Good news for radon outreach in Alaska

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Yesterday Cooperative Extension received confirmation that this next fiscal year’s (July 1, 2015- July 30 2016) has been provided by the EPA. There has been concern from year to year since 2012 of the funding being cut, but it is here. And so I will continue to work with various entities to get the word out on testing and mitigating). This month I’ve been available for the common phone calls to come in at my office (474-6366 or 1-800-478-8324) for residents. I’ve driven out to a tribal village about 500 miles there and back to drop off a group of radon tests, and have continued the planning/communication of mediating testing with Alaska’s school districts. 
 
It is the latter, training and helping with the testing schools which will take up a share of this year’s operating budget. Test kits are not cheap; even with an unbelievable deal from one of the few providers in the country, it costs $10-$20 per classroom to test. Count up the number of classrooms in all of your kids’ schools- then add the rooms where staff, teachers and students may be occupying for the majority of a day (such as libraries, gyms, cafeterias, secretary offices, etc…).  You can see where it easily costs several hundred dollars for small schools and can be up in the thousands for some of the larger schools in the state.  That is just for the test kits, as there obviously is expenditure of time and effort by district personnel.  
 
In many states that require testing in schools (Alaska does not), the rule of thumb of testing every five years is followed. Why twice a decade? There may be earthquakes, a changing of the water table or floods which can redistribute the routes which radon takes advantage of when escaping from the uranium that created it below in the ground. But generally with large ventilation systems which schools often have, someone changing the controls which may effect the air exchange rate can change the level of exposure in the building. If you have questions about radon in your local schools, call your local district’s environmental or safety health manager to see if your district has tested and when. The good news is that unlike homes that may have several factors effecting the escapement of radon out of the house or negative pressure causing the infilling of radon into the home, schools have a very large and sophisticated air handling system so that in this one rare venue, ‘diluting is the solution to pollution’. Any other questions about radon? Call Art at 1-800-478-8324.

Wait, Radon action month is in January, right?

Many people think about radon in the depths of winter as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has chosen the first month of the year (and coldest in many parts of the country) as the time to roll out its information about radon. This way short term testing can still occur in the months that often Americans’ homes are closed up and more likely to reflect a concentrated amount of radon gas on the test results.  And the last couple years I have encouraged people during January to test (as it is the only way you will ever know if you have a radon problem). Public service announcements, targeted dates to release video, newspaper articles etc… are created for an especially hard hit in January.
BUT, the depths of summer are also a good time to think about radon if you are taking advantage of these long days to build a home. In fact, you can reduce future mitigation if your January test is high, by including radon evacuating piping into your foundation plans before you pour a slab and get on with the finishing of your building before the fall snows hit. If you are building yourself or having a contractor part out the individual tasks to sub-contractors, you might want to take a look at Ilya Benesch’s two films on our YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3EOt-iyk5MA for the short five minute summary on super insulated slabs with radon piping included, and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zwz4yPgv3XA for the more detail version of a dozen minutes. This longer video uses the designation popular with the EPA and National Environmental Health Association (NEHA) entitled “RRNC”, or Radon Resistant New Construction. Both videos are also on the site of Illya’s employer, the Cold Climate Housing Research Center at www.cchrc.org. If you have any other questions on these techniques of including radon escapement routes into your foundation (or radon testing concerns), feel free to contact myself at our Radon Hotline number of 1-800-478-8324.

Alaska – the nation’s Ethanol trailer

With all the wood smoke currently around, it’s obvious that our plant/tree life has a lot of BTU’s! (And from all the smoke, you can tell much of it is green and not completely combusting). Did you know that such plants as ours can produce biofuels? In fact one researcher at UAF a couple years ago was burning wood in a Gasification Experimental Kit unit to create a liquid he could use to outright run a diesel generator which supplied electricity to his very lab.
Yet most people equate plants and liquid fuels with Ethanol.  And many have ‘blend fuel’ vehicles now that are designed to perform off a mix (often 10% biofuel and 90% petroleum fuel). Corn has been the plant of choice in most of the lower 48, although Sorghum and other plants can contribute to the auto fleet fuels used.  When looking at the overall nation, Alaska is ranked 49th in utilizing just under 1% of the nation’s Ethanol at a minor 30,786,000 gallons. Now only if we could figure out how to use our main grain, barley, to make our own car hootch!

Transportation takes energy!

Many people in Alaska are surprised to hear that the second major use of energy in Alaska (next to industrial usage)  is not home and building space heating, but rather transportation.  When looking at all the fuel and heat used to transport people around the state both on and off the road system, in transporting food and goods up to Alaska from other states/countries, and in getting up to develop our main energy resources on the North Slope- transportation use takes up about a third of our energy consumed.
Today (6/24) there was an article in the Alaska Dispatch about the declining days of usage in which the major thoroughfares up to Alaska’s oilfields could be used.  To drive large vehicles on the tundra for servicing rigs frozen soils and ice roads have been depended upon. Currently, with the climate changing to warmer soils those permafrost soils have been thawing and restricting the ability to drive and move equipment in the ordinary methods of the past. This spring saw the “Haul Road” (Dalton Highway) was closed in sections for quite some time due to overflow.  Many of the North Slope suppliers rely on  Ironically, though not all due to warming climate trends, the thawing out of the Arctic is hampering the access for production of our energy resources. Yet as seen in the article today there are engineers utilizing simple interventions such as snow pack (and more complex methods) to try to keep the transportation moving!

Radon Testing in Summer?

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As most people know who have done the 2 day charcoal ‘short term’ radon tests, it is advised that the house be closed up as much as possible and the natural time to do that is in the winter. So now that summer is here (80 degrees in Fairbanks this past week!) does that mean that the testing ‘season’ is over? No. In fact, this may the time to put a test in to get a broader idea of what an annual average of radon gas concentration is in your home, shop, or anywhere else where you spend a good amount of time daily. The avenue for this type of testing is a alpha track long term kit. These will go into the home for anywhere between 3 months or a year, and since you will not be absorbing radon gas into charcoal and then counting how many half lives (3.5 days for one) the concentration has diminished, you are able to have doors and windows closed or opened when you want as well as operate your fans to comfort level. With these kits, the lab will put a clear slide of plastic under a microscope from the kit and count the ‘skid marks’ alpha particle discharges leave behind when exposed to radon gas. If you are interested in putting such a kit in this month (or any other yet this summer), give a call to your local Cooperative Extension Office to pick one up ($25) with mailing label and postage. Or call Art on the radon hotline at 1-800-478-8324 for more information.

Long term radon test kit

Long term radon test kit

Driving the icy road to the oil

Annual Dalton Highway truck traffic, up the “haul road”, averages thousands of vehicles per month.  It is a main thoroughfare for getting goods up to Prudhoe Bay oil fields. The highway itself provides access from Deadhorse between Kuparuk Base Camp and Endicott oil field. Milne Point and the Oliktok field in the Kuparuk area are also connected. Exploratory drilling has been assisted by ice-without gravel roads in some areas. (Where there are gravel roads- about 200 miles interconnected- they are lifted 5 foot off the ground and about 3 dozen feet wide). There are about 8 miles of gravel roads to get to drilling sites, warehouses and satellite facilities. In winter,  roads are covered with ice per transportation. There is regular maintenance yet nothing like this week’s makeover of the haul road.

According to the 4/12 article in Dan Jowling’s  Alaska Dispatch News article, “the Dalton Highway reopened Sunday to limited traffic with 30 northbound trucks making the first crossing in a week to resupply Alaska North Slope oil fields.”  Then  30 southbound trucks were allowed to make the trip while  hundreds more loads were waiting in Fairbanks (almost 500 miles south) to head up to the  oil fields with food, fuel and general supplies.

Six miles just below Deadhorse the road had been impassible for a week because of overflow from the Sagavanirktok (Sag) River that never has occurred. The 414 mile haul gravel road runs along the highway and trans-Alaska pipeline. This is one example of why the largest percentage user of energy in Alaska is transportation (then space heat, and finally power production!

Aging in Place in Healthy Homes

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I recently attended a meeting with the national Extension Healthy Homes Partnership which has existed for a couple of decades yet is now headquartered out of the University of  Missouri. It was mentioned that in the past we’ve looked at symptoms of the house that cause a particular health problem. Mold causing allergic or respiratory reactions, lead causing problems with blood poisoning, carbon monoxide leading to asphyxiation, etc… Yet the new movement is to look at the home comprehensively so that indoor air quality, surface coverings and safety to limit falls and injuries are all taken care of for both the occupant’s long term health and the dwelling’s integrity.

In that vein, Alaska CES will be teaching Healthy Homes with certain audiences and conditions in mind- vast aging population, rural living, northern clime. Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Rhode Island will join CES on some of these as we teach by teleconference about modifying existing homes to help folks get around and operate their homes with limited ambulation, grasping ability and visual acuity. There will be a focus on the entry and bathroom areas for these other states due to the importance of mobility. Keep an eye out for an Aging in Place class at your district CES office!

Batteries for your cellphone, car and ….grid??

There has been a continued technological revolution in materials and manufacturing of electrical storage which has made some cabin and home owners able to justify the cost of solar panels and wind turbines. Since it doesn’t always blow (the wind) nor shine (the sun at the ground level) storage is crucial. With micro hydro power at least the water is always running (though that may be seasonal with freeze up) yet to have enough electricity on tap to meet a users demand, batteries are usually hooked up to a small water turbine.
In Alaska deep cycle lead-acid or glass mat (AGM) batteries are probably the storage of choice for individual electricity generators. Yet there has been a large move toward a number of storage ‘systems’ by major utilities who are using them for back up or efficient distribution on the grid. Forbes magazine has a recent interview which puts into perspective the use of battery storage per a regional basis.
It is interesting to read from the point of view as to the materials used for different applications. The interview also points out the investment potential (it is printed in Forbes, after all) of a unlikely growing industry which we always used the vast national grid system for- electrical storage after generation!

Energy market drives deflation?

You wouldn’t think that people would complain about falling prices, but economists worry when it goes beyond a short run trend into the long term. An article in the Economist outlines the concern on a global level, and sites oil prices falling as a motivator in the current quarter’s fall of prices of 0.3%. Typically 2% increase is seen as a good equilibrium. Mentioning the drop of crude it notes that the decrease directly involves fuel and transportation costs of goods (while the service industry isn’t effected so much). And of course, while crude has dropped over 50% as a commodity, refined gas on average has only by a third or so due to a sort of ‘sticky prices’…easily will climb, yet not come down so easily!

Biomass in the Copper River Valley

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I spoke yesterday with a reporter from KCHU, the public radio station out of Valdez, and she inquired of a daylong of  workshops at the Kenny Lake Community Center (on 2/28). When mentioning the sessions that will include Extension faculty, the local economic development authority, and local experts she asked if wood was a big thing up there. It is. In fact, if you look at the Valley’s 2013 energy plan you’ll see that Biomass takes up more pages than any other of the eight types of energy listed. The 2010 American Communities Survey found that around a third of the residents heat wood- which is no light load considering the Interior like temperatures that can occur in winter. It is also estimated in the report that the are 3 million acres of wood available for development. That may be cord firewood, bio-brick products or possibly chips. If you have a chance on the 28th to come down to Kenny Lake (or up the 90 miles from Valdez) you can hear first hand how biomass is being used and is the planning stages for locally made products!

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