Wednesday, January 21, 2009

So Your Going To buy a House? Treatment Units Neutralizers

What do you need? Why?
When approaching the issue of treatment, I find the second question the most important. So many people have an interesting response when I ask why they have the treatment unit they do. It usually goes along the lines of, "someone told me I needed it." or "it was there." or "just in case." The number of educated consumers of treatment units is minimal. A number of years ago there was a company (no longer operating in Connecticut because Consumer protection chased them out) who would scare a home owner because of all the potential problems they might have and sell them a unit that this company made that had no chance of fixing the problems that were true to that well. The reality, most well water is very good and healthy.
Okay so lets deal with the most prevalent issue, aggressive water. You might get a hint that you have this problem if you see blue-green staining in the white porcelain fixtures. If you do not notice that, you will notice when your water pipes develop small pinhole leaks and plumbers have to be called. Treatment depends on the water quality and if the water is the cause. The pH is one issue and levels below 6.4 (7 is neutral) might be an issue. I say might because if your water hardness is about 150 mg/L, the calcium will coat the pipes and prevent the acid from hurting them. So figuring out the aggressive index of the water is important. The simplest treatment is a calcium carbonate bed (marble chips) and it will raise the pH modestly and add hardness to the water, all very good. Sometimes this does not do the trick or is not applicable because either the pH is below 6 and/or there is a significant amount of hardness in the water already. In this case a feeder pump must be installed to sodium or potassium hydroxide. Those substances are dangerous and so the water should be monitored.
If the water is not the problem for the blue staining, you will need to call an electrician who knows what electrolysis is. This can be an expensive proposition, but the fix is usually fairly simple, ground the copper pipes.
Again, the first step is have your water tested by a state certified lab, then go on with it.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

So you want to buy a house?...part 6-metals

Metals and the discoloration they cause! Discoloration problems are the next most prevalent problem in the well water in this area, mostly caused by deposits of iron and manganese that exist in the ground. Now iron in the water gives the water a bitter taste, but will not hurt you and unfortunately is not in a form the body can readily use either,. So irons big issue is that it can cause an orange-brown discoloration that most people will see in a 'clean' toilet bowl. There is also a bacteria which helps the iron look particularly ugly called appropriately enough an iron bacteria. This bacteria does not like humans and will never hurt us, but if it grows without oxygen present (called anaerobic and a condition not uncommon in wells), it will produce a nasty odor (Hydrogen Sulfide) that will make your water very unpleasant. Unfortunately, very few labs will test for this bacteria (The Stamford Health Department Lab does, it was my first introduction to the bacteria world in 1974) and its presence will create havoc on many treatment devices. Most of the time though, this bacteria will thrive in the back of a toilet bowl and will turn the bowl inside rust colored. The good news is that a cup of bleach every week will kill the bacteria and keep the discoloration out of the system. Most worrisome levels of iron are easily seen when you turn on the faucet, but a few have not been oxidized and will not be so apparent.
You notice that I did not talk about manganese with iron even though a low levels it is exactly the same as iron except it stains black-brown. Iron bacteria love it, it imparts a bitter taste to the water, is a stainer, at low levels is not dangerous and even healthful, but at high levels there is a real problem.
This issue was first found in a well water supply in a Japanese village that had been tainted by an industrial source of manganese and document first in 1965 (I believe). The neurological problems have been likened to mercury poisoning and are significant. The original document that I read (not the one I found and sited from the web and talked of levels of 30 mg/L in the water), talked of adults being affected primarily because manganese is essential in growing muscle and that is what growing children do best. Still, Connecticut has a maximum contaminant level of 0.5 mg/L in well water and levels above that should be treated.
Copper is still a different issue because there is very little native copper in the soil and that means any copper in the water is coming from the household plumbing. Copper will stain fixtures at very low, non-toxic levels a bright blue, blue-green or yellow-orange depending on the form it is found. It is considered toxic at levels over 1.3 mg/L.
Arsenic is a significant issue that we are just now coming to grips with. There is an EPA standard (0.01 mg/L) and it is considered a carcinogen. This was actually based on a tragedy that occurred in Bangladesh where wells were drilled to helped residents escape the terror of bacterial polluted water. The ground had significant natural levels of arsenic. It was used as a pesticide for apple orchards, as a wood preservative in pressure treated wood in the United States and there have been wells tested with levels over the USEPA action limit.
The Greenwich Health Department Lab is able to test for arsenic.
Lead is an issue only for older home (before 1977) with either lead solder (most common) or lead pipes (rare). It is a significant toxin for children under the age of 6 and will make the water taste 'sweet'. It is not common to find elevated levels in water in this area in wells, but can occur. It is also not common in water company water, but some homes in the late 1960's and 1970's have been found with elevated levels.
On the whole, serious problems from metals in well water are rare, but do exist. The more common issue is simple discoloration.
If a lab is certified to do metals, there are no testing issues.
I hope my next installment will deal with treatment issues.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

So you want to buy a house?...part 5-acidity

Last installment I talked about well water and a non-issue issue (water hardness), so what is the major issue facing home owners with well water? Acidity of the water, pH primarily, but there is a lot more to it and that is why I write.
First, the prevalence of acid water is close to 50% in this area, but the main issue with acid water is its aggressiveness to the water pipes in the home and that runs only about 33%. A neutral pH is 7.0 and the average in the area tends to 6.6 (the lower the number, the more acid).
So acid water in of itself is not a health concern, we drink coffee and soda and many other things which are significantly more acid, but because it flows through copper piping, it can corrode the piping, creating pinhole leaks over time and increasing the level of copper to above levels that affect health.
The good news is most acid water conditions do not bring copper to that level and amounts of copper below 1.3 mg/L (milligrams per liter, which is about a quart) are not bad for you (you are suppose to get 1.0 mg per day).
Next, testing for pH is both easy (you stick a calibrated pH probe and measure) and problematic.
Why problematic? One of the main components of acidity in well water is carbon dioxide, a gas and it comes out of the water easily, even in a closed container. The recommended testing time is within 15 minutes. Now that presents a serious problem for most home inspectors who have contracts with labs in Danbury or even Norwalk, there is no way they can get the sample to the lab in that time period and many batch their inspections and bring the samples late, putting them in a holding refridgerator at the lab so they can be tested in the morning. The value of the pH goes to neutral over time. So many pH values are not reported correctly.
The actual problems an acid pH will cause is a combination of many factors, alkalinity (measure of Carbonate), Calcium, chloride and other disolved solids. Some labs will do a TDS (total dissolved solids) with the pH to calculate the corrossivity of the water, others will do an alkalinity and calcium hardness with pH to do the same. The corrossivity calculation will show if the water has the potential to cause problems for your water piping and that is the most important issue, otherwise the number for pH is meaningless.
There are other factors which will cause pipes to corrode that are not related to the water quality at all and that has to do wqith electrolysis due to poor or improper grounding of the home electrical system. This will almost always bring the copper measurements in the water to unhealthy levels, but correction can only be found using an electrician who understands the word (many do not).
My next installment will be on other metals which may cause various problems.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

So you want to buy a house? Part 4- hardness

Well Water quality and what it contains. First there are a number of people who will not like what I will be saying because I am going to deal with the benign issues first and that is how most of the money is made in water treatment systems, treating what will not hurt you and may even be good for you.
Water hardness is the first issue and this area of New England is classified as moderate when it comes to water hardness. What is hardness? Basically, calcium and magnesium in your water. Calcium is actually something that you will actually get into your body drinking water and it is a good thing. Magnesium also has no health negative issues, so why treat it? If we were in the mid West, that would not be a question because levels out there are so high, they will clog pipes, but in Connecticut, that level of hardness is rare. I believe maybe 1% of the wells in Stamford face that problem. There is also a fight over even what is hard water, the USEPA says 200 mg/L is hard, Treatment people will say anywhere from 80 to 150 is hard. They also use the term grains, because that is how they sell softeners.
So hardness will not cause you harm and generally does not cause trouble for pipes in this area, why treat? Ascetics! The drops of water drying on shinny new fixtures dry white and when you boil water you will get a white residue in the pan and that means you have to spend time whipping them off or cleaning them out.
That is it, the entire reason.
The solution is you buy a softener which takes out most of the calcium and magnesium and replaces it with sodium of potassium. You also buy salt so that the stuff in the softener can be reused. You get slick, poor tasting water (I forgot to mention that calcium hardness makes the water taste good) that still leaves some residue in the pot and on those fixtures, but it is greatly reduced. Go Figure!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

So you want to buy a house? ... Part 3-well water

Well Water. Yes I promised and it is time. Did you know there are over 5,000 homes in Stamford that use a private well for their water source? There are a significant number of wells in Darien, more in Greenwich, still more in New Canaan and Pound Ridge.
The best news here is that the water from a well is basically very good and many times more desirable than even water company water. Having said that there are issues and some non-issues that a home with a well may have.
1) Quantity of water. Although most wells will not run dry and produce copious amounts of water, there are enough that may not support both an irrigation system and home use, may not produce enough for large households and may run dry in severe drought. There is a section in Northwest Stamford where wells 1,500 feet deep produced only a quart of water a minute. That is not sufficient for general use. On the other hand, three wells that produced only about 2 gallons a minute ran the Crystal Rock water company for years.
During the last water emergency, wells were mostly unaffected and there were reports of only 2 wells going dry.
So perhaps an explanation on how a well gets its water is in order. Basically it comes from water which is within a defined distance, maybe as much as 200 yards from the well. The distance varies based on the wells depth, yield (gallons per minute) and the make-up of the subsurface in the area, but 200 yards is a good average distance in lower Fairfield, eastern Westchester counties.
The draw is conical, meaning that the strongest pull is closest to the well. For most wells this obviously includes all the rain, any streams, ponds or lakes and yes, the septic system.
There is also a general movement in this area of the water from North to South, so you would expect a general migration of any contaminants in a well to come from a northerly position.
The cost of having a well, besides the initial drilling, is the electricity to run the pump and certain repairs that may need to be done. The pump should last for about 20 years and the repairs usually come only with floods, earthquakes (yes we have earthquakes in the area), heavy construction (using dynamite) and things directly associated with disturbing the rock and soil around the well. In general a well is cheaper to have than city water.
My next post will be on water quality and may be in several parts.

Friday, January 2, 2009

If you are going to buy a house...part 2-water company water

So I am NOT an expert in home construction, electrical, plumbing (but I know some things), spetic (again, I know some things), lawn care (I know more here) and market value, but I am one of the experts in the water supply (and maybe the one with the most experience).
I have been in the employ of the Health Department for 29+ years, I have worked with water quality since 1975. I have seen a lot, analyzed a lot and talked to people even more knowledgeable than I over the years. I have kept a good rapport with well persons, home owners, the State of Connecticut experts and environmental groups. I am on a do not talk list with many people who sell treatment devices and have been involved in environmental investigations since 1975.
So much for my credentials.
The water being supplied by the water companies in the area, is generally good. Having said that, there are several things that you should know.
1) They are regulated by rules created by the USEPA (an agency that I usually have problems with, but in this case, the rules they have a quite thorough), some times made more stringent by the State of Connecticut Department of Health and required to report often to the State.
The water is taken from one of 2 reservoirs and one large well. They gross filter it (to get out leaves and fish, flocculate it ( to bring out natural organics), Chlorinate it and then sand bed filter it. I believe thay put it through a carbon filter also. The water is prety good, with no heavy metals or nasty organics and no bacteria or viruses.
The water is aggressive even tho there is an additive in the water to make it less so. The blue staining coming out of the faucets is copper because of this.
Chlorine and fluoride are also added. The chlorine to kill any bacteria, the fluoride to help our teeth.
In Stamford, there are no lead pipes, so lead is only a problem within the house plumbing.
They also deal with water main breaks and that will create discolored water (iron, manganese and dirt at non harmful levels. They generally over chlorinate the water when this happens, so the chance of having bacteria issues is non-existent.
Because chlorine is not a pleasant taste, you could carbon filter it or let it sit overnight in the fridge, but that is the only treatment I could think that you would need. A particle filter would deal with the water main break issues.
That is water company water and that is what most homes have,. the next post will deal with wells.

If you are going to buy a house...part 1-licenses

As a person working in the environmental side of a Health Depart6ment Lab, I have run into a lot of things that make me want to shout. There is a LOT of confusion out there, some I think is perpetuated by the government, or is assisted by scam artists and people wanting a quick buck. I will say there are people involved who do not have any consequences for handing the misinformation out. I will say that money is a BIG factor and fear is a great method of getting some.
So what am I going to talk about today? Certifications and licenses.
The real Estate business is full of licenses, meaning, they can not do something illegal with out consequences. That is a good thing, but they don't know everything and can not be expected to know everything. This means other people get involved.
So if you follow the link to construction, you find the normal categories and then there is Special trades contractor. This is where many of the people who assist including home inspectors, who are a 'Jack of all trades' type inspector. You will note that there are some really specified inspectors, who would be excellent if a problem was thought to be found by a home inspector. I do not think a home inspector is an end and I really do not believe that have any chance of knowing or seeing everything, but they might find some glaring things. I find that a person with an Environmental Professional license has a bit more experience and knowledge than a simple Home inspector.
For the people who are looking at a home with a well and that well is treated, I really want to point out that there are no licenses required for water treatment systems on private homes water supplies and there are many regulations, laws and plain common sense issues that are ignored in this area. I find this lack reprehensible and dangerous. Many scam artist sneak in and scare people. Please Note that well drillers are are licensed and many of them do provide treatment and so there is recourse. There is a professional society, but I could find no links to describe its purpose other than a group of people who install water treatment devices.
So this will be an issue for another post.