Radon’s reach


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Earlier this week there was a presentation at UAF on Radon.  It was about testing your home to some degree, yet had a new emphasis that has not been highlighted so strongly before- the lung health and geology side of things.  The director of the local Alaska chapter of the American Lung Association (AALA) was there and had detailed slides on lungs; Maegan went in depth of how a healthy lung should look, what parts are compromised by the decaying radioactive gas of radon, and made mention on how to keep the lung tissues healthy throughout life (and yes, exercise was listed as one of those maintenance activities).  The images on the Powerpoint slides were dynamic and colorful. We will look forward to the community event which AALA is hosting April 17.

In addition, Jen Athley shared on the ‘lay of the land’, so to speak concerning naturally occurring radioactive substances.  She also had a very vibrant overhead color map of Alaska which differentiated various deposits of landform/rock.  She went into detail to describe how radon interacts with various minerals as well as the distribution of those minerals.  And of course she spoke to- in detail- what the potential dangers are with hard rock schist in disseminating radon.

Cooperative Extension will hope to continue sharing about radon as we try to renew our rounds of healthy homes classes year round- which have a strong indoor air quality component.  Keep an eye out for healthy homes or straight radon classes this spring and summer.

The cost of warming up


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This week there were various sessions at Anchorage’s  Alaska Forum on the Environment on climate change effects.  One advantage mentioned during a food security session is that there very well be more arable land available to grow food on as permafrost melts.  Albeit there will need to be examinations as to how the organic matter once frozen effects new plants.

An article in the Alaska Dispatch mentioned that there will be a downside to Alaskans though.  It will cost more as the landscape changes to keep up with engineering concerns.  It notes that a recent study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has aggregated what it thinks the costs will be to the public sector for repaired and new infrastructure from:

  • flooding  and precipitation
  • permafrost changes
  • freeze-thaw cycles and coastal erosion

They estimate the total cost of repairing public roads, pipelines, buildings, airports and rail lines at $5.5 billion by the end of the century. UAA has a report estimating the costs at $5.6-$7.6 billion.  (This might be the time to become an engineer!)

There will benefits and costs to Alaska as patterns change.  The studies didn’t look at the Pipeline, harbors and other private infrastructure.  The question is always who will pony up for the bill?

EU weighs in on Arctic energy concerns


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This past week a committee of the EU discussed and voted on the arctic with its opening up in the near future.  One issue was petrol pollution; it centered around banning heavy marine oils that if there were a spill would be particularly difficult to clean- especially given the frigid waters.  Also of a concern was the advancement and re-opening of Russian military  bases in the north.  In fact, a number of mothballed bases from the cold war era are being revamped- similar to our Adak, Galena, and other cold war bases.

The other concern was Russian exploration.  The Russians have 40+icebreakers, of which three are nuclear powered – and there are three more that are on the building docks.  With the northern route open now seasonally (along the Russian northern coast to Scandinavia) the northwest route of Canada would still be left alone for about another dozen years before shipping and exploration becomes a viable travel path.

More debates are bound to come in the nuclear realm as EU nations de-invest in nuclear power and the Russians continue with remote applications such as nuclear oil drilling platforms.

Clean energy in the future…


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With a new administration and congress in charge, what will the focus be on ‘energy’?  Certainly incentives and priority on heat and electrical generation will not be as centered around carbon.  At this point  has sounded like the focus from the top of environmental and energy departments (federal) will be going the opposite direction of Cap and Trade and more so focused on the utility and cost feasibility of fuel sources.

If so, are ‘clean energy’ energy sources going to be relevant at all? It will probably depend fuel by fuel on extraction/generation costs, infrastructure requirements for transportation and usability at end use locations- whether it be at power generation plants (utilities) or home heating appliances.  Will particle emissions/output be a concern from a local pollution point of view (with carbon escapement itself not being the focus)? Will non-combustible energy sources such as solar or wind have a competitive place among combustible fuels? These are going to be questions that clues will be unfolding from the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Also keeping an eye on the various activities in the congressional energy committees will help also to spot what is viable and what isn’t. And for Alaska, where we have somewhat of a secluded energy market, we may not be effected by federal adjustments as much as the grid tied lower 48 states!



Roof frost


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This past week I’ve been going back and forth with an Anchorage homeowner who did the right thing- insulated his 1960’s home- and now has an unexpected situation.  It turns out that up in the attic he is getting a build up of frost on the inside (downside) portion of his roof after beefing up the amount of fiberglass insulation.  With a vapor barrier under the original fiberglass bats, somehow moisture is frosting up in the attic space.

Usually this would be a ventilation problem, incurred from a restriction of circulation through the attic.  It has louvered vents on both ends, so it is a ‘cold roof’ (that is, outside air is free to come and go in the attic area).  One has some frost yet is accessible while the other looks fully frosted up.  That may restrict a flow of cold air coming through.  I asked about moisture possibly entering from the top of the roof- but no, no new leaks known of.

As it is a shallow roof, at first it seemed like possibly the new fiberglass could be blocking air intakes under the eaves but he even increased the open area with new cuts.  He also had ‘baffles’ inserted, so that the pieces of tightly fit cardboard would allow space between the underside of the roof for air to come up from under the eaves as a direct avenue.  The other possibility is a new moisture source from possibly a broken PVC stack pipe that may be entering condensation from escaping air out the top of the roof (such as from a sewer stack).

At this point, acknowledging that the weather is much colder than usual and that Anchorage tends to have moist ambient air, I am not sure what could be causing the frosting as it is not uniformed throughout the upper part of the attic- only on the underside of the baffles between the gables and roof trusses!  I am conferring with the Cold Climate Housing Research Center, yet have any of you readers had similar circumstances? Please reply if so!

Remote is remote…….


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Currently being at an international conference, I was able to talk to someone who is in higher education about the situations run into per ‘frontier’ conditions.  She spoke of living in a smaller city in Australia, and similar to those who live on the Yukon River during breakup here in the ‘Last Frontier’, she described the annual resignation to the 2 weeks of seasonal rains that force people to stop traveling until the flooding has stopped.

This is not far from the reality of what those in villages up river experience when around late March they box things up in their log homes that are built on the ground (typically the Yukon Flats area) and put them all up on ~2.5 foot wide shelves which are stabilized about 2 foot from the ceiling. When the river is clear of ice jams and the danger of major flooding is over the boxes come down, are unpacked, residents can be more mobile once again.  The Australian educator I spoke with mentioned that when their two weeks of immobilizing rains end, then  travel resume.

Of course it’s the times when rains or river ice suddenly bust open (especially while people are sleeping or when they do not expect the annual events) which leads to disaster recovery needs- and possibly evacuation with an emergency kit in some cases.  The  miles and miles of ice dammed up in Galena in May 2013 wasn’t unheard of, but it was the sudden shifting and release that caused people to evacuate, have their power plant fill up with several feet of water and made for very hasty evacuations.

In rural Australia or Alaska,  remote  communities can at times be ‘stopped’, isolated  from river or air travel and faced with problems well beyond inconveniences of cancelled school for kids.  The key is to have prepared.  That would be getting the physical structure prepped as well as can be expected ahead of the disaster so that it stays intact and allows for a quick clean up and relocation of major items  (how water heaters, drawers china hutches/cabinets, etc…} once the  earthquake, tsunami, or seasonal  flooding runs out of the area. (And of course, the other piece of preparation is having an emergency evacuation kit stocked and ready to go at all times with seven days of supplies for each member and pet in the home).

Insulation and all


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I just returned from the first day of meetings with educators from around the world, and met two folk from Quebec.  They asked about what an energy specialist does and when I described as best as good (as French being his primary language) the range of education the translated question was “do you insulate or do solar panels?”

It brings up the difference between retaining space heat and generating/distributing heat (as well as the difference of providing technical assistance and referrals versus doing installations).  The cost of each (retaining vs. generating) relies to a good extent on overhead fixed costs for materials or equipment.  Yet everyone in the business pretty much agrees that the ‘low lying fruit’ of investment and effort should first be put into insulation and heat retention before even deciding what form of generation (or distribution) you should take on.

In cases where there is hydro (such as Montreal, thus providing electricity at $.09 a kilowatt hour) the cost put into further insulation will not have great an advantage as putting in a new, more efficient heating system but it will most likely still be the biggest bang for your buck to insulate first. (And of course the cost of fuel- local or imported- plays into the amount which generation will top insulation improvements).  What was your bill the last quarter of Sept. 1 2016 to Dec. 31 2016? What R insulation do you have in your attic, walls and floor?  Have you had any weatherization blower door test to see how secure your vapor barrier is? Or have you ever had an infra-red gun analysis of the exterior of your home?  These would be good things to look up before getting through the next quarter (ending April 30, 2017)!









New Technology to create a better air heat exchanger


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Today I had the opportunity to listen to a presentation from a professor from Beijing University of Technology’s Department of Building Environment and Faculty Engineering on a new type of flat plate solar collector (for residential hot water).  By using a novel collector and absorber, various tests were described when tinkering with amibeint air temperature, pressure in chambers and tank temperature -which I did not understand all of. I shared lessons Rich Seifert found out down the road.

But the diagrams were fantastic and well labeled so that the efficiencies were understood at a comprehensive level.  It was a very nice presentation in that it had spec diagrams, and photos of the actual units being tested in the field.  This was a nice way to explain things in theory and reality…..

The conference has been a good mixture and quite an interdisciplinary venue.

A bit more oil…..


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In a year where it seemed like bad news went to worse as far as Alaska’s oil revenues there was a glimmer of hope. This year PFD’s were cut in half though the rolling multi-year average dished out one of the highest ever- due to a lack of State revenues in other areas.  And shortly after a very close passing of a tax credit referendum to oil companies as an incentive to drill, there was a strong drop in prices that bottomed out around the first of the year which made extraction of arctic crude improbable.  The end of the year also found the outgoing President taking actions to restrict future drilling in the Arctic (offshore).

The good news however, is that the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System announced that the annual through put of oil pushed down the pipeline was an increased amount over last year.  So while -in a simple sense- profits equal quantity (which increased as raw product) multiplied by price (which has been suppressed but slowly climbing), whether Alaska sees an increase in final revenues on its oil remains to be seen.  But in the immediate more oil flow is a positive (financial) omen!


Polar energy

While the U.S. had responded to the stranglehold OPEC had on it during the early ’70s oil embargo by putting in the Alaska Pipeline, Russia also went to it’s polar areas for an energy solution.  In the early 1980s on Kolguyev Island the Soviet Union put in oil extraction equipment to pull up high quality light crude which it then puts out to tankers offshore for transport. Farther north, Bovanenkova on the Yamal Peninsula was explored in the 1970’s for natural gas and now is producing at the urging of Putin.

As the output of the pipeline decreases and there is no near gas project that is being developed (at this point), it may be that Russia may be better positioned to develop the opening Arctic with energy infrastructure  and transportation than the U.S./Alaska. There has already been a head start by far on claiming the ice shelf in front of the North Slope (of Russia) to the North Pole.  This is certainly true on their diplomatic end as well as legal side of Polar claims.

It will be interesting as to what energy projects, off coast or continental, will crop up the next 10 years.