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Earlier this year, Congress passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, a $1.2 trillion investment in our country’s declining infrastructure. Much of the money will go to roads, bridges, airports, railways and other projects.
The water and sewer portion of the funding is estimated to be about $50 billion and is now ready for the massive task of designing, repairing and replacing America’s aging water treatment, utility distribution and wastewater collection and treatment systems. The Environmental Protection Agency calls it “the single largest investment in water and sewer infrastructure that the federal government has ever made.”
Let’s examine where we are. The intent is to replace and upgrade our drinking/fire protection water utility infrastructure system, but what we have now is not working. The existing water distribution system was designed back when many conflagrations burned down entire cities because of inadequate water supplies for fighting fires. So, after many large fires, we installed large water mains and put fire hydrants every several hundred feet along the streets to have enough water volume to fight large fires.
The water mains were generously sized to handle fire flows; 6-inch branches served fire hydrants. Service line branches to homes for drinking, bathing and domestic water use were generally 3/4-inch or smaller; they were slightly larger for commercial or industrial users.
In the early 1990s, we cut the maximum water flow rates from various plumbing fixtures in the Energy Policy Act of 1992; further flow rate reductions were made in subsequent voluntary water conservation efforts, including programs such as WaterSense and LEED. The overall water use in American households is about 20 percent of what it was prior to 1992, which is contributing to the dissipation of water treatment chemical residuals to levels that will not control bacteria growth near the ends of water utility systems.
Initially, water utilities switched to slower oxidizing water treatment chemical, such as monochloramines, to have a measurable residual at the end of the utility water system. However, even monochloramines dissipate to levels that cannot control bacteria growth before water reaches users near the end of the distribution system.
It’s well-known that America’s water and sewer infrastructure is aging and in need of repair. According to a recent report by the American Society of Civil Engineers, the 2021 U.S. infrastructure was given a grade of D+ in wastewater systems and a C- grade for drinking water treatment plants, pumping stations and utility water distribution mains.
Currently, more than 2 million miles of underground piping is responsible for supplying clean water to all Americans. However, most of the pipe is rapidly deteriorating, posing health risks to millions and a threat to the reliability of water for firefighting purposes. This aging piping threatens water quality by introducing pollutants such as bacteria and leeching metals (iron and lead) into the water they carry.
My Proposed Infrastructure Solution
Iron and lead are not concerns for fire water and the large water mains in fire systems are problematic for water quality, so I have suggested that the water utilities simply install new, smaller plastic water mains of sizes appropriate to serve as a domestic/drinking water system. The old fire hydrants would remain connected to the old water mains, where they are still in good shape.
This would significantly reduce the cost of replacing the drinking water and domestic water infrastructure and improve water quality for drinking and domestic purposes, while keeping the old fire mains for fire protection service.
While lead pipe was banned many years ago, millions of sections of lead service pipe remain in service, says the American Water Works Association. To prevent lead from leaching into the water, utilities would add water treatment chemicals such as phosphates to the water to raise the pH level of the water to slightly above 7. This would coat the inside of the water pipe with a layer of phosphate minerals.
Below 7 on the pH scale, water is acidic; at 7 on the pH scale, water is neutral; and above 7, water is considered hard or caustic and can develop a film or scale on pipe walls and heating surfaces. Water utilities try to maintain the pH slightly above 7 by adding phosphates at the water treatment plant so as to keep the water from becoming acidic. When it is acidic, it dissolves the mineral on the walls of the pipe, then corrodes the pipe.
The goal is maintaining a slight coating on the walls of the pipe with a thin layer of phosphate minerals. This approach is by no means infallible, as was demonstrated in Flint, Mich., when it switched from a Detroit water source to a local water plant source that was unable to add phosphates to the water. The Flint River water source had lower than 7 pH; the layer of phosphates coating the water mains dissolved away, exposing the cast-iron pipe walls and lead joints to the aggressive water.
This eventually resulted in a release of biofilm containing Legionella and other bacteria and later, dangerously high levels of lead in the water.
Many U.S. cities still have lead water lines, and many homes (especially older ones) have lead service pipe and lead joints, allowing lead to leach into drinking water. The White House says lead pipe continues to serve an estimated 400,000 schools and childcare centers and 6 million to 10 million homes.
As water and sewer infrastructure currently stands, both rural and urban regions are poorly prepared to meet projected increases in water usage as population growth increases. Fortunately, the U.S. government has taken a big step in the right direction to invest in our future.
National Building Performance Standards Coalition
President Joe Biden announced during his remarks at the January U.S. Conference of Mayors that his administration is teaming up with states, cities, labor and industry to launch the Building Performance Standards (BPS) Coalition, a new partnership dedicated to delivering buildings that use less energy while providing safe water and sewer systems.
Dozens of state and local governments announced their participation in the coalition. This participation includes developing policy roadmaps, convening place-based teams to co-create policy, identifying and acting on pre-requisites for building performance standards and complementary policies, and sharing results and experiences to forge a community of practice — with the ultimate goal of advancing legislation or regulation in each of the represented jurisdictions by Earth Day 2024.
One of the coalition’s stated goals is to reduce our dependance on fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas. President Biden supports this coalition of states and local governments to strengthen building performance standards and codes for federal, state and local initiatives to improve energy efficiency of buildings while creating jobs in the new clean energy sectors, which will lower energy and fuel costs.
Expanding the nation’s skilled workforce will be required to achieve the collective retrofit goals of coalition members and the Biden administration. Members of the nation’s building trades and unions have stepped up to proactively partner with member cities and states to train a local workforce for the new skills associated with clean energy technology. They pledged to work with coalition members to implement new building performance standards and policies, recognizing that these policies stimulate economic growth and good-paying jobs.
Unfortunately, people and industries lose jobs when progress happens. The key is to provide training for workers who lose their jobs because of outdated technologies so they can be employed in new industries. For example, when the automobile was invented, the makers of buggy whips quickly lost their market as people started buying and driving cars and leaving the horse-drawn buggy and the buggy whip in the barn.
In this case, the development of new technologies such as solar and wind generation will reduce dependance on oil and coal. Driving hybrid cars that run on electricity and switch to fuel at higher speeds for long distances can drastically reduce our dependence on oil. In many cases, the fuel efficiency of these vehicles exceeds 70 mpg.
Switching to alternative ways to produce electricity can reduce the use of fossil fuels. Electricity can be produced with wind, solar, hydroelectric and nuclear technologies without polluting the atmosphere; these technologies drastically reduce if not eliminate greenhouse gas emissions.
Coal is the new buggy whip. Oil will still be needed for fuel oils for large machinery, for plastics and lubricants, but demand for oil will drop significantly if we switch to clean energy production and reduce oil dependency.
Hundreds of billions of dollars are made each year on fossil fuels and tens of thousands of jobs are related to the coal and oil industries. Understandably, these industries are fighting through their industry lobbyists to continue operating as usual, producing fuel that contributes to greenhouse gases and global warming and increases our dependance on foreign oil.
For every job in the coal and oil industries, many jobs are available producing alternative fuels and the technologies associated with the new fuels. Solar panel, battery and wind turbine manufacturers should be incentivized to build plants in states that depend on coal or oil to help displaced workers in those states find jobs in these new energy sectors.
The BPS coalition should be looking to the green construction codes and standards as part of its improvement process. The time is right to move forward with energy conservation and alternative energy initiatives, but with an eye on health and safety. Federal, state and local government buildings are a great place to start conserving energy.
Water Supply, Wastewater Performance
Engineers need to get involved in this process so that there is some common sense and engineering input to the codes and standards and local ordinances developed and adopted in this process. Many well-intentioned water and energy conservation programs were pushed forward in the past; however, the industry had to push back because they were going too far with some of the proposed measures.
I have noted in past columns that we need to determine the fixture flow rates allowing the system to perform as intended. For example, when fixture flow rates were drastically reduced to 20 percent of the prior flow rates, it took up to five times longer for water to reach the end user in a water utility system. In addition, there was a loss of water treatment chemicals, such as chlorine, over time.
Before 1992, what used to take two to five days to reach the farthest water utility consumers now takes 10 to 25 days or more in larger utility systems. Water treatment chemicals such as chlorine will generally dissipate down to levels that will not control bacteria growth. The loss of water treatment chemicals associated with lower flows has allowed many pathogens and micro-organisms to thrive in the biofilm of greatly oversized water mains at the far end of utility distribution systems.
Bacteria such as Legionella, which is responsible for Legionnaires’ Disease, can grow in water mains when water treatment chemicals are not present. It can be aerosolized in plumbing fixtures such as showers, where it would be breathed into the lungs of susceptible individuals.
On the outlet side of the fixtures, the drainage discharge from fixtures has been continually reduced in a water conservation limbo contest where lower flushing volumes and ultra-low-flow fixture faucet flow rates created a “dry drains” scenario where not enough water was in drains to transport or move solids down them.
New federal actions should progress towards reducing buildings emissions. However, I am not in favor of any further water use reductions unless accompanied by research demonstrating that such reductions will not further promote bacterial growth in water supplies or exacerbate the already problematic drain line transport issue.
Demand for High-Performance Buildings
Federal money and technical assistance to manufacturers can build manufacturing capacity, trade expertise and improve our infrastructure. When building performance standards are designed in partnership with communities and key stakeholders (including design professionals and engineers), innovative and equitable solutions can address multiple needs in a community.
I hope they include an equal number of good engineers from each trade and interest group so the effort is not overloaded with people with no knowledge of the systems’ design or how the systems should perform. Following American National Standards Institute (ANSI) Guidelines for Consensus Committees should help this effort.
For businesses, high-performing buildings not only minimize global warming, they are good for the bottom line, allowing lower utility bills for building owners and attracting tenants, which leads to higher occupancy rates and revenue generation. When it comes to larger buildings, the problem is developers who want to build structures to the minimum code requirements. They don’t care about energy efficiency; they want to install the cheapest, often most-inefficient systems, sell the building and move on with their profits.
Codifying energy efficiency solves much of that problem.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act should make homes and commercial buildings more energy-efficient and lower consumers’ utility bills. I am on a committee with a local municipality improving and adding some utility lift stations with matching funds as part of that legislation. I am witnessing the improvements in the infrastructure at the local level.
Last year, the Biden administration announced it was “dedicated to working with the private sector, labor unions, building and home owners, and manufacturers in the building industry to electrify and modernize new and existing buildings,” notes a May 2021 White house release. To do this, the administration will look at “expanded partnerships to develop new tools and resources to make buildings more energy efficient, affordable and healthy.”
These partnerships include:
• Launch the Low-Carbon Buildings Pilot program. Through the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Better Buildings Initiative and with Housing and Urban Development, the first 55 commercial, industrial and multifamily organizations to participate in the program were announced. They will share lessons learned for real-world pathways to low- and no-emission buildings.
• Increase adoption of high-efficiency heat pump water heaters. In partnership with the Advanced Water Heating Initiative, the DOE launched a new initiative to increase market adoption of grid-connected, heat-pump water heaters in residential and commercial buildings.
Note that heat-pump water heaters are very complex and do not possess the recovery rate of many other types of water heaters, so it is important to understand that this may require larger storage tanks to meet the same demand as other water heaters.
This is an initiative needing input from more than heat-pump water heater manufacturers; it should include a balance of design professionals, other water heating technology manufacturers, contractors, inspectors and other interested parties. Again, it is important to follow ANSI rules to ensure that there is consensus on these committees and no industry or entity dominates voting on the committee.
For this water heating initiative, I would suggest these interest group categories: code officials; plumbing design professionals, engineers and consultants; water heater manufacturers; utilities; homebuilders and contractors; labor organizations; landlords and property managers; research and testing labs; and general interest users and homeowners.
Reading their goal to achieve electrification with only heat-pump technology has me concerned about only one technology to be the only acceptable choice for all future residential water heating. Electric heat pumps might be a good choice under ideal conditions, but as storage temperatures are elevated to control or kill Legionella and other bacteria and the units are located in colder climates, the heat-pump water heater may not be the best choice for an application.
This is where balance of committee members is important to ensure fairness to all and the ANSI process should be considered.
• Commit to new and expanded EPA partnership programs. The EPA launched new residential and commercial sector partnerships to accelerate efficiency and electrification retrofits with a focus on underserved residential households through the Energy Star Home Upgrade program (https://bit.ly/3uNE67L), accelerate building electrification through an advanced Energy Star certification for new residential buildings, and recognize commercial buildings through a new zero-carbon commercial building certification. It also launched a new Greenhouse Gas tool linked to its Portfolio Manager tool.
Domestic Manufacturing, Innovation and Building Affordability
The Biden administration also announced a national research initiative focused on innovating clean and efficient building heating and cooling systems: the Energy, Emissions and Equity Initiative (E3 Initiative) (https://bit.ly/3viZd3m).
The administration put $10 million toward accelerating the research and adoption of heat-pump technologies, such as the Cold Climate Heat Pump Technology Challenge. Research efforts are also underway between national laboratories and manufacturers to speed up the development of lower- to no-global-warming-potential refrigerants that can be quickly commercialized.
It is important to consider the vulnerability of our electrical utility grid and its privatization, which puts the electric grid in jeopardy if an ice storm or another blackout similar to what started in Northern Ohio and spread to the entire East Coast and Canada in 2003 reoccurs. If we put all our eggs in the electric grid basket, and the electric grid is privatized, then if it goes out, we have no backup. This needs to be looked at closely with consideration for each home or group of homes having a backup generator.
Smart buildings provide consumers with more choice over building operations, allow them to manage energy loads and reduce energy bills. The DOE’s Grid-Interactive Efficient Buildings (GEB) Roadmap, (https://bit.ly/3LvgcV1) includes 14 recommendations to better integrate buildings with solar and wind power through smart operation of electricity demand and storage.
This GEB roadmap sounds attractive, but it needs to be looked at on a state level as some states have laws developed by the electric utilities limiting electrical production from consumers or nonutility companies to a very small percentage of overall electrical production. So, the interactive part is not there in some jurisdictions.
Since the production limit is set for nonutility production in these restricted jurisdictions, the utility does not need to buy or give credit for any excess electricity a building’s solar panels or wind generator adds to the electric utility grid. In some locations, there are also property taxes assessed on wind and solar equipment that make it undesirable to have these alternative power-generation sources at your farm, business or home.
In one example, a farmer added a $1 million wind generator to his farm; the local tax assessor increased the value of his farm by $1 million and most of the energy savings went into taxes. The electric utility got a huge tax break, but the farmer got none. This could be because electric utilities do not want to pay for additional power that you generate and put out on the grid.
The politics of this utility power issue need to be addressed because, in many cases, these laws or political barriers make alternative power sources less attractive in some states where the utility lobby is strong.
Regarding these GEB technologies, the General Services Administration released a plan to integrate them into federal building renovation and improvement projects and utility energy savings contracts. The blueprint puts practical guidance and tools into the hands of building operators to help them integrate GEB technologies into current and future performance contracts.
Finally, the Biden administration is looking at new Energy Star standards to advance heat-pump technology and fast chargers for electric vehicles. These new standards will help Americans access to affordable alternative heating, cooling, water heating and transportation options.