April 17, 2008 | General

Composter, Wood Recycler Builds Soils Business

BioCycle April 2008, Vol. 49, No. 4, p. 27
A Syracuse, New York company produces and blends soils on spec, servicing the state Departments of Transportation and Environmental Conservation, local agencies and area landscapers and contractors.
Larry Trojak

TO THE layman, making a soil product capable of being applied by a blower truck would seem fairly rudimentary: take material, grind it, screen it and blow it. It’s not rocket science, they’d say, and, at times, Cliff White wishes all that were true. The founder and owner of Syracuse, New York-based Ground Effects, Inc., has found – and proves it daily – that creating a soil product to meet a specific need really is more science than art. His efforts to make that science work for him, however, are being rewarded. For a growing number of contractors, municipalities and various state agencies, Ground Effects has become the go-to source for issues involving erosion control, soil remediation and more. And White says he’s really only just begun.
A tree and landscape professional by trade, White says he was already looking for something new and creative to add to the business when he stumbled upon an ad for a blower truck in a trade publication. “We had already done some research and knew a soil application business could work well in this area, but I didn’t think that particular truck was the right answer,” he recalls. “About six months later, we saw an ad for Express Blower trucks – and at that time I felt they had what I wanted. I ordered one and was on my way to an apparent career change.”
Knowing that the basis for any soils creation effort starts with grinding, and already having a Morbark 1100 tub grinder for his existing business, White contacted the local dealer. This time, however, he was in search of a horizontal grinder. “I needed a larger screen area and more of a direct feed capability, the very things a horizontal grinder offers,” White says. “So we traded the Model 1100 in on a Model 5600 horizontal and it’s been a very good move for us in terms of how well it fits into our operation and in overall production.”
Making the transition from landscaper to soils specialist was not entirely painless. There was a steep learning curve, says White, which had to be dealt with before customers could fully place their trust in his product. “For the markets we serve, the specification is the most important factor and, quite frankly, early on we had some blends that just weren’t what we set out to get,” explains White. “However, we worked hard at it, made the necessary adjustments to our process and today can provide a consistent blend of soil to meet virtually any spec.”
White says his customers include, among others, private contractors, the New York Departments of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and Transportation (DOT) and area colleges and universities. The New York DOT has general criteria, but Ground Effects far exceeds them, says White. Depending on the end use for the material, products range from a lightweight soil spec (to create a green roof), to a bioretention material (for the state’s highway department) to a material specially blended (to provide good slope capability for the DEC). Ground Effects is also a certified Filtrexx International installer.
“The materials we are called upon to provide differ by mineral content and gradation,” White says. “A bioretention material, for example, will be mostly sand, not much organic. A slope material, on the other hand, will probably be 90 percent organic to reduce the chance of it washing away. In fact, we can do a 1:1 slope and guarantee that it won’t wash or rill; the material is that stable and takes hold that quickly.” For steep slopes, a straight compost blanket is used. The determining factor for the blend, notes White, is percent of flow – the steeper the slope, the coarser the material.
As with most businesses, luck has played a certain role in Ground Effects’ success to date. For example, its current location, adjacent to one of the busier highways in Syracuse, was something of an unforeseen bonus. “Not long after we were in full swing, the federal government was doing an erosion control job in the area,” recalls White. “At the time, they were trying to process some huge piles of organic material that were left here by the City of Syracuse for that particular job. They found that they couldn’t do the job and asked us to come in and do it. We did and we’ve been here ever since. We have also been fortunate to have a solid, reliable source for more than 12,000 yards of soiled animal bedding – better than half our yearly volume. The bedding serves as the feedstock for much of our soils composting operation.”
That composting operation is, in itself, something of a departure from the norm, a move White says was driven by efforts to keep costs down. “Every time you touch a material in this business, you add to the cost to process it,” he says. “I see municipalities that are constantly turning and working windrows and I think that doing so makes the process much more costly and inefficient. So, I looked for a way to minimize handling during composting and believe we’ve done that.”
White’s approach involves attaching a specially designed blending unit to the in-feed conveyor of the grinder, adding amendments prior to grinding as a preprocessing step. That newly ground and blended material is then sent to a 60-foot stacking conveyor that creates a huge cone-shaped pile. “We monitor the temperatures of the pile, and generally find that we can maintain temperatures of 150° to 180°F,” he explains. “It has been the foundation of almost all that we do here.”
Once material reaches maturity it is either ready for use as is, or once again reground and amended to create specialty blended soils. Depending on the mix design specified, the firm will add aggregates of varied sizes as well as different levels of urea, sulfur, water, gypsum, etc. It then screens material through an Erin StarScreen 200A finishing screen and loads it into one of several blower trucks. Out in the field, an injection system on each truck meters seed and fertilizer into an air chamber, then mixes those with the soil as it exits the blower hose.
“The trucks do the application and they do an excellent job of it,” says White. “However, for us, it’s really been the medium that has made the difference. Some people mistakenly describe what we do as hydroseeding, which is simply spraying a mixture over soil. Our process is actually called terraseeding because we are delivering soil, seed and fertilizer all in one application. Because our soil is so rich, the germination rate is extremely quick; we generally have grass out of the ground in seven days. In fact, if we leave soil in the feeders of the trucks overnight, we can usually see white roots in the mix by morning. And, because our piles are managed so well, all the materials are cooked, thereby killing all pathogens or weed seed. The customer gets lush, weed-free vegetation in no time at all.”
White’s products – and his ability to apply them – have found ready acceptance throughout the region. Contractors and city crews alike appreciate the fact that he is able to come in after they’ve wrapped up and restore an area to even better condition than when they started. “The trucks make a huge difference in what we are able to do for our customers,” he says. “I recently had one of our units working in a development where the contractor had just done the blacktop. We came in to backup the curb, that is, fill in the areas between the newly poured curb and the residents’ lawns. The contractor said that over the years he has tried using slingers, a skid steer loader – tried just about everything – and it’s always been a nightmare. He couldn’t believe how easy we made it look.”
Between the massive overhead (the current blower trucks cost more than $300,000 apiece and new units price out at over $400,000) and constantly needing to meet and maintain the specs, White says his is a challenging business. “But I think we’ve done it the right way. Through a combination of reliable equipment, a willingness to learn and a good solid customer base we’ve grown faster than I ever imagined. Most importantly, however, we have not sacrificed on quality one bit. Today we generate between 75,000 and 100,000 yards of product per year, and we are looking into doing some other things, such as composting with food waste. That will really change things again. But we’re no strangers to change; that’s just the way we like it.”
Larry Trojak is a Minnesota-based freelance writer.

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