by George Looby, DVM
The Collins family played host to a large group of visitors interested in energy conservation on March 29, 2018. The family operates Collins Powder Hill Farm in Enfield, CT — a diverse operation that operates a dairy, processes and sells compost, and has an on-site dairy bar. During the four generations the family has operated the farm, it has gone through several changes, starting out with vegetables, moving on to poultry, then to dairy and finally to where it is today.
With the encouragement and advice of individuals who were involved in farm energy conservation, the Collins’ decided to embark on a program that had never been tried before in the state. With assistance from many sources, they now use heat generated from the composting process to heat the water used in the dairy milk room.
Energy conservation on the farm is certainly not a new idea in Connecticut, but using the heat source involved is a new one in the state. This project, still regarded as being in the trial stage, involves many groups, agencies, authorities and commissions interacting to assist in funding and planning. One of these is the Resource Conservation and Development (RC&D), a program of the USDA. The Connecticut Farm Energy Program (CFEP) is one part of the overall Connecticut program. It has provided technical assistance to farms and rural agricultural-based small businesses by assisting them through the USDA Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) grant program. The Connecticut program has helped secure just under 2.4 million dollars in grant funds which amounts to 9.6 million of energy efficiency and renewable energy projects.
One of the key operations on the Collins Farm is composting, offered for sale either bagged or in bulk. This operation has been offering product for sale for over 20 years using traditional methods of preparation, mechanically turning the components on a regular basis to ensure that the end product was uniform in appearance and composition. For several years, the farm had a contract with the Town of Enfield to use the leaves picked up in the fall as an important part of their compost mix. Over time this source of material was lost but they were able to achieve an arrangement with the Big E in nearby West Springfield, MA.
The Collins Farm was introduced to an organization located in Vermont called Agrilab which specializes in the production and installation of specialized equipment designed to make a composting operation more profitable. During composting a number of things happen, one of which is the generation of heat. Under optimal conditions this temperature may reach 165°F. Using conventional methods, once the raw composting materials have been “cooked” the heat generated is lost. The team at Agrilab reasoned that if that heat could in some way be captured it might be put to some better use. They literally invented a unit which would take heat from a compost pile and turn into useful energy. This process has been designated the Compost Aeration and Heat Recovery (CAHR).
Taking a somewhat conservative approach, the Collins’ decided to build a facility that was somewhat more modest. The construction is along the lines of a trench silo — a three-sided structure constructed using large concrete blocks with a sand floor. If this trial is successful, a concrete pad will be poured at some point down the road. The width is such that four rows of material can be processed at one time, each row in a different stage of composting. Piping is arranged so a pay loader can move one pile of compost at a time.
Essentially, heat from the compost pile is captured and sent to a circulator which sends it to a hot water tank in the milk house. There, it is heated further to the temperature required for the proper cleaning of equipment in the parlor and in the milk house.
Another benefit derived from this set up is that the heated water is used to heat the milk house and the milking parlor. In the first four months of operation — prior to the new water heater becoming operational — the savings using preheated water has been $660 (250 gallons at 2.64/gal). Another feature of this project is that it is constructed in such a way that there is a flow of oxygen back into the compost piles, which accelerates the composting process. The speed at which the microbial population that is responsible for the breakdown of the organic matter is in large measure fueled by the availability of oxygen. The more oxygen that is available the faster the rate at which decomposition occurs. Jack Collins described the breakdown of wood shavings in the compost as achieving in three months what had previously taken about two years.
Yet another feature of the system is a component that serves to reduce the odor generated by composting.
John Guszkowski, long time leader of the Advocacy Group in Connecticut, served as master of ceremonies at the event introducing the various individuals who played a role in developing this innovative program. Among those who spoke about the development of the system were John and Jack Collins, the father and son team who operate the farm, gave an overview of the entire operation. Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Reviczky spoke about the collaborative effort that brought this project into being. Commissioner of Energy and Environmental Protection Robert Klee spoke about the good relations that existed between the two departments as this program developed. Brian Jerose is the founder/president and director of Technical Services of Agrilab Technologies, which invented the unit that makes the whole system work. He gave the audience an overview of the history of his company and how it became involved in this project. He also provided details on how the system works.