Degreasing and Dewatering Systems Find New Outlets, Processes to Reduce Demand on Landfill, Treatment Plants

After a rough and tumble year when the flagging economy dictated many business decisions, those in the degreasing and dewatering industry are refocusing. They are helping clients deal with waste either by exploring biofuel uses, alternative disposal sources or through more innovative treatments.

The challenge, which has been emerging over the past few years, is that waste haulers face a hodgepodge of regulations from state governments, cities and counties. No national standard exists for dealing with septic sludge or grease solids. The sludge is a product of dewatering systems. The fats, oils or grease (F.O.G.) comes from degreasing processing.

Some background may be in order: Degreasing and dewatering is the process by which liquid from grease traps or septic system is removed through filtration, evaporation or another separation process. The leftovers, or solid material, can then be disposed of in a landfill, further treated to become high grade compost, or subsequently treated and – in the case of F.O.G. – is transformed into a source of fuel.

In some states, such as Texas, grease trap waste is considered a hazardous waste because regulators argue that the solids can contain toxic and/or caustic materials that are used to clean grease drains and other grease handling equipment.

The so-called Class 5 permits, explained Russ Caughman of Flo Trend Systems, are expensive to secure because they require engineering studies and related costs.

In addition, many areas require public notification for grease trap processing because of odor problems. Subsequent public pressure and aesthetic concerns limit the locations to remote areas or places far from homes or retail businesses.

“People don’t want grease trap processes in their neighborhood because it stinks,” Caughman said. Caughman is vice president of Flo Trend Systems, a Houston, Texas company involved in the filtration and solids/liquid business.

More and more, municipal waste water systems are limiting or refusing to take grease or some types of sludge from waste haulers. To keep costs down while still serving customers, waste haulers are getting creative about processing septic and grease trap waste. They are exploring on-site systems, composting and other sources for disposal. Bio fuels – creating usable fuel from grease, for example, is also gaining steam. Regulators have had mixes success keeping up with the technology, with a crazy-quilt array of laws that can be vexing for waste haulers and equipment manufacturers who serve the waste industry.

“We have the simplest thing out there for dewatering sludge,” Caughman explained. “We have dewatering equipment that can separate solids from liquids that can then go down a sewer. The solids go to a landfill, which is the simplest way, or it can be composted by mixing it with (septic) waste or agriculture waste and adding lime or other components.”

“We didn’t have hardly any composting when we first started building (these systems). Regulations have driven some of the demand for the dewatering. Grease trap waste traditionally was hauled by trucks picking it up at restaurants and hospitals and dumping it at waste water treatment plants,” he said. “But waste water treatment plants cant’ take too much and (they) are under duress because of the increasing populations.”

Too much grease or oil in any septic operation can upset the delicate balance of “bugs” that treat the waste. “The first thing these plants do is cut off these waste haulers, not just grease traps haulers but septage haulers, too. That is what has caused the waste haulers to figure out “How can I process this myself?” And that is when they run up against regulations,” he said.

Leon Holt is a private consultant, based in North Carolina, with an extensive background in FOG and sanitary sewer collection.

The dewatered FOG (plus) solids is a great compost material. If dewatered enough, it has sufficient BTU value to be used as a fuel augmentation source for power plants (and) brick making,” he said. In addition, if it meets environmental regulations, the material can go to a landfill, he said.

North Carolina is one of a handful of states that is actively trying to make it easier for entrepreneurs to process grease trap and sewage sludge. Examples of those currently in use are facilities near Charlotte, Greensboro and Winston Salem, Caughman said.

The challenge for would-be processors is negotiating through the maze-like regulations, often astronomically expensive engineering, and related and costly studies that the laws require.

“There are people who are doing it and they have to figure out through the local and state regulatory people to see how they can do it legally,” he said. With permitting, “There is no national standard. In some areas, it is even the state, it is the city or it is the county that makes the regulations.”

One company that has had success with re-using waste is Aqua-Zyme Disposal of Van Vleck, Texas. The company sells ready-to-install systems that dewater waste. The company operates a plant – open to the public – that shows its equipment in action, recycling septic sludge and grease trap water, turning it into a high-grade, odorless compost.

At Aqua-Zyme, the dewatered septic and grease trap waste is mixed with wood chips, put in windrows and slowly turned and lightly watered. It decays over several weeks, becoming “hot” and is then screened and sold to landscapers and others who want organic fertilizer.

John DeRham is the founder of Atlantic Dewatering Services of Clayton, North Carolina. The company sells equipment for all sorts of dewatering projects, from trucks and spreaders to disperse sludge on fields to boxes for the dewatering process. The company also provides help with siting, permitting and reporting regulations.

“There have been a number of installed systems,” DeRham said. “Some of our sales were interrupted by the slowing economy. There seem to be some (issues) because the regulatory environment still causes uncertainty. There still does not appear to be regulatory consistency.”

Despite the challenges, “We have seen interest in the grease trap side with the grease haulers to broaden out. They like the flexibility that the containerized systems offer and also there are a number of places where there are existing anaerobic digesters that are being consolidated for fats, oil and greases,” he said. “That’s the trend, the increasing diversion of F.O.G. into existing or planned anaerobic digester systems.”

DeRham continued, “They are starting to recover the BTU value intrinsic in F.O.G. There is a value to that material and it has found a beneficial use.

Proper management of grease trap waste, whether for its biofuel potential or another use, has tremendous economic value, DeRham said.

“Proper grease trap management provides a huge savings. There is a direct correlation between proper grease trap maintenance and (if it is) redirected into a storm sewer overflow. So, there’s been a lot more interest in keeping grease out of utility lines on the municipal and city sides.” The reason is obvious: grease in public utility pipes and lines can clog them, damage them and in general makes a lot of extra work and expense for public utility operators.

“With dewatering sewage, states are looking to offer alternatives to land application for the solids. A number of places over the past few years are looking for proven alternatives to land applications” (because of permitting restrictions)/
As the population grows in some areas of the country, waste haulers have started to specialize. The key is where should the dewatered solids go? To a composting facility, used for land application, bio fuel or simply placed in a landfill?

“Do municipal organizations have responsibility for this material? Is this driven by individual pumpers or is it a regional approach?” DeRham said, posing the questions that many in the industry are considering.

“Economics are still totally driving the system. The business is maturing. We sell equipment that can handle 6,000 gallons of waste a day to 200,000 gallons a day. The biggest challenge is people are much more cautious about how they are spending their capital dollars to make sure they are getting the biggest bang for their buck,” he said.

Municipal wastewater treatment facilities are protecting their investment, limiting the types and amounts of waste accept. Landfills operators, too, are under pressure from a burgeoning population. Waste haulers are dealing with higher fees, limited places to dump their sludge and other dewatered waste. Business operators who want to explore innovative dewatering, composting and other sources for dealing with the material generally face a confusing array of regulations.

This is a challenging and interesting to be in the degreasing and dewatering industry – waste haulers, manufacturers, municipal operators and regulators are all trying to feel their way through. It is an interesting – and frustrating – time for those in the industry.

Some industry insiders predict that municipal operators will continue to develop their own degreasing and dewatering facilities – joining private entrepreneurs who seek alternative uses for sludge. At the very least, greater use of dewatering systems will relieve the burden on municipal systems and landfills. At best, they will be creating a product – compost or a source for biofuel – that help the dewatering systems meet their costs or a make a small profit.

Regardless, interest in dewatering and degreasing systems is growing. Regulators are still slow in many areas to get on board. Yet, the industry is trying to meet the needs – or demands – of business leaders, municipal officials and regulatory agencies. If the economy cooperates, it should be an interesting time period for everyone.

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