Commentary: Climate Initiatives Stifle with Stuck-in-the-Past Equipment Purchasing

By Soren Rasmussen

Protecting the environment has never been so high on the agenda. So, isn’t it peculiar that in the wastewater industry, almost everything is still archaically structured to purchasing the cheapest possible equipment, which can all too soon end up as waste that in many cases can’t be recycled?

Peculiar indeed, and very wrong when you consider that, ideally, everyone from consulting engineer to contractor to equipment supplier wants the best possible solution – one they can be proud of with a happy treatment plant customer.

But hands are tied by bidding laws, which when trying to secure capital such as State Revolving Fund (SRF) loans, they are only about the price tag on a piece of new equipment. There is almost nothing about longevity; the total cost of ownership; maintaining and then replacing, for example, a pump or a mixer that has barely lasted a couple of years before it becomes a financial and process burden. That cost is going to be on the customer’s shoulders – and those paying their sewer bills.

Why aren’t the capital and operating costs integrated?

The 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) is sending billions of dollars into infrastructure investments – and its intention may well be to support climate-friendly investments. However, there’s no evidence yet that this will carry through to actual project documents that would promote the benefits of long-lasting, climate-friendly wastewater treatment solutions over cheap, throw-away equipment.

Is there a state that might want to become the first to change the current situation so that they get the best value for money? Contractors need to be competitive of course, and they don’t want to price themselves out of a job. But this can all too often result in equipment that meets budget, but is cheap – and cheap for a reason.

As a manufacturer whose mixers and pumps can typically last for two decades or more, our stainless steel propellers (that have a lifetime guarantee), can’t possibly compete on the purchase price with propellers made from plastic. Over time, when plastic inevitably breaks and needs replacing, we will prove by far the most economical solution. And by the way, all that failed, non-recyclable plastic gets buried in the ground, which rather flies in the face of all the considerable green environmental credentials that so many claim are part of their ‘caring’ ethos.

procurement plans

More than ever, we hear from frustrated operators at a treatment plant. A typical scenario is that the $15,000 mixer they purchased less than two years ago has broken down – again – and that last time it cost $12,000 to fix it. And, they know that it is likely to let them down again. The bidding structure didn’t really allow them to buy our $25,000 mixer, even though it’s reliability and total cost of ownership will be drastically lower, aside from removing so much hassle.

Many specifications that we receive were written 20 years ago or more (you can see the cobwebs), and apart from some clever people who were largely ignored, concern for the future of our planet was barely part of any conversation. At Landia Inc., we still receive paperwork that includes certain features and brand names that have not been applicable for more than 20 years! It’s the same old document, pulled from the shelf. The wording will very generically describe the need for pumps and mixers, but not a word about long-term costs. I don’t know about you, but when I buy a car, I don’t just ask for four wheels and four seats and then jump straight in with a purchase because it’s some super low price. I want to make an educated decision. I might want to know some pros and cons, like how many miles to the gallon it does, and how reliable it’s going to be. Otherwise, it’s probably cheap for a reason, because it is going to be a pain in the butt and probably won’t last me very long.

There are some very good consulting engineers out there, and I’m not for one second saying that they don’t make educated decisions. Just like us in the supply chain, they want to win work, but the whole structure – based solely on capital cost-only price tags, in 2023 – is crazy.

As is the case in other countries, we should start working towards a process whereby maintenance costs, including the price of spares, are built into quotes. It’s laughable, really, to see those who say they “stand by their equipment” offering a whole 12-month warranty! Wow! If you really believe in what you’re selling (and perhaps I can’t ask you to take the environment into consideration), how about five years, 10 years or 15 years? Then we’ll know the true cost. But for now, the financing and purchasing of wastewater equipment remains firmly stuck in the past.

Soren Rasmussen is the director of Landia, Inc., the U.S. subsidiary of Landia A/S in Denmark. He is based in Toronto and Cary, N.C. Originally from Denmark, Rasmussen spearheads Landia for the North American market, whose custom-built equipment serves municipal, agricultural biogas and numerous industrial applications.

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