It’s a dirty problem, but every community has to deal with it at some point. Is it crime? Street maintenance? While those are certainly valid civic concerns, there’s another issue that’s making towns and cities across America scratch their collective heads — what to do with the biosolids left behind after wastewater treatment.
Before you turn up your nose at this subject (pun intended), keep in mind that biosolidss disposal is a problem that has both environmental and economic implications, regardless of city size or location. The country’s changing regulatory climate, increased public scrutiny and decreasing number of disposal options have made biosolids management a very complex issue. Just ask Ryan Riefler, a wastewater operator and six-year employee of the Village of Marcellus near Syracuse, N.Y.
“After we treat wastewater from the village and the town’s two sewer districts we service, we’re left with sludge that, in the past, we had to put in a dumpster and take to a landfill,” Riefler explained. “That cost us approximately $35,000-$45,000 each year, which is a significant expense for a community of our size. To make matters worse, those costs were rising due to higher fuel prices, and there was talk about closing down the landfill where we disposed of the sludge. We’d have to transport the sludge to a landfill that was farther away and increase our transportation costs even more. All in all, we were anticipating our disposal fees going up to about $50,000 annually.
Riefler and his supervisor Greg Crysler worked together to come up with an alternative disposal method that wouldn’t just save the village of Marcellus money over time — it also would be a proactive response to an environmental issue that’s expected to become even more heavily regulated in the years ahead. Their answer: creating the village’s own composting facility.
To set the wheels of the project in motion, Riefler and Crysler visited communities that had already built their own composting facilities for the same purpose, did some research and then presented their ideas to the village board. The board agreed with the design and implementation plan that the two men proposed. The next step was to obtain funding.
“The project cost approximately $750,000 from start to finish,” Riefler said. “Fortunately, the state of New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) gave our project ‘green’ status, meaning the state will pay us back 50 percent of the total cost, or about $325,000. When you consider that the village will be saving approximately $50,000 per year in disposal costs, we should pay off the remainder of that $750,000 investment in just seven to eight years.”
Once the project was approved, the village constructed two new “pole barns” to house wood chips, finished compost and a large screener. They also renovated an existing covered drying bed at the wastewater facility and converted it to a composting structure that began operations in March 2012. What was once an area where sludge was dried and then scooped up and taken to the landfill is now an enclosed 56 by 60 ft. structure. Inside, Riefler and his coworkers take biosolid waste product and stabilize it by composting it with wood chips. The eventual result is Class A compost product that’s free of charge to local residents already paying sewer fees.
An Equipment Solution
The renovated composting structure did cause some challenges for the village’s wastewater employees. The relatively small structure is split into two smaller sections, and the roof is supported by a truss system that’s 2 ft. on center and only 9 to 10 ft. off the ground. Because the employees are constantly inside the structure, making and transporting piles of compost, the village needed a machine that could help with the task within a confined space and a low clearance. Riefler and Crysler spoke with some heavy equipment dealers in the Syracuse area and tested out various skid steer loaders from a number of manufacturers. Liftech JCB, a dealer in Syracuse, brought out a JCB skid steer for the group to test. While the skid steer they tested was an older model JCB 1110, the model the village ended up purchasing was a newer model — a JCB New Generation 260 that included many of the 1110’s features plus a number of improvements.
“We wanted to see first of all, if a JCB skid steer could do what we expected it to do in our own facility,” Riefler said. “The machine needed to have a tight turning radius and the ability to help us dump material onto existing piles even under our low roof.”
The team found that the JCB had a number of advantages over the other skid steer loaders they’d tried out. Both men are more than 6 ft. tall, and because they’d be operating the machine for long hours, comfort was a must.
“Some of the machines operate using foot pedals,” Riefler said. “Our big feet wouldn’t even fit on those pedals. That’s why we really liked the JCB’s hand controls. They took a little getting used to — one hand controls the drive motion and the other controls the bucket, unlike other machines where both joysticks propel the skid steer forward. But we quickly got used to that.”
Visibility also was a very important concern to the wastewater team. The compost piles have an internal temperature of 150 degrees Fahrenheit, generating a great deal of steam in cooler weather. Dust also is a problem while screening back out the wood chips from the compost mix, making a pressurized cab a must.
“The visibility in the JCB was by far the best of all the machines we tested,” Riefler said. “And the comfort of JCB’s larger cab was great. We can actually get in there and put our feet out in front of us while we’re working.”
The JCB also was able to tackle the challenges associated with the composting structure itself. Its tight turning radius allowed it to virtually spin on the facility’s concrete floor and maneuver easily within the tight workspace. The machine’s unique, single-arm “Powerboom” design allows the wastewater employees to raise the boom up between the building’s low, narrow truss system — something they couldn’t do with a traditional two-armed skid steer.
“With a two-armed unit, we wouldn’t have enough room to raise the boom up over the mixer and tip the bucket entirely,” Riefler explained. “We’d have to have a bucket with some sort of ejection system. With the JCB, we can just use a regular landscape bucket.”
While some may still question the strength of a single-arm boom, Riefler is a true believer in the design. He and his coworkers are familiar with the use of telescopic handlers for lifting 1,500-lb. hay bales around farms in the Marcellus area, and it’s upon that machine’s single arm design that JCB based its skid steers.
Riefler offered up his own example of the Powerboom’s strength.
“Included with the project was the purchase of a screening machine, and it’s about 45 ft. long,” Riefler said. “When it was delivered, they put it outside on the pavement on the other side of the influent channel that delivers sewage to the facility. We put the tongue weight as far from the JCB 260’s boom as possible, and the JCB pushed it across the ditch and into the compost building. Any skepticism about a single-arm boom was gone — and when you add in the lifetime guarantee, it’s a no-brainer.”
Safety is always a consideration on any work site, and that’s certainly true for a municipality that has to deal with workman’s comp and other potentially expensive liability issues. The duo from the village of Marcellus saw this firsthand when they visited other compost facilities before launching their own.
“Safety was a huge concern at all the plants we visited,” Riefler said. “Let’s just face it — the sludge we’re transporting is a very slippery substance, and that makes our work more dangerous. We talked to an operator that uses a skid steer with the standard design that requires him to climb over the bucket to get inside the cab. He actually slipped and fell between the machine and the bucket, severely skinning his shin. It’s even worse in the winter when the moist sludge is freezing onto the exterior of the machine. With the JCB 260, we can just open the side-entry door and climb right in or out, greatly reducing the risk of falling and injuring ourselves.”
Riefler said this improved safety feature may make the JCB skid steers cost a bit more than the competition, but he feels it’s worth it. To justify the additional expense to the village board, he asked board members to consider where Riefler and his coworkers were working and what they were doing. When showing board members the JCB and a competing machine, he asked a board member to try climbing into the competing machine. “She said, ‘heck no!’ and instead walked over to the JCB, opened the side door and stepped right in. The entire board realized that paying a little more for the JCB 260 was totally justifiable from the safety aspect.”
The Sweet Smell of Success
So, how are local residents reacting to the new composting facility? Considering the fact that the plant has no leftover compost and even had a waiting list for compost at one time, the compost facility has been met with resounding approval. Residents wanting compost for their yards and flower gardens come down to the facility, and operators provide them with information about the mandatory testing that’s been done for metals and salmonella. The residents then specify how many yards of compost they want, and the workers load them up.
“We’ve been very proactive at getting the community involved in the success of the composting facility,” Riefler said. “We’ve advertised about it and created a Facebook page. We even worked with our school’s seventh grade class on a village-wide flower-planting project that demonstrated the quality of the compost to our residents. We’ve even started a tree nursery here at the wastewater treatment plant with our compost. We buy inexpensive saplings and grow them in compost for future street tree replacement around the village.”
Riefler and his coworkers are pleased with the way the entire project has turned out so far. Besides saving the community money in the future, they’re also creating an environmentally friendly product that provides a much-needed alternative to chemical fertilizers, the use of which many municipalities are limiting or prohibiting.
“Our school district can’t use non-natural fertilizers, so they may be a big customer of ours this year,” Riefler said. “One of our parks wants to rehab all of its softball fields with our compost. There’s definitely a demand, and we’re pleased that we were able to put our heads together and come up with this sustainable solution. It really is the wave of the future.”
As for their beloved JCB 260 skid steer, Riefler and the rest of the village of Marcellus wastewater crew have put about 150-160 hours on the machine since it was put into full use with the facilities start up in March 2012. Because the machine’s cost was built into the overall $750,000 start-up cost for the composting facility, the village cannot use it for any other purposes — that is, until they receive the 50 percent reimbursement from the state of New York and pay off the remaining 50 percent of the program.
“We’re salivating to do more stuff with it,” Riefler said. “We can’t wait to get it out there and use it in other public works applications.”