Draining Experience

Back when “ecology” was only an obscure word in the dictionary to most folks, just about anything might go down the shop drain or a nearby storm sewer at some fleets. And even at those environmentally aware outfits that scrupulously recovered crankcase oil, transmission fluid and antifreeze, things like “simple” washwater often weren’t seen as a problem.

Wow, how times have changed.

It’s estimated that a tractor-trailer unit, washed just once a month, will produce about two pounds of pollutants-including oil, grease, creosols, sediment, zinc, lead, and other heavy metals-mixed in with the water run-off from that single wash. Multiply that across the size of your fleet, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the significant volumes of harmful effluents that could pour into the local water table if left untreated.

Basically, there are three categories of polluted water that a truck-fleet facility must deal with: Waste water: This is water from normal “housekeeping” activities in your shop. Often containing grease and oil, this water typically must be treated by at least use of an oil-water separator sump before the outflow can legally go into a sewer system (where it will ultimately encounter a treatment plant that will cleanse it yet further).

Try to prevent contaminants from getting into shop waste water in the first place. Here are some useful tips:

Make sure all fluids, clean-up materials, and spent solvents are collected in approved waste receptacles and disposed of in accordance with federal, provincial and local regulations, not allowed into drains.

Collect and recycle used oil, transmission fluid, brake fluid, and coolants.

Use absorbents to clean up minor fluid leaks and spills. Granular types can be sprinkled on a spill to aid clean-up. A variety of types and sizes of sponges can also be useful to soak up or contain spills.

Drains should be located away from work areas, and working surfaces between drains should be swept often and kept dry.

Wash parts in self-contained recirculating sinks.

Truck-wash water: The simplest course of action here is to have an outside service come by to wash your vehicles. Such outfits typically deploy low-brimmed rubberized pools that the truck in parked upon, and which collect all the water runoff. The dirty water is then pumped back into a compartment in the company’s mobile-wash tanker truck and taken away.

Whether the contractor operates at your yard or takes your vehicles to their facility for the wash, make sure that they properly dispose of wash water, and that they have adequate insurance. If you wash your own trucks, your exact process will depend on where you’re located.

Some municipalities still allow water water to flow directly into their systems, while most others demand at least the same pre-treatment given to shop waste water. Another option is to install a “closed-loop” water-recycling system, which ensures that wash water is retained, treated, and used again.

Some fleets send their wash water off-site for treatment. It’s expensive: in addition to the transportation costs, consider the costs of a wash-pad, pump, and storage tank. And make sure that waste water is hauled by a reputable firm that’s properly licensed and insured.

Here are some general suggestions for environmentally enlightened washing:

An indoors site is preferred, but if you plan to perform this outside, be sure to have a wash pad and a canopy.

Build wash bays with floors that angle towards the centre to contain large quantities of water.

Use biodegradable cleaning materials, and avoid highly acidic or caustic soaps.

Train your wash-bay employees to not spray open batteries and tractor fifth wheels.

Storm water runoff: Many jurisdictions require a “storm water runoff” permit for any fleet yard, since the trucks parked there will, over time, leak oil, grease, glycol, fuel, and the like. A heavy rain or melting snow will send all these pollutants to the nearest storm sewer, ditch, or stream.

Actions that can help keep truck-operation fluids from becoming an environmental headache include:

Keep batteries, drums of chemicals, and other potential pollutants under cover. Clean and resurface areas that are already contaminated.

Build drain basins around fuel islands to catch spills from fuel nozzles. Fuel islands should be covered, if possible.

Place secondary-containment barriers around all aboveground oil and fuel storage tanks.

If contamination potential of runoff water is high, install a pre-treatment system or some other sort of impoundment where storm water is collected, and contaminants are skimmed from the surface.

Since truck washing will likely produce the highest and most consistent volume of polluted water at a typical fleet, let’s look at that problem a bit closer. If you decide to handle it in-house, check with your local jurisdiction to see whether you can still wash outdoors and discharge the untreated washwater onto the soil, as long as all of it is soaked into (and filtered by) the ground and none flows directly to a storm sewer, ditch, creek, or other means of access to the natural water system. This is called an “infiltration” discharge.

Far better-and mandatory in many jurisdictions-are systems that either filter the water and discharge the treated effluent into a sanitary sewer; collect, filter, and re-use the water (“closed-loop” systems); or capture the water for transportation and off-site treatment/disposal by a contracted firm.

Unless you’re hiring out your washing, treating the washwater and then discharging to a sanitary sewer is best. Pre-treatment requires installing a multi-compartment (usually three or four “stages”) underground combination of a settlement basin/sump where the solids settle-out, and an adjacent oil-water separator-sometimes called an “interceptor” or “clarifier,” and with at least two compartments-that skims off the oil and grease.

Keep in mind that creating such a mini-treatment facility may require a permit and inspection by local authorities, since you are technically conducting a “sewage-treatment” operation. Also, the accumulated sludge and oil/grease will have to be pumped out and disposed of by a licensed firm anywhere from two to four times a year-complete with mandatory government reporting paperwork.

Critics of closed-loop systems say these are maintenance-intensive, don’t always provide the quantity and quality of rinse water needed after recycling, and their filtration process is not 100% efficient so the user must ultimately flush out the system anyway. Still, these can be a worthwhile option for an outfit that lacks access to a sanitary sewer, and only thorough research from the perspective of your own needs can adequately assess them.

Wash-bay design deserves an article of its own, but here are a few basic tips: the floor should angle “downhill” to the centre, where a drain connected to a sanitary sewer is located, and should be capable of containing large quantities of water. Local plumbing codes usually require that the three- or four-stage interceptor be installed right next to that drain, under the floor of the wash bay.

Each compartment of the interceptor will have about a two-foot-square lid built into the floor to open for clean-out purposes.

The newly amalgamated City of Toronto is reportedly one of the toughest jurisdictions in Canada when it comes to controlling industrial wastewater. Doug Latimer, president of Environmental Cleaning Systems Inc. and the affiliated Rexdale Mobile Truck Wash Inc. there, says that soon it’ll be even stricter.

“I’ve been told that by mid-2001 a revised by-law will be in effect that will require certain industry sectors to submit pollution-prevention plans that detail how they ensure that polluted wastewater from their operations is adequately controlled,” Latimer says.

“More of concern to myself is that the city is also going to add 29 organic compounds to the prohibited list, and that will include nonylphenol ethoxylates-a key ingredient in the soap we’ve been using for vehicle washing,” he adds. Latimer’s self-developed and patented “Latimat” system scrupulously recovers all the dirty wash water so it can be treated later through a multi-stage interceptor prior to discharge to a sanitary sewer.

But molecules like nonylphenol and its associated ethoxylate molecule are not removed, even after going through a sewage treatment plant. It’s feared that this soap ingredient can have harmful effects on aquatic life. Therefore, Latimer is going to have to change cleansers.

At Toronto Works and Emergency Services, senior engineer Martin Shaw explains the bureaucratic maze of environmental control: “Basically, the provincial Ministry of Environment has jurisdiction over any discharge into the ‘natural environment,’ like the air or water,” he says. “A municipality would have jurisdiction over sewer systems. There’s a bit of overlap with storm sewers-which are meant to only take rain-water runoff-because they’re municipal property. But they discharge into the environment without the contents being treated. That’s why it’s of concern to both parties that no one put any sewage into a storm drain.”

“Sewage” is broadly defined in environmental law, basically covering any biological or chemical contaminants whatsoever. Bottom line: if it’s not natural, unpolluted rainwater, it must go into a sanitary sewer, whose contents end up at a sewage-treatment plant.

“A fleet washing its trucks and letting that water run into a storm drain would be subject to charges,” Shaw explains. “But if they did the same thing at an open area where the wash water just infiltrated down into the ground, I don’t believe a prosecution would hold up-unless it was shown that this polluted water did also run into a watercourse or sewer.”

Nevertheless, the penalties for ignoring water-pollution regulations are serious business.

“A typical fine for a first offence is in the $5000 to $7000 range, per charge, and the highest I recall was a plant here that got hit with two counts, each of $35,000,” he says. “And I recall that not too long ago the president of a metal-plating firm was given a jail sentence, after his firm had repeatedly been convicted of environmental violations.”

And so a final word to the wise: wherever you’re located, check with local authorities regarding wastewater regulations. Choosing the irresponsible approach to save some overhead dollars now could cost your firm-and our environment-a lot more later.

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