Preventative Maintenance Is Key to Keeping MRFs Up and Running

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A material recovery facility (MRF) operator doesn’t rotate the knives on his shredder. In a hopper-fed grinder, the ram pushes the material toward the spinning rotor, and without knives to cut the material, the rotor is forced to perform the cutting action. Eventually the knives wear down into the knife holders, which are welded into the rotor. Because the knives can’t be easily removed or allow for rotation, the operator has to spend time and money he hasn’t budgeted to replace both the knives and knife holders.

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Photo: Van Dyk Baler

“This kind of costly mistake could have been avoided,” says Vikki Van Dam of WEIMA America Inc., which makes shredders and grinders, “if the equipment had been checked periodically.”

Sound familiar? More familiar than some MRF operators might admit. Like it or not, maintenance is key to efficient and cost-effective operation. As both manufacturers and operators point out, sooner or later you’re going to have to shut down your line. Better that it be planned as part of preventative maintenance than being an unanticipated fire you have to put out because you ignored a problem that was building.

“Uptime is all I care about,” says Gene Stroble, maintenance superintendent at Nortech Waste LLC, which runs a MRF for the Western Placer Waste Management Authority in northern California. “In the last couple of months, we’ve been running half-a-percent downtime.”

“It’s imperative you keep up with maintenance,” says Rich Von Stetten, manager of recycling for the Delaware Solid Waste Authority, who figures maintenance accounts for just over 21% of his budget. “If something breaks down, unless you’ve got a place to store the material that’s coming in, you’re in trouble.”

Von Stetten manages an intermediate processing facility that receives mostly clean material from 140 drop-off centers and 2,700 curbside customers. Equipment includes wetline American and Marathon balers (one each) and rolling stock—three loaders and one forklift, one tractor, one rolloff, and a Bobcat. Routine maintenance is handled by the facility’s foreman and an operator/mechanic. Major repairs are handled on weekends. If the workload gets too heavy, the facility has two outside contractors it regularly calls in.

“What you want is to observe your equipment on a daily basis,” says Josh Passmore, maintenance manager for Central Lodi Recycling, a waste management facility inland from San Francisco that processes 5,000 tons a month of commingled single-stream material using Bollegraaf equipment plus one Harris baler. Passmore does the observing along with a maintenance apprentice. Tightening belts and rollers and other activities, such as lubricating bearings, are done with the line running. Work that requires equipment be down is coordinated with Operations Manager Jorge Aluy, who says the key is creative scheduling. “On a day when we have less material than what is typical, we might shut down an hour or two earlier. When it comes to preventative maintenance, sometimes we might wait two or three days or even a week for the right window of opportunity, or we might sacrifice some overtime on the weekend.”

In terms of forecasting problems, Passmore says he relies on the equipment operators. “We teach them to get in tune with how the machines run. If something doesn’t sound right, they come to me. And if something’s wrong and it’s repaired, we let the operator know what’s happening so they’ll know what to look for.”

Passmore tracks machines using spreadsheets, which he organizes in binders. Each machine has an ID number, which is how all work is accounted for. Passmore also uses spreadsheets to handle inventory. “It’s easy to think that just because a piece of equipment is back up and running, it’s fixed,” says Passmore. “But is it running at its optimum? Or is it actually deteriorating because what it really needs is a new part?” Passmore also thinks that a good maintenance manager pays attention to his own equipment and doesn’t take manufacturers’ maintenance specifications as gospel. “Facilities running the same equipment can have different problems. You need to set up your maintenance for what needs to be done according to your facility. It’s like driving your car; you’re the one who knows how things wear over time.”


Photo: Van Dyk Baler

In Dallas, Frank Sienkiewicz, plant manager for Trinity Waste Services, which operates a regional MRF for communities in the Dallas metroplex area, accommodates routine maintenance by alternating lunch breaks between processing and maintenance crews. Sienkiewicz has two maintenance personnel scheduled for each of the two shifts the facility runs. The two maintenance workers overlap for approximately two hours each day. “One man can take care of the line,” says Sienkiewicz, “but with two people onsite you can handle the bigger jobs.” At Trinity, operator training is key. “If your operators don’t know how to regulate and feed the equipment, they can flood it and not only cause it to fail but also leave you with contaminated sorting. Here, you’re typically on the line a good two years before we put you in charge of a control panel. If you work the different stations long enough, you start to see how it all goes together. You begin to get a feel for it and you become part of the machine.”

“The material recovery and processing of recyclables has a marginal return on investment at best,” says Ed Sparks, recycling specialist for Polk County Solid Waste Division in Winter Haven, FL. “Next to operating costs, the second-highest cost is equipment and facility maintenance. You can develop motivational and incentive programs for employees to produce to optimum levels, but without a good maintenance program, any savings will be wiped out if equipment goes down because it hasn’t been maintained. Add to this the increased cost to replace or repair equipment that was run until it failed, and this makes a good PM program the key to a healthy bottom line.”

The Polk County Recovered Material Processing Facility (clean MRF) is operated by SP Recycling, which is responsible for total operating costs and maintenance as specified in a contract between the company and the county. To ensure the provisions of the contract are met, Sparks does a daily walk-around and generates a monthly report, including timelines for fixing whatever problems come up. The facility does 100 tpd, up from a low of 20 tons under the previous contractor, and Sparks has his eye on doubling the current load. Daily equipment cleaning and maintenance, such as lubricating bearings and rollers, is handled at the end of the shift by closing down one hour early. Sparks figures maintenance for a facility this size should run between 2% and 3% of total processing costs, debt service included.

Also in Florida, the Solid Waste Authority of Palm Beach County contracts out its two MRF operations, residential and commercial, with FCR Inc. Jim Greer is the county-employed site manager. “At one point in our operation,” he says, “the amount of commingled that came in during the season—November through March, when the snowbirds are in residence—required that we had to operate as much as 20 hours a day. You can’t do that and maintain a facility. You need at least a full shift every day, eight hours a day. When we were operating like that, all we were able to do was seat-of-the-pants stuff. Things broke down all the time.” To solve the problem the county spent $4.5 million to retrofit the facility, including a CP Manufacturing fiber line that, in combination with the original Bollegraaf fiber line, allows a total fiber capacity of 75,000–80,000 tons.

The 200-page contract between FCR and the county requires all equipment be maintained to industry standards. To keep track of what’s going on in the $14 million facility, FCR has installed computer software that automatically generates work orders according to the manufacturer’s recommended schedule. Once a month the records are downloaded to Greer, including all work orders, equipment breakdowns, and hours and money spent on each piece of equipment, about 10,000 pages every 30 days. To keep track, Greer selects one or two pieces of equipment each month to follow in detail. In addition, the authority conducts an annual inspection using an outside firm. Four employees are dedicated full-time to maintenance and six to seven others are pulled from the processing side of the house.

Palm Beach County is using Atlas 2000 from Data-Trak, which was selected by FCR. Input is handled by the maintenance manager. “With these routinely scheduled PMs we are now catching little problems before they become big ones,” say Greer. “Now our unscheduled downtime is almost nonexistent.” Besides generating PM work orders and the ability to track individual pieces of equipment, Greer says the software allows for vastly more effective inventory control. “Before we installed the software it could literally take half a day to find a spare part. Now they not only know whether we’ve got it in stock but exactly where it is, and we can find it in seconds.”

Why contract out a MRF? “There’s a common-sense approach to working with private companies that’s win-win,” says John Booth, executive director of the Solid Waste Authority of Palm Beach. “In this business it’s helpful to understand how the equipment you’re buying fits with how you plan to use it. We’ve used outside consultants so we’re sure we’re getting equipment that’s intended for what we have in mind for it. You also have to keep up with new technology. Upgrading is sometimes a matter of installing a new system because it’s easier to maintain.”

John Sacco from Sierra International Machinery in Bakersfield, CA, seconds Booth’s observations. “We see a lot of operators running more material than the equipment is designed for. Often this is the result of an effort to save money on the purchase end. When people buy equipment that will be running 99% of capacity on day one, maintenance suffers. There’s no room for growth or downtime. And the equipment is going to break down sooner or later, no matter who the manufacturer is.

“Operators should budget for maintenance and buy equipment that has room to grow. You have to take maintenance as seriously as any other part of the business. Still another point is having an amiable relationship with your supplier. When you have a question, call, address it right away, before it becomes a big issue.”

Ron Roberts, assistant solid waste manager in St. Lucie County, FL, is Sacco’s idea of a good customer. Roberts runs 500 tpd through a C&D MRF using a Lubo USA processing system. “There’s a maintenance schedule board on the wall in the shop and a check-off list,” says Roberts. “Every day the mechanics use this to see what needs to be done. The star screens are cleaned every single day, for example. The air separator is cleaned every day. Same with the conveyors and the grinder. All of this gets greased every day. Every day we clean the bunkers so you can see what has fallen on the conveyor motors. The same thing with the vibrating hoppers. Every week we check the belts on the magnets and also the conveyor belts to see if they’re tracking right, because those belts are $40,000 apiece. Four of our operators do the daily work, and we have two mechanics. We shut down an hour early every day. At 4:00 we stop processing and start cleaning.” Roberts figures maintenance accounts for $0.80 of the $5.12 it takes to process a ton of C&D through his facility.

St. Lucie County runs a balefill and uses two Macpresse balers to compress the MSW. Recyclables are hand sorted. “On the solid waste side, the conveyors are steel pan conveyors so the lubricating system has to be done every day,” says Roberts. “Every morning it’s checked to make sure the lubricating system is spraying oil on the rollers and on the bearings of the chains that drive them. The system has photo eyes that tell the baler when the hopper is full, and these need to be cleaned every day. The ram face has flaps on it where the wires go through, and at the end of the day these need to be cleaned out. All the rollers on the ram have to be checked every day. Everything inside on the ram is greased and all the wheels and rollers sprayed. We do all this the same way we do it with the C&D; we shut the operation down.” Roberts estimates the bailing facility is processing 1,000 tpd in one shift, at an approximate cost of $5.65 a ton, $0.93 of which is maintenance.

“We forecast our scheduled outages,” says Henry Hunzie at the Monterey, CA, Regional Waste Management District. “We put everything down into individual wear charts, so we know what’s wearing, and if we decide to do a modification we can go back and make a comparison.”

Hunzie runs two shifts, one processing, one maintenance, which overlap by two and a half hours. A supervisor and three maintenance workers grease and adjust belts and make minor repairs; four laborers clean out the confined spaces. Hunzie aims for 80% system availability, including shutdowns for jams and operational problems. The facility takes in anything that comes in a debris box or self haul, including C&D at about 320 tpd plus 180 tons of greenwaste. Curbside material goes elsewhere.

“Visual inspection is the secret to good maintenance,” says Hunzie. “This starts with the person who knows what he’s looking at, then going out and looking and feeling, like the bearings. You can tell a lot of what’s going on if you know what it should sound like when it’s running correctly. Our maintenance workers have run equipment and they’ve done maintenance. In our training, we’ve mimicked the OSHA forklift classes with classroom time and video, testing and a hands-on evaluation. We consider each operation distinct. Just because you’re trained on the wood yard doesn’t mean you can run on the tipping floor.”

“The awareness of the operators and the maintenance personnel is one of the most important issues in maintenance,” says Rick Parrish, service manager for Shred-Tech Corp. in Cambridge, ON. “Which means companies have to invest in operator training. You want your operators to be constantly looking at the equipment so they notice when a conveyor belt isn’t tracking correctly and replacing wearing components. It’s awareness more than anything else. Maybe that unfamiliar noise means the oil in the gearbox needs to be changed now, and if you change it now, then it’s the cost of the oil instead of waiting until it affects the gears or bearings, when it could cost you 10 times as much. Shut your system down daily for an hour to do maintenance or shut it down unexpectedly. Either way it’s going to happen, but if you do it under control, it’s not going to impact the rest of your operation.” Parrish says the company is seeing more and more requests for help with maintenance and has set up a network of service providers in strategic locations that can be contacted independently or through Shred-Tech.

Mettler Toledo’s Industrial Division has also responded to what it sees as a growing market for maintenance by establishing what it calls its XXL customized service. The idea, says Regional Manager José Villa, is to keep the scales calibrated. “It’s not only a matter of service but maintaining the accuracy and integrity of the scales. The majority of people don’t understand, but just because a scale weighs accurately at 1 gram doesn’t necessarily mean it will be accurate at 100 kilos.” XXL service is available directly through Mettler Toledo or through the company’s distributors.

Paul Szura, assistant general manager for Nortech Waste LLC in Placer County, CA, thinks one key to good maintenance is computer software. “The software program essentially generates our maintenance workload. Then all we have to do is our normal routine maintenance.” Like Hunzie in Monterey, Szura thinks tracking the history of individual pieces of equipment, which software facilitates, can be a real help in keeping things up and running. “It’s phenomenal what you can dig up in the operational records. The idea is to see where your biggest problems are and identify how you can improve. There’s always a reason for a breakdown, whether it’s that preventative maintenance wasn’t done or material was run through incorrectly. Also when you go back through the records it’s obvious when the operator didn’t know how to operate the machine or wasn’t well-trained.”

Szura runs three shifts that push through approximately 1,000 tpd—800 tons of MSW, and the rest greenwaste. The graveyard is for preventative maintenance. Equipment is cleaned routinely, every day. Operators are responsible for reporting any questionable maintenance issues or concerns. The system runs on automatic 99% of the time using a programmable logic controller.

“Our software program [PMC from DPSI in Greensboro, NC] has allowed us to set up our maintenance like a service company,” says Szura. “We are effectively working on ticket time. In a service world you post your hours, your time, and your labor to a specific project. Here when a mechanic gets the job, it’s his from start to finish. His time is allocated along with his parts and materials on the same work order.”

Szura also thinks the correct relationship between management and operators is essential. “When we’ve made improvements to the equipment over the years, we’ve eliminated a lot of the original operator-oriented resources. A lot of our conveyors, for example, were set up to reverse in the case of a clog-up or a jam-up. But in reversing certain conveyors you can really wreck havoc on the equipment, like breaking crossbars. By eliminating that capability to the operator and reserving it for the maintenance team, we’ve cut way back on any issues that arise from reversing the conveyor. And when we get a jam, it’s the maintenance people who do the diagnostic.”

Although software is at the heart of Nortech’s preventative maintenance program, switching over to a computer-centered maintenance program is not without its challenges. Jim Greer reports that it took Palm Beach County almost two years for FCR to debug the maintenance software once it was installed. Another issue was data entry. Currently, the company’s maintenance manager spends 50% of his time on data entry, Greer reports, because strict data entry personnel were not sensitive enough to the nuances of maintenance terminology.

Nonetheless, Mark Arsenault of Arsenault Associates in Atco, NJ, thinks things can be set up differently. “This kind of software is an asset management package. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a piece of rolling stock, a building, or the equipment housed in a building.” Arsenault insists that, in addition to selecting the right software for what you want to do, another challenge is selecting and training personnel. “You’ve got to keep in mind that if you’re not going to put at least one person who can type and understand and use software in front of the machine, you shouldn’t be computerized,” says Arsenault. “We have customers who have the actual mechanics working the program. They generate the work order themselves and then go out and do the work. They fill out the information with all the codes and enter all parts they use. Other customers don’t want mechanics touching computers and they use data entry people, a manager, or someone in parts who generates the repair order.”

“Software is not just to collect data and regenerate it in the form of reports,” says Charles Arsenault, the company’s founder. “The goal is to increase productivity. This means that one goal is to minimize data entry. What you want is a system that tells you when you need to repair a piece of equipment without your having to do something. Otherwise you might just as well use a spreadsheet.”

Arsenault Associates has designed vehicle maintenance software for the past 20 years but is now working with New Jersey’s Atlantic County Utilities Authority (ACUA) to apply its Dossier software to monitor and schedule building and equipment maintenance for the authority’s recycling facility. Maintenance Manager Jim Coffey reports that the facility is already using software for inventory control. The recycling center processes approximately 36,000 tpy on conveyor lines designed by Count Recycling. Balers are Marathon and Mosley. “If we go through three belts in a month, I want to have three belts on stock,” says Coffey. “I don’t want to order 10 at the beginning of the year just to have them. That’s where the software comes in.”

The ACUA recycling facility maintains two full-time mechanics, whose workweek runs from Tuesday through Saturday, when major repairs are done. Recycling center mechanics also have access to a central maintenance plant that serves the entire solid waste division. “The relationship between central maintenance and the recycling center maintenance crews is very flexible,” says the facility’s manager, George Owens. “A couple of weeks ago we had to do a reline on a baler and one of the welders from the maintenance center was assigned to us for three days to assist our crew. In this industry you have to remain flexible and be able to deal with changes. You don’t want to lock yourself into something you can’t change down the road.”

“For a facility to stay up and running,” says Strobel at Nortech’s Placer County facility, first you have to have knowledgeable people to identify potential problems that might eventually manifest themselves in a breakdown. This is not only so they can identify how to get the line back up but to prevent the same problem from recurring. Then you have to have support from management. Management has to trust you to spend money rather than band-aid problems, to do it right the first time. And then you have to have a good maintenance program. If you put those things together you can’t lose.”

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