Steve Diddy


In my previous article (Waste Advantage Magazine, March 2013), I gave an overview of how to access a composting opportunity using pro forma analysis and design. Assuming the outcome made an attractive business case, and there were no insurmountable regulatory or permitting issues, then the next steps are to fund, design, permit and build the facility.


Funding is outside of our scope, so I’ll focus on designing, permitting and building. But I will say that before you commit major funds, it is wise to carefully review the findings of the pro forma analysis. In particular, make sure that you can answer the following questions in the affirmative:

  • Do you have a statistically significant analysis of the available feedstocks? Will you consistently have what it takes to make a BMP mix? If you are planning to compost food waste and/or biosolids do you have enough bulking agents to satisfy the following conditions? (see Figure 1)
  • Do you have a current and accurate assessment of the contamination in the feedstocks? The biggest contamination is typically film plastic (and whatever is hidden inside bags if you will accept them into your facility). Do you have a right to refuse contaminated loads coming into your facility? Once it’s there, do you have way to handle it?
  • Have you done the due-diligence on the composting technology you have selected to make sure you will have adequately high aeration rates, adequate number of retention days, and that will capture and control odors so that you will not get shut down and sued by your neighbors?
  • Have you completed a detailed market study that gives you a clear idea of how to market your compost product? The size of the market? What revenue you can reasonable expect?


The Pro Forma Design and Analysis work described in the previous article and now completed for this next phase of the project is the basis for facility design and permitting. Most permitting applications require some design drawings so facility design and permitting tend to run in parallel.


Developing Your Team

Locally appropriate designs (remember appropriate designs are based on local conditions) are developed with input from the contractor who will be tasked with building the facility.  So it is best to assemble your complete design, permitting and construction team early on. The necessary ‘hats’ to have around the table during this process are:

  • Project Manager. This person represents the client’s interests and coordinates the team to ensure a smooth running project.  In addition to managing cost and schedule, this role must keep the eventual site operators in-the-loop during the design process.
  • Compost Process Engineer. In addition to the sizing and initial layout work provided in the Pro Forma process (see previous article), this engineer provides the architectural level process system design, and the technology specific mechanical and electrical installation designs.The Compost Process Engineer, as is the case with ECS, may also supply the compost processing equipment and, once the facility is complete, the ongoing technical assistance and process support.
  • Civil/Environmental Engineer.  This role involves both permitting and designing the facility’s infrastructure. It is not uncommon that these two tasks are handled by separate consultants.
    •  Permitting.  Since, this process is only getting more complicated, you will want a consultant with local experience obtaining new permits and maintaining existing permits for solid waste handling facilities. Permitting is often the critical path issue and a consultant will need direct access to the project team for providing timely design input for this process.
    • Civil Design.  This engineer will need to be well versed in surface water management, water and sewer design and truck and loader traffic requirements.  Developing a grading plan that integrates these design features with the existing elevations often requires a number of iterations. Other civil engineering sub-specialties that can be required include water treatment (leachate management) and geotechnical engineering.
  • Structural Engineer. This engineer should be familiar with designing push-walls and industrial grade concrete.
  • Electrical Engineer. The primary function of this engineer is to design a new, or extended, three-phase power distribution system.
  • General Contractor. Bring in a local firm with experience building waste handling facilities to provide practical and, generally, cost saving input. In an ideal world, this will be the GC who will build the new facility and is dedicated to providing the best value possible to the owner.


If you you’ve done your homework, found a suitable site, assembled your (complete) team, and lined up your financing, you should be golden.


Possible Project Hiccups

In the facility design and construction projects that we have been involved in, we have seen plenty of very well run projects, and a few that had bottlenecks that could have been avoided had they followed some or all of the roadmap outlined above. Here are a couple of those project hiccups that end up costing time and money:

  • Delays caused because of the permitting process. These are really common and are caused by a variety of reasons. However, most of them result either from not fully understanding the critical path through the permitting jungle, or having the permitting jungle change during the process.


Not fully understanding the complexity and requirements of a permit, or overlooking a necessary permit is common, as is underestimating the time required for issuing permits.


On one project, we saw construction brought to a halt because a previously issued permit had lacked ‘a couple details’ was discovered. When upgrading a facility, it’s typical that all of theexisting facility permits come up for review.


  • Lack of a dedicated project manager.  It is not uncommon that a company trying to save money will assign an already very busy facility manager or regional engineer to the role of project manager. Depending on the size of the project, this effort could require a well-developed and specialized skill set and a nearly full-time effort.


The project manager should have a background in construction, or direct the civil engineers to verify and inspect all aspects of facility construction. This includes verifying underground utilities and drainage, paving grades, slopes, and inspecting rebar, concrete forms and finishes.


  • Relying on engineers/designers without the requisite compost experience. There just aren’t that many compost facilities that get built every year. Therefore, the number of firms with compost facility design and compost process experience are few in number. Although there is a lot of experience and know-how to be gleaned from building transfer stations, landfills and WWTPs, the design expertise for building compost facilities is unique—and we believe the project will be more cost-effective if the pitfalls learned from experience are avoided in new designs.



Equipment Startup and Training

A compost facility’s final steps include system and equipment startup and training from all the equipment suppliers. We recommend that the facility staff are included in the startup process and find that their training (and retention) on equipment operation is facilitated by their inclusion.


Then there is the facility startup. We always hope the facility will begin gradually, and add tonnage incrementally until it’s at full working capacity. This rarely happens. Usually there are a couple delays and perhaps compost feedstock collection has progressed to the point of bursting by the time the doors to the compost facility are opened for business. It’s always good to avoid the ‘pig through a python’ syndrome so systems can be fine-tuned and the bacteria colonies on which you rely have time to settle in.


Finally, when all the contractors have gone, and the Client and staff are left to operate the facility with its biological and mechanical processes and seasonal feedstock variations, there should be one company that never leaves the project: the Compost Process Engineer.


They should have a proven track record of providing on-going and timely technical support, retraining services, facility inspections and equipment support. Since they were involved from the projects conception they will know the facility, its process and staff. They are one of the several keys to a well-run and sustainable long-term facility.


Steve Diddy has worked in the compost, recycling and solid waste industries (both public and private) since 1989. He joined Engineered Compost Systems (Seattle, WA) in 2001 and is their Director of Business Development. ECS is an engineering and manufacturing firm dedicated to providing appropriate compost design, technology and ongoing technical support to their clients. Their staff is comprised of compost experts; mechanical, electrical, and software engineers; project engineers; project/construction managers and supporting technical staff. Steve can be reached at (206) 634-2625, via e-mail at [email protected] or visit the Web site at