Thursday, January 28, 2010

Buying or Owning a House with Well Water

My first experience with well water in East Hampton was frightening. We're talking scene out of a horror film frightening. I turned on the outside faucet to water the garden and the water came out BLOOD RED. Needless to say I ran screaming. I could practically hear the neighbors snickering, "city girl."

After 10 years in real estate and dealing with well water, I can now say I think I've seen it all, and I have a few tips to share with those of you considering or new to well water.

Most of us with private wells require water treatment systems. Most commonly in our area, you will find high concentrations of iron in the water, giving it that lovely shade of red. If you don't treat the water, the iron will stain your fixtures, will clog your lines with iron flakes, and probably even stain your clothes in the washing machine. You have the option of either shelling out the money and purchasing a treatment system, or renting one and having the company come out and do the maintenance for you. There are lots of choices and lots of price points. There are lots of mistakes to be made, and we've made them!

This photo shows both a shallow, dug well and a drilled well (the tall skinny well head in the background.)

First things first. Before anything else, you should test the water. Most buyers do a standard water test (including total coliform bacteria) as part of their home inspections, but few are testing for volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) which can also affect the quality of our well water. (You can also test for radon in water, which does not affect the quality of your water, but in effect raises the overall level of radon gas in your home, which we'll discuss on another post.) There are so many things you can test for, including lead in water and fluoride (which you'll probably do at the recommendation of your pediatrician if you have kids.)

The standard drinking water analysis tests pH, color, odor, turbidity, alkalinity, chloride, hardness, nitrite as N, nitrate as N, iron, manganese, sodium and coliform bacteria.

One of the local water labs I use charges $60 for a standard water test, and $90 for the VOC test. Since having children, we actually do both tests every year. Imagine our delight 3 years ago to discover we had coliform bacteria. Lovely. (By the way, no amount of coliform is acceptable. Even if none of us was sick from it, we did not drink the water until we were able to get a negative result.) We test for VOCs because years ago we found MTBE in our water. YES, the additive to gas in the water we drink. So, to recap: blood red water, coliform, and MTBE all rolled into one. Horror movie stuff, right?

So what do you do when you find coliform in your water? In my case, I cussed for a while, debated moving to a town with public water, then got down to business. First we removed the aerators on the faucets and soaked them in a diluted bleach solution, changed the filters (turns out Scott was behind on doing this, which may have been the culprit,) and then looked inside the well to see if there was a dead mouse or something that would obviously contaminate the well. The next step was to shock the well system with bleach, which involves dumping a certain amount of bleach in your well head and running the water on and off for as long as a few days until the bleach smell is gone. Then you test again. I have to admit, it took me days before I would drink the water after that. I've been through this with clients as well as at my own house. The lab I use in Columbia, CT is fantastic and walked us through step by step. They also retested the water samples for free until we were able to come up with a potable water supply.
We were lucky with the MTBE. Our levels were very low compared to neighboring homes, and our water treatment system was able to handle the MTBE. A neighbor who'd always bragged of his crystal clear water had to install a very expensive system to treat his water for MTBE. Our neighborhood was definitely affected by this VOC. Although the town health department says they can't pinpoint where this originates, I know there are homes closer to the nearest gas station who also have contaminated wells.

We've also been lucky with our wells (we have 2 on our property - the shallow well pictured above, plus a drilled well) in that we haven't run dry. That's another thing buyers should have tested - their well capacity and recovery rate - but most don't bother past the gallons per minute test.

I advise all buyers to take the time and do the research on the well of any property you're considering purchasing. Visit the building department to check for any well permits or tests. Stop by the health department and ask to see the file for the property. Actually taste the water at the house. Look at the sinks and in the toilet tank for staining. If there is a water treatment system in the basement, find out exactly what the owners are treating for. If there's a system, there must be a reason why it's there. And lastly, look for evidence of large amounts of bottled water or a water cooler to help determine if the owners are drinking their own water. Suddenly I'm feeling thirsty...

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Discrimination by Energy-Comsumption?

Those of you who know me know that I'm perpetually afflicted by the travel bug. It's always been that way. I have my adventurous parents to thank for that, and I am lucky to have married someone who shares this passion. I don't have to twist his arm to convince him it's time for a trip....I just have to create a budget and then save the money for it. No problemo.

So we're packing up the children and heading to Europe for a month this summer. (If you have small children, feel free to make your "she's nuts!" comments here. I know, we might just be crazy, but why keep putting off what we love?) I won't lie...I'm having a blast with the planning. At least I was, until I got to the part where we rent a Tuscan villa for a week. I reviewed hundreds of them online until I found the perfect, dreamy house surrounded by vineyards, sunflowers and lavender, with the perfect view, etc.
When I began communications with the owner, all seemed well at first. We hit it off immediately, but when I told her how many were in our party, things cooled. "Americans?" she asked. "Yes, 7 adults and 3 small children." Very politely, the owner then proceeded to explain why that was too many people for the house, despite the fact that there were more beds in the house than we would need. She said, in so many words, that so many people would put too much stress on the well, the septic, the energy-use and the pool. (I'm still not sure how we would affect the pool.) Out of infatuation for her house and desperation, we responded that we ourselves live with well water, and we know to respect it. We practically promised not to bathe (the children will be in the pool - they won't need baths!) or wash our clothes. Scott explained how he had lived in Italy & France and was accustomed to life there. Her very last email summed it up as our group would "displace the natural harmony of the house." Poetic way of saying "no thank you, you're going to run my well dry with all your frivolous water consumption and drive up my electric bill."

I don't think it really mattered what we had said beyond Americans. Maybe if it had been just the 4 of us (but then we couldn't actually afford to rent such a beautiful place) it would have been different. This nice Italian lady must have had a bad experience which now leaves her no choice but to discriminate against energy-consuming Americans?

Perhaps she already knew that per capita energy use by Americans is 2.46 times higher than Italians? (Data from US GOV Dept of Energy International Statistics 2007) How is it that those Italians are so GREEN? From my short time studying in Italy in college, I noticed a few big differences. I think this article on the Yale Environment 360 website explains beautifully What Makes Europe Greener than the US

So we've moved on to a second choice villa, which is actually closer to the town where we really wanted to be (molto GREEN, not having so far to drive to get to the bakery!) I've given it some time and I'm now in love with this house as well, and you can bet that while I'm there I will treat the property with respect. I will dry our clothes on the clothesline. I won't be using a hairdryer. I will be eating by candlelight on the terrace. Even if these were things I never do, I like to go "native" as I say, when spending time someplace else. Hopefully I can bring more of the habits and Italian way of life and lower energy-consumption home with me! (If only our local government could figure out a better infrastructure for mass transit....what a difference that would make!)

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Towns as GREEN Communities

I drive through a lot of towns while out showing houses, but it's more than just driving by. I'm always keeping my eyes open and trying to get a feel for neighborhoods, amenities, and of course stopping to try the local coffee or ice cream shops.

Last week I found myself scouting Wethersfield. I always thought I knew Wethersfield, having lived about a mile from it for more than 12 years. I know where to get the good pizza, the best playgrounds, Old Wethersfield and the Cove. I've been to a wedding at the barn (cheers to the happy couple - Nicole & Rodney all these years later!)
Last year I discovered the town was developing a GREEN vibe when the townspeople voted to conserve the large tract of farmland known as the Wilkus Farm.

(Pictured: The Web Barn)

What I didn't know was that the town had the foresight to have a Shade Tree Commission. Isn't that wonderful? Separately, in celebration of Wethersfield's 375th anniversary in 2009, the town was planting 375 trees! (I was in my car in Wethersfield with my kids, completely terrified, at the moment the tornado hit in June and saw how many trees were destroyed, so the planting came at a good time.) The coup de grace for me was that the town has a comprehensive Energy Plan. (I know, I know, the things that get me excited...)

The thing that caught my eye last week though, was the billboard for the Conservation Challenge GREEN Summit III. I had to look it up just as soon as I got back to the office.

The challenge begins March 1st and runs until May 31st. Residents, business owners or facility managers participating must attend 1 of 2 educational forums that outline the program. The challenge is open not only to residents, but also to educational and municipal facilities, commercial and industrial businesses, and faith congregations. Those participating will agree to have their water and electric usage monitored during the time period and the first 500 registered will receive a conservation kit of energy-saving goodies, PLUS 2 rain barrels! Nice, right? So on top of saving energy and helping the environment, these people will be saving MONEY. Wouldn't it be fun to see exactly how much we could save in 3 months by doing the same? I tell you, Wethersfield has got it going on!

GREEN Summit III is the follow up to Summits I & II, which laid the foundation for the greening of this community. The first event brought together residents to discuss strategies for making Wethersfield GREEN. The second was a huge energy fair with workshops, exhibits, & panel discussions.
To my Wethersfield friends and readers, there were 165 registered participants when I looked into this...there's still time to register and attend the informational forum on February 11th from 7-9pm at the Council Chambers of Town Hall. For anyone who does participate, I'd love to hear how it goes!

The more I learn, the more Wethersfield climbs up my coolness meter. Where many towns (like mine) have dabbled in making changes (and I don't mean that as a slight - I understand it's a big task) Wethersfield continues it's efforts in a well-planned campaign, bringing together the various environmental groups in town, and slowly making a reality of becoming a GREEN community. Kudos to Wethersfield for it's innovation, leadership, and for setting a GREEN example!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

GREEN Flooring Choices?

I don't have any flooring projects in mind in the near future, but I find myself thinking about flooring anyway. (Call it a job hazard of working in real estate and visiting so many homes.) I thought I'd take a look at what's available for eco-friendly flooring these days.

When it comes to flooring, eco-friendly can mean that it is made with recycled materials, natural or sustainable materials, or doesn't use toxic chemicals. Toxic chemicals? No thank you. Why on earth wouldn't you look into alternatives to toxic chemicals?

In our search for GREEN flooring choices we can find recycled/reclaimed wood, recycled glass tiles, bamboo (which is actually a grass), linoleum (which is biodegradable and doesn't release any toxins), natural fibers like jute & sisal or sea grass, cork (which is the bark of a tree and continues to grow.) You can also find recycled rubber carpet padding or the interlocking rubber tiles (such as you find in gyms or children's playrooms.)

It's also important to consider any adhesives that might be used in the installation process, and to make sure these or any padding (in the case of carpet) DO NOT contain toxins or volatile organic chemicals (known as VOCs.) These can seriously impair the quality of the air in your home. I wish I'd given it some thought back in the day almost 10 years ago when we replaced the horrific orange shag rug in our living room. At this point I'm going to hope that whatever toxins were there have long since dissipated.

One company in particular caught my eye with an ad last year in an environmental magazine. They were also involved in the HGTV GREEN Home project in 2008 and the flooring they provided was really beautiful. I'm sure there are other companies doing this as well, but this one stuck in my mind as having lots of eco-friendly choices, and to be committed to sustainability. If anyone else has any companies to recommend, I'm all ears. When the time comes (and it will - that little spot of Silly Putty NEVER came out of the carpet no matter what I tried) I will look to an environmentally-friendly floor covering. I hope you'll consider it as well.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Our Great, Big Attic Insulation Project

OK, so it turns out it's not as much a BIG job, as a MESSY one, but Scott (with the help of my dear dad,) finally insulated the attic floors of our 100+ year old home. It's also a 2 person job and proved fairly easy, with a few hours of prep work in the attic, one day of blowing in the insulation, and one afternoon of cleaning up the attic afterwards and reinstalling those original floorboards. (Ours is a full walk-up 3rd floor attic.)

You may remember this project was the recommendation made to us by the home energy audit contractors this summer.

Scott chose a product called greenfiber, which is a natural fiber insulation. My favorite things about it: contains no formaldehyde, produced using 10 times less energy than other types of insulation, no-itch, it's 85% recycled paper fiber (the labels say each 40 sq.ft. bag of insulation contains the equivalent of about 46 Sunday newspapers! What's not to love, right?

All in all, we went through 38 bags at $7.49 each. The blower machine to install it was a free rental with the purchase of the insulation, and looked like a tall shop vac. The guys installed the hoses and ran one right up the front of the house to the attic windows.

While my dad fed the insulation into the hopper, Scott guided the hose in the attic to the floors and voila! Did I mention it was messy though? The kids and I had to vacuum up every time the guys walked through the house, and the attic was a mess for a day while Scott finished the final details.
The only tools they really needed were a utility knife to open the packages, safety goggles (but I don't think either of them wore them,) dust masks which they did wear, and knee pads for Scott working on the floor.

Unfortunately for my dad, Scott picked what may have been the coldest day of the year to do this project, and the hopper is supposed to be operated outside. Thanks for being such a trooper, Dad!

Scott figures the approximate R-Value of the amount of insulation they installed (and greenfiber gives you a chart to help you determine how to achieve varying R-Values) to be around R-20 based on how he was able to pack about 6 inches of insulation into the floors.
We were AMAZED at how there was an INSTANT change in temperature in the rooms affected by the insulation. The difference was immediately, shockingly noticeable. No more space heater necessary in the front bedrooms! A big difference for under $300. Fantastic!

Friday, January 1, 2010

Green Resolutions, Anyone?

Happy New Year from The GREEN Connecticut Realtor!

I've been hearing some interesting New Year's resolutions this year, and a lot of the same old ones, but not many GREEN ones. I'm a list-maker myself, so making resolutions for me is more along the lines of making another "TO-DO" list, only more ambitious than my weekly lists, and slightly more attainable than my life list (now THAT is a fun list!)

So what are some ways to incorporate eco-friendly ideas into our best-intentioned resolutions? It seems pretty simple. There must be tons of ways to do so.

I'm always trying to think of ways to reduce my footprint on the earth, and I still seem to get too much junk mail from companies (such my banks & insurance companies) who do business with me and so feel entitled to send me mail. Besides recycling it, which I do, I've recently decided to shred it and feed it to my hungry composter. If you're still getting lots of unwanted credit card offers, you can go to to put a stop to it.
Losing weight is a perpetual favorite. I can resolve to get to the gym more, but I can also resolve to eat one less meat-based meal a week. Would it kill me to have salad night once a week? Not at all, and it's better for the planet AND my waistline. It's also super easy when my garden is in full glory.

What about shopping locally? In an area like mine, this has a double-GREEN impact. Not only can you save gas, but you can support many farm stands and farmer's markets. There's this project you may have heard of too, called the 3/50 Project that encourages people to make an effort to shop locally. The premise is that if you spend $50 each month in 3 of your favorite local independent stores, a good chunk of that money comes back to the community. It's about saving Main St., versus the corporate big boxes. While I can't afford to spend $50 each month in my favorite local stores (ie. The Red Door Boutique on Main St. - it's fabulous!) this project has me thinking about all the products I can buy here in town, and instead of going out of town for dinner we try to frequent local eateries. The only area where I'm not following this rule is with the grocery store. We have a big box and I don't love it. It's overpriced and the organic produce is rotten before I get it home. For that reason I still visit Trader Joe's 30 minutes away, or make my hubby stop at Whole Foods on his way home from time to time.

My work-specific GREEN resolution is to better promote the environmentally-friendly features of my real estate listings. In this economy, these money-saving details do make a difference.
So have you found a way to add a GREEN spin to your resolutions?