Thinking Inside the Box
For Canada’s remote First Nations, smaller towns, and suburban developments, containerized sewage treatment promises plenty of benefits. Are we ready to rethink small systems?
This article was written by Julie Stauffer and appeared in Jan/Feb 2014 issue of WaterCanada magazine.
Across the country, small towns are facing the problem of sewage lagoons nearing capacity or reaching the end of their lives. On First Nation reserves in particular, more than half the wastewater systems have been classified as high or medium risk. Meanwhile, urban Canadian municipalities are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to connect new outlying developments to existing treatment plants.
According to Trish Johnson, a senior environmental consultant at R.V. Anderson Associates Ltd., the status quo approach to small sewage systems no longer makes sense. “We have to do
things differently,” she says.
Bullish on boxes.
More and more companies are betting the answer lies in packaged or containerized sewage treatment. The concept is simple. Fit your technology—complete with plumbing and electrical—into a shipping container or trailer, transport it to your site via truck or barge, hook everything up, and suddenly, you’ve got a functioning system in a matter of days at a fraction of the cost of conventional plants. As an added bonus, the effluent that comes out the other end is just as good—or better—than in traditional facilities.
Take the example of EcoLibra Systems. A few years ago, this Saskatoon based company was building sewage treatment plants from scratch with all the contracting headaches and weather delays that accompany any construction project. CEO Jason Tratch then decided to package his company’s lime-based treatment technology in a standard 40-foot sea container. The resulting system serves roughly 300 people, and to scale up, the user simply adds another container.
Meanwhile, for the past 13 years, Calgary’s FilterBoxx Packaged Water Solutions Inc. has been providing water and sewage treatment in the work camps of Northern Alberta, “literally 500 miles north of nowhere,” CEO Larry Novachis says.
The packaged membrane bioreactor sewage treatment systems serve anywhere from 600 people to more than 5,000. Now, FilterBoxx is expanding its clientele to small communities, First Nations, resorts, and hotels. “If the camp people put their faith in a packaged approach day in and day out in –50°C, there’s no reason why a small town or an Indian reserve couldn’t either,” Novachis says.
There are dozens of other examples. Treatment containers from Canadian-owned Nomadic have seen action everywhere from fly-in fishing camps in British Columbia to mining camps in Siberia. Siemens has installed its Xpress system at Tsuu T’ina Nation’s Grey Eagle Casino in Calgary, while Quebec-based Bionest piloted their Kodiak system in the Arctic town of Iqaluit.
And whether the company uses an activated sludge process, rotating biological contractors, chemicals, or membrane technology to treat wastewater, the objectives remain the same: provide a packaged system that is effective, easy to transport, and simple to maintain.
‘It’s a slam dunk’
So how do boxed systems stack up against conventional approaches? When compared to lagoons—the go-to solution for most Canadian communities of 5,000 people or fewer—the big advantage for small systems is performance. While lagoons are a well-established technology, a 2006 Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment report cites problems with odour issues and high ammonia levels in the treated discharge.
As environmental regulations get stricter, Novachis expects more towns to look for alternatives to lagoon systems. Packaged or containerized systems are highly reliable, he says. They have a significantly smaller footprint than a lagoon, plus they’re enclosed, avoiding odour issues. Most importantly, they produce an effluent that can be reused for anything from washing equipment to watering golf courses. “Really, it’s a slam dunk going packaged versus lagoon,” Novachis says.
Packaged systems have advantages over bricks-and-mortar facilities, too. In remote communities where on-site construction costs can run 10 times as high as urban areas, packaged systems make financial sense. While the material costs are similar to a so-called “stick-built” system, Novachis says, the huge savings on installation cut total ownership costs between a half and two-thirds.
Tratch also points out the economies of scale created when a company manufactures standardized packages rather than constructing a custom-built facility. Packaged systems can be designed and installed much faster than the 18 to 24 months typically required to build a plant from scratch. “We can have a sea can at your door, ready to turn the key, within three to four months,” he says.
As for suburban settings, packaged systems allow municipalities to expand without the need to connect nodes of development to treatment plants dozens of kilometres away. Tratch says he’s
getting calls from developers putting in 100 or 150 houses on the outskirts of town. “This is a big new market,” he says.
And the advantages of small systems do not end there. Packaged systems don’t require specialized expertise, which is ideal for small communities where highly trained engineers and operational staff are not always available. Take the example of an EcoLibra system: “Every three to four days, someone’s going to have to go into the plant and add the green chemical to the green bin, the blue chemical to the blue bin, and then swap out the bag that was collecting the sludge,” Tratch says. Compared to more traditional systems, this process is relatively easy.
As for FilterBoxx, it has 35 certified water and wastewater professionals in Stony Plain, Alberta dedicated to running the plants it installs.
In a country still dominated by big pipe,
urban-focused thinking, manufacturers of packaged and containerized systems face a few hurdles. One of the biggest, according to Johnson, is policy. “Buttoned down” and “risk adverse” federal protocols require operators and backup systems that are exorbitantly expensive, she says.
And while some provinces do allow communities to manage private systems, others insist new suburban developments should be connected to existing sewage.
Then there’s the additional problem facing any new technology: unfamiliarity.
While the engineering companies that design and build municipal plants know all about bricks-and-mortar plants, plug-and-play systems are a different ballgame. “I think the next guys that need to change is the small and the large engineering firms,” Tratch says.
However, Johnson points to economic drivers, the data flowing in from pilot plants, the federal government’s willingness to look at alternatives for First Nations, and the growing number of qualified vendors as signs that attitudes are shifting. “Once we start to put out the information and the results, and the proof of the pudding is there, we’re going to see huge changes,” she predicts. WC
Julie Stauffer is an award-winning freelance writer and the owner of Cadmium Red Communications.