Sunday, June 30, 2024

Groundwater Monitoring Well 49V 1


Last week Sam Caldwell a Hydrologist from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) who generally specializes in the areas of the Potomac Aquifer spoke at a panel discussion about groundwater and geology. In his presentation Mr. Caldwell walked us through  groundwater level depth data to help us understand the information that can be collected. 

from USGS S. Cadwall presentation

from USGS

In Prince William County the USGS has only two continuous monitoring wells.  Well 49V in the northwest corner of the county has been in operation for over 50 years.

from USGS S.Cadwell presntation

location of well 40V 1 in google maps

According to Mr. Caldwell groundwater level data can be very useful. With 10 years of data we can be very confident of the trend at one particular well. For most of the last 50 years  the water level in well 49V has been fairly stable. However, if you just look at the last 16 years it does not look quite as stable.

from USGS

 A slight downward trend is observed  in the data. This is a single well. To create a pantographic map of the groundwater in Prince William County you would need several wells in each aquifer and geographic region of the county collecting data for at least a decade. This way the USGS could create a potentiometric map of the surface of the aquifer.

from USGS S.Caldwell Presentation

When you add to this data, the precipitation data for the same period you see that July 2017 was very dry, and the complete recovery of the groundwater level only happened after a 2.5 inch rainfall on the 27th of July. What is intriguing is the amount of recovery that occurred during the dry period. The second and third recoveries align with the rainfall that month. 

Rain data from summer 2017 in inches of rain

from CoCoRHS precipitation monitoring station PW-15

from USGS S.Caldwell presentation

Looking at the groundwater level against the historical averages also in informative. Combining groundwater level data, with surface water data and precipitation data would allow use to quantify the recharge of the groundwater over time and model the groundwater level. Once more you can see that the groundwater level in the past year has with the exception of January, been average or below average. Gathering this data and tracking groundwater levels is the first step in ensuring that all Prince William County residents have sustainable water. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2024

PWCA Tuesday Groundwater and Geology

On Tuesday evening the Prince William Conservation Alliance and Mid-county Civic Association presented a panel discussion: “Water, Water, Will There Be a Drop to Drink? The Science of Groundwater and Best Practices to Preserve Our Drinking Water Supply” with guest speakers Brad White and Sam Caldwell. Brad White is from the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) Groundwater Characterization Team and specializes in the Piedmont and Blue Ridge regions of Virginia. Sam Caldwell is a Hydrologist from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) who generally specializes in the areas of the Potomac Aquifer. The full recording of the panel discussion is available on the Prince William Conservation Alliance YouTube channel. Prince William Conservation Alliance - YouTube

I am only going to give you some highlights that I found interesting, though I’ve excluded an observed and fascinating  groundwater anomaly in Loudoun County, because it is in Loudoun County and requires more data and information. The only real takeaway is that groundwater often does not do what is expected by a simple understanding of a situation- geology and groundwater.

Prince William County is the county in Virginia with the most diverse geology. There are four major hydrogeologic groups: a small area of Blue Ridge Crystaline, Piedmont-Sedimentary and Volcanic, Piedmont Crystaline, and the Coastal Plain. Though all groundwater comes from precipitation, generally speaking, the groundwater in each of those hydrogeologic zones comes from different sources. The groundwater in the Blue Ridge is found in the crystalline rock fractures. In the Piedmont-Sedimentary and Volcanic geologies water come from the Culpeper Basin a large and productive aquifer that in years past had been tapped for public water supply. Now, there are only a few reported large users, but the buildout of western portion of the county has made it the sole source of water for a growing number of residents. The Piedmont Crystaline area is a far less productive groundwater area with a random fracture orientation as discovered by Nelms and Brockman. Finally, the Coastal Plain is within the confines of the Coastal Plain Aquifer.

The Coastal Plain is the only groundwater management area in Virginia. In all other areas of Virginia groundwater use is not managed or controlled. Users of more than 300,000 gallons of per month are asked to report their use to DEQ. There are no permits required on a state level and Prince William requires none.

Though it has been decades since David Nelms,  Donna Richardson and A.R. Brockman did their groundwater and geological work studying the extent of PCE contamination from the IBM spill from their former site on Goodwin Drive in Manassas, that work is the basis for all the knowledge that is available about the groundwater and geology of Prince William County. It is also, the reason that Prince William Service Authority abandoned use of the groundwater supply wells in the Manassas area (within the Culpeper Basin) for the Public Water Supply.

In 1978, IBM discovered a release of chlorinated solvent from a storage tank at their 660 acre facility in Manassas,  Virginia. They began groundwater monitoring and found chlorinated solvents specifically PCE, TCE, DCE and TCA in the groundwater. IBM installed 49 on- and 45 off-site wells. Groundwater treatment began on-site in 1985 and off-site in 1997. The PCE plume had migrated off-site towards a public well in the Prince William County Service Authority (PWCSA) system. IBM installed a treatment system at the public well in 1985, and in 2001, the PWCSA discontinued use of the well. So as you can see below the reduction in use of groundwater for pubic water supply after 1980's. 

IBM leases the well for use as part of the contaminated groundwater recovery system. This is known as a “pump and treat system” which consists of pumping contaminated groundwater from the three on-site and two off-site wells to carbon absorption tanks where the chlorinated VOCs are removed. The treated water is discharged to surface streams under a permit issued by the Commonwealth of Virginia. Since 2001, Manassas has not used  wells as a drinking water supply. However, IBM paid for the work of Nelms, Brockman and Richardson of the USGS and a settlement paid for a portion of the allocation agreement with Fairfax Water.

Currently, there are only a few reporting users of more than 300,000 gallons per month of groundwater: the IBM pump and treat on-going remediation, a user in Manassas reporting 35 million gallons per year (believed to be Amazon), and a quarry dewatering operation.  

Wells within the formations of the Culpeper Triassic Basin are the most productive in the county. The basin was formed several million years ago and is believed to have once been a closed basin. The fractured rock systems are extremely productive with limited overburden and almost direct recharge to the bedrock fractures from surface fractures. In the Piedmont Crystalline area in Mid-County, the bedrock fractures are the groundwater reserves, but the orientation varies and are not reliably present. The thick overburden can be a store of groundwater. Finally, the Coastal Plain in Prince William is a small area adjacent to the fall line where it recharges the aquifer. It is capped with a confining layer of clay that creates a pressurized system. Though an private wells are in the upper aquifer.

This final image shows the electrical conductivity of the groundwater. Generally, the higher the specific conductivity, the more ions in solutions. This is typical of more soluble rocks where the minerals are picked up by the groundwater and the water is “hard.” So a specific conductivity map is mapping hard water. 

Finally, Mr. White concluded with four points:

  • When groundwater was used for public water supply in the 1980's and 1990's the reported use from those using more than 300,000 gallons a month was higher. 
  • The historic use of groundwater for public water supply in the past has demonstrated the substantial capacity for groundwater withdrawals from the portion of the county within the Culpeper Triassic Basin.
  • The Coastal Plain portion of Prince William County is actively managed through a permitted withdrawal system in the Groundwater Management Area of the state. No such management system is in place in the rest of the county. 
  • Proactive monitoring of groundwater pressures in the Coastal Plain and Triassic Groundwater system may provide valuable baseline information. 

Sunday, June 23, 2024

There are Groundwater Problems

 I recently received the following (edited) query. Michelle Trenum suggested I contact you regarding our neighborhood, Mackenzie Meadow in Nokesville. I wanted to see if you had any information on Nokesville‘s water table, or anything I could present to the residents at our HOA meeting. The neighbor right next to me is having well issues. Apparently he has the most shallow well in our neighborhood. I believe he said it was just under 300 feet in depth, and he seems to run out of water when the neighbor on the other side of him  uses a lot of water at once. Meanwhile, there are neighbors with irrigation systems to water their lawns daily encompassing around half of their 10 acre lot . A few years ago a neighboring farm told me that after Mackenzie Meadow was built, they could no longer water their fields without running out of water. Any information you can provide, I would greatly appreciate it.

Groundwater is the moisture and water that exists in the spaces between rocks, the pores in the soil and fractures in the geology-the invisible portion of the water cycle. Groundwater is renewed through precipitation infiltrating into the ground, though seasonal, but can be extracted year-round. Provided that there is adequate replenishment, and that the source is protected from pollution, groundwater can be extracted indefinitely and can be robust in the face of drought. However, groundwater is not unlimited.

Increase the amount of groundwater extracted beyond what is replenished, then slowly over time the aquifer is used up, the water level falls and wells go dry. Development adds people, businesses and industry. All need water- increasing the demand for water while adding roads and buildings that prevent the infiltration of precipitation into the ground.  Essentially, reducing the replenishing (recharge) of the aquifer while increasing the demand for water. This potentially unsustainable combination. Increase water use or reduce recharge by eliminating forested areas and replacing them with compacted soils (lawns that need to be watered), pavement, buildings and over time the aquifer will become exhausted.

Groundwater is both used for water supply and serves to support steam flow between rain storms. Groundwater comes from rainwater and snow melt percolating into the ground. Typically, the deeper the well (thousands versus hundreds of feet) the further away is the water origination and the older the water. The groundwater age is a function of local geology, the amount of precipitation and the rate that water is pumped out of the aquifer. Geology also determines the ease with which water and contaminants can travel through an aquifer and the amount of water the land can hold. The land surface through which groundwater is recharged must remain open and uncontaminated to maintain the quality and quantity of groundwater.

We do know that groundwater availability varies by location even within Prince William County (Nelms and Richardson, 1990) . Precipitation and soil type determines how much the shallower groundwater is recharged annually. The volume of water that can be stored is controlled by the reservoir characteristics of the subsurface rocks. A significant portion of Nokesville is Hydrogeologic group C . The rocks of group C are Early Jurassic in age and include: the Mount Zion Church, Hickory Grove, and Sander Basalts; an unnamed diabase; and thermally metamorphosed rocks.

Rocks within hydrogeologic group C tend to have generally poor water-bearing potential because of the wide spacing between fractures, mineralization of fractures, and random fracture orientations. Better yields have been obtained from wells finished in areas where the diabase is intersected by cross-strike lineaments (Nelms and Richardson, 1990, p. 25) and in areas underlain by basalt which also exist in Nokesville.

Water resources are sustainable when the water used on average does not exceed the recharge to the aquifer.  To use groundwater sustainability requires adequate measurements and observations over years. Though the U.S. Geological Survey, USGS, maintains a group of groundwater monitoring wells in Virginia that measure groundwater conditions daily, only two are in Prince William County. One in Prince William Forest Park and one of the within the former Rural Crescent in the siltstone Hydrogeologic group B.

The water level in a groundwater well usually fluctuates naturally during the year. Groundwater levels tend to be highest in the early spring (my most recent reading) in response to winter snow melt and spring rainfall when the groundwater is recharged. Groundwater levels begin to fall in May and typically continue to decline during summer as plants and trees use the available shallow groundwater to grow and streamflow draws water. Natural groundwater levels usually reach their lowest point in late September or October when fall rains begin to recharge the groundwater again.

However, groundwater levels can be affected by how many other wells draw from the aquifer, how much groundwater is being used in the surrounding area for residential, agricultural, industrial or commercial use, or how development has impacted groundwater recharge. Development typically increases impervious cover from roads, pavement and buildings.  This reduces the open area for rain and snow to seep into the ground and percolate into the groundwater and the impervious surfaces cause stormwater velocity to increase preventing water from having enough time to percolate into the earth, increasing storm flooding and preventing recharge of groundwater from occurring. Slowly, over time, this can reduce groundwater supply and the water table falls.

The well below is the one located in the northwest portion of the Rural Area just west or Route 15 in the Culpeper groundwater basin it is about 18 miles from Mackenzie Court, and in a different Hydrogeologic group and would not be representative of the groundwater in Nokesville.  Daily monitoring data available from that well go back decades and the groundwater level was fairly stable until around 2004. What can be seen in the graph below is the slow decline in the water level despite not experiencing any significant droughts since 2008 and having the wettest year on record in 2018. The decline is modest over this period but, will continue and get worse over time especially if demand for groundwater and impervious is not managed. This area of Prince William County appears to have a slowly growing problem.

USGS Well 49V

The monitoring well in Prince William Forrest Park is in an overburden aquifer and tends to reflect precipitation since the area around the well has not increased use or development during the data period. Prince William County needs more information about groundwater.

Potential problems are still at a manageable stage. Groundwater models and data from more monitoring wells can help develop a picture of the volume of the water within the groundwater basin and at what rate it is being used and at what rate it is being recharged. We need to know if the current and planned use of our groundwater is sustainable even in drought years. We need to understand how ground cover by roads, parking lots and buildings will impact groundwater recharge and what level of groundwater withdrawals are sustainable on site to ensure all residents of Prince William County will continue to have water. 

It is unreasonable to think that the approximate16,000 wells supplying households and the Evergreen Water System could somehow all connect to public water supplies from the Potomac River or Occoquan Reservoir many miles away. The tens of millions of dollars it cost to do this would have to be borne by the private well owners. The PW Board of Supervisors to fund the groundwater study as quickly as possible to ensure the continued availability of water for all our residents.


Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Water Pressure Problem in one Part of the House

Not too long ago, a beloved member of my household complained to me that there was a loss of water pressure in the bathroom of his man-cave. Since he supported me through graduate school he has a lifetime right to have me manage all equipment or groundwater issues. So, I applied my common sense and engineering degrees to the problem.

Typically, a reduction in pressure from the well can have several causes:

  1. the well going dry,
  2. a leak or blockage in a pipe in or from the well
  3. a pump problem
  4. a pressure tank or pressure switch problem
  5. an electrical problem (pump is running on 120 instead of 240)

However, the loss of pressure in only one section of the house is likely to be a plumbing problem. The man-cave bathroom is right behind the utility closet where the pressure tank is. First, when you have a pressure problem take a look at your pressure tank. Looked good at around 50 psi.

The pressure tank is only 4 years old

Next, I went upstairs to the master bedroom to judge how the water pressure looked in our sink and bathtub. Then I wandered around checking water pressure at all the faucets and showers. In the end it seemed to me that only the wet bar sink, the mancave bathroom and the refrigerator water line were impacted.

All these items are on the west side of the house where the well and pressure tank are located, but they are not in the same plumbing line. Didn’t sound like a blockage. I pulled the aerator from one of the impacted sinks. It was filled with little black granules. I looked in the toilet tank and saw black  and brown granules at the bottom of the tank. This was clearly iron and/or manganese.

What came out of the aerator looked black

In the toilet tank it looked like rust-iron

Iron and manganese are naturally occurring elements commonly found in groundwater in many parts of the country including here. Under the Safe Drinking Water Act the standard Secondary Maximum Contaminant Level (SMCL) for iron is 0.3 milligrams per liter (mg/L or ppm) and 0.05 mg/L for manganese. This level of iron and manganese are easily detected by taste, smell or appearance. My naturally occurring levels are a fraction of those levels and so present no taste or staining issues, and at levels naturally present in groundwater iron and manganese do not present a health hazard. However, their presence in well water can cause accumulation of mineral solids over time that can clog water treatment equipment and plumbing. 

Iron and manganese deposits build up in pipelines, pressure tanks, water heater and water softening equipment. These deposits restrict the flow of water and reduce water pressure. My very problem. I actually exacerbated the problem by chlorinating my well. Iron and manganese exist in many different chemical forms. The presence of a given form of iron or manganese in geologic materials or water depends on many different environmental factors. Dissolved iron and manganese are easily oxidized to a solid form by mixing with air or an oxidizing agent.

Groundwater tends to be an oxygen poor environment; typically, the deeper the aquifer the less dissolved oxygen is present. Iron and manganese carbonates in an oxygen poor environment are relatively soluble and can cause high levels of dissolved iron and manganese to be carried from a deep well. When the iron and manganese are oxidized reddish brown or black particles form and settle out as water stands. These particles are often found trapped in washing machine filters, water treatment equipment, and in plumbing fixtures. Chlorine or hydrogen peroxide is an excellent chemical oxidizing agent. Thus, their presence in the aerators and toilet tanks.

I called Chris Jones from Chantilly Plumbing to help me remove, clean and where needed replace all my aerators and shower heads. I’ll let the toilet tanks go for now and replace the filter cartridge in the refrigerator.

Sunday, June 16, 2024

Maintaining Your Septic System

Properly designed, sized and maintained septic systems can last for decades; however, it is usually stated that a septic system, either conventional or alternative, will last between 15-40 years and U.S. EPA says 15-30 years. That is quite a range. My own AOSS system is 20 yeast old and based on this month’s inspection is working just fine. I tend to baby my system and maintain it. If the septic system isn't maintained, not matter what type you have (alternative or traditional) it will have a shorter life. And septic systems do have an operational lifetime and will eventually need to be replaced. Even with proper use and maintenance a septic system will eventually fail or need major repairs. Replacing a septic system is reported to cost $25,000-$55,000.

In Virginia, AOSS owners are required to have a DPOR licensed septic professional inspect the AOSS system annually and pump the system as needed. In my case it seems to be every other year one tank or another needs to be pumped. Like taking my car in for inspection, my AOSS system is examined to make sure it functioning properly, the pump and zoner working, the timed dosing control panel functioning, the blower running and  the filter cleaned out.  My system has lots of parts that can fail and have to be replaced. That is why annual inspection and alarm systems are so important.

Both the U.S. EPA and the Commonwealth of Virginia recommend that a traditional septic system is inspected every three years and the tank pumped out every 3-5 years. A failed or malfunctioning septic system is a risk to human and animal health and can pollute the environment.

A traditional  or alternative septic system  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.

When you make changes to your home, verify that your septic system is still adequate. A system that was adequate for a home when it was built may be entirely undersized for the home after it has been enlarged, a garbage disposal added, sump pumps or water treatment systems discharging to the septic system, or adding a whirlpool.

 Also, the drain field or peat or coir modules do 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. The frequency of that a septic tank needs to be pumped depends on the size of the 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  or other final treatment 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.
To get the longest possible life from your septic system:

  • Flush only toilet paper and human waste down the toilet.
  • Do not flush wipes, facial tissues, paper towels, floss, cotton swabs or other items such as coffee grinds, kitty litter. Your toilet is not a trash can.
  • 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 and what I miss scraping plates.)
  • Do not put hazardous household wastes down the drain or in the toilet EVER.
  • Do not wash paint brushes or containers in the sink.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Service your septic system regularly. At a minimum pump your septic tank every 3-5 years it will extend the life of your system.


Wednesday, June 12, 2024

EV's, Virginia and Me

My husband is taking the Acura in for service. It is displaying a service and maintenance code, so it needs attention. The Acura is 17 years old, though it only has only about 95,000 miles. Still, the time is coming to replace the vehicle. The question is with what.

Last week Governor Youngkin announced the end of the California electric vehicle mandate in Virginia, effective at the end of 2024 when California’s current regulations expire. An official opinion from Attorney General Jason Miyares was that under the existing law Virginia is not required to comply with the new mandates called Advanced Clean Cars II adopted by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) set to take effect January 1, 2025.  

Under Advanced Clean Cars II, beginning in Model Year 2026, 35% of the new cars sold are required to be electric vehicles, moving up to 100% in 2035. If an auto manufacturer sells a gas powered automobile, they may be required to pay a fine upwards of $20,000 per vehicle sold. Given that EVs were only 9% of vehicles sold in Virginia in 2023 this could have resulted in hundreds of million of dollars in penalties- that would have served to increase the costs of cars for Virginians.

Nonetheless, the Federal Government has set a goal to make half of all new vehicles sold in the U.S. in 2030 zero-emissions vehicles. So, is it time for us to consider an EV? Today, transportation is the largest source of energy-related CO2 emissions in the U.S.  It could make a big difference in my personal carbon emissions, but EV adoption has the potential to drastically impact our local power grid along with the proliferation of data centers in our region that have already stretched the grid. Dominion Energy in Virginia predicts that by 2035 the data center industry in Virginia will require 11,000 megawatts from them, nearly quadruple what it needed in 2022, or enough to power 8.8 million homes. Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative recently told PJM that the more than 50 data centers it serves account for 59% percent of its energy demand. It expects to need to serve about 110 more data centers by July 2028. Virginia still must meet the requirements for carbon reduction in electricity generation in the VCEA

In their most recent IRP Dominion Energy forecast that EV adoption will have its greatest impact on summer peak load because EV owners are expected to be charging their vehicles at the end of the day when summer peaks occur. Dominion forecast that in 2037, the estimated contribution to summer peak from EV charging will be approximately 358 MW or 6.4% of peak summer demand. While the Virginia power mix has been migrating away from coal and towards natural gas, nuclear and renewables, Virginia does not generate enough power to supply our current and growing need for power. The shortfall in power is supplied by PJM generation coming predominantly from West Virginia and Pennsylvania which are generating this excess power by coal and gas. During peak periods there may not be enough power to charge an EV overnight. 

from Dominion IRP 2023 update

Charging and range anxiety are the big day to day issues. The most obvious is the problem of charging EVs. I am not willing to plan my life around finding a charging station and waiting around for the battery to top up. During the Arctic blast last winter, we all watch the images of EV’s taking much longer to get a full charge or failing to charge all together in Chicago. Despite the IRA mandate to build a “convenient and equitable network” of 500,000 chargers to help make EVs accessible for both local and long-distance trips, I apparently live in the EV charging desert and would need to install a level II charger in my home to use an EV.  The only charging stations I know of is 8 miles from home or at the County Complex 26 miles away.

from Alternative Fuels Data Center: Alternative Fueling Station Locator (

While bigger batteries allow drivers to travel farther between charges and that has been the trend, they also make the cars heavier, more dangerous, more expensive, and more expensive to insure.  EV batteries aren't cheap and the bigger the battery the more expensive, reportedly costing up to $20,000 to replace. So effectively, the life of the batter is the life of the vehicle. It is widely reported that most EV batteries last between 10 and 20 years. The problem is the Tesla debuted in 2010 as did the Nissan leaf, so there is not a lot of real-world experience with this number. The lifetime of the vehicle is important to us, since we tend to keep our vehicles for their full lifetime. The difference between 10 and 20 years in a battery’s lifetime is huge in our cost of driving.

Battery chemistry, driving habits, environmental conditions and maintenance practices all affect EV battery life. My experience with phone and computer batteries is only a handful of years before they no longer hold a charge long enough to be effective tools. That is how batteries fail- they loose a little bit of their capacity each year.  An EV would require me to be a nursemaid to my battery. Keeping the EV away from extreme temperatures and not over charging the battery. EV’s  generally allow you to set the extent of the charge; Tesla recommends not to regularly charge the battery beyond 80% of the battery's capacity to maximize battery lifespan. The phone repair shop told me the same thing. Tesla says that charging to 100% is okay for long trips and is more convenient in those situations.

Insurance rates for EV's are also higher. The Wall Street Journal reported that the average repairable insurance claim for an EV was 30% higher than an equivalent internal combustion engine vehicle. Insurance rates on automobiles have also more than doubled in recent years and that makes the situation worse. I called my insurance company to check the price to insure a new EV and was simply shocked, though insuring any new vehicle is rather shocking. 

Total  EV’s in the Commonwealth (as of June 2024) were 78,694 out of 8.4 million cars- less than 1%.  At least right now we do not have the infrastructure to support this transition outside of Fairfax and Loudoun Counties and Richmond. It is not just the lack of charging stations, but the additional cost of the vehicle and  higher insurance. Also, my husband is concerned about fire. He does not want a massive lithium ion battery in a garage attached to our house.  He still wants a fuel cell vehicle, and there are no fuel cell stations in the Commonwealth. I am not making blue hydrogen in the backyard though he suggested that might be a nice hobby for me. This does not look like our EV moment. 

Work was done a couple of years ago to calculate the emissions vehicle manufacturing and then the operational carbon footprints. On average the groups found that it takes about 40% more carbon dioxide emissions to manufacture an EV rather than an internal combustion vehicle.  In addition the carbon the batteries contain rare earth metals like cobalt and lithium. The mining process is hazardous to the environment and the workers especially in other countries. The batteries also have a large water footprint.  EVs produce no tailpipe emissions when they are used. No smog, no NOx, nothing to pollute the air. Gas cars produce a lot of tailpipe emissions. Overall it was calculated. it takes about 20,000-23,000 miles of driving to make up for the manufacturing deficit. For us that would be about 4 years of driving before the purchase of an EV would have a positive impact on our planet. We do have a newer and lower milage vehicle driven mostly locally (except recently as I hesitate to drive long distances in our old Acura)- though 10 years old it has around 40,000. The smaller vehicle may be our EV in the future. We'll see. 

Sunday, June 9, 2024

Help Fairfax Water identify Lead Lines

In 2021 the U.S. EPA revised  the Lead and Copper Rule to mandate that all water utilities plan to test for lead more frequently at schools and childcares, develop an inventory of the water service lines within their system, and create a plan to replace lead service lines if they are found. This fall is the deadline for the lead service line inventory. Fairfax Water has developed the “Lead Free Fairfax program” to comply with these requirements and keep the Fairfax community safe from lead in drinking water.  

Lead service lines are typically owned by both the water utility and the property owner. It is common that utilities only own the portion of the service line until it reaches the property line. In most instances Fairfax Water owns the portion of the lateral service line up to and including the water meter which is usually at the property edge. The property owner owns the portion of the service line after the meter as well as the home’s internal plumbing. However, most houses in Fairfax County built between 1971 and 1980 were equipped with an inside water meter, which is connected to a remote register on the exterior of the house. For more information read the Fairfax Water Lead and Copper Rule fact sheet.Fairfax Water Lead and Copper Rule fact sheet. 

Fairfax Water is updating its inventory of service line materials and working to identify any lead service lines within its water system. The inventory will be complete by October 2024 as required by the Lead and Copper rule regulations. To ensure customer safety, Fairfax Water uses corrosion control treatments to prevent lead from leaching into water from any lead containing elements in the distribution system or property owner plumbing.  

Much of the data collected  by Fairfax Water about the materials in the distribution system is based on the historical records and not confirmed or may need to be updated. Since a portion of the service line is not owned by Fairfax Water, they are trying to reach out to their customers to identify and report their service line material for the inventory.

To  do your part, go to the Fairfax Water inventory map and enter your address. See what information they have. Then you can update the information, or simply go to the shut off valve and scan the QR code with your smart phone or you can follow this link to fill out the inventory online LSLI SELF-ASSESSESMENT PUBLIC APP V2 ( If you have neither a smart phone nor online access, then call them with an old fashioned phone.

This is an important regulation because lead can cause damage to the brain and kidneys, and can interfere with the production of red blood cells that carry oxygen to all parts of your body. The greatest risk of lead exposure is to infants, young children, and pregnant women. Scientists have linked the effects of lead on the brain with lowered IQ in children. I am amongst the many scientist who believe there is no safe level of lead exposure. If your home was built before 1990 the only way to know for sure if you have lead in your drinking water is to test. You can get your water tested for lead by Fairfax Water by contacting Customer Service at (703) 698-5800. Test kits cost $40 for the first kit and $20 for every following kit should you wish to do any additional sampling. Once your order is processed, you will receive a test kit with instructions for how to take the water sample and return it to Fairfax Water for testing. 

The U. S. EPA limit for lead in drinking water is currently 15 parts per billion (ppb), but only requires action if limited sample monitoring for lead has exceeded the 15 ppb action level in more than 10% of the homes tested. Cities are only required to test a very small number of homes monthly and the condition and age of the plumbing in the home really determines if lead levels will be elevated. EPA estimates that there are 9.2 million lead service lines nationally.  

Lead in drinking water is a national problem mostly associated with older urban areas.  Lead in drinking water predominately comes from the pipes. Lead does not exist in most groundwater, rivers and lakes- the source water for most municipal and private water supplies. Instead, lead in drinking water is picked up from the pipes on its journey into a home.

In the early years of public water supply the water service lines delivering water from the water main in the street into each home were commonly made of lead. This practice began to fade by the 1950’s but was legal until 1988. Lead was also used to solder copper pipes together before 1988 (when the 1986 ban on lead in paint and solder went into effect). Also, until very recently (2011 Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act) almost all drinking water fixtures (faucets and such) were made from brass containing up to 8% lead, even if they were sold as "lead-free." So even homes built with PVC piping in the 2000’s may have some lead in most of the faucets.

Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Replacing Peat media in Puraflo and Eco-Flo Systems

It is estimated that about a third of homes in Virginia have septic systems. There are many different types of septic system designs. The most common type used for single family homes is still the traditional septic system that consists of a single chamber septic tank that flows by gravity to a drain/leach field. However, due to regulatory changes, continued growth in housing Alternative Onsite Sewage Systems (AOSS) have become popular.

A typical AOSS in Virginia consist of a septic tank, treatment unit, pump chamber, conveyance line, distribution system, and an absorption field (trenches, pad, drip tubing, etc.). However, the exact set of components that make up the system are site and system specific. AOSSs allow homes to be built on land that “does not perk”- can neither pass the standard percolation test nor support a traditional septic system.

To protects public health, the waters of the state and the environment AOSS are regulated in Virginia under 12VAC5-613-140. This regulation requires all AOSS are designed, meet minimum performance standards and will be properly maintained and inspected at least once a year with newer systems required to be sampled regularly. The full text of the regulations can be read at this link.

These non-conventional septic systems include: aerobic tank or ATU’s, peat filter systems, coir filter systems, single and recirculation sand filters, mound systems, drip dispersal, spray and low pressure dispersal. Manufacturers of these systems have gotten their systems approved in the commonwealth so that they can be bought off the shelf. These systems include but are not limited to: Advantex, Clearstream, Puraflo, EcoFlo, EZ Treat, Fujiclean, Microfast Norweco, Bio Coir. All of these systems are approved for use in Virginia, but may not be optimal for all sites and are also expensive to build, maintain and replace.All of these systems are approved foruse in Virginia, but may not be optimal for all sites and are also expensive tobuild, maintain and replace.

None of these AOSS systems is ideal, but I’ve always liked the simplicity of the peat filter systems and the peat is a phenomenal media for absorption. The peat media filter system is a traditional septic tank with peat filtration system instead of a leach field. The filtration system is the aerobic portion of the treatment and is located in tanks which are filled with peat moss over a gravel base. The filtered septic tank effluent is collected in the pump tank. A timed dosing system pumps the effluent through an inlet manifold located at the base of the treatment modules. An orifice plate is located inside the top of each inlet manifold which allows the flows to be split equally and fed simultaneously to each biofilter module or modules. (The number of modules is based on the size or type of the system-the number of bedrooms is how these systems get sized.) The inlet manifold is connected to the base of the biofilter module and is fed upwards to a rectangular distribution grid located 6 inches below the top of lid. The effluent percolates laterally and vertically through the depth of the peat fiber treatment media and emerges as a clear, innocuous liquid from the base of the system. The treated effluent is then collected and dispersed. New systems are installed with a sample port.

from EcoFlo

From Anua

The peat is an excellent media for allowing the natural secondary treatment of the sewage waste to take place: Absorption and filtration of any impurities chemical adsorption, and microbial assimilation. As a result, these systems are typically capable of removing 90% or more of the polluted mater (characterized as BOD, SS, Coli forms and E. Coli). The life of these systems varies by manufacturer and origin of the peat. For Puraflo systems, peat moss replacement is recommended around every 14 years. For Ecoflo systems they recommend that the peat should be replaced approximately every 7 years. These number assume that the system is properly used and maintained (or less with improper use). The required annual inspection of the system will determine when to replace the peat, and when to pump the tanks.

The problem is that the peat used in these systems came from Canada, Ireland, or other overseas location (depending on if you have a Puraflo or Ecoflo), and extraction and removal of the peat can impact natural ecosystems of those locations. Peat is a limited natural resource and as such expensive. Recently, the cost of replacing the peat media is $2,250-$3,010  per module for the Puraflo system (depending on the number of modules) and $5,200-$6,000 for the Ecoflo system. This pricing includes disposal of the existing peat and labor, but does not include the pump-out of the tanks which is necessary. This has gone up significantly since I last checked pricing. The Puraflo prices are down somewhat since the end of the pandemic. Ecoflo pricing went up during the pandemic and have stayed up.

There is another option. Puraflo has a new media, coir, coconut fiber. While Anua has a Bio-Coir system that is generally approved in Virginia, you can also use a coir media as a direct substitute for peat. Unfortunately, since this substitution of media has not been generally approved, it would require five rounds of 180 day sampling to prove it’s functioning, new spray nozzles and an engineer’s stamp on the design. (see the VHD memo.)(see the VHD memo.)

 The costs to change the media would be about the same as the costs for replacing the peat listed above, the first time. Though coir, which is coconut fiber, is low-cost and a renewable resource that gets consumed over time, the change from peat media includes disposal of the existing peat and changing of the spray nozzles to the ones designed specifically for the coir. Going forward the system would only require the addition of coir as needed, but that is a long term cost savings and many do not keep their homes long enough to benefit. Coir is a by-product of coconut harvesting and is a renewable resource.

The AOSS market in Virginia is dynamic. Things change and it is likely that steps that need to be taken to replace peat media with coir will evolve and become simpler. However,  for now though costs are still high.

Sunday, June 2, 2024

Envirothon State Winners

Jamestown High School, of James City County Schools, placed first overall in Virginia’s 2024 Dominion Energy Envirothon State Competition, held at Radford University on May 19th-20th, 2024. Jamestown competed with teams representing 18 different high schools throughout Virginia to earn the title of State Champions.  The 2019 team from the same high school was the overall International winner that year, so clearly Jamestown High School must have a terrific coach and great program! In 2023 the Jamestown team also won the Virginia state championship and placed 13th overall.

Envirothon is an international environmental and natural resources high school competition held annually. This year 53 teams of students from across the United States, Canada and China in a week-long competition demonstrated their knowledge on soils and land use, aquatic ecology, forestry and wildlife management through written tests and hands on interactive stations. The teams also prepared oral presentations on this year’s current issue, “Renewable Energy for a Sustainable Future” and teams presented solutions to address a renewable energy scenario for the Hampton Roads area of Virginia.

In Virginia the Envirothon is run by the Virginia Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts and Virginia’s 47 local Soil and Water Conservation Districts. Each spring there are a series of regional competitions held by the Soil and Water Conservation Districts with help from our volunteers. For the last 11 years Dominion Energy has been the primary sponsor of Virginia’s local, regional and statewide Envirothon with annual funding provided by its Dominion Energy Charitable Foundation.

“Protecting the environment and supporting local communities are key components of our mission.” said Hunter A. Applewhite, president of the Dominion Energy Charitable Foundation. “Envirothon proudly promotes both as these students will become future leaders of environmental sustainability.”

The Jamestown High School team is supported locally by the Colonial Soil & Water Conservation District. In second place was Louisa County High School- the Thomas Jefferson SWCD team. In Third place was Eastern View High School- the Culpeper SWCD team. All these schools have excellent programs and many competitive teams over the years.

The Jamestown team will travel to Geneva, New York on July 28th-August 3rd, 2024 to represent Virginia as they compete at the National Conservation Foundation’s International Envirothon. At the International Competition the teams are given a special environmental problem in the morning then have five hours to work out the solution as a team. Join me in wishing the Jamestown High School team good luck.