Transfer Stations

T-Harmony for Transfer Stations—Finding Your “Perfect Match”

Right sizing” determines the right fit for you, selecting the building and site layout that best works for your operation, and custom designing it to your needs.

Ray Eriks and Bob Wallace

Transfer Station “Right Sizing” (design, location and aesthetics) is a similar comparison to a dating service. Sounds strange right? Well think about it, you need to know what is right for you, what individual needs you have, what your long term goals are, what you are willing to invest and what you are looking to get out of it.

The “Right Sizing”

What is “Right Sizing” when it comes to transfer station design? This is a loaded question. First, we need to start by thinking about this—to whom are we asking that question? Is our client a municipality, a large private company, or a smaller start up? What is their goal, a show place or statement about their community? Is the facility simply a “tool” to allow them to best manage and process their materials? Often the answer is based not on what they need, but what they want or can afford. Municipalities are often looking to make a statement. Cost is not the driving consideration, and therefore cost is not a prime factor in the design; so often in the past these facilities would be, well, all you can say is “ginormous” and very costly. Now, will this change with the severe downturn in the economy? Only time will tell.

Normally, most questions that come to mind when you think about the right sizing question relate to the size of the building. Think about this from a slightly different perspective. Shouldn’t right sizing really be about creating the total design and layout that is most cost effective? Think about the term “cost effective” and what we are really saying is “What is going to be the cost per ton to process material through the building?”

There is an old adage that says the shortest distance between two points (Point “A” and Point “C”) and that is a straight line. The point of this saying is to get us thinking efficiency, the least amount of effort to achieve our end, getting from point “A” to point “C”. Let’s think about the route truck and call it point “A” and the landfill or MRF as Point “C”. In most circumstances with material handling and manufacturing processes, you add a point “B” into the equation to improve the material along the way, which creates a value added condition. (The only reason to deviate from the straight line is to make some type of improvement—to add value to the process).

Looking at it in its simplest form, a transfer station is simply meant to provide the lowest cost, most effective and environmentally responsible means of getting the material from point “A” to point “C”. The “value-added” is achieved from cost savings in reduced transportation by the consolidation of multiple route vehicles into one large trailer, with the ancillary benefits of reducing the number of trucks on the road and lowering total emissions. It is a true example of addition by subtraction.

Right sizing needs to encompass many different aspects to determine what is “right sized”. The entire process from inception to opening needs to be guided by what will help reduce and control the operational costs for the life of the facility. Even this can be difficult to define what specific needs should be included in any given project. Your thinking needs to lead to the most cost-effective design, and includes the right operationally efficient features for every piece of the process. This includes the vehicles delivering the materials, the handling and loading, and the transportation to the landfill. Many times during consulting visits to sites, statements were heard relating to these two issues as though they should not be considered and were of no concern to the site manager. I would witness a transfer trailer waiting 40 minutes or more to back into the pit and then take an additional 30 minutes to get loaded. When concern was voiced about this, the answer would generally follow the lines that it did not affect his bottom line so why be concerned about it.

The same held true with the route collection vehicles; they could not understand why that should be their concern. The truth is that every aspect of the process should and does matter. Reducing the time a transfer is on the site to be loaded will reduce the total time required to complete a cycle to and from the landfill, and should equate to lower cost per ton for that transportation cost. The same is true for the route vehicles delivering the materials to the site. If a vehicle is an external or third party customer, every minute matters to that customer. The faster and easier the truck can arrive, scale, tip and leave, the faster the truck can be back out on the road being productive. The point of this is that every aspect and every such example is part of right sizing, not just getting a building that is big enough without being too big.

Industry Experience: Critical Right Sizing Factors and Design Considerations

Let’s begin by discussing right sizing as it relates to our experience with the private sector.

So let’s think about it, what factors need to drive the sizing question? Consider:

  • What is your expected daily volume and what is the peak volume you will need to process during your peak periods?

  • How many vehicles per hour do you need to manage through the facility daily, and during your peak periods?

  • How much storage capacity is needed for those emergency situations? (landfill temporary shutdown or severe weather conditions)

  • How much floor space is needed for tipping?

  • What is the potential for growth and what is the timeline that you might need that expansion?

  • Will you ever need to accommodate recycling? (trans load, simple sort or full sorting)

  • Future environmental regulations, be proactive and plan for future regulatory changes.

These are just a few of the facts gathered to determine the design requirements, commonly referred to as the “Basis of Design” or “program needs” (facts uncovered during the interview process and needs assessment—items such as those previously listed.) These are the common items debated during most every initial design discussion. Typically the discussions revolve around these and many more questions following that line of thinking, which are really just meant to establish basic parameters such as size and what type of loading bay will be used for the facility. This leads to the other piece of the equation—what are the real questions of right sizing?

  • Operational efficiency questions:

  1. How efficient will the facility be for accepting and receiving materials?

  2. How fast will we be able to load out transfer trailers and empty the building?

  3. How can I limit the exposure to revenue loss through unauthorized tipping, bypassing scales, internal fraud and theft?

  4. How do I operate the facility safely and still limit the labor and operating expenses?

  5. How do I control my ongoing operational cost?

  • Cost of operations questions:

  1. Can our design incorporate building features that reduce annual repairs, reduce downtime and improve our profitability?

  2. Can I attract more volume by being “customer friendly” and by providing the best chance for a quick turn through the facility with short or no wait times?

  3. Can I negotiate lower transportation costs to the landfill because of our efficiencies?

Knowing the answers to these questions is critical to the entire process. This process needs to be managed with operational understandings and considerations leading the way. Effective designs and site layouts are the result of planning driven from “real” waste industry experience. Too often, the engineer has years of experience with drawings and conceptual layout but limited, if any, real time spent observing day-to-day operations. What we’re referring to is the intangible understanding of a transfer station that a designer or consultant has to have. It is that innate ability to know how to gauge and estimate the amount of time required to get a route truck on and off the property, and create a design that ensures it will be 10 to 20 minutes instead of 40 minutes which could be the difference between attracting a customer and additional volume that would otherwise go to a competitor. This experience is the difference between a design that can get approved and a design that works.

Facility “Right Sizing” and Design Cost Factors and Considerations

The key question is: “What will my cost per ton be to process materials through this facility?” To know the complete answer, you need to be able to become more than just a site planner or a designer; you have to also be able to include the operational cost impacts of a design to make it a complete package. What exactly does this mean and what factors should be considered in that evaluation? Let’s start with the basic questions:

  • Cost

    1. Land

    2. Infrastructure

    3. Site improvement

    4. Building

    5. Other specialized equipment (pit scales, loader arm scales, in/out bound scales, unattended scale software, security cameras and theft control measures)

The preceding is the typical information that is primarily used or considered. But that is only looking at a small portion of the real costs that that should weigh into “right sizing”. Now let’s take a quick look at some of the additional information that is also integral to the proper considerations.

  • Ongoing expenses (building repairs and expenses over a predetermined building life)

    1. Miscellaneous building repairs, such as scales, OH doors, wall siding, etc.

    2. Floor repairs and replacements

  • Equipment (loaders and other equipment)

    1. Purchase price

    2. Operating cost/hour with maintenance

  • Staffing (equipment operators, spotters and cleanup, scale operators, managers)

  • Other expenses

    1. Real estate taxes

    2. Utilities

    3. Lease payments

    4. Loan amortization

As you read through the above list, probably none of these surprised you; in fact, you may have been thinking how obvious they all are. Obvious or not, these are rarely considered or given the real weight that they deserve. Each individual project requires attention to often significantly different criteria to determine which factors will yield the lowest cost per ton for a given project.

Transfer Station Design Facility Examples

Before we look at some examples, let’s first point out that the greater the volume of a facility, the lower the impact of mistakes and poor planning. A large volume facility can help you hide a multitude of mistakes. The first example looks at a low volume facility that will exaggerate the impact. Since the purpose of this example is to illustrate how important even small issues can play into the larger picture let’s work through just a few issues of a small volume facility. For the sake of providing a meaningful example, let’s consider a small volume transfer station using this basic information:

  • Average daily volume of 200 to 250 tons per day

  • Annual volume of 64,350 ton using an average volume of 225 and 286 operating days.

Typically for small projects the focus may follow a few key cost items:

  • The total cost of the physical facility. For instance, a total facility cost of $2,000,000 would be an annual cost of $135,000 amortized at 5 percent over 25 years. Taking that annual cost would equal a capitalized cost of $2.10/ton. Now, let’s look at what the impact would be if the project was $2,500,000. This would change the annual amortized cost to $168,934 or $2.63 per ton.

  • Labor. Rather than try to define what labor you would need, let’s look at the impact of an “extra” employee. Let’s assume one of the more expensive options, and you add one extra loader operator. For the sake of discussion, assume 2,000 total hours and that you would also be adding the cost of an additional loader with operational cost and maintenance. The cost for this will vary drastically all around the county based on local labor rates and other geographical factors. For our purpose, let’s say an all in operating cost of $70 per hour. (labor and equipment) Extend that out to the annual cost and you now have to factor in an additional $140,000 or another $2.18/ton.

Next let’s use a 700 ton per day facility as an example, and an issue that may be critical to that facility:

  • At 700 tons the facility needs to manage 30 outbound loads of material based on a 24-ton legal load. Let’s assume an operating time of 12 hours. Based on this example, two to three loads per hour need to be loaded. For the periods in the day where you are dealing with the high volume time slots, that is still a very manageable 20 minutes per load.

However, if we dig deeper into this and what potential problems there might be, consider how important having a properly working and accurate pit scale is to this scenario. At this volume what would the impact be if we were only loading each transfer trailer with 21 tons? That would pose several problems:

  • First you would need to load out 33 or 34 trailers.

  • Second and most importantly this would mean you are increasing your transportation cost by 13 percent.

  • Let’s put this into a value that we can all understand. Assume your cost transportation cost was $288 per load. (24 tons @ $12 per ton with 24 tons per load guaranteed) You now will be spending an additional $864 per day for transportation costs or $1.23 more per ton that comes right off the bottom line. Doesn’t sound like much? Well $1.23 per ton for 286 days and 25 years is … $6,156,150 over the 25-year life ($246,264 annually).

Although the previous costs are not real, nor are they based on any real project, the issues they represent are accurate and to the point of defining what we are talking about when we discuss “right sizing”.

No One Size Fits All

In closing, when we are asked “What size should a facility be to process 300 tons per day?”, the real answer is there is no one answer that fits every situation or specific volume. There are “off the shelves plans” that can be used once you get to a point of having worked through all of the other questions, but there may be four options for a size based on the total package of “needs”. The real science is in establishing what the total package needs to include yielding the best result for each individual project or client.

At the end of the day, it is a similar comparison to a dating service. Sounds strange right? Well think about it, you need to know what is right for you, what needs you have, what your long term goals are, what you are willing to invest and what you are looking to get out of it. Even though this may sound like an odd analogy, it is all about compatibility, having a transfer station that is designed to be totally compatible with your needs. So what is right sizing? It is finding the right fit for you, selecting the building and site layout that best works for your operation, and custom designing it to your needs.

Ray Eriks and Cambridge Construction (Griffith, IN) have been working with the waste industry for 18 years. During that time they have completed more than 100 solid waste projects which consist of design/build projects, transfer station repairs and facility upgrades and modifications for facilities such as transfer stations, hauling companies, office buildings, MRF’s, waste water treatment plants and container repair facilities. Cambridge has been studying the operations and changes within the waste industry extensively during this time and continues to improve our design/build solutions to meet the dynamic needs of the solid waste industry. Ray can be reached at (888) 972-1155, ext. 222, via e-mail [email protected] or visit the Web site at or blog at

Bob Wallace, MBA, is a Principal and Vice President of Client Solutions for WIH Resource Group (Phoenix, AZ), providing diversified services and extensive experience to clients in both the private and public sectors. Bob has more than 25 years experience in solid waste and recycling management, transportation/logistics operations, fleet management, alternative vehicle fuel solutions (CNG, LNG, Biodiesels, etc.), WastebyRail program management, recycling/solid waste program planning and development. Bob has expertise in the areas of solid waste and recycling collection routing and route auditing, disposal and transportation rate and contract negotiations and strategic business planning. He has extensive experience in conducting both solid waste collections and transfer station operational performance assessments OPAs (a business improvement process). Bob previously served as a board member for the Arizona Chapter of SWANA and has served on the National Solid Waste Rate Committee for the American Public Works Association (APWA). He is also a former board member of the California Refuse and Recycling Association’s (CRRA) Global Recycling Council (GRC). Bob can be reached at (480) 241-9994, via e-mail at [email protected] or visit