Hook up type can determine lateral costs

By Steve Estes

During a meeting last week about the proposed Cudjoe Regional wastewater system project, local residents learned that as many as 1,600, and probably many more, of the proposed hook ups to the system will be done using a low-pressure system.

That system entails the installation of a low-pressure grinder pump on the property, rather than on the right-of-way.

According to Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority Engineer Tom Walker, the low-pressure hook up consists of a smaller diameter pipe at a shallower depth than the traditional gravity system that will be installed in most areas.

Walker said the inner island portion of the collection system, covering Upper Sugarloaf, Cudjoe and Summerland Keys has been designed and there are about 600 properties where the low-pressure units will be used. FKAA has preliminary maps available that outline where those areas are.

Walker said about 30 percent of the design work is done for the outer islands system, which covers Lower Sugarloaf Key and Ramrod through Big Pine Keys. Thus far, about 1,000 properties have been identified where the low-pressure hook up will be used in lieu of the gravity system.

“The final system will be a hybrid, using both gravity and low-pressure tie-ins,” said Walker.

According to the maps, most of the more remote areas of Big Pine Key are planned for low-pressure hook ups, meaning there will probably be more than the 1,600 already identified.

Nothing is certain in the outer islands, however, because the FKAA is going to use a design/build bid process where the ultimate contractor will be responsible for both final design and construction.

One of the drawbacks for users of the low-pressure system is that they will be required to apply for an additional building permit from Monroe County.

The typical gravity system user will need a permit from the Department of Health to abandon the existing septic system and a plumbing permit from Monroe County to tie the property’s drains to the pipe in the street, otherwise known as a lateral connection.

The gravity hook ups, however, use no power, feeding into the FKAA pipe in the street by means implied by the name—gravity.

The low-pressure systems, however, will have to tap into the home’s power supply to run the grinder pump that picks up the effluent from the drains and pumps it to the pipe in the street.

That will require an electrical permit from the county. And there were those in the audience last week that had stories about needing months to process a simple plumbing permit, let alone an electrical permit, through the county’s building department.

County Administrator Roman Gastesi, who was not at the meeting, has said though that he will work hard at forcing the building department to find a way to streamline permit issuance for lateral hook ups so property owners aren’t waiting weeks to be able to hook into the pipes in the street and the system can move forward.

Walker said that the power used by the grinder pump is akin to that used by a 100-watt light bulb if were on all the time for a year, or relatively cheaply.

The pump only operates when the effluent levels reach a pre-determined height and it kicks on to push the wastes to the pipe in the street.

After questions, he said that the pumps currently in use for installed aerobic septic systems won’t serve the same purpose.

“They aren’t the same types of pumps, and we want make sure that our equipment is standardized for ease of parts replacement and maintenance,” said Walker.

Those receiving low-pressure systems might be facing less of a cost for installing laterals, though, said Walker.

Where those on the gravity systems will have to bear the entire cost of running laterals from the house to the street, the grinder pumps can be installed further away from the street. From that point, FKAA will pay for the pipe to the street, again to ensure uniformity of equipment and hook up for future maintenance ease.

“There is a limit to how far back on the property we’ll go,” said Walker.

Of course, residents who wish to take advantage of the FKAA-supplied labor and costs will have to give the utility an easement on their property to allow technicians to regularly check the equipment and perform maintenance if necessary.

The longer the distance away from the road, the bigger the required easement.

FKAA Executive Director Kirk Zuelch said that the utility does have plans to replace some older water pipes in the Cudjoe Regional service area, and “will be looking to replace those lines at the same time as we dig trenches for the sewer system so we won’t be tearing up your neighborhood more than we have to.”

The FKAA, which is the operations and maintenance end of the arrangement and also the construction overseer, plans to open bids for the development of the treatment plant on Cudjoe Key at the Blimp Road waste transfer station in October, as well as bids for the inner island collection system.

Because of the importance of the November election cycle to the future of funding for the system, the FKAA board won’t award bids until November. If the extension of the infrastructure sales tax fails, the county, which is the funding entity for the project, will have to make a decision on how to proceed with the state mandated project.

If the vote goes favorably, Zuelch said that bids on the outer system will be opened in December and go to the FKAA board in January.

“We hope to be ready to build the first phases, the treatment plant and inner island system, by January 2013,” he said.

The long-range plan is to have both systems ready for initial resident hook up by no later than January 2015 and completed by the state-mandated deadline of December 31, 2015.

FKAA plans to host another community meeting Thursday, October 4 at 6 p.m. at the Sugarloaf Volunteer Fire Department. Another is planned for Thursday, October 11 at 6 p.m. at the Sugarloaf School media center.

There are also plans to meet with the Lower Keys business community but that date hasn’t yet been publicly announced. The latter meeting is supposed to give commercial property owners a chance to plead their cause to the county and FKAA regarding what many of them term “exorbitant” system development fees that they fear will run several small businesses out of business.

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