Archive for November, 2012

Where Should We Use Grinder Pumps?

November 27, 2012

After all the disaster stories, I thought I’d try to find something positive to say about grinder pumps. I didn’t have to look far. You can visit the Environmental One website for case studies of their successful installations, so I won’t examine them here. But I will try to invision some typical situations where they are appropriate.

Some grinder pump history

Grinder pumps are not a new, unproven technology. They have been in residential use since the 1960’s and today there are dozens of pump manufacturers and several companies that market residential grinder pump packages.  E/One appears to be the largest with “over 500,000 in daily use”.  They claim to be the first to use them in residential systems in 1968. Other well known names are Myers, Flygt, and  Zoller (I can’t find any info on the ABS pump packages). So it’s safe to say that there are literally over a million residential grinder pumps in use today.

So, where should we use them?

E/One recommends them for use in”flat, wet, rocky, hilly terrain” and ABS Piranha tells us that typical applications for these pumps are “houses in scattered settlements… or where large ground undulations are present”.  I’m not sure about “flat terrain”, but the other conditions sound reasonable.  Another situation would be a small cluster of lakefront (or beachfront) homes, perhaps seasonal vacation homes, where there is an adjacent sewer system (gravity or vacuum) above the site elevation. The utility (or individual user) installs grinder pumps to push the wastewater uphill into the gravity system and then on to the treatment facility.  This would seem to be a reasonable solution to an isolated problem.

Where vacuum (or gravity) is not feasible due to extreme elevation differences or other aspects of the topography, the addition of a few grinder pumps is a viable alternative.

GP Typical Inst


Economic Considerations

If a community does not have (and does not want) a taxing authority, a system of grinder pumps would be a simple way to finance a sewer system. The residents provide the capital required by purchasing and installing their own individual pumps. The operation, maintenance, and replacement costs also fall on the users. This appears to be the situation in Westtown, Pa. (These folks are in a pickle: the DEP has mandated an approved sewer system and they don’t have the $40,000 per lot to install a gravity system.  The residents are being asked to pay out-of-pocket $10-11,000 each for grinder pumps). With a user financed de-centralized system, wastewater is then pumped to a nearby treatment plant and their sewer problems are solved.

How about our 216 homes in N-3?

I cannot come up with any aspect of our neighborhood that would make us a good candidate for a system of grinder pumps.  If we fit any of the categories above, grinder pumps, with all of their inherent disadvantages, might be the best overall system… but we don’t.  We are not a small lakefront community.  Our terrain is not rocky or hilly, and our community of homes is not a “scattered settlement”.  And we certainly don’t lack a taxing authority.  We have a functioning Utilities Dept. and an adequate number of connections to make a vacuum system feasible.  The decision point seems to be projected cost… we’ll see about that in January 2013.



Rockridge Community, Vero Beach, FL.

November 25, 2012

Mea Culpa...

During the August 30 Community Meeting we were told by county staff that all 216 homes in area N-3 would be sewered with grinder pumps. I started this series of articles soon thereafter with the goal of discouraging the use of “low pressure” sewer pumps in favor of the much preferred vacuum system. In the Oct. 18th post “Let’s Talk About the Money”, I made the following statement: “Once a system of grinder pumps is installed, they are not going to be pulled out and replaced with a completely new system in 20 years”.  Well, mea culpa…because the Rockridge neighborhood of Vero Beach did exactly that.

Rockridge, FL

Rockridge is an unincorporated community of 416 homes in Indian River County, Fl. and is closely associated with the city of Vero Beach. For more than 20 years Rockridge residents relied on low-pressure grinder pumps for their sewer needs.  The system apparently worked satisfactorily unless there was a power failure, at which point the grinder pumps were rendered useless.  And in 2004 that’s exactly what happened… big time.

Three Major Hurricanes

First Charley hit Punta Gorda.  Then came Hurricane Francis and three weeks later, Hurricane Jeanne, both making landfall near Ft. Pierce. Rockridge lost electrical service for two extended periods of time, ten days after Hurricane Francis and 14 days after Jeanne.  Without electricity, the community’s low-pressure grinder pump system was shut down.  It seems that the residents had to evacuate, because the President of the Rockridge Homeowners Association had this to say: “It was bad. When we came back, everything had to be destroyed, the sheetrock, the furniture, the carpets… we had to spray everything with bleach to kill the bacteria.  Rockridge is primarily a retirement community and many of the homeowners are in their eighties, so it was especially difficult for them”.

Low Pressure Sewer System Condemned

When it came time to rebuild, the various agencies that looked at the system of grinder pumps all declared the system condemned.  They saw no need to repair a system so susceptible to power loss and prone to environmental nightmares.  The decision was made to install a new vacuum sewer system to serve the Rockridge  community.

Benefits to Residents

With the vacuum sewer system, the residents of Rockridge no longer fear losing use of bathroom facilities when the power goes out.  There will still be hurricanes and power failures, but the standby generator at the central vacuum station will automatically and immediately restore power so there is no interruption of sewer service.  Furthermore, if there is a power failure at an individual home, it will still have functioning sewer service.

With vacuum sewer, two to three homes are served by one vacuum valve pit buried adjacent to the street.  In the rare cases where service is required, workmen can access the pit quickly and easily without having to dig up the homeowners private property.  There are also no more electricity costs to homeowners.  For the 416 Rockridge residents, this is a collective savings of over $18,000 a year.  And not only will they have fewer sewer problems, they will also enjoy higher property values.

The HOA’s President, Phil Carpenter, closes with this statement:  “[vacuum sewer] is the way to go. It’s a great system that is reliable during power outages and works wonderfully.”

Lesson Learned

I don’t know the full 20 year history of the Rockridge sewer system, but it ended as a colossal  failure.  Why don’t we skip the failure part and go right to the success?  Do we need to experience the Rockridge debacle before we decide that we don’t want grinder pumps?                                                  Think about it.


The Rockridge vacuum sewer, along with the removal of the existing low pressure system, was designed, permitted, and supervised by Weston & Sampson Consultants.   The project manager was Donald A. Eckler, P.E.  The vacuum sewer system used was AIRVAC.

Links to Source Material:

Weston & Sampson

AIRVAC in Rockridge

Residents Comments

November 15, 2012

I received this email in response to the “Other Communities Experiences” articles:

“Thank you for the continual updates. The committee is doing a good job. Many of the neighbors in our area are particularly concerned about the serious problems associated with power outages resulting from storms. As we can see from recent hurricane Sandy…it’s been over two weeks and many still don’t have electricity…If that had happened to us, we couldn’t shower or flush our toilets. THAT’S A SERIOUS SITUATION AND HEALTH HAZARD. That issue needs to be focused on more by the committee. During the aftermath of a serious storm, it is potentially impossible for the county to be servicing individual grinder pumps. Thank you in advance for addressing this issue”.

Concerned N-3 residents, The Stewarts

Editors note:

The Neighbor Committee needs your support!  Please contact Peter Gentile at, or reply to me and I’ll post your comments.

mike s.

Let’s Get Involved!

Waterford, CT.

November 14, 2012

Waterford is a small town (pop. 20,000) in New London County, Connecticut.  I found the following news story under the banner “Town Looking To Pass Maintenance Burden To Homeowners”.

Some history

The Waterford Utility Commission originally installed grinder pumps along with a standard gravity sewer system.  The pressure pumps were necessary if the sewer connections were below the elevation of the town’s gravity sewer line.  Today there are several hundred of these grinder pumps in the system.

The original ordinance said the Waterford Utility Commission would maintain the grinder pumps unless there was a change in ownership at the house. The maintenance on the pumps can be expensive, to the tune of several thousand dollars per visit.

Now the utility commission is looking into changing that ordinance, and making homeowners responsible for their own grinder pumps after January 2014.

The Utility Commission wants out

In May of this year The WUC held a special meeting and continued its push to “sunset” its responsibility for the maintenance of grinder pumps.  This will mean 209 homeowners will be responsible for the maintenance of their pumps, which can cost $3,500 to replace.

“It is a heavy burden for us to take care of all the pumps,” Utility Commission Chief Engineer Neftali Soto said. “This is a move to keep our rates down in the future.”

The Utility Commission originally said it would be responsible for the maintenance of these pumps. In 2004  the commission changed the rule so if the deed to a house was changed, i.e. the house was sold, the commission would no longer maintain the pump. Additionally, all new grinder pumps the town installed would be the responsibility of the homeowner.

Since that date, the name on the deed changed on 85 homes with grinder pumps, meaning the Utility Commission has turned over the maintenance of 85 grinder pumps to 85 homeowners. Still, it has to maintain the remaining 209 pumps, which is a lot of work and money, Soto said.

The plan is to “sunset” the responsibility of the grinder pumps on January 1, 2014, meaning the 209 homeowners with town-maintained grinder pumps will then have to maintain the pumps themselves.  It was noted that residents will argue that they were promised the town would maintain the pumps, and now the Utility Commission is reneging on that promise.

Utility Commission member Ken Kirkman said “The last pump we installed that we were responsible for was in 2003,” so that means that we maintained people’s pumps for 10 years, at least. That’s a pretty good deal.”

It was also noted that with the “sunset” the town would no longer be responsible for energizing the pumps, a difficult task during Tropical Storm Irene when the power was out for over a week.

What’s this got to do with us?

There are certainly significant differences between the communities of Waterford, Ct and Sarasota, Fl.  But as we’ve seen in recent articles, this is yet another utility that installed grinder pumps as part of their sewer system and now they want to move the costs of the pumps to the homeowners.  I’m sure that our planners and decision makers mean well, but what will our situation be a few years from now?  Think about it.

Links to source material

High Springs, Fl.

November 11, 2012

Our neighbors to the north

The town of High Springs, Fl., near Gainesville, has grinder pumps… and grinder pump problems.  Their sewer project was originally approved in 2001 (about the same time as the PCSSRP) and today they have a total of 1100 grinder pumps (I don’t know what percentage this represents of their total sewer system, but part of the system remains on gravity).  It seems that things were fine at first.  The pumps carry a two year warranty, so the initial replacement cost was covered by the manufacturer.  But as more pumps were added to the system and the warranties began to expire, more and more cost was shifted to the city.  As of March 2012, the city has already replaced 162 pumps. “The system’s grinder pumps are failing at a rate of four a month to as many as four a week”, the failure rate being 22.7% in roughly two years.

Mayor Dean Davis said the debt on the sewer system is for a period of 40 years. “So, I think we’ve bought a used car that’s going to wear out before we get the debt paid,” he said. The city commission recently approved $29,760 to the engineering firm of Mittauer and Assoc. to determine the best course of action.

Will residents get stuck with the bill?

The City is currently absorbing all cost for grinder pumps that fail, but replacements are costing the city between $3,000 and $6,000. As the pumps run out of their warranties, “fixing the pumps could eventually fall on the homeowner”.  An agenda item for the Sept 2012 City Commission Meeting recommends that “the only way to reduce the cost to the City is by setting fees for pump replacements… in order to encourage better maintenance and care of the grinder pumps by the end users”.  Do we want to get ourselves into a situation like this?

Emergency Procedures

Commissioner Linda Gestrin said she is worried about what would happen if the power went out (as are some of us in N-3) and would like to see future discussion on an emergency plan. The High Springs Grinder Pump Information brochure has a procedure for power failures, but perhaps Commissioner Gestrin doesn’t think “have a camp bucket on hand for sanitary uses” is adequate!

More contractors?

Apparently the High Springs maintenance department feels as overwhelmed as the folks in James City County (previous post).  A recent Wastewater System O&M Meeting produced an action item to solicit bids for a grinder pump repair program. Does Sarasota County really need another program that requires administering contracts and monitoring contractors?

Is this our future?

I don’t know what similarities we share with High Springs.  Maybe our pumps are better.  Maybe we won’t have the problems they’re having. But certainly they did not expect to be in the situation they’re in today, having to spend $30,000 trying to find out what went wrong.

Links to source material:

N-3 Committee Speaks to County Commission

November 9, 2012

Peter Gentile, spokesman for the N-3 Neighborhood Sewer Committee spoke to the Sarasota Board of County Commissioners at the November 7th meeting.

Watch the Presentation

Go to County Commission meeting 11-7-12 (time stamp 4:31:00) or read the full text below:


My name is Peter Gentile. I have been a homeowner in the South Gate subdivision for 23 years. Today I am addressing you on behalf of the Area N-3 Sewer Committee.
Recently there have been statements made before the commission that call into question whether or not we have a functioning committee. I am here today to tell you most emphatically that the committee still exists, that we are continuing to monitor this situation, and that we are in fact gathering more support all the time.
The committee members have agreed that I should appear before you today and summarize our position.

1. We are unanimously opposed to the decentralized grinder pump sewer system planned for Area N-3. Grinder pumps will impose expense and inconvenience on the homeowners of Area N-3 that are not required of other county sewer customers.

2. We believe that the preliminary cost estimates for grinder pumps and vacuum sewers provided by the county staff at our public meeting of Aug. 30, 2012, are flawed. We are still awaiting the final figures, which we plan to submit to a rigorous review. That said, we reject the notion that capital cost alone should be the sole deciding factor in this issue. Area N-3 was overlooked in the initial planning of the central sewer system, so we are unable to benefit from the economies of scale that would accrue had our area been designed and constructed at the same time as the rest of the system. The supposed “extra cost” of the vacuum system — if indeed there actually is an extra cost — is not a taxpayer gift to our community, it is the cost of correcting an error in the county’s planning.

3. We believe that the county should be required to obtain an easement — with appropriate compensation — in order to place these county-owned pumps on our properties
4. We understand that a total of 1,500 grinder pumps may ultimately be planned throughout Sarasota County. We believe that all homeowners in the county who are proposed for grinder pumps should be informed of that fact and should be allowed to participate in this discussion.

5. We believe that the installation of a decentralized grinder pump system in Area N-3 is bad public policy. We are asking you as the policy makers to reject this plan and provide us with a vacuum sewer system, which we believe is the most appropriate solution for our neighborhood.

The Committee Needs Your Support

You can contact Peter at or thru this blog; I will pass along your interests and information.  I know everyone is busy and the holiday season is upon us.  But let’s start organizing now and we’ll be ready for the staff review in January.

mike s.

A Resident Comments

November 8, 2012

A neighbor sent this email in response to the James City County post:

This is one of the major problems with grinder pumps. Power outages do happen for a variety of reasons. Also, for the few people who would purchase a generator, gas is needed to operate generators. As we have seen recently in New Jersey it is a problem getting gas when there is a power outage.

People do not like situations that are out of their control. I can’t begin to imagine the anxiety and helpless, fearful feeling that the N-3 area residents would feel if a storm approached our area. Preparing for a storm is difficult enough. Having the additional worry about the ability to use your bathrooms is unthinkable.

We will have storms to worry about. This is Florida and climate change is real. We will have another year like 2005. And it is more likely than not that we will have power outages in the future. And there may be power outages unrelated to storms. What if FPL has a problem unrelated to a storm and there are rotating blackouts and N-3 residents cannot use their bathrooms?

I really can’t imagine what it would be like to have bathroom functions depend on having electricity.

This issue alone should make the county commissioners rethink grinder pumps. Can you imagine the outrage that would happen if the N-3 area did not have electricity for a couple of weeks.

Great job locating the issue with James City County. It really helped me focus on the biggest issue with grinder pumps. Being able to use your bathroom should not be dependent on having electricity. Period.

Walt Menzel
Menzel & Associates, CPAs, PA

James City County, Va.

November 7, 2012

James City County, Virginia was established in the early 1600’s and bills itself as one of the oldest cities in America. Their history with grinder pumps doesn’t go back quite that far, but let me tell you what I’ve found.

Some Background…

Grinder pumps were first introduced to James City County in the mid 1970’s.  These pumps were installed by developers and are individually owned.  The early owners were offered a perpetual maintenance fee of $300 and eventually $600. In the 1980’s and 1990’s the James City Service Authority (JCSA) stopped and then resumed maintaining the pumps.  Grinder pumps have periodically been added to the system and, although the total number is unclear, in 2005 there were 230 of the lifetime maintenance contracts.  In May 2005 the JCSA recommended existing lifetime contracts be “grandfathered” in, but new customers would be subject to the annual fee, which at that time was $145.80

Why does the JCSA provide a Maintenance Program?

This was largely the decision of the General Manager of the JCSA.  His concern was that individual maintenance would not be at the same level of service provided by the JCSA.  The installed cost of a complete grinder pump assembly is approximately $12,000 (2006 dollars) ;  the pump assembly is approximately $3,000 and has a lifespan of 10-12 years. The maintenance agreement does not cover the cost of replacing the containment can when it is eventually rendered unusable by settling, tree roots or vehicle damage. The JCSA’s stated preference is to not have grinder pumps at all, but they expect no more than 5% of lots in new developments by served by grinder pumps.

Hurricane Isabel – September 2003

During Hurricane Isabel the JCSA found it did not have adequate resources to assure service to grinder pumps during extended power outages. After spending over $50,000 responding to grinder pump failures, they recognized that they could not provide service the 750 homes under grinder pump agreement and still maintain support to the remaining 16,500 JCSA customers.  Letters were sent to customers suggesting that they install a generator to run their grinder pump in the event of a power failure and at some point after their Isabel experience, the JCSA began a vendor maintenance program.

Vendor Contract Renewal – June 2011

Apparently the maintenance contract was due to expire, because on June 17, 2011 James City County issued a request for bids (11-4451) for Grinder Pump Maintenance.  On July 14, 2011 they held a Pre-Proposal conference that produced the following information:

  • A five year history of grinder pump contract  amounts and number of pumps covered:

2006 – $169,620 (771 pumps)

2007 – $190,940 (841 pumps)

2008 – $205,969 (877 pumps)

2009 – $209,068 (877 pumps)

2010 – $215,775 (885 pumps)

  • A total of 9 collection tanks have been replaced in the past 5 year (six in 2008 and three in 2009).  It is not stated how long these tanks had been in service, but the total cost was $55,330 (lowest cost was $5,000, highest was $10,630, average $6,147).
  • The number of grinder pumps replaced over the last five years:

2006 – 142

2007 – 111

2008 – 103

2009 – 108

2010 – 133

(It is not clear how long these pumps had been in service, but that’s 597 out of a total of 885 pumps that were replaced in five years!)

Hurricane Irene – August 2011

On August 27, 2011 the Williamsburg-Yorktown Daily printed this…

6:46 p.m.: The James City Service Authority (JCSA) is monitoring water and sewer service. Grinder pump customers should be aware that they will experience loss of sewer service during a power outage. The loss of sewer service will only affect 800 grinder pump customers. For more information, call 757-564-2140. (remember the advice to purchase a generator?)

New Vendor Contract – September 2011

On Sept. 28, 2011 James City County issued proposal 12-4762 “soliciting qualified contractors to assume grinder pump service and repair responsibilities for the associated workload of responding to approximately 900 grinder pumps…”.  The proposal specifies that:

“the successful Contractor will maintain the ability to respond promptly to grinder pump emergencies twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and within two (2) hours of recieving calls from a homeowner”.

Perhaps the most significant bid instruction from the JCSA was this:

“Contractor should not request assistance from JCSA when a significant number of homeowners experience extended power outages. When considering pump and haul operations during power outages, JCSA found it impossible to support the large number of grinder pumps. This is because a grinder pump needs to be emptied at least twice a day and typically a two-person crew can only empty two or three grinder pumps per hour. With the number of units on the maintenance agreement list, the JCSA will not have the necessary equipment or staff to support a pump and haul operation during a power outage. As such, the JCSA cannot perform pump and haul operations for the Contractor during extended power outages”.

Contract Awarded – October 2011

On October 25, 2011, with one firm responding, a contract was awarded for a first-year annual cost of $217,109.  For 900 pumps that’s $241 per year per pump.  The current annual charge to residents is $260, so it’s just about break-even for the JCSA.

Links to Source Material:

Maintenance Contract Award

Proposal 12-4762

Proposal 11-4451

Grinder Pump History

Williamsburg-Yorktown Daily – Irene

JCSA FYI – Isabel

Comments from Residents

November 5, 2012

A couple of neighbors sent in comments pertaining to recent posts.  I have published below (with permission, of course) the full text of their emails .

Response to Commissioner Patterson:
“Mike, just a thought.  If there were budget over-runs in other sections, were the homeowners asked to pay the difference?  Of course not, we, through our taxes combined covered it.  And, since we don’t have sewers yet, we haven’t actually gotten any “help” from anyone, at least not yet.”

Mark Mixon – 3327 Tanglewood Dr.

Response to 3376 S. Seclusion Dr.
“As a resident of Seclusion Drive I have no qualms about putting the pump station at the 3376 Seclusion property.  I’m also certain they can get this for considerably less than the asking price as there was a major fire 6 months ago that has rendered the property as a tear down lot.  Given its low elevation (6ft) and not meeting minimum lot size due to a sale of a portion of the lot years ago, a pump station or county park are about all that could be put at this location.  It makes a lot of sense to look at this as a possible site that would dramatically reduce the costs incurred in other vacuum pump stations that have been used in the cost analysis.  When this is factored into the cost comparison I am certain it will make the grinder pump option that much less attractive and the vacuum system that much more favorable.

Thanks again for all your research and efforts to help us get to a true cost comparison.” (emphasis mine)

Peter Houk – 3336 South Seclusion Drive

Note to Readers:

Your comments are very important.  I did not create this blog as my personal “soapbox”… it’s a place where we can all share our views and opinions.  I will gladly publish your comments, but will always ask your permission.  The blog email is sent to the county commissioners, county staff, N-3 residents, and other interested readers.  The subscriber list is now over 100, so your voice is being heard!

mike s.

Commissioner Patterson Responds

November 1, 2012

In response to the Oct. 29 post “The Farmington, Ct. Story“, Commissioner Nora Patterson sent me a very thoughtful email and has asked me to share it with you all.  I will summarize her comments.

Commissioner Patterson makes the following points:

  1. The 216 property owners in N-3 get a lot of help from others in paying for our sewers.
  2. There are approximately 15,000 septic tanks being replaced in the PCSSRP.  The cost to us would be much greater if we did not get help from sales tax, state and federal grants, and rate payers.
  3. Residents of N-3 have the option of paying the cost difference to have a vacuum system as opposed to individual grinder pumps.
  4. The County Commission has not ruled out helping our neighborhood.

(read the Commissioners email here – go to 10/31 2:55 PM)

My response to Commissioner Patterson 

Good morning Commissioner Patterson,
Thank you for your thoughtful email.  I do indeed take your comments as helpful.As to my statement that the property owners would ultimately pay whatever cost is incurred, I meant it in the larger sense of all property owners, taxpayers and ratepayers, not just our 216 residents.  Whether the money comes from property tax, penny sales tax, federal or state tax, it comes from a collective “us”.  As individuals there is seldom a direct correlation between taxes paid and benefits received, but there is social benefit for all.  I may choose to use the County Library more than my neighbor and he may use the County beach facilities more than I do.  The overall effect is we live in a nice community and enjoy many tax supported facilities.Of course there is the issue of fairness.  While I can’t speak for the entire neighborhood, I do not expect preferential treatment.  The option of our 216 homeowners paying a cost differential came up at the community meeting ( I believe the term was MSBU).  At that meeting the difference was estimated to be $1.1M.  While reviewing the presentation slides, I found that $120,000 had been omitted from the grinder pump capital cost (Oct. 14 post) and $186,800 was omitted from the O&M cost (Oct. 19 post).  That’s almost a third of the difference for just two items.  I am anticipating that the engineering staff will present a new, comprehensive comparative cost analysis that may well show the systems being close to parity.  Perhaps we can revisit this issue after we review the report.

I sincerely thank you for your interest in our neighborhood:  I received an email from you while you were on vacation, you spent an evening with us at the community meeting, and you are reading the information I publish.  You are obviously giving a lot of consideration to our small community and I, personally, will accept whatever decision you and the other Commissioners ultimately make.

mike s.