A Solids Success

A talent for technical innovation and a knack for building personal relationships propelled a one-truck vacuum outfit into a thriving biosolids management business
A Solids Success

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Hank and Shane VanVeen grew up around their father’s cleaning business, eventually joining it as employees. “Our dad owned the cleaning business for 25 years, so we were involved to one degree or another since we were knee-high,” says Hank.

But when the business was sold to a larger corporation, the brothers found they didn’t fit in with the new corporate culture, and so they launched a company of their own. They started by focusing on wastewater treatment plant services, including tank and lagoon pumping and aeration basin, wet well and digester cleaning, but soon expanded into long-term municipal biosolids management contracts.

Today, their company, Wessuc, has 35 full-time and about 25 seasonal employees, operating from home base in Brantford, Ont., Can., 20 miles from the steel town of Hamilton and about 60 miles west of Toronto. Wessuc has worked as far away as Ottawa, 275 miles north, and Sarnia, 180 miles west. The business is about 95 percent municipal. The large and diverse fleet includes three vacuum trucks and 20 hauling vehicles.

The business name? “It’s pronounced ‘WESS-uck,’” says Hank VanVeen, “but when we make a sales call, we tell them to remember that, ‘We suck.’ It’s been a great marketing tool for getting people to remember us, although we don’t get asked to sponsor a lot of local sports teams.”

 

Bidding on biosolids

When the brothers started their business, the VanVeen name was still well regarded for vacuum truck service in the area, so they capitalized by establishing a one-truck cleaner outfit in 2000. They concentrated on traditional vacuum service during the first year, but were consistently asked to bid on biosolids removal for municipalities.

“The company that owned our father’s company had bought out most of the other firms offering biosolids service in the province, and there was very little competition left at that point, so we decided to get into the game,” says VanVeen. “We thought we could make some improvements to the type of service offered at a competitive price.”

In Ontario, biosolids are largely used as farm fertilizer from April through November, but can be applied only when there are no crops in the field. Most municipal contracts last five to seven years so that contractors can justify buying the specialized equipment they need. Wessuc won its first biosolids contract with the city of Brantford in 2001 through the Ontario Clean Water Agency, which manages water systems on behalf of member municipalities.

 

Gearing up

“We had already been doing tank cleanout work for the city, and we were able to present a case to the bank that we had enough experience in the field, and that we had a five-year contract waiting for us, so we could pay off equipment costs over the contract,” says VanVeen. “I’m not saying we were approved by the first lending institution we approached, but we were able to make our case for a loan before beginning the contract.”

For starters, the VanVeens purchased a dragline system manufactured by Hydro Engineering, an injector bar, assorted hoses, several pickup trucks and tanks, and a John Deere tractor for land application.

“To succeed in the business you need to stay on top of regulations, get certificates of approval from the Ontario Ministry of Environment (MOE), and make sure the groundwater and nearby bodies of water won’t be affected,” says VanVeen. “You also need to know what you’re applying to the soil, making sure it contains no high levels of heavy metals or pathogens, and you need to know the condition of the soil, to make sure that it can use what you’re applying.

“We didn’t know farmers in the community at the time, so it took a lot of knocking on doors. Biosolids have been presented as anything from toxic waste to the greatest thing since sliced bread, so we needed to promote the idea of using biosolids as fertilizer. We didn’t necessarily have all the answers, but we did know where to find them, and generally the farming community was very receptive.”

The land application method is up to the contractor. Wessuc injects the material directly into the soil to avoid aerosol spreading and maintain quality control.

 

Expanding north

In 2002, Wessuc picked up a five-year biosolids contract with the City of Barrie about 90 miles north. The company opened a satellite office there, assigning a program manager and a land coordinator to the job.

Increasingly, Wessuc was asked to bid on contracts to clean out the digesters used for treatment of wastewater sludges. The work required cleaning of digesters ranging from 40 to 110 feet in diameter. The tanks are largely drained, leaving a heavy material composed of biosolids and trash.

Workers remove trash using a pre-screening device developed by Wessuc staff and built by Reist Industries of Elmira, Ont. The device uses a series of automated rakes that scrape the screen as trash and solids collect on it. The trash is emptied into a bin, while the remaining material is further processed. Sometimes crews add water to make the biosolids easier to vacuum. Injecting polymer promotes clumping of solids and aids mechanical dewatering.

“Initially, we rented a centrifuge and a belt press to dewater the material, but we had issues with both,” says VanVeen. “The centrifuge was finicky and didn’t like the variance between thick loads and thin loads, and the equipment choked up on grit, sand, hairballs and plastic. We also had issues with the belt press, which wore out quickly when it had to handle too much grit.”

The company found greater success with a rotary vacuum drum filter from Alar Engineering Corp. The equipment creates a vacuum inside the drum, drawing the liquid through a filter media covering its surface. The dewatered slurry travels over the topside of the drum, forming a cake, which is removed for land application.

“The drum units are traditionally stationary, but Reist Welding created a covered trailer for the unit, making it one of the few mobile units in North America and certainly the only one in our market,” says VanVeen. “It gives us a great competitive advantage. It uses less power, and we get very high effluent quality. The water we return to the digester contains roughly 16 to 20 mg/l of total suspended solids.”

The degree of dewatering depends on the material’s destination. “If we’re going to land-apply immediately, then 5 percent solids is fine,” says VanVeen. “If it’s going into storage, we’ll dewater it to about 35 percent.”

 

Human resource challenge

After acquiring another five-year contract with the Region of Waterloo in 2005, the company had doubled in size. “It was a challenge just with regard to hiring and training,” says VanVeen. “It was a huge learning curve, and at that point we began to delegate more of that function within the company.”

Operational efficiency also became more important. To that end, the company devised a unique guidance system to improve the effectiveness of land application. Traditionally, operators would set the optimum rate of application, but then manually reduce flow rates to compensate for changes in tractor speed.

“We looked at it from the perspective of how quickly we could safely apply a tank of biosolids,” says VanVeen. “We worked with local John Deere dealer, AgraTurf Equipment Services in Ayr, to create an injection system in which we did the reverse – the flowmeter governs the speed of the tractor. The tractor automatically adjusts its speed to maintain the maximum rate of flow.”

The tractors were also outfitted with a GPS tracking system with auto-steer that aligns the tractor to a rigid application pattern.

Meanwhile, the cleaning side of the business keeps growing. Wessuc recently completed a large digester cleanout contract for the Region of Waterloo’s Kitchener wastewater treatment plant, now being upgraded. The project required five workers for three months.

“The lengths of the digester contracts are difficult to estimate,” says VanVeen. “The digester had a 2.6-million-gallon capacity, but it isn’t about the volume of water the tank can hold. It’s about the solids that are left when the tank is drained. We have the capacity to dewater about 260 cubic yards of sludge in eight hours, but the cold weather limited our productive days because of freezing across the hoses.”

Contracts are also difficult to quote accurately without knowing the solids content of biosolids, notes VanVeen. Municipalities offer tenders by volume, while Wessuc encourages them to tender on a dry weight basis.

 

Personal touch

Wessuc finds 70 percent of its contracts through personal contact. The other 30 percent are mined from postings of public tenders in newspapers and bid services. Other municipal jobs include cleaning of pump stations, water towers, clarifiers and grit tanks. Non-municipal contracts include cleaning of grain elevators, silos, and catch basins at car washes and other businesses. Hydroexcavation contracts round out the portfolio.

Wessuc operates four John Deere tractors and three vacuum trucks, one with a vacuum system by Berex and a 2,100-gallon debris tank, a second with a vacuum system by Westech Vac Systems Ltd. and a 3,500-gallon debris tank, and a third with a Cusco vacuum system and a 2,200-gallon debris tank. Its fleet of hauling trucks includes 10 Volvos, five Internationals, four Freightliners and one Mack.

Although Ontario has provincial standards for biosolids application, the company must keep up with regulatory change. In January 2011, reporting responsibility shifted from the MOE to the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. “Essentially, what were guidelines before are now regulations,” says VanVeen. “The field work will be the same, but we have to pay attention to the new reporting structure.”

To accommodate future contracts, the company is examining options for its own biosolids storage facility. “We can’t apply the material in the winter or when there’s a crop in the fields, so the notion that we can apply biosolids on municipal schedules is a bit of fiction,” says VanVeen.

“Additional storage will help us smooth out the application schedules and allow us to work to the farmers’ schedules. We have the expertise and the equipment to run a successful biosolids management operation, but at the heart of it, the business is based on personal relationships, not only with clients but with the agricultural community.”



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