Waste fluids are generated at thousands of locations across the country. Dirty oil can be found at lube shops, car dealerships and industrial settings. Spent antifreeze and coolant is removed from vehicles daily.
There is no shortage of firms that will pick up these fluids and dispose of them. There are far fewer companies, however, that will go a step beyond collection and will recycle many of these spent fluids for reuse.
One of the companies that takes on the challenge of collecting and recycling waste fluids is Thermo Fluids Inc. The Phoenix-based company collects and processes fluids in its own facilities spread across six divisions in 12 Western states.
OIL AND ANTIFREEZE. More than 50 percent of Thermo Fluids’ business comes from recycling waste petroleum products. Thermo collects used oil and removes the impurities in its own plants. The resulting "on specification" reused oil is sold as fuel. Referred to as "refined fuel oil," the processed fuel is sold to asphalt companies as an alternative to natural gas or to diesel fuel.
Similarly, Thermo recycles waste diesel, jet fuel and fuels salvaged from underground tanks. The company markets the blended product as an alternative fuel to asphalt companies, paper mills and cement and lumber kilns.
Another major recycled product for Thermo is antifreeze. Thermo transports spent antifreeze from client facilities to its own plant in Las Vegas, where it refines out contaminants. The recycled antifreeze is sold to customers such as automotive repair and radiator shops, along with quick-lube stores.
As in any recycling segment, transportation is a key part of the operations picture. After processing, Thermo Fluids delivers recycled fluids to its commercial customers using its own fleet of tractor-trailers, including vehicles leased through transportation supplier PacLease, based in Bellevue, Wash.
Thermo Fluids began an assessment of its fleet in 2003. Since Thermo provides extensive pickup and delivery services for its customers, transportation reliability was a major concern. In addition, the fleet at that time was aging and becoming expensive to maintain and operate.
“The fleet of vehicles for the Rocky Mountain region was a mixture of trucks that were ready for replacement that were owned or leased by the company,” recalls Hinton. “We set out to do a serious upgrade of the trucks to fit our operational needs and make better sense financially,” he adds.
“In our operation, we wanted to quit worrying about truck matters, which were taking more of our time. We wanted to concentrate on our core recycling businesses,” Hinton says. “We decided it was best to have the maintenance, truck registration and permits paperwork and responsibility for the trucks handled in one place.”
The decision at Thermo’s Rocky Mountain division was to lease its trucks through MHC Truck Leasing, the local PacLease franchise in Denver. “It worked out for us because we didn’t have to commit any money up front and, instead, could devote our capital to our business,” Hinton explains. “We have a set monthly payment that helps us maintain steady cash flow and budget more accurately.
“The PacLease facility takes care of the truck maintenance and provides fueling all in one location,” says Hinton. “It’s a huge administrative and maintenance relief for us, and the Kenworth trucks we lease are extremely popular with our drivers. The vehicle fluids are always topped off and the tire air pressure is checked, which makes one less thing for the driver-operators to have to think about.”
Thermo worked with PacLease to custom-specify a truck as light as possible, yet strong enough to support a customized tanker body. Thermo also wanted a truck that would appeal to current and future drivers.
“We needed trucks that had the engine and horsepower to handle our heavy hauls,” Hinton says. “We’re hauling 80,000 pounds with our tractors and 7,000-gallon tanks and 55,000 pounds with our ‘body-mount’ tanks. We’re pulling these loads through mountain elevations. We ended up leasing heavy-duty Kenworth T800s.”
Thermo wanted a 20,000-pound front axle for its tanker trucks to accommodate a power takeoff unit that pumps fluids into and out of the tank. To save weight on the Thermo trucks, PacLease staffers specified a lighter weight Caterpillar engine that saved hundreds of pounds, along with other features such as all-aluminum wheels.
As a result of the Rocky Mountain division’s success with PacLease, Thermo Fluids’ other divisions are beginning to work with PacLease. “When you’re in a competitive business as we are, you want to focus on delivering customer service, running an efficient operation and complying with waste-handling regulations,” Schumacher says. “And, through a full-service lease, we’re able to meet those goals.”
"A majority of these places use recycled antifreeze that meets or exceeds most manufacturers’ recommendations," notes Barry Hinton, general manager Thermo Fluid’s Rocky Mountain Region in Denver.
Thermo also operates a parts washing service. The company’s services include selling or leasing parts washer equipment and providing equipment cleaning services. The company also supplies solvent or aqueous solution used in cleaning parts and tools and recovers spent solvent.
Another Thermo service is recycling oil filters. Thermo supplies customers such as auto dealers and lube shops with 55-gallon drums for accumulating used filters. It then transports filled containers to its filter processing facilities in Oregon and Texas. "Texas is one of those states where it is mandatory that filters are recycled," says Roy Schumacher, Thermo Fluids vice president of sales and marketing.
At the facilities, the company drains the remaining oil and separates the steel casings to be sold as scrap. The process also includes shredding the soft material and packaging it as a high-BTU fuel for making cement.
Thermo also treats industrial wastewater and sludge collected at fuel storage sites, car washes and manufacturing facilities. The company transports the oily waters in its trucks, equipped with vacuum tanks, to its processing facilities. The process involves separating oil and fuel layers, which are processed to make fuel oil. Remaining water is managed to meet federal, state and local regulations.
"Everything we do is focused on waste products and making them usable again," says Hinton.
Schumacher says all of the businesses have contributed to double-digit annual growth within the past five years at Thermo Fluids. During the same period, the company, which is a portfolio company of H.I.G. Capital, Miami, has expanded its services from six to 12 states through a combination of internal growth and acquisition.
"There are only a handful of companies in each part of the country that provide the full service, covering the collection of used oil, antifreeze, absorbents and oily water," says Schumacher. "Throughout the United States, however, there are hundreds of companies that offer just one or two services in this niche industry."
The author submitted this story on behalf of PacLease, Bellevue, Wash.