Ageing Infrastructure

What do you think is the most likely reason for a water grid shutdown?  It isn’t terrorism and it isn’t pollution. The answer is, the age of the infrastructure used to deliver the water or collect the sewage. Think about the city you live in. Chances are it has existed for hundreds of years, if not longer. Most cities water systems grow in phases. They keep adding to the network every year as the population grows. The end result is most cities have infrastructure that range from less than a year to hundreds of years and with many different materials. I have seen water mains made of wood in service as late as 2011. Like any piece of equipment it all has a useful lifespan, beyond that lifespan failures become increasingly more likely to be catastrophic. The result is a large volume and dollar amount of material and equipment that needs repairs or to be replaced.

Wooden Water Main circa 1909 source

Wooden Water Main circa 1909 source

Normally the stress on water systems comes from population growth.  A water main that was ok in the 1980’s may not be large enough for today’s population.  As cities infill and build higher density buildings they frequently overburden the water systems.  Either causing contamination or total failure of the system.

Older equipment is also more susceptible to natural disasters, terrorism and human accidents. These three things can break a new system too, however they don`t have to try as hard with the older systems.

Climate change is having an affect too.  As severe weather events are on the rise, storm sewers might be found lacking, as was the case in Calgary, Alberta and Toronto, Ontario recently.  The system was grossly undersized for the amount of rain that fell.  They said things like “it was a month’s worth of rain in one day” on the news.  When the fact is, it once was a months worth of rain, and is now something more frequent, lets say a weeks worth of rain.    I’m not suggesting we build our systems to meet a 1000 year storm, but I am suggesting that our current idea of a 100 year storm may be an underestimation and that the error is getting worse.  To bring it back to infrastructure, if we are built to the current 100 year storm levels, what happens if the 100 year storms are getting worse?  We will find out in the not too distant future.

Calgary, Flood, Floods, Water

Flooding In Calgary AB 2013 source:

What are the options for people to take? The first and most important thing to do is to plan ahead and replace older parts of the system before they fail.  A $50,000 job to replace an old section of pipe at a time you choose is a lot cheaper than waiting for it to fail at the time you are least prepared.  If you are connected to a public utility, ask them about their equipment replacement plan.  If they are not looking 25 years into the future or longer then ask them why not? If you have private systems, you need to ask the same questions.  Can you afford to replace the septic system when it fails? Or can you afford to dig/drill a new well when the casing cracks?

As you can probably surmise the addition of more people + more rain + more water and more sewage means system failures will become more frequent and probably for longer periods of time.  What does this mean to the average person?  Plan for system failure.  Have a backup system ready to go when it does.  Know the age of your equipment and it`s expected lifetime. That way you wont be caught off guard.

Septic Tank Problems

Septic systems range from the very simple to the extremely complex. Even on the simplest septic systems there are still many things that can go wrong. If you believe that septic systems are something you bury and forget about, then I guarantee that you will come across many of these problems. There are simple things anyone can do to keep their septic system running properly for decades.

First a general description of a septic system. The system starts where the common drain leaves the house. This drain can go to a municipal sewer or to an individual septic system. The water flows by gravity into the septic system. The inlet to the septic tank is protected by a T shaped baffle. It is open on the top and bottom. It is designed to contain floating debris in a small area and to direct solids to settle down towards the bottom. The water is contained here where solids settle out to form a sludge layer and floating objects form a scum layer. In between there is a clear zone where the water has very few solids. The water in the tank is treated by anaerobic bacteria. The bacteria break down organic compounds in the water until there is almost nothing left.
The water leaves the tank through another T shaped baffle on the other side of the tank. This one goes down to the clear zone and allows clear zone water to exit the tank without coming into contact with the scum layer. Some tanks have a septic pump, the pump is installed on the opposite side of the inlet and at the expected height of the clear zone. Larger tanks might have a dividing wall to keep sludge and scum on one side and clear water on the other side.

Septic Tank, Septage, scum, sludge, clear, zone

Basic Septic Tank Design (source:

The sludge layer if not removed every three to five years can cause a major failure of the entire system. Not everything can be broken down completely.  There are always things that either never breakdown or breakdown too slowly and they accumulate.  The sludge layer will eventually reduce the capacity of the tank and the solids will block the inlet or the outlet of the tank.  The sludge layer will be a rapid problem if the people using the system treat the toilet as a garbage can.

The scum layer is all the floating solids the get flushed into the system. Grease and oils cause a large part of the scum problem. But they are far from the only culprits. Cooking oils and grease coat the walls of the pipes and tanks and slowly reduce the size of the of the inlet and outlet eventually blocking them, and you can see how that is a problem.

The drain field is where the treated effluent gets released back to the environment. It may be called something else like a tile bed or weeping tile. They are usually subterranean but can sometimes be on the surface. Regardless there are still buried pipes and they are easy to collapse if you drive a vehicle over them. Lawn tractors are OK but even compact cars are too heavy for the shallow plastic piping. If the piping becomes cracked or even a section collapses then pipe will become blocked with dirt and your waste water will have nowhere to go except back into the house.

Hydraulic overloading is the technical name for putting too much sewage into your septic tank.  This can happen if you have a party and there are more people using the system or if the sludge layer reduces the capacity of the tank.  The end result of overloading is that poorly or untreated sewage leaves the system negatively impacting the surrounding area.

Leaks are bound to occur with age.  You can also create leaks by driving over the tank and excavating too close to the tank.  Leaks are a huge problem once they occur.  The groundwater and soil contamination is extremely expensive to clean up.  You may also be liable for damage to the neighbor’s water supply depending on the riparian laws where you live.  A leaking tank needs to be replaced immediately.

Proper maintenance will prevent most problems.  The worst thing anyone can do is to bury the septic system and forget about it.

Why is my water that color?

As someone who works in water treatment I fequently receive questions about red, black, pink or cloudy appearances in drinking water. Contrary to what might be expected none of these colors are inherently dangerous to human health. They do however make the water look unappetizing. They are called asethetic water quality indicators. Well the colors themselves isn’t the indicator, what causes the water is. I will outline the causes below.

Red water is usually caused by the oxydation of iron and iron bacteria. To be a little more accurate the color is a reddish brown, if you see a red that belongs in a paint can then I highly recommend NOT drinking it. Iron oxydation (rust) is not dangerous at all. Many water sources contain iron naturally. Iron is prevalent in groundwater. The red color comes from iron particles rusting when they come into contact with oxygen in the water. The rusting is accelerated when the iron is introduced to chlorine. As you know chlorine is very commonly used as a disinfectant. When there is a lot of iron and a lot of chlorine then there can be a visible particles of rusted iron in the water. This looks really bad when you turn on the faucet but iron is something they add to mineralized bottled water and iron is a necessary element in proper nutrition.
Iron bacteria can enter the water at the source or if the water is stored in a metal container or watermain. Wells can become contaminated with iron bacteria. When they do, read this to know what to do about it.

Black colored water is not to be confused with black water which is a term used for sewage. Sewage is often a yellowish brown, unless it has gone septic and then it is very black and very smelly. An odorless black tint to water is usually due to manganese. Manganese behaves a lot like iron does except it oxidizes a lot slower. Water stored for a couple days or more will turn black if there are high levels of manganese in the water. Manganese is more often found in groundwater than in surface water. Sometimes it wont be noticeable in the water. It will however be noticable as a black stain on appliances and reservoir walls.

Pink water comes from potassium permanganate (KMnO4). Permanganate is a treatment chemical used to help oxidize iron and manganese. When too much is added the water turns pink. When a lot is added then the water turns purple. The pink isn’t dangerous to human health. It is hower alarming to see pink coming out of a faucet. To read how to use potassium permanganate as a disinfectant read this.

To remove iron, manganese and permanganate is accompolished with greensand filtration. Don’t let the name fool you, greensand is black in color. Greensand is chemically activated to remove oxidized minerals from water.

A yellowish tint (sometimes brown) to the water IS potentially dangerous. Yellow tea colored water is indicative of organic material in the water. Organic material is mostly non living particles but it also includes bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens. Sewage is also this color. So beware of yellowish water.

Not many different things can cause a truely cloudy appearance to water. Turbidity is sometime said to be “cloudy” but it is caused by suspended particles blocking light from passing through. Usually turbidity is also colored at the same time. Unless the particles are white in color, then turbidity isn’t cloudy, it is dirty.
Cloudy water is caused from dissolved gasses (usually oxygen) in the water getting released. This happens when the temperature in the water is significantly different than the temperature of surrounding environment. Since large bodies of water are slower to heat up and slower to cool down, this difference happens every spring and fall. It is called reservoir turnover. The way to test if it is just dissolved gasses in the water is to let a glass sit for five minutes. All bubbles of gasses will disappear and the water will look and taste normal. If the water is still cloudy after five minutes, then the problem is caused by turbidity and it must be removed by filtration.

Not everything that can happen to drinking water is dangerous. Reddish tints from iron and blackish tints from manganese are natural and harmless. This article should help you determine when visual changes to the water are cause for alarm and when they can be ignored safely.

Cleaning Up Contamination with Super Chlorination

Super chlorination is a technique used to clean and disinfect water holding vessels that cannot be washed in the traditional sense. This is different from your standard disinfection, which is for cleaning the water, not the container. Super chlorination is used when reservoirs become contininated with microorganisms or have been emptied for any reason (indicating possible esposure to contamination).

Super chlorinating is simple. On a very basic level, it is just adding a large amount of chlorine to a reservoir either as a wash applied directly to the wall or as a very strong chlorine/water solution which fills the entire reservoir.
On a more specific level, it is dependant on the strength of the hypochlorite and the amount of time the chlorine is left in direct contact with the container. The stronger the chlorine the less time required. For example, if you decide to spray the walls with straight 10% sodium hypochlorite then there is almost no time required. Whereas the normal chlorine levels in most municipal drinking water systems is not enough to ever disinfect the vessel it is in. Those low levels of chlorine will only protect the water from contamination in a reservoir that is already free of contamination.

Now you might be asking how to figure out how much chlorine to add to make super chlorinated water. If you think all you need is to dump a large amount of chlorine in then I will point out that releasing large amounts of super chlorinated water into the environment is illegal in most jurisdictions. So it is necessary to calculate how much dechlorinating agent is needed. The easiest way to know the dechlorinating needs is to measure the amount of chlorine added. In order to save money or time it is best to calculate the ammount of chlorine necessary.

50 mg/L (50 ppm) of available chlorine is a great place to start. 50 mg/L left for 24 hours will meet the best pratices and standarized procedures for most jurisdictions in North America. Below is a table outlining how much chlorine you need to add for various volumes of water.


Super Chlorination Volumes at 50 mg/L (from the City of London Port Health Authority)

From this chart you can see exactly how much chlorine to add. Add the hypochlorite solution when the system is haIf full. Then fill the tank or reservoir the rest of the way with clean water. If you are disinfecting something with plumbing, like a building or a boat, then make sure the super chlorinated water makes it to each cold water faucet by flushing until you can smell chlorine (or can measure it). Do not flush the hot water faucet. all you will do is waste chlorine and hot water.

This procedure will disinfect any reservoir. Regardless of the levels of bacterial contamination, because if it doesn’t work the first time repeat the process until it does. The most likely culprit if super chlorination doesn’t work the first time is that a pipe connected to the tank wasn’t flushed completely.

Whether you have a large tank of reserve water or your rain barrels start growing dangerous microorganisms, you may need to super chlorinate one day.

Lids On! Teaching Children Survival Skills

Children are excellent at picking new information however children often find learning survival skills difficult. Even when they do remember what to do to survive, will they remember to use the skill when they need it?
Educating children for wilderness survival needs to be very simple and driven home with a demonstration. Take for example the simple skill of having and wearing a warm hat. Exposure to the elements is something that is very dangerous. It can be fatal to adults and children are even more sensitive.
This may seem like a simple thing, wearing a hat is definitely a simple thing but have you ever tried to keep a hat on a child under ten years old? This is an almost impossible task, except when NOT wearing a hat is too painful like in extreme hot or cold temperatures. Waiting until it is too painful before you put on a hat might be too late in a survival situation.
Here is an experiment you can do with kids to show them the importance of keeping insulated. It is called the Lids On experiment.

What you will need is very simple and you may already have them in your house.
1) Two pots of equal size with lids.
2) Two thermometers. It can be done with one thermometer but it is more dramatic with two. More drama increases the likelihood of them remembering the lesson.
3) Stove with two equal sized burners
4) A timing device, watch, stopwatch, egg timer or a normal clock will all be
5) A measuring cup.

The procedure for the lids on experiment is very simple as well. And there are many possibilities for side lessons some of which I will point out.

1) Measure out the same volume of water and pour it into each pot.
2) Bring both pots to a boil at the same time.
3) Turn off heat source for both pots at the same time.
4) Measure the temperature of the water and note the time.
5) Leave the water to cool on the stove. But leave one pot with it’s lid on and one pot without a lid. You can do the entire experiment again and leave the pots outside and watch the temperature drop faster.
6) Have the kids guess which will cool faster, lid on or lid off?
7) After approximately 10 minutes return and measure the temperature of both pots.

The pot without the lid will be significantly cooler. This is because the lid traps warm air around the top of the boiling water. (Just like a hat does for our heads). The water not protected by the insulating effect of the air is exposed to the elements and heat is actively lost very rapidly. (Just like our body heat when we are improperly protected from the elements).

This experiment can be more than a survival lesson. You can expose children to the safety precautions around the stove/cooking, the physical properties of water (why it boils and at what temperature), how to tell time or read a clock, how to measure volume/temperature and how to ask a scientific question (hypothesis) and test for an answer.
I would only add more information about the experiment if the child or children are really demonstrating that the survival lesson has been learned and internalized. Saying the phrase “lids on” after the experiment has been completed when the child is putting on a hat will help drive the message home. So will playing a Simon Says type game where the commands are Lids On and Lids Off. Lids On instructs that they put on a hat and act warm. Lids Off instructs that they take off the hat and act cold.
The repetition after the experiment will be the best thing you can do to maximize the chances that they will remember to put their lids on when they really need to.

Rebuilding Society: Agriculture

This is my latest article on what is important for rebuilding society after a societal collapse. Agriculture is important for obvious reasons. Without an adequate food supply there is no possibility for any society. Agriculture is the only long term method for managing the food supply. Hunting and gathering take too much time and area for current populations. Storing food is very temporary and doesn’t last very long. Trading for food is something many countries do today, but this is dependent on a very reliable transportation network.


The lowest level of sustainable agriculture is subsistence agriculture. This means the levels of production from agriculture are just enough to sustain your own existence (or your family’s existence). Subsistence agriculture is very time intensive. It leaves you with little to no time for other things like education, construction and any other form of employment. Societies heavy with subsistence agriculture are also societies rampant with poverty. Subsistence farming is not a way to grow a society, it is merely a way to survive. After a societal collapse, subsistence farming will become common place. Those with knowledge and the means to grow food will probably be able to produce ample amounts of food. It is everyone else who will struggle to achieve a subsistence level of food production. Those that fail will probably die from starvation.

The knowledge required for successful agricultural production needs to survive the collapse. Books on the subject are a good start. A much greater resource are people who are already successful at propagation of food plants and raising livestock. Agriculture at any level is more complicated that putting seeds in the ground or letting a herd roam free. There will be local conditions that determine best chances of success. Soil and weather patterns vary widely at surprisingly small scales. If someone you know has knowledge like this, make them your new best friend.

Historic techniques for farming will be very useful. Many modern crops and farms are dependent on pesticides and fertilizer. Unless someone knows how to continue making these chemicals, those supplies will quickly run out and in some cases expire. Ideally, the knowledge required is more than just historical farming techniques as many of them were destructive to either the environment at large, water sources and soil quality. The best knowledge to have are the low technology techniques for treating current agriculture problems. A good example of what I mean is how flies around cattle can spread pink eye around the herd. Currently this is usually controlled by a bovine insect repellent sprayed over the cattle. It works great at keeping flies away, but after the collapse the industry and transportation infrastructure may not be present or reliable. A low technology solution is to feed the cattle garlic. Something in the garlic makes the cattle less appetizing. You may not notice less flies around the herd as you would with the insecticide, but the infection rates of pink eye will go down, and isn’t that the problem that needed solving? With the prevalence of garlic worldwide, this solution for pink eye cold be done by almost any cattle farmer (I’m not sure if garlic would affect milk taste in a dairy cow). My point is, all the farmer needs is to grow some garlic and he/she has something with multiple uses and is dependent on nobody to do it.

After subsistence level agriculture, comes increasing levels of food security, wealth and time. Historically we moved beyond subsistence farming by improving techniques and creating new techniques, new hybrid crops and breeding animals to better suit local conditions. This was achieved through research, experimentation and trial and error. After a collapse, research and experimentation will probably stop, leaving just trial and error and people who know better slowly spreading the best techniques through word of mouth.

As society begins to reform, places with food will become boom towns and places without will disappear. Sustainable agriculture is the best way towards a stable society.

Evaluating Risk and Preparing Accordingly

From extreme weather related disasters to economic collapse, danger is a very real part of daily life. Risk is part of every activity humans do everyday. Risk can apply to our safety, economic, political, environmental and social spheres. There is a risk when cooking breakfast, there is a risk when driving a car there are risks when you invest money and there are risks when you tell someone you love them for the first time. Basically, because life is so risky, people feel the need to mitigate risk wherever possible and prepare for when disaster strikes. Some types of risk human beings are very good at evaluating, other types not so much.

Natural Disaster: Tornado  (source:

Natural Disaster: Tornado (source:

Risk is made up of two parts. The severity and the frequency. Both the severity or consequences and the frequency are essential for understanding the risk. Events that have a low severity and a low frequency therefore are low risk and are generally considered to be safe.

Risk Matrix for Classifying Risk Types (source:

Risk Matrix for Classifying Risk Types (source:

The danger comes from events that have either high severity or high frequency (or both). If an event has high severity and high frequency, it is necessarily very dangerous. A great example of these types of events are hurricanes. They happen every year and cause significant damage every year. Even if you aren’t directly affected by a hurricane, you are reminded of the last time you where hit with every hurricane.
Where humans become confused about risk is when we are afraid at the same time. If we are for example afraid of nuclear meltdown, then we will rank a nuclear meltdown as a more significant risk. This is referred to as the dread factor. The dread factor is a dangerous thing to ignore. With finite resources for disaster preparedness and risk reduction giving into fear will cause a real risk to be ignored. I’m not suggesting that the risks we dread are not dangerous, just that it is easy to over inflate their importance to our time, money and effort.

Humans have a technology bias. We feel that man made disasters are inherently riskier. This is partly due to the dread factor regarding man made disasters but it is also due to a willful down playing the risk from natural disasters. Severe weather can happen anywhere on the planet and happens very frequently.  Man made disasters can also happen anywhere, but they do not happen nearly as frequently.

Man Made Disaster: The Kuait Oil fires (source:

Man Made Disaster: The Kuait Oil fires (source:

Statistics are necessary for knowing what the likelihood of any event occurring could be. The good news is you don’t need to be particularly strong in math to do this. What is really important is the ranking and directing more resources to the top ranking items.
Statistics can also be used to highlight risk or hide risk. That is assuming people will read the statistic correctly. The term 100 year storm is often interpreted as a storm that comes every 100 years. It actually refers to a storm that historically only occur once in a 100 year period. The difference is you can have a 100 year storm occur two years in a row or more.

I have found some ways to learn what you are most at risk for/from. The news is a good source, if you read about forest fires nearby, then you are probably at risk from forest fires in general. Try to read the news as factually as possible. Ignore any hype and sensationalism.

Next, ask your family for a list of any health problems and causes of death. Many diseases are genetic and knowing what you may affect you can give you time to delay or stop it all together. If all your grandparents died of heart disease, then action today can prevent that fate for you.

Next, call your insurance company. Insurance companies are in the business of estimating risk. The more expensive the coverage is, the more likely that event is to occur. Another question to ask is if there is anything they won’t cover for where you live. If an insurance company won’t sell you flood insurance, I can almost guarantee that you live on a flood plain and a flood is in your very near future.

Finally, most risk can be averted just by paying attention. When we are alert and attentive we will act sooner and are significantly more likely to be prepared.