or even the well may be worn out by pumping water high in sand or gravel, corrosion from corrosive water (low pH), incrustation of the well by minerals, biofouling of the well by microbial oxidation and precipitation of iron, manganese or sulfur, or by a failure or breakdown in the pumping equipment. Often these problems are interrelated. Water treatment systems to address corrosive water or minerals are often installed to protect plumbing and improve water quality in the house. Nothing is done to protect the well equipment from corrosion or keep it operational.

The essential components of a modern drilled well system are: a submersible pump, a check valve (with an additional valve every 100 feet), a pitless adaptor to bring the water to the house below the frost line, a sanitary sealed well cap to keep out vermin and bugs, electrical wiring including a control box, pressure switch, a pressure tank to literally push the water throughout the house and an interior water delivery system known as your plumbing. There are additional fittings and cut-off switches for system protection, but those are the basics. To keep the home supplied with water each mechanical component in the system and well must remain operational and sooner or later they should all be replaced.

The well has a casing (a metal or plastic liner) that may extend the length of the well, or at least to the bedrock and then have some sort of slotted casing, screen or “sock” around the pump impeller to keep debris, sand and sediment out of the system. Over time these can become damaged by corrosive water, fouled by “iron bacteria” or clogged by sand or clay fines all of which can destroy your well’s mechanical equipment. A newer well may have a sediment problem.

When you drill a well, mud and borehole cuttings can partially plug the well. This material must be removed to allow water to freely enter the well during well development. All wells have sediment, but if the well has not been fully and properly developed the well will often produce excess amounts of sediment or have a low water production yield. Though not every well drilled has the potential to provide enough water for a household, poor choices in well completion design can render even a good well a poor producing well and result in a very short life for the mechanical equipment.

Immersion pumps are designed to have a median run time of about 25,000 hours (if the pump was run straight out). That never happens, well pumps turn on an off frequently throughout the day, My back of the envelope calculation is that an typical immersion pump should last a median of 14-17 years of residential operation depending on how your household operates. My well pump is about over 15 years old. It has always been my intention to replace my pump, the wiring, the pressure tank and pressure switch before they fail, but it is devilishly hard to pick the right time to do that. Now is the time to identify a contractor and pick the replacement equipment. Identifying who to call if you have a well problem is something all well owners should do before they have a problem. 

The first step is to get a list well contractors where you live who are licensed to operate in in your state. In Virginia, there have been well regulations in place since 1992 and well contractors are required to have a license from the Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation (DPOR) as a water well system provider. You should get two or three proposals to compare (pricing does vary significantly) ask your neighbors who they use, check online comments and reviews. I found the yelp reviews to be most helpful for me. Call the licensed contractors and ask about availability-when your well fails you do not want to wait a week or more for an appointment. Also, make sure that the well contractor has the proper equipment to pull your existing pump vertically. 

Once you have selected your well contractors you need to call them for a proposal which should include equipment specifications, labor and costs. It might be a good idea to replace the pump, pressure tank and electrical at the same time, I am a big believer in this, but you should discuss this with your selected contractors.  Do you want to install a 2-wire or 3-wire model pump? What size and capacity pump do you need? Do you need or want a variable speed pump? Variable speed pumps have been reported in some places to have reliability problems. What size pressure tank do you need? Are you going to replace the electrical wiring? These are all questions you want the well contractor to answer and options you want to price out while you still have water in your house. Not all well contractors will have the same answers, you will then need to decide what you want. By going through this exercise you will be prepared to deal with both mechanical and well issues when they happen.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

2020 Prince William Well Clinic Postponed

In accordance with the guidance from Prince William County, the Prince William County Extension Prince William County Extension has postponed the well water clinic that had been scheduled for March 30th , April 1st and May 4th 2020. The clinic will be rescheduled at a time in the future after the Local State of Emergency has ended and Virginia Tech laboratory is once more up and running.

Prince William County Executive Chris Martino signed a Declaration of a Local State of Emergency for Prince William County in response to the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control to limit crowds of people to 50 or less to help slow the spread of the Coronavirus (COVID-19). The declaration went into effect as of noon today, March 16, 2020.

In order to slow the spread of COVID-19, public health officials are suggesting everyone practice social distancing until further notice, but for at least the next eight weeks. Even for those who are symptom-free and/ or not part of an at-risk group we should follow the recommendations. I am part of the old people risk group.

In case you do not know, the most effective means of social distancing is to avoid public places and gatherings. We should all stay home as much as possible. If we must be in proximity to others, it is important to maintain six feet between people and avoid gatherings larger than 10 people. We should all work to decrease close contact and crowded environments while COVID-19 is still a concern.


I am going to take this opportunity to replace the mechanical elements of my well. I can still practice social distancing while supporting the local economy. 

I decided to replace the well components last year when my well “burped.” A bolt had already sheared off in the well cap, the pressure gauge had failed and the system was nearing its design life. So why wait for a failure. I put aside the money during the past year and picked my contractor, checked his licenses and reviews and got a couple of estimates. 

My chosen contractor will be replacing the pump, ground wire, check valve, brass insert adapter (lead-free), wire guards, well cap, pressure tank, pressure switch and control assembly. After installation he will chlorinate the well. That way I can use the rescheduled water clinic to test the water after the service.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Living with a Septic System

The functioning of a septic system is based on natural ecological cycles. It needs to be treated kindly and kept in balance. When a system is not pumped out on a regular basis has an excessive demand put on it like a toilet running, multiple loads of laundry done in a day, or a household of guests, it can stirrup the sludge (solid material you know what it is) at the bottom of the tank and it will flow out into the leach (absorption) field. Do this often enough and you can potentially clog the leach field beyond repair. Excessive load from toilets and garbage disposal, putting grease, coffee grinds, kitty litter or any kind of trash down the drain will effectively decrease the size of the tank and the time that the solids have to settle out. This will decrease the life of and potentially overload the system. Even with proper use and maintenance a septic system is designed to last 20 to 30 years, but only if you treat it properly. Replacing a septic system is reported to cost $20,000-$40,000.

A typical septic system has four main components: a pipe from the home, a septic tank, a leach field (alternative systems might have drip fields, sand mounds or peat tanks where a leach field is not possible or has failed), and the soil. Microbes in the soil digest or remove most of the remaining contaminants from wastewater before it eventually reaches groundwater. Many systems also have pumps to move the liquids from the home to the septic tank or from the septic tank to the drain field. There are also Alternative systems that have additional components such as; additional treatment tanks, float switches, pumps, and other electrical or mechanical components. If you have an Alternative Onsite Sewage System (AOSS) Virginia requires that your AOSS operated and maintained by a licensed operator. As a homeowner if you are not licensed by the DPOR you are not allowed to maintain nor operate you own AOSS. Essentially, you need to hire a firm that is licensed by the DPOR to inspect and maintain your system every year. The septic company will make sure everything is in working order, clean the filters and tell you if you need to pump your tank that year. It is a good way to make sure everything stays in working order.

A septic system or alternative system (AOSS) has no ability to treat solvents, oils, grease, household chemicals and pesticides. These substances may damage your septic system, cause the system to back-up into your basement, untreated sewage to surface in your yard, and/or contaminate the groundwater. A typical septic system has four main components: a pipe from the home, a septic tank, a leach field (alternative systems might have drip fields, sand mounds or peat tanks where a leach field is not possible or has failed), and the soil. The system is designed to remove most of the biological contamination by settling and bacterial digestion so that the soil is not overwhelmed and can “polish” the water before it is returned through the soil to the groundwater. Never dispose of anything but human biological waste (and a reasonable amount of toilet paper) in your septic system. Limit the use of household chemical cleaners, solvents, and bleach.

The septic tank is a buried, watertight container typically made of concrete, fiberglass, or polyethylene. It holds the wastewater long enough to allow solids to settle out (forming sludge) and oil and grease to float to the surface (as scum). It also allows partial decomposition of the solid fecal materials. Anaerobic (without oxygen) digestion takes place with the aid of bacteria that came from human digestive tracks and most of the fecal solids are converted to carbon dioxide, water and other byproducts. The process is not completely efficient and fecal solids and other materials that find their way into the septic tank will accumulate over time. To keep a septic system operating optimally, a septic tank must be pumped every few years to remove the scum and solid layers. Steady use of water throughout the day and water conservation should be practiced because too large a flow of waste water and the solids in the tank will be stirred up and be carried out to the drain field.

Also, the drain field does not have an unlimited capacity. The more water your family uses, the greater the likelihood of problems with the septic system, so it is important to fix all leaks, and stop toilets from running and practice water conservation. In the Chesapeake Bay watershed many homes are within areas designated resource protected areas that requires a septic tank pump out at least every five years, but that may not be frequent enough depending primarily on the size of your tank, the number of people in the household contributing to the volume of your wastewater, the volume of solids in your wastewater and whether you use a garbage disposal or have a water treatment system. Excess water flow through the septic system can cause the solid sludge buildup and floating scum (grease, oil, dead skin cells, etc.) to flow out of the tank and travel into the leach field area. Some newer systems have screens and filters to keep solids from entering the leach field. These filters and screens become clogged and need to be cleaned out regularly or the system will back up into the house. All this can be taken care of at the annual inspection of the alternative system (AOSS).

Finally, you need to limit what goes down the drain to prevent bacterial die-off in the tank so that it will continue to function as designed. Die-off of the bacteria necessary for a septic system to perform properly has been seen in experiments where excessive amount of harsh household chemicals were added to the septic tank. As little as of 1.85 gallons of liquid bleach, 5.0 gallons of liquid Lysol cleaner, or 11.3 grams of Drano drain cleaner added to a 1,000-gallon septic tank have caused die-off of the bacteria in experiments. Other factors that can cause die-off include the excessive use of anti-bacterial agents, and, in certain cases, antibiotic medications taken by members of a household. However, in normal use, you do not need to add a chemical or biological stimulator or an enhancer to a septic tank that is designed, operated, and maintained properly. The naturally occurring bacteria are already present within human fecal matter are adequate for the system to function properly.

Septic drainfields and alternative secondary treatments like peat tanks and sand mounds also have a limited life. Peat tanks last about 15 years (but it depends on use and how often you pump the septic tank). This is also true for the life of a septic drainfield. The life is dependent on how the system is managed, the frequency of septic tank pump outs, and the number of people living in a house, but 20-30 years may be the life of those systems- even when well managed.
  1. Only toilet paper and human waste should go down the toilet. Do not flush wipes, facial tissues, paper towels, floss, cotton swabs or other items such as coffee grinds, kitty litter.
  2. Do not use the garbage disposal to dispose of food scraps. A garbage disposal adds solids, grease and increases the biological load on a septic system. (Don’t ask me why they installed it, I use mine to break up soap bubbles.)
  3. Do not put hazardous household wastes down the drain or in the toilet EVER. Do not wash paint brushes or containers in the sink.
  4. Minimize the use of bleach, chemical disinfectants and antibacterial agents. As little as of 1.85 gallons of liquid bleach added to a 1,000-gallon septic tank can cause a die-off of the bacteria in a septic tank.
  5. Never do more than two laundry loads a day. Laundry uses a lot of water and too much water in a single day will stir up to solids and scum and push them through the system.
  6. Service your septic system regularly. At a minimum pump your septic tank every 3-5 years it will extend the life of your system.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Restoring a Dying Woods

My house sits on just over 10 acres that is about 70% woodland and 30% garden. Over the past 13 years I have planted more than 40 trees in my garden. I have nourished and water them, and replaced trees that have died. The almost seven acres of woodland behind the garden has been mostly ignored. A large part of the woods is “resource protected area” (RPA) as defined in the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act. Vegetated areas along water bodies, such as lakes, streams, rivers, marshes or shoreline, are RPAs under the Bay Act.

RPAs are described as by the county as the 'last line of defense' for the protection of water quality. These buffers stabilize shorelines and stream banks, filter pollutants, reduce the volume of stormwater runoff and provide critical habitat for aquatic species and wildlife. Trees and shrubs in riparian buffers reduce erosion, improve air quality, and provide shade in the summer and windbreaks in the winter.

At the end of last winter when we walked the area to pick up litter and trash the woodland did not appear to be in good health. Until recently when emerald ash borer invaded the woods, I felt we did not have to worry about dead trees as it was all part of the natural process of renewal. However, the number of dead and dying trees had increased dramatically and it seemed that the invasive vines and Autumn Olive had flourished. The wood appeared in danger of dying.

The vines and emerald ash borer are killing the woods

According to Helms and Johnson a healthy forest has living trees functioning as part of a balanced and self replacing ecosystem. That ecosystem is a complex mix of trees, understory shrubs and groundcover. In a healthy woodland the process of natural succession occurs over time. Small saplings develop and will become the next generation of trees as the older ones die out. Though benign neglect is the rule for RPAs, it seemed clear the woodland needed some help to renew itself. We contacted the Virginia Department of Forestry for assistance and guidance in this effort, highlighting that the woodland is part of an RPA.

Kinner Ingram, an Urban and Community Forestry Specialist from the Virginia Department of Forestry came out and inspected the woodland and made some recommendations.  He felt that with removal of the invasive vines and the hanging dead trees the wood might begin to renew itself. He put his recommendations in a report for me to submit to Clay Morris, Natural Resources Section Chief, Environmental Services Division of Prince William County Public Works.

The wooded area encompasses almost 7 acres about two-thirds in the RPA. I needed to apply for a Permitted Buffer Modifications under (9VAC25-830-140.5) to do any work in the RPA. Kinner provided me with a roadmap for restoring the woodland health, but because this is an RPA it must begin with applying for permit for General woodlot management for the removal of the invasive vines and some of the dead trees to facilitate regrowth and regeneration of the woodland. This may be all that needs to be done, but it will take a few years to know if I will need to plant native tree saplings or do additional work on preventing the reintroduction of the invasive vines.

In January with permission from the Environmental Services Division of Prince William County Public Works in hand, Wetland Studies and Solutions began the work. We had a plan of work on a best efforts within a budget. At the completion of the phase I of the work, both the Forester and the Natural Resources Section chief agreed that it looked really good. We decided to save a small portion of the budget for spring when we would paint the stumps of the vines with herbicide to extinguish them. It is hoped that the surviving trees will spread their seeds in the open areas and that the piles we created will serve as habitat for wildlife.

Monday, March 9, 2020

What to Know if Buying a House with a Well

There are no national standards for construction of private water wells, thought in recent decades more and more states have developed standards at least for construction. Wells are typically managed and regulated by the State or Local Health Districts, state departments of the environment or ecology. You need to know what the regulations are in your local area and when they were implemented.

According to the Illinois State Water Survey, poor well construction is the leading cause of contaminated or unsafe water wells. Your first defense against contaminated or unsafe drinking water is a properly constructed well. If you already have an old well, then you need to bring it up to code to ensure that it is safe. There is a difference between trying to fix your existing water supply and deciding to buy a home on a well.

If you are buying a home you need to make sure that the well is constructed properly and that the groundwater that is drawn into the home is safe to drink. Though there are many treatment options to fix contaminated water, you might not want to buy problematic water. If you are buying a house, you need to make sure that you will have an adequate and safe water supply. This is not the same thing as strategies to live with diminished well yield or fixing your existing water quality problems. This is your one chance to make sure the water supply to the home is acceptable before you buy the home. Wells issues are buyer beware, there is no recourse after you buy the home.

In Virginia the local Health District, a branch office of the Virginia Department of Health administers the health related laws throughout the state including the well laws. The current sate wide well construction regulations and standards were implemented in 1992 and are still in effect today. When a well is drilled in Virginia the only water testing that takes place is for a coliform bacteria. This is fairly typical, but inadequate.There are many chemicals and naturally occurring contaminants that could make water unpalatable or unhealthy. None of these are tested for under well regulations.

When the well regulations were implemented in 1992, all existing wells were grandfathered. So in Virginia you do not want to buy a home with a well built before 1992. If the well was drilled before 1992 don’t buy the house unless you have factored well replacement into the price; and are sure there is another location acceptable to the Health District to drill a new well. If a property has a well and septic system and has less than 2-3 acres, do not buy it. This is simple there will not be enough room for a replacement well and septic system when the time comes (all systems fail eventually) and the well is likely to be too close to the home’s own or the neighbors’ and will probably have climbing levels of nitrate/nitrite. The health impacts of nitrate/ nitrite are just beginning to be fully understood. Also, be aware that not every hole drilled yields a viable well.

Most states require a permit to drill a well and well drillers to be licensed. Make sure you know what that means in your location. In Virginia that is a decent standard, but in Pennsylvania anyone with $60 can get a well driller license, there are no minimum training or knowledge required there. There are still a few locations where a shallow dug well does not require a permit or license. Know these things when you go looking for a house with a well.

Do not ever buy a house with a shallow dug well. This type of well is the first to dry out in a drought and very susceptible to pollution. In the old days those types of wells could be hand dug. Also, they were sometimes used where there was not an easily accessible aquifer to serve as a collector of shallow groundwater. All modern drilled wells should have a well log on file with the local regulators. In Virginia that is the local Health District.

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 of the casing and screens are also reported. A knowledgeable person should be able to tell you a lot about your well from the log. Look at the well’s location. The area of the well should be up-gradient of  and far away from any potential nearby sources of pollution like a septic field and water should flow away from the well head and comply with regulatory separation requirements for things like property lines, septic systems, foundations, etc.

You need to have all the components of a well examined. 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. 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. It is also very important to know what household water treatment equipment is installed in the house. You need to know what is the quality of the groundwater and the household drinking water.

You must test the water quality and no, the coliform bacteria test mortgage companies typically require are not even close to enough. In Virginia the Rural Household Water Quality program operated by Extension Offices holds water clinics and tests 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 for ongoing testing,but for purchase you might want to look for other contaminants, too. At purchase you might want to test for contaminates of a potential local concern, but that is hard to know if you are moving. So instead you might want a water test that looks at all the primary and secondary contaminants regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act as well as pesticides. These chemicals and substances were included in the Safe Drinking Water Act because they were found to be a widespread concern for public drinking water.

Test kits for this suite of contaminants exist,  and can be easily purchased on-line. An example is the WaterCheck Deluxe plus pesticides test kit from National Testing Laboratories which is an EPA certified laboratory. Buying a package reduces the cost though the drawback is these packages are performed at a lower sensitivity then is used by the public utility. If there is water treatment equipment in the house you will need two test kits to test both before and after the treatment equipment to understand the quality of the groundwater, the quality of the drinking water, if treatment is necessary, and if the water treatment equipment is working properly. You need all this information to make a fully informed decision. Though just about any contamination problem can be managed with enough equipment and effort, this may not be what you want to purchase- someone else’s problems and the resulting water may not be to your liking. When I purchased my home with a well, I made sure that the untreated water directly from the well was acceptable to me.

Determining the Well Yield/Flow to verify that the water supply is adequate and in late summer you will be able to do laundry and shower on the same day. The rule of thumb is 5 gallons/minute is an adequate yield to supply on-demand water for a typical household. Do not buy a house with a cistern, which is a water storage tank usually installed because the well is very low yielding. Be aware that over time the yield of most wells fall and what was an adequate well 20 years ago may not be now. In addition, a low yielding well may be drying out after 20 years. Have a licensed well driller test the yield of the well.

The next best proxy to pulling the pump and measuring the well yield is to turn on the outside hoses (away from the house-Do not use a sink because you will flood your septic system) 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 50 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. This simple test will tell you if the well yield is adequate to support a household. Most households can live easily on a well that recharges at 5-6 gallons a minute. Ten gallons a minute is the typical pump rate. Do not mistake the pump rate for the well recharge rate. If the recharge rate is faster than the pump rate, you can run the hoses all night and not notice any change in water supply to the house. 

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Trees, Climate Change and the Rural Crescent

Last summer the Crowther Lab of ETH Zurich (Switzerland) published a study in the journal Science that showed (via computer model) that we can mitigate climate change by restoring forested land across the globe. We could save the planet by planting lots and lots of trees, a trillion of them.

In their official description of the study on the University’s web site they say: “The researchers calculated that under the current climate conditions, Earth’s land could support 4.4 billion hectares of continuous tree cover. That is 1.6 billion more than the currently existing 2.8 billion hectares... Once mature, these new forests could store 205 billion tonnes of carbon: about two thirds of the 300 billion tonnes of carbon that has been released into the atmosphere as a result of human activity since the Industrial Revolution.”

Since that time others have taken issue with the study- they felt it exaggerated both the amount of land available for reforestation and the amount of carbon that could be stored. More research is underway, but no one has challenged the fact that reforestation of the planet could have a huge impact on our future climate.

In the Paris Agreement of 2015 countries of the world agreed to hold global warming to no more than 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels, with an aspiration to limit temperature rises to no more than 1.5 degrees C. At the time 197 countries signed the initial agreement including the U.S. Later only 187 nations ratified the agreement. The U.S. never ratified, it participation was only under Executive Branch signature of President Obama’s administration. President Trump notified his intent to withdraw, also without a ratification vote of the Senate.

Nonetheless, mankind is nowhere near on track to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases to meet the goal of keeping global temperatures within 1.5 degrees C or even 2 degrees C. In order to avoid exceeding 1.5 degrees C of warming, the recent The 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) ,the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change, says carbon pollution must be cut almost in half by 2030, less than 10 years away, and then reach "net zero" by 2050.

Thus, we come to trees. Negative emissions are an essential element of reaching net zero emission by 2050 (or for the planet to survive wherever we are when climate disasters force mankind to make changes). For all the talk of carbon capture the only proven technology is the one from nature-trees. So let’s look at increasing the tree cover to fight climate change.

In the Chesapeake Bay Watershed 55% of the land area is Forest Covered, but that is changing. According to Julie Mawhorter at the U.S. Forest Service the Chesapeake Bay Watershed is losing 100 acres/day of Forest. The Bay Restoration Plan has Forestry Goals: These include restoring and expanding the Riparian Forest Buffers, and conserving what forested area are left. In our own Prince William County we need to look at expanding the forested areas while there are some rural lands still available to reforest and preserve.

Prince William County could consider purchasing the development rights of lots larger than 20 acres in the Rural Crescent and place an easement for forest on the land. This would use public money to purchase the development rights in these areas, but would preserve the viewsheds and the current feel of the rural area and public land would be increased. This would be a onetime expenditure to purchase land. It would not increase the number of houses, students in our schools or the number of transportation daily trips in the coming years. There would be no additional need for County services, schools or police and fire or infrastructure like roads, waste water treatment plants, sewer pipes, water infrastructure. No additional need for teachers and schools and the capital and carrying costs associated with increased population. There would be no impact on sustainability and availability of groundwater and our surface water resources.

Monday, March 2, 2020

The Circular Economy, my Family Room and Cat Proof Fabric

The first I heard of the “Circular Economy” was a U-Tube video of Marc De Wit’s 2018 TED Talk. I was reminded of that talk last week when I read the National Geographic article by Robert Kunzig with amazing photographs by Luca Locatelli called “The End of Trash-can we save the planet by reusing all the stuff we make.” The circular economy is an economy where mankind uses resources sparingly and recycles endlessly. It is a sustainable way of life and is the way we should live. Unfortunately, we don’t.

As Mr. De Wit explains in his TED Talk every day we use 34 kilograms of stuff 90% of which ends up as waste-trash, this trash includes food waste, minerals, metals, and fossil fuels. Mr. De Wit works for an NGO called Circle Economy, an Amsterdam-based organization promoting the transition to circular economies, a place where most materials and products are reused, or recycled rather than wasted or lost.

Thought Circle Economy mission is to accelerate the transition to the circular economy through practical insights and solutions for businesses, cities and governments, we can help by implementing some of the concepts into our own lives. I believe that change starts with us. The actions of everyone count. The biggest things we can do is to preserve and extend the life of what’s already made and acquire only what is necessary. When we cannot repair or reuse then we need to recycle the materials. We need to support these concepts in our society, but also implement them in our personal lives with the choices we make and the actions we take.

The steps we can personally take to reduce waste are many and varied. I chose to begin by being selective in what I acquire then maintain, repair and upgrade the items and possessions to maximize their useful life and give them a second life through take back strategies when applicable. I am trying to move away from disposable, or limited use products. Instead, I try to buy what will last and be used often.

The average American throws out 70 pounds of clothing every year. A staggering 85% ends up in a landfill. However, clothing can be reused, or recycled. In the United States, the reuse market for secondhand clothes is small. Charities like Goodwill and the Salvation Army are only able to sell 20% of the donations they receive. That means 80% of the items received are shipped to textile recyclers where the fabric is shredded for recycling into carpet padding, acoustic tiles and insulation, or recycled fiber for fabric.

To try and get the most use out of my clothing, on most days I am dressed by coincidence like Elizabeth Warren’s black pants, black shirt and a colorful sweater or jacket. I wear my Eileen Fisher sweaters first as my best, then around the house until they have holes in the sleeve and then they will take them back at the store and give me a $5 store credit. 

Since fabric can be recycled I thought about reupholstering furniture. According to the EPA 12.2 million tons of furniture was trashed in the United States in 2017, up from 2.2 million tons in 1960. Wood and metal were the largest material category in furniture waste, but plastics, glass and other materials were also found. Over 80% of that waste goes to landfills, 19.5% is incinerated and a minuscule amount is recycled.

After 13 years, the furniture that we sit on every evening was worn out. Really, it was just the fabric that was worn out, worn smooth where we sit and shredded where the cats applied themselves. In addition some of the stuffing in the cushions was compressed. It took me more than a year and a half to accomplish, but I began by having an upholster look at the furniture, judge if it could or should be reupholstered, estimate the fabric and the labor. I then figured the entire cost and estimated that the cost to reupholster and add stuffing would probably be only a bit less than the cost to replace, but the waste would only be the fabric removed. We decided to reupholster.

So, I began searching for fabrics. A few years ago I had reupholstered the dinning booth in my kitchen with a microfiber/ faux suede  fabric. My cat had shredded the sides of the booth and I had yards of the microfiber left over from when I covered the dining room chairs. I had used microfiber in the dining room because it’s so easy to cleanup the messes the kids left at holiday dinners. Over the years the cats had never bothered the dining room chairs. I soon discovered why.

Here are the two things about microfiber. First, the cats cannot get their claws in it, they slide off. My husband and I laughed the first few times we watched the cats try to claw the booth and just slid down. After a while “the girls” just gave up and found something else to bother. Second, it’s really easy to clean microfiber. With just a damp washcloth and a drop or two of Dawn I can remove salad dressing splashes, gravy, blue icing and chocolate from little toddler finger prints and whatever else spills. It’s amazing and I have off white/champagne colored microfiber.

My cousin who is an interior decorator managed to find me several microfiber fabrics containing some recycled polyester material. (Microfiber is 100% polyester.) We picked one in the off white color I wanted with a subtle pattern. She got it for me at her price (most generous considering how much effort she put in). In the end we ended up paying significantly less than I paid for the furniture new 13 years ago. The furniture looks great and feels like new. The cats have moved on to the carpeted scratching posts and other things.