Group remains opposed to grinder pumpsBy Steve Estes
Opponents of large-scale use of grinder pumps in the Cudjoe Regional Wastewater System don’t plan to stop asking anytime soon that the plan be scrapped and extra money be spent upfront to convert as many areas as possible to gravity pipes.
But the Monroe Board of County Commissioners last month agreed that grinder pump use was acceptable and didn’t agree to delay anymore construction on the $140 million system while the issue underwent an independent third-party engineering review.
Local energy consultant Walt Drabinski issued a rather scathing report about the long-term costs associated with the use of so many grinder pumps on such a large system, but the warnings went unheeded.
When completed, the Cudjoe Regional will initially serve about 8,800 equivalent dwelling units, an EDU being the average water flow from a typical single-family home. At its peak, the system is expected to serve 10,000 EDUs. The Cudjoe Regional will service Lower Sugarloaf Key to Big Pine Key.
Of that total, designers estimate that just over 2,800 units will be served by low-pressure grinder pumps installed on individual lots.
And that’s just too many, said Drabinski in his report.
He claims that the pumps aren’t historically tested, but that anecdotal evidence from other areas reveals that the pumps need to be replaced every five to six years.
“With the harsh salt environment of the Keys working on the moving parts, we can’t expect a long life for these pumps,” said Drabinski.
Commissioners said they were satisfied that system designers had used the most cost-efficient designs for what will be unincorporated Monroe’s largest wastewater system.
Drabinski says that design dealt more with upfront financing costs than overall costs over the long haul.
“We had a number in mind for the development cost of the system, and we used the right number of pumps to meet that cost estimate,” he said.
Drabinski said that maintenance costs could be much higher over the long haul than system operator Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority has budgeted.
“What we see in their budget proposal is one person for pump preventive maintenance. Key Largo has that for less than 200 grinder pumps,” said Drabinski.
Producers of the grinder pump say that the system has much better longevity than Drabinski gives it credit for, and that a $70 part is the most common failure, easily replaced by technicians in the field.
Aside from the cost of parts failures, Drabinski said he is concerned about the cost to the individual homeowner when that part fails, on a weekend or long holiday and “We wind up with effluent backed up into the house.”
He also said that his analysis shows that the pumps tanks don’t have the overall short-term storage capacity of the gravity portion lines, and could potentially cause issues following hurricanes when power might be out for an extended period.
FKAA officials said all of those concerns have been addressed and that the hybrid grinder pump/gravity system is the one that works best for the Cudjoe Regional both in terms of cost to build, maintain and to serve the geographically disparate islands that make up the system.
One of the last concerns Drabinski has is the cost to the homeowner for the initial installation of the grinder pumps versus the gravity system portions.
Property owners who will be on grinder pumps first have to agree to give FKAA an easement on their lots. What happens if a property owner denies that permission hasn’t yet been tested. Dozens of residents have voiced complaints that the easement is too broad and that in the future FKAA could regulate accessory use construction or home expansion using the easement as a basis.
But local land use attorney Lee Rohe says that the easement being asked for is common in municipal utility development and that the intent is to simply make sure the utility can get its equipment on the property when necessary to install and maintain the equipment. The most restrictive part of the easement is the prohibition against planting foliage in the general area where the equipment is located.
But Drabinski says that dedicated 220-volt outdoor circuits are not the norm in the Keys, rather most homes have 110-volt outdoor circuits.
That will necessitate the hiring of an electrician to create that circuit, along with the requisite permits from Monroe County. He estimates the cost of that job at more than $1,000.
He also says that power costs will be slightly higher for grinder pump users, although FKAA has mentioned that it might credit the monthly bill for its estimate of power costs to run the pump.
Grinder pump users will also have to obtain a county permit for hooking the drain line from their home into the pump system, and unless they can satisfy the building department that they are capable of doing the work on their own as an owner/builder, will have to hire a plumbing contractor to do that work.
Of course, those on gravity pipes will have to do the same in that instance. Both groups will have to pay for a Department of Health permit and the costs for abandoning the existing on-site wastewater treatment system.
Grinder pump users may get off some cheaper than their gravity system counterparts for the actual lateral to the street. FKAA officials say that they are responsible for the pipe from the pump assembly to the street connection, and that the property owner can place the pump up to 50 feet from the street.
Gravity users will be responsible for their laterals all the way from the primary house drain to the street connection.
“I just think that the high use of grinder pumps will cost more for the homeowner in both the short and long term when rates go up to support the operation and maintenance of so many grinder pumps,” said Drabinski.
The BOCC last month told FKAA officials to proceed with the current development plans for the Cudjoe Regional.
“At some point we reach the place where changes are too expensive to make anymore,” said County Engineer Kevin Wilson. “But if the BOCC decides that things should change and the FKAA goes along with it, the plans can change until the pipe goes in the ground.”
FKAA Executive Director Kirk Zuelch said that his staff is satisfied that the system as planned right now is the most cost-effective one for the area, and has shown little inclination to entertain changes to gravity from grinder pump.
“What we have done, and will continue to do, is provide an estimate for individual neighborhoods to change to a gravity collection system and as long as everyone in the neighborhood agrees and they are willing to bear the cost of the change, we can accommodate that,” said Zuelch.