Changing Patterns in the yard


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Lately there have been questions asked by those around Fairbanks about large depressions in the ground.  The scale of these circular ‘drops’ in soil are many feet across and from what have been reported (by homeowners) they will be several feet deep so that the lawn hangs like a tarp with a void underneath it (until reaching the descending soil.  From a healthy homes view, this could obviously be a safety hazard for any kids or other who are cutting across your yard.  But it also may be pointing to potential problems with they home and water supply (or sewer supply).

The main concern I ask about on calls is whether or not the depression is encroaching the foundation.  If that happens, it can undermine a cement slab and create voids and cracking.  And then radioactive radon gas if present can enter through the void; or if large enough, pests such as insects or rodents may have a new entry into the house.  If extreme, it can compromise the load of the structure (especially if it takes place under load bearing walls).

The first question people have though, is what is causing it?  It would not be surprising if all of these calls came out of the Gold Stream Valley.  There, subsurface permafrost has been fairly active in changing  the surface of driveways and yards with large depressions forming in the matter of a summer.  But  calls of late are from established residences in the city of Fairbanks.  If there hasn’t been a history of permafrost nearby (as ice in soils can roam from lot to lot) then there may be a water leak caused by a break in the supply like.  Or potentially in the line going to the septic (or sewer when it is city water without a well).   The other potential is if there has historically been a large quantity of wood, downed trees, branches, etc….buried that is now decaying and creating a subsurface void. Regardless of the cause, be sure to post the area until you can fill it in and let the water utility (if on city water) so that they can send in detectors for any leaks!



What an Energy Week, Comin’ Up!


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It will be a short week coming off Memorial Day, but full of opportunities in Fairbanks wrapped around energy innovation.  On Tuesday (5/29) there will be congressional representatives flying in for Alaska Center for Energy and Power’s Lab Week.  Venues for public participation will be available from  3-5pm at:

  • Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station
  • Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration
  • Alaska Earthquake Center
  • Alaska Satellite Facility
  • Alaska Sea Grant
  • Alaska Volcano Observatory
  • College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences
  • Institute of Arctic Biology-Toolik Field Station
  • Institute of Northern Engineering
  • International Arctic Research Center
  • Wilson Alaska Technical Center

There will be a lecture event in the Schaible Auditorium at 6pm centered around Microgrids in Alaska (registration can be filled out at   In addition, Wednesday (5/30) there will be various presentations from the University and energy labs from around the country. Thursday for the first half of the day there will be additional presentations (see for details).

In addition Thursday,  there will be a build out demonstration workshop on thermal mass heaters for greenhouse season extension in Fox.  (Space is limited due to concurrent filming, but I yet have 5 slots open if you are interested- let me know at 322-2309 for directions and to confirm).  The general session will be 10-5pm, and participants will be able to learn about combustion, thermal heat storage, gasification, emissions/particulates and growing requirements per heat location.

Thursday night at the BP Design Theater (4th floor in the new engineering building) I will be presenting with two Alaska Center for Energy and Power researchers the new addition of the Alaska solar manual.  This will be a brief walk through from 6-8pm on the elements and focus of the new work. It is the landmark piece written by Extension professor Richard Seifert decades ago and has a new facelift of current information, specs on equipment and updated photos.  Admission is free to both events!

The New Silk Road?


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Recently there has been a focus on China’s courting of what has been traditionally an U.S. ally, Pakistan.  With the massive population and few extractable resources, Pakistan has been working with China to the north to get fossil fuel imports.  In fairly rural territory, there has been a good amount of earth moving and road building.  The project has literally been called the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Some people are referring to it as the ‘New Silk Road’ as it is a pathway to supply northern Pakistan communities that have households who have never utilized electricity. (It has been estimated that just over four and a half million people in Pakistan are without electricity and it would take at least 4 gigawatts to supply them; this number speaks only to capacity and amount, but not really transportation and distribution logistics.

China sees this as a regional partner that strengthens its position as well as provide a huge market potential for China to see coal and other energy inputs.  And it won’t all be about fossil fuels traveling over the road, but there is an intent to utilize.  Solar will more than likely be a large player but that requires having a grid to transport the electricity (or settling people near battery storage).  Energy is often a strong motivator to diplomatic relations, and it will be interesting to see if this relationship between the two countries effects America’s and Pakistan’s relationship.

Kodiak and DOE


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The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is having its rounds with Kodiak this month.  Last week Energy Secretary Rick Perry visited and toured Kodiak Island, which has a star reputation in Alaska of being almost 100% renewable.  As a whole, with hydro and wind projects that have been invested into the island it relies on very little diesel for electrical production.  Some communities like Old Harbor, with its location, still are reliant on diesel yet have been trying for some time to connect into hydro.

In the past the size of the population has been supported by the Coast Guard base, ranching and fish processing.  The latter is incredibly energy intensive, yet only for a season.  So balancing loads is a normal (for Alaska) challenge yet not an easy balancing act when less than an hour flight from Anchorage incentivizes out migration to where there are jobs other times of the year (or all year around).

Next week DOE will be running workshops as a part of their annual series on ideas and assistance to tribes who are wanting to pursue projects themselves.  There will be several of the communities coming together to share their experiences as well as receive technical assistance, and though it is a compounded flight in and out from Fairbanks, I expect it will be worth the time up front.

Nuclear, on the water

Before Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, almost half a century ago an US utility (Public Service Electric & Gas Co. of New Jersey) creatively laid plans to have a floating nuclear power plant just outside of Atlantic City.  After 9 years, with fiscal difficulties and protests, the project was cancelled and none like it arose in the U.S.  Recently, however, Russia has put rubber on the road and after 9 years has built such a floating plant outside of Petersburg.

It soon is to be relocated up in the arctic by tug boats to Murmansk (where it will eventually be loaded with fuel rods).  The design is not elegant, yet the output will be a massive 70MW when it goes into production in 2019.  The Russian state owned utility Rosatom believes this will be sufficient to provide power for .1 million people.  It is being viewed as a structure that will be immune to Tsunami’s or other disasters which could compromise its function.

Not everyone is so sure on the safety side of things and one concern being that a meltdown at sea would contaminate the Arctic via water.  Time will tell how easy the tethering of such an amount of power will fare…



Radon at the capital

This week I was in Juneau talking radio active gas!  (The EPA was filming a new piece for U.S. tribes on radon in Indian Country and we shot an interview at the UAS Media Center).  There was an opportunity to travel to several child care centers and provide test kits to them as well as present to family, teaching staff and even the kiddos.  The usual question popped up asking if ‘we have radon here’.

One would think with the houses built right up the hillside on craggy and crumbly rock that Juneau would be geologically a perfect candidate for high radon levels in homes.  Yet I had a retired radon testing company owner (from SE states) who is now living in Juneau describe to me the formation of the valley as well as the creation of the slide areas which seems to mitigate radon from getting in the homes.

Indeed, close to 500 long term, alpha track kits were tested in the first couple years of the Alaska State Indoor Radon Grant over a quarter of a century ago and they nearly all were below the EPA’s action level of 4.0 pico curies of concentration in a liter of air.  Another possibility is that there is no uranium in the area to emit radon gas. This isn’t true however, as across the bridge in Douglas some of the highest readings ever by these kits show up during that same time frame.

Thus, REGARDLESS of what levels of radon people have had nearby, the only way you’ll know if you have a radon problem is to test!

Oil goes up!

We have reached almost $70 a barrel ($68+ today) for oil, which is more than double the price a year or so ago. It hasn’t been this high for three years and may be signaling a permanent rise in petrol prices. When crude dove down into the $30’s range it was said that part of the reason was OPEC and part was due to a glut of oil in reserves (as well as in the immediate market).

Yet now government reserves have dropped over a million barrels. Aside from the decrease of supply, there is a bit fear right now in the various countries over current geopolitical events which increases demand for stable commodities- thus oil, gold and silver are each on the rise. When times are tough, commodities such as these are sought after as investments .

This next year may be more unpredictable as far as the U.S. with other nations and thus you might consider storing up diesel if you have a combustion appliance that uses it (and you are not in a wildfire prone area). It is hard to say where the markets will price out oil even in the next six months, yet keeping an eye on the commodity price will telegraph to you what will be happening with fuel oil as well, to an extent what will happen with vehicle gas and diesel (transportation tax changes excluded).

Alaska Center for Energy and Power’s Rural Energy Conference (REC) begins

The REC will have meetings today, tomorrow and the first half of Thursday. I conducted three Pre-conference presentations (Remote Energy, Greenhouse Heat, and Biochar) were a hit Monday night with almost four dozen attendees present. there was plenty of overflow conversation afterwards. Many people brought up ideas they’ve had- especially on the Greenhouse Heat presentation.

Now that breakup is near and the road much easier to travel after several cancellations with communities so far due to ice/weather and poor travel conditions.  I hope to visit several communities with the Greenhouse Heat (on wheels) and Remote Energy this spring as well as personal scale biomass solutions. Having experimented this year with various media styles to get the word out of workshops in your area, the best way to find out if there are workshops in your area is to check with Administrative Assistant Ann Eide.  (She can be reached at 474-7201.

There are several grants I’m working on that will  direct classes for the rest of the year- one is healthy homes which radon falls under (as far as indoor air quality goes).  Also wood gasification for power is a workshop topic I’m getting out now that we have a mobile unit in this realm also!



Spring may be a good time to prepare your home


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As the snow piles melt and ground cover of duff, logs and sticks appear popping out of the snow this month there will be more and more biomass drying out.  If past recent springs are an indication, it may be that May could be the driest month of the summer.  It is a good time- if there are no burning bans- to clear the landscape and above canopy of any flammable material that is at least 30 foot from your dwelling. Thinning trees, pruning brush, reducing forest density, stacking firewood away from your above ground fuel tanks, and cleaning gutters of dry leaves all helps to make a “defensible space” so that if wildfires come in May (or any other of the summer months) they are least likely to creep up to your dwelling(s) and start it on fire.

Other things that will help your home to avoid damage are using fire-resistant roofing and siding, keep landscaping and wood cutting tools near by as well as have a long hose connected to a pump that you can power by generator if the electricity goes out.  It goes without saying that trimming limbs that hang over the roof will help reduce the chance of floating embers from starting something up there on fire.

As you look at spring cleaning keep tools on hand and have a disposal system so that you can clear what you need to around the home so that if we do get the usual dry spring somewhat after breakup you can keep the fuel away from the house!



Radon- counting the numbers

As mentioned in the prior post, the World Health Organization ends letting people know they need to test when the concentration level of radon reaches ~ 2.6 pCi/L of radon (whereas the U.S. EPA focuses on 4.0 pCi/L).  Through studies showing that radon is primary in causing lung cancer among non-smokers (or even more strict those who have never smoked) WHO estimates that the risk runs up 16% for every 2.7 increase.

There is a consensus that radon exposure severely leads to lung cancer. Organizations such as the U.S. Surgeon General, National Academy of Sciences, Center for Disease Control and Disease Prevention along with American Medical Association all concur of the danger.  The challenge is conveying that there are ways of reducing radon and an impetus to lower whatever you can with the amount of access you have to a basement slab crawlspace.

Think of this- given the dangers of  CO2 poisoning, if you knew that your home had odorless, tasteless and unseen carbon monoxide, wouldn’t you do what you could to stem the cause, or at least the infiltration with several attempts and a way of monitoring it? Take a look at our online publication and call if you have any questions about it…

Toll Free Alaska Radon Hotline Number: 1-877-520-5211