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Lemon or Lifesaver?
Pallet Companies Share Their Expertise on Heat Treatment Systems and Technologies

By Chaille Brindley
Date Posted: 6/3/2002

As the world steps closer to the implementation of a global standard for treatment of wood packaging, pallet companies are evaluating various treatment systems. With a wide variety of options on the market, many pallet manufacturers are scratching their heads trying to figure out what is the best match for their company. The Pallet Enterprise staff has talked with some leading pallet manufacturers to gauge their concerns and comments on the treatment technology.

Before you make a purchase, read this article. You could learn a tip that could save you thousands of dollars or keep you from buying the wrong treatment solution for your needs.

Been There, Done That

Associated Pallet & Industrial Drying Sterilization in Bremen, Ky. has been heat treating hardwood pallets for 12 years. Its customers have requested treated pallets due to mold and sanitation concerns. Some of these pallets have been used for export shipments. A pioneer in treating hardwood pallets, Associated Pallet uses an all aluminum, stainless construction, boiler-fueled kiln.

Spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on its treatment facility, Associated Pallet can treat 12-15 truckloads per week. "It takes more than a drying chamber to provide what customers want," said Mike Perry, president of Associated Pallet. To store treated pallets, the company built a 25,000 sq. ft. warehouse.

Through his years of experience in treating hardwood pallets, Mike shared that ambient temperature significantly impacts treatment time. Mike prefers live steam because it heats the wood core faster than blown air. Moisture can be a problem for pallets treated in a non-kiln system according to Mike. "Moisture laden pallets are a recipe for disaster if they go into a warehouse."

Playing a Game of Chicken

Most pallet manufacturers and some recyclers are facing a tough decision when it comes to when to install a treatment system. Should you go ahead and spend the money to install a treatment system before customers start asking for treated pallets or do you play catch-up when the orders begin to come?

Barbara Bennett Perry, president of Bennett Box in Ahoskie, N.C. plans on going ahead with plans to put a treatment system in this summer. Barbara expressed concern about meeting demand once the international community began requiring treatment for hardwood pallets. She did not want to lose customers due to the treatment issue. Bennett Box needs to be able to treat one truckload per day. Barbara looked everywhere for a solution. She even considered converting a tobacco dryer into a pallet treatment chamber. Instead, she decided to integrate a dry kiln into an insulated refrigerator trailer. This approach provides her the capacity she needs at a manageable price point.

Arrington Lumber & Pallet Co., of Jacksonville, Texas plans to install two large heat treatment chambers similar to a dry kiln. Each one can hold up to two truckloads of pallets. According to Eddie Arrington, owner of Arrington Lumber, forty percent of his business will have to be treated once the phytosanitary standards are implemented. Even though his customers do not want to start treating pallets until required by foreign countries, he wants to get a jump on the market. He estimates that his system will cost $650,000 for the equipment and installation.

However, not everyone plans to install a treatment system right away. "I will not build a treatment system until there is a demand for treated pallets," said Asher Tourison of ACME Pallet in Holland, Mich. "Our customers don’t want to even talk about buying treated pallets. They will want to wait to the last minute, and then they will want us to solve the problem overnight." Having been burned in the past by trends and fads, Asher asked what happens if the bug issue blows over. Customers wanting treatment thrown in for free as a "value-added service" has contributed to ACME’s reluctance. Given the tough winters in Michigan, Asher believes that ACME Pallet would likely have to buy a kiln-like chamber, which will cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $250,000-$500,000. Thus, he wants to get 2,000 – 4,000 treated pallets per week before spending a dime on installing a treatment system.

Unlike a new nailing system, steam-based heat chambers require a significant amount of infrastructure including a boiler, pipes, valves, pumps, etc. All of these are sunk costs that cannot be recovered even if the chamber is sold.

Treatment Equipment Checklist

Regardless of when you plan to buy a pallet treatment system, the following checklist presents some key points to ponder when evaluating various technologies.

1.) What capacity will you need?

Start with this question first. The number of pallets that you want to treat per day will help you determine the size of the chamber needed to meet your demand. If you only want to treat a limited number of pallets per week, one of the less expensive, smaller options may work well. For larger volumes, a sizeable dry kiln-like system may be the best fit.

2.) Weather – Frozen Lumber or Moldy Pallets?

Mother Nature can actively work to sabotage your treatment system. Cold weather environments lower the temperature of the lumber, which increases the energy and time needed to treat the pallet. "Less expensive heat treatment methods make me a little nervous when it comes to the frozen wood issue," said Asher. He prefers a system run on steam because it will help deal with the harsh Michigan winters. In warmer environments, moisture can cause a mold problem if a pallet is not dried.

3.) Loading and Unloading Method

Some systems are designed to be loaded and unloaded by a lift truck driving directly inside the chamber. Others require pallets to be pre-loaded onto a dolly first. The dolly sits on a track and is pushed into the chamber.

4.) Energy Source

Energy sources vary from wood chips to natural gas to liquid propane. Cheaper fuel sources, such as wood chips, require more up-front cost due to the need to install a boiler. In the long run, a company saves money especially if more expensive fuel sources start to rise in price.

5.) The Need for Speed

"The critical factor is how hot you can get a chamber and how long does it take to get there," said Eddie. Arrington Lumber decided to use a direct steam system because it will heat the chamber faster. The downside is that it will produce wet pallets that could mold. These pallets will likely spend an extra 30 minutes in the dryer just to be safe. A number of factors such as the size and insulation of the container as well as the weather can impact the heat transfer rate.

6.) Staging/Logistics

Depending on the capacity of your treatment chamber, the layout of your plant and the volume of heat-treated pallets required by your customers, timing could be critical. Barbara is concerned about scheduling problems as customers make a run on treated pallets. Consider how you will stage your pallets, where you will store them after treatment, etc. The last thing you want is a logistics nightmare in your plant.

7.) Dry or Just Heat?

You can buy a system that will only heat the pallet/lumber or will heat and dry it at the same time. Chambers that do both cost more, but they offer greater flexibility. Why would a customer want a dry pallet? Dry pallets weigh less, easing ergonomic concerns. Plus, moisture removal reduces the threat of mold or water damage to products shipped on the pallet. The ability to regulate humidity in the air also affects lumber quality.

8.) Environmental Concerns

In some areas of the country, local governments may require a detailed permit process to install a boiler. Check with the local government to find out how cumbersome the process can be. Clean air regulations have made it difficult for even paper companies to burn their wood waste in some states said Barbara.

9.) Construction

Consider how durable the chamber will be. How thick are the walls? Does the system provide adequate air flow to ensure proper treatment levels in all areas of the chamber?

10.) Price

Everything usually boils down to price at one point or another. But remember that total cost is not necessarily the same as the lowest sticker price. Focus on the lowest treatment cost per pallet. The less expensive option may or may not be more expensive than you think.

The larger volume, dry kiln costs more than the small box systems according to Asher. Kilns require concrete work, boilers, piping, pumps, and other incidentals, which can add big bucks to the cost of a system.

11.) Lumber Degradation

Many of the commercially available options will dry and/or heat pallets and lumber without causing any real lumber damage, even in hardwoods, if managed properly. However, it is not as simple as throw in a load of pallets and turn on the timer. "You can honeycomb your wood if you don’t do this right," said Asher. Associated Pallet has been heat treating pallets for twelve years without experiencing any real lumber degradation problem. Whatever you plan to buy, go and visit a system working in the field. Discuss the system you want to buy with your certification agency. A little more research now can save you a major headache later.








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