Complying with environmental regulations for wastewater treatment and disposal is not only good for the environment, it's good for your bottom line, even if it doesn't seem like it at first glance.
The costs associated with capturing wastewater and dealing with it can be considerable for any business, but the fines that can result from noncompliance are even greater and easily justify the expense of installing a wastewater treatment system on your premises.
Systems range in size and scope to meet the needs of any rental business, but what do you need to know to make the right decision for your situation? The first step is understanding why a wastewater treatment system is needed.
From water to waste... and back again
Wastewater treatment and recycling/disposal methods exist in response to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Air and Clean Water Act that sets maximum allowable limits for what can be released into the nation's water, air and ground. Depending on where you live, these limits are enforced by local and/or state authorities.
Wastewater from most rental centers results from the simple washing of equipment and can contain dirt, oils and greases, gasoline, hydraulic fluid and other chemicals. In most cases, this runs into the sanitary sewer and goes to the publicly owned treatment works (POTW) for treatment, after which it is emptied to a local waterway. Some industrial customers, like rental centers, must pretreat their wastewater to make it acceptable to the POTW. This is the least expensive and most convenient method of wastewater disposal.
In areas where a POTW is not available, or when the waste stream is such that the local POTW won't accept it, pretreatment might have to be more rigorous and water might need to be recycled for washing purposes. Some rental centers wash equipment with their recycled water and rinse with fresh water. Not only does this conserve water, but the process further dilutes wastewater and can make it acceptable for discharge to the POTW.
Each POTW must ensure that its industrial customers' discharge stays within its limits. If a customer is exceeding the limit, that customer can be fined or required to pay a surcharge based on what type of waste is generated. In some cases, noncompliance with local limits can result in a customer being completely shut off from the POTW.
There are different water containment/treatment systems available to help you meet local restrictions for wastewater. Among them are traditional in-ground pit systems and above-ground wash rack systems. Both incorporate three primary components: the containment pad or rack on which equipment is washed, a filtration system that cleans the water for reuse or disposal, and a holding tank for cleaned water.
What's right for your business?
There are several key questions that a rental center will need to answer before investing in a wastewater treatment system. The first, according to Bernie Larson, vice president and general manager at Water Maze Water Treatment Systems, is whether the city or other sewer authority will allow your business to dump any wastewater — laced with dirt and oil from cleaning motorized equipment — down the drain. If so, you'll need to find out what are the allowable limits of contaminants as well as the cost of permits.
According to Carla Iverson, marketing manager at EZ Environmental Solutions Corp., makers of Pressure Island products and systems, there are several options for dealing with wastewater. They include installing a pretreatment system to the municipal sewer, installing a closed-loop recycling system (mechanical or biological), having the water hauled to a heavy wastewater treatment facility by a licensed hauler, and having equipment cleaned at a commercial wash facility.
If you want to avoid permits and government oversight, you can recycle your wastewater. This can be an attractive option, but raises a host of questions such as how clean does your recycled water need to be to put it back through a pressure washer or how much dirt are you dealing with in your cleaning operation?
Answers to these questions, and others, will help determine if you want a discharge or recycle system. Once you've made the decision, you need to investigate the various technologies and water treatment systems to determine the one best suited for your operation.
"There are two main types of water treatment systems: mechanical and biological," explains Aaron Auger, Water Division manager, Mi-T-M Corp. "Biological systems incorporate the use of micro-organisms that consume water impurities."
Steve Kent, vice president of sales and marketing at EZ Environmental Solutions, further clarifies that the microbes used in a bioremediation system consume long- and short-chain carbon organics. In other words, he says, "everything but dirt and heavy metals."
Mechanical filtration, according to Iverson, can capture solids as small as 10 microns and provide easy disposal of solids, but the cleanout frequency is higher than what a biological system requires and filter disposal needs to be done through a licensed hauler. Routine maintenance costs are generally higher as well, she says.
Larson explains that most mechanical water treatment systems fall into one of the following technologies:
Oil/water separation: A process that enhances the natural separation of oil from water. This method effectively removes or skims "free" oils from the water surface, but is not effective in removing emulsified oils that are trapped within the water molecules by detergents or other cleaning agents.
Filtration: A process of screening or filtering out the contaminants in a waste stream. There are three main types of filtration methods — indexing paper filters, cartridge filters and media filters. All of these methods are effective in preventing particles, even very tiny ones, from moving downstream. They are especially effective when solids, like mud or sludge, are in the wastewater. On the other hand, particulates in the water eventually build up on the filter media and restrict the water flow, requiring some type of maintenance, such as purging or backwashing. It also is ineffective in dealing with emulsified oils.
Chemical treatment: A process of injecting chemicals into a moving waste stream to clean the water. If the waste stream is constant in its makeup, this process produces high-quality water, Larson says. This method is not as effective if there is a constant variation of pollutants in the waste stream requiring frequent chemical adjustments. In addition, chemicals can be expensive and complicated to deal with.
A process of using an electrical charge to cause the contaminants in a waste stream to separate out of the water, then float or sink so they can be disposed of. "When combined with other technologies, this method produces exceptional water quality with very little maintenance," Larson says, adding that "only a few manufacturers of environmental systems truly understand this process and even fewer know how to combine it with other water treatment technologies."
Bioremediation, as previously mentioned, is a process of using microbes or bacteria to naturally consume oils and other contaminants in wastewater. The advantages of this method are that it's all natural and very environmentally friendly. It offers a lower cost of operation, says Iverson, fewer moving parts, simpler operation and less disposal of solids.
These systems are low maintenance, offer a recycle or discharge option as well as filters to polish water to 20 microns.
The downside is that the water requires dwell time for the microbes to consume the contaminants. Such systems are also sensitive in terms of temperature.
In-ground or above?
Perhaps even more vexing to the rental business than the question of mechanical vs. biological treatment of wastewater is the dilemma over whether to go with an in-ground or above-ground setup for the system.
According to Matt Petter with Riveer Co., makers of the Cyclonator system, there are good reasons for both options. In-ground systems, Petter explains, involve a setup where the water flows off of a concrete pad into a trough for collection. It then flows into the underground system for treatment. Above-ground systems, on the other hand, involve a steel wash rack that allows wash water to flow into the treatment apparatus.
"If a company is building a new facility, they might want to incorporate an in-ground system in the design," Petter says. "If the business is leasing space, however, they might prefer an above-ground system that isn't permanent to the location."
Maintaining your system
Like everything else in your business, your water treatment system will need to be serviced, some types more than others.
"The biological system is low maintenance and requires only a bi-annual or annual cleaning of the tank, depending on usage," says Auger with Mi-T-M.
"The mechanical system does require a little more maintenance — multi-media and carbon filters should be checked often, as should the tank itself. Of course, there are pumps on each system that should be placed on a predictive maintenance schedule."
He adds, "Customers can typically cover most maintenance requirements simply by setting up a service contract with a local distributor, which allows the customer to concentrate on other important issues."
Larson agrees, noting that "the best systems will be automated so the maintenance is performed automatically, avoiding operator neglect."
He continues, "It's essential that a commitment is made by owners and operators to maintain a water treatment system. It's a commitment to your investment in environmental safety, just like you make a commitment to the equipment you rent.
"Sadly, many system purchases have been based on the price tag, rather than what is needed to achieve the best water quality at the lowest maintenance cost. Due to low-quality water and dissatisfied employees, the short-term cost savings eventually prove to be higher costs in the long run," Larson says.
For the greater good
Incorporating a water treatment system at your rental business will cost money, but the alternative is potentially more expensive. Still, to offset the cost of the system, many rental businesses are finding ways to make the investment work for them.
"Many rental companies are starting to get wise about the cost of washing equipment in compliance with EPA regulations and are passing the costs on to the customers," says Petter at Riveer. "Most rentals now have a cleaning fee clause attached to the rental contract that allows the company to charge the customer if the equipment comes back dirty. Whether a rental company makes the [treatment system] a profit center or a cost center depends on the management of the rental company."
He adds that there are smaller setups on the market today, such as wheel wash systems, that rental companies are beginning to rent to customers for use on their jobsites. This represents another way that treatment systems can potentially make money instead of costing money.
In the end, there is really no choice when it comes to the environment. All businesses have a responsibility to clean up their act and it's to their benefit financially as well.
"Rental centers already know that clean equipment lasts longer, extending the life of their investment," Larson says. "Now they're discovering that a wastewater treatment system also saves them money by conserving water (recycle systems) and avoiding the high cost of permits and government oversight, to say nothing of the peace of mind that comes from knowing you aren't creating an environmental hazard that will haunt you down the road."