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 www.nytimes.com

Wooden Water Main circa 1909 source http://www.nytimes.com

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: http://www.newinfills.ca

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.

Down the Drain: Persistent Chemical Contamination

What do you do with your unused and expired medications? How do you get rid of used motor oil and solvents? Your painting is done but you have some paint left over, what do you do with it?
Many people will say “I pour it down the sink or flush it down the toilet”. Even more people will lie when they say they don’t put it down the drain. Your drains are not garbage disposals for all our waste. Doctors usually recommend that expired medications get flushed down the toilet. This line of reasoning is to prevent children and pets from consuming the drugs. Maybe a doctor can expand on their reasoning more, the purpose of this article is to make a case for why using the toilet to dispose of medication is a bad idea.

Why is dumping things down the drain such a bad idea? The answer is both simple and complicated at the same time. The simple answer is that everything that goes down the drain in whole or in part survives long enough to make it back into drinking water supplies. The long answer is that contaminates survive the sewer and waste water treatment and are released back into the environment with the treated water. Then the lakes and rivers are used for drinking water. The contaminants survive the drinking water treatment and enter our drinking water. Most of these contaminants survive because the largest part of waste water treatment is biological. Therefore, anything non organic will either pass through the treatment or disrupt the treatment process or become part of the biological organisms that are there to break down waste.

In either scenario, and really all scenarios happen all the time, contamination enters the environment. In 2011, a shipment of municipal biosolids from Ottawa, Ontario, Canada was refused at the American border. The biosolids are supposed to cross the border for disposal. This shipment was refused due to radioactivity. The radioactivity came from cancer patients as the chemicals from chemotherapy pass through the body and the wastewater plant all while remaining radioactive. Radioactivity is easy to detect and in this example the chemicals came from people’s bodily waste which is supposed to go down the drain. I only mention this example because it so clearly outlines how persistent many chemicals can be.

Some chemicals mimic our hormones and disrupt our natural body systems. They have been found to cause feminization of fish and are believed to cause early onset of puberty in humans. These chemicals can come from people’s medication and from all our waste. BPA is the most famous hormone mimic. It come from the breakdown of plastics and mimics estrogen in humans. Other pharmaceuticals tend to do what they are designed to do, just now they are affecting the wrong people. Most other chemicals just cause cancer.

This contamination isn’t limited to water. Earlier I mentioned that the chemicals can enter organisms. This is especially true of plants. Plants will absorb these chemicals and then they enter the food chain. I won’t describe the food chain here, all you need to know is that the concentration increased the higher up the chain. This is called biomagnification. The apex predators get poisoned first. The main problem with biomagnification is, we are the species that eat the most other animals.

There was a study in Scanadnavia that found flame retardants in cancer patients. They traced the chemical back to the bread they had all eaten. Then back to the wheat in the field where biosolids were spread. The flame retardants were found in the municipal wastewater facility and the municipal sewers. It was traced back to one manufacturer who was putting flame retardants down the drain as part of their process. I can tell you this happens everywhere. Even if you live on a remote septic system, there is always someone upstream. Hardly seems worth it for dumping chemicals down the drain.

You might be wondering why this matters to you. Simply, it matters because we all have a part in what we put down the drain. This is true whether you live in a large metropolitan area or a remote cabin on a well and septic system. What we release into the environment comes back at us in many different directions. Detecting these chemicals is difficult because there are so many different chemicals out there that nobody can check for them all or even most of them. A lot of these chemicals pass through store bought filters. Many of these molecules are smaller than the water molecule. That means every filter is ineffective against them. To put is simply, this problem affects everyone.

How Big Of A Septic Tank Do I Need?

Septic systems are the most common type of sewage treatment for people living off of municipal or communal sewage systems.  The treatment of sewage is necessary even for people going “off grid”.  Most, and probably all jurisdictions in North America have some requirements for sewage treatment.  Treating sewage is also significantly better for the environment as exposure to untreated waste water is a common way to spread disease in humans and other animals.  Septic systems break down the organic components in sewage and provide water that is safe to be released into a form of biological treatment.  This is usually soil, in the form of a drain field.  I frequently get asked how large a septic tank is needed for someone installing or upgrading their waste management system. How large a tank needs to be ultimately depends on how much water will be put through it.

Predicting how much water will enter your septic tank will can be simple, or it can be very difficult but it always starts with your water use. To estimate your water usage there are some things you will need to know.
How many people are in your household? How many people are usually in your house and on your system?  This includes visitors which only visit once a year. How much water are you currently using? If you have a water bill now you can see it easily.  The water you use day to day becomes the waste water you have to deal with later.  The age of people in your household will play a factor.  Even if you are good at conserving water, children will waste a lot more water and they require more water in the form of bathing and laundry.  Both of those traits will increase the demand on your septic system when many kids are around.  Larger septic tanks are required for people not used to conserving water, when choosing your tank size, try to remember, most people are horrible at conserving water.

Ok, here are some guidelines for determining the size of the tank required.  The smallest tank size allowed in some jurisdictions is one thousand gallons.  A one thousand gallon tank can handle around 600 gallons of sewage per day.  In terms of percentages, a septic tank should he 40% larger than the flow of sewage into it, or the sewage flow should not be greater than 60% of the tank capacity.

What if you do not know how much water people are using or how much waste water you are creating?   Continue reading

Water Conservation: A Prepper’s MUST DO

Conserving water makes sense on many levels. It saves money, it is better for the environment and it helps people become more self reliant and better prepared for emergencies. The less water you use the less we take from the environment, the less we need for day to day use, the less we need in an emergency, the less we need to have stored or our stores will last longer and finally the less water we have to pay for (pumping, treatment, water bill).

There are many suggestions on how to use less water, I will not come anywhere close to a complete list. The first step to water conservation is being aware of how much water we are using and then searching for ways to use less. The two general types of changes people can make to conserve water are behavioral changes and changes from investing in new equipment/technology.

Behavioral changes all stem from a consciouses of the volume of water used at the time of use. Having a thirty minute shower uses more water than a twenty-five or twenty minute shower, cutting down the time will save significantly the amount of water we consume each year. The simplest thing to do is to minimize the time your faucets are on and the water just goes down the drain, this water is completely wasted. Eliminating the water that goes straight to waste is simple and we don’t have to sacrifice anything, all we do is small things like open the faucet into a cup, and shutting the faucet when the cup is full. This philosophy applies to all our faucet use, brushing our teeth, shaving, cleaning and even bathing. You may even notice an energy saving on your hot water use as you will also use less hot water.

During an emergency, using less water is paramount. Continue reading

Long Term Self-Reliant Solid Waste Management

Waste is an invisible (or willfully ignored) part of modern life. I write that sentence a lot. It shows up in a lot of my articles. What I mean to say is, think about your waste, even if all you manage to plan for is “eww! gross! I’m just going to throw it out the window.” then at least you know what to expect. For the record, just throw it out the window is a very bad plan. So what does one need to become waste independent? First we need to understand that waste comes in three different basic forms. Solid waste, liquid waste and gaseous waste. In this article I will focus on solid waste. Continue reading

Waste Management in Emergency Situations

Waste management is something many people love to never think about. I even spent a large part of my life never thinking about it at all. That is definitely not true today as I work in sewage facilities every day. I have spent some time planning and preparing for disasters to hit these facilities. If there is an evacuation order, I will evacuate. Even if there is no order to evacuate and the roads are blocked or impassable, I wont be able to respond to any emergency.

That means you need a plan for what to do. Continue reading