HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — The U.S. Navy is working to develop a new high-tech gadget that can quickly identify whether a debilitating iron sulfide mineral exists in concrete, the same problem that's plaguing thousands of Connecticut homeowners with crumbling foundations.
Late last year, unbeknownst to many Connecticut officials, the Navy began seeking out small businesses to invent a device that can quickly detect pyrrhotite in concrete. The mineral is known to naturally react over years with water and oxygen, causing devastating damage to concrete basements and foundations.
"It would be a very positive development," said U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, acknowledging the technology could be years away. The Democrat's district includes many of the 36 Connecticut communities identified as potentially having the crumbling basement problem.
A Vernon resident, Courtney said some of his affected neighbors have tested for pyrrhotite, an expensive process involving multiple borings into concrete walls. The ultimate fix involves replacing an entire foundation or basement could have a price tag up to $200,000.
Courtney said the Navy's efforts have been totally independent of any requests made by the state's congressional delegation or Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who have been working to persuade the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide financial assistance to the homeowners for what they contend is a slow-moving natural disaster.
"As a large consumer of concrete, with a big footprint of military installations in the U.S., they actually decided they wanted to find a way to make sure their structures are sound," said Courtney. Currently, no Navy structures have been identified as having problems associated with pyrrhotite.
The Naval Facilities Engineering Command in Washington recently chose three companies to begin developing a portable device or test kit that can analyze pyrrhotite in damaged concrete structures, as well as loose aggregate before it is mixed into fresh concrete.
The firms have received federal funding to test their hypotheses that their proposed technologies can detect pyrrhotite in a controlled environment, a process that should take six months, said Theresa Hoffard, research chemist at the Command.
Prototypes are expected to be developed by the end of the second phase of the process, which usually takes two years. If a company makes it that far, the third and final phase involves commercialization of the product.
"We are hopeful that a viable device will be produced, but cannot predict with certainty," Hoffard said. He added how the Navy wants to prevent future Navy concrete construction from inadvertently using pyrrhotite.
The Navy has cited recent reports of pyrrhotite-caused structural damage in the U.S., Canada and Europe, "indicating the problem may be much more widespread than previously thought." Hoffard said the Navy hopes Connecticut can ultimately use the device, if it's successful.
Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, is hoping it could help in the state's efforts to get a handle on the scope of the problem. Malloy has said the state needs a better idea of exactly how many homes in Connecticut are affected in order to make a stronger case for financial assistance.
"An easier, virtually costless device will enable us to make the case more compelling and clear because it will show the vast magnitude of the problem," he said.
As of July 14, the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection had received complaints from 545 homeowners with crumbling foundations. But that number is expected to grow much higher once any financial assistance becomes available, an issue that's also being pursued by the General Assembly.
It's been estimated that thousands of homes are affected by the problem, which could ultimately cost more than $1 billion to repair.