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Research Study for Aerated Static Pile (ASP) Composting

Aerated static pile composting is a form of thermophilic composting accelerated


and managed through the pushing (positive pressure) or pulling (negative pressure)
of air through the composting pile. Composting is – or at least should be – an aerobic
process. And the air typically delivered by perforated pipe or pipes at the bottom of the
pile keeps the pile oxygenated which expedites the normal composting process. It also
maintains the population and diversity of beneficial oxygen-consuming bacteria and
has the benefit of controlling the foul odors that anaerobic composting emits. The air
is delivered on a preset schedule that can be tweaked according to the wishes of the
operator, but a typical cycle is 30 seconds on, 30 minutes off.

Objectives of ASP Composting


1. Protect surface and ground water resources;
2. Reduce the time and expense now committed to manure management; and
3. Produce a high-quality finished product for use around your farm, local
community gardens, or to sell to gardeners in the area.

With aerated composting we maintain aerobic conditions throughout the compost


pile and are able to control pile temperatures. This, in turn, expedites the composting
process and yields a high-quality compost product that is effectively free of pathogens,
parasites, and weed seeds. By composting in this manner, we are able to control
offensive odors and flies, improve the aesthetics of the waste handling area, quickly
produce a superior product and reduce the cost of labor and equipment (i.e., fuel,
maintenance, etc.).

Components of Aerated Static Pile Composting

Blower
The blower and timer I received from O2 Compost is a simple bounce house blower
and an analog cycle timer with simple dials to allow you to control the on/off cycle to
your liking. For anyone who is operating at the community composter level and below,
this blower/timer combo is likely to be sufficient. Some aerated static pile composting
systems operate on negative pressure, meaning air is sucked through the system.
These operations tend to be larger and more advanced.

Manifold
The manifold is the piping that takes the air from your blower to the pile and will often
have several points at which it branches for the purpose of feeding several bins. For
a multi-bin or pile system, you will need some fairly expensive on/off ball valves to
prevent expending airflow on piles that don’t need it at the time. In my case, there is a
single manifold splitting into 3 underground manifolds, each of which can be opened
or closed with a shutoff valve.

Air Plenum Layer


If the pressurized columns of air escaping the perforated manifold piping were to come
into contact with the active material, you would risk drying out several different pockets
of your composting material.
You could also experience “short circuits” where the air fights its way through the core
or up the sidewalls, allowing an easy escape for the air behind it. To prevent this, an
air plenum layer, often a simple layer of wood chips, is laid atop the perforated
manifold. It diffuses the air and delivers a more uniform air flow to the entire pile.

Active Layer
The active layer is comprised of whatever material you’re planning to compost,
whether it’s high-nitrogen food waste, manures, or other organic waste. ASP
composting still requires the Carbon-to-Nitrogen ratio (C:N) of conventional
thermophilic composting, right around 25-30:1. So your high-nitrogen waste still needs
a carbon source like wood chips, wood pellets, etc to raise the C:N in order to be
composted effectively.

Bio-filtration Layer
A bio-filtration, or ”bio” layer is a simple covering of mulch or finished compost
surrounding the active core which protects the pile from heat loss and pests. It also
reduces the escape of any foul odors that may emanate in the crucial first few days of
the composting cycle. Adolescent humor alert: For those of you who are familiar with
“dutch ovens“, the bio layer is the sheet that traps the heat and odor.
In an ASP operated using negative pressure, the air itself is often pumped into a bio-
layer as seen in the graphic below.

A PROCESS TO FURTHER REDUCE PATHOGENS (PFRP)


Many years ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducted
exhaustive risk analyses involving the processing and use of composted biosolids
(wastewater sludge) products. Upon completion of this work, the EPA established the
minimum criteria used for meeting human health objectives. These criteria are stated
in the body of regulation entitled 40 CFR Part 503, (also referred to as the “503
Regulations”). The technical term for the minimum criteria to produce a Class A
compost is “Process to Further Reduce Pathogens” or PFRP. The composting
industry has adopted these criteria for virtually all organic waste materials to ensure
that finished compost products are safe to use.
The PFRP criteria for the aerated static pile method of composting are stated as
follows:

1. Pile temperatures shall be maintained at 55oC (131oF) or higher for a minimum of 3


days (i.e., piles must be covered to ensure minimum temperatures throughout the
pile); and
2. Fecal coliform must be less than 1,000 most probable numbers (MPN) per gram total
solids (dry-weight-basis); or
3. Salmonella sp. Bacteria must be less than 3 MPN per 4 grams of total solids (dry-
weight-basis).

INITIAL MIX OF MATERIALS


The initial mix of materials (i.e., the blend of feedstocks going into the compost system)
controls the composting process and predetermines the quality of the finished
product. The following list provides the target ranges for the five primary parameters.

Parameter Reasonable Range Ideal


Particle Size <1” to 3” <1” to 2”
Carbon to Nitrogen Ratio 20:1 to 40:1 30:1
(C:N)
Bulk Density 16 – 24 lbs / 5-gallon 20 lbs / 5-gallon bucket
bucket
Free Air Space 30 – 65% 50%
Moisture Content 50 – 70% 65%
pH (measure of acidity) 5.5 to 8.5 6.5 – 8.0

NOTE: Maintaining a moisture content in the compost pile of >50% is of critical


importance.

If the moisture content drops much below 50%, the biologic process stops and no
further decomposition will occur. Rewetting the pile by sprinkling it from the to / outside
is not effective because the outter layer, once it becomes wet, will act as an “umbrella”
and it will shed water, not absorb it.

Additionally, if the compost mix gets very dry – <40% moisture content – it will become
hydrophobic making rewetting a very difficult chore. The only way to effectively rewet
a compost pile is to break it down and thoroughly wet the mix with a high powered
hose. This is frustrating, time consuming and it certainly does not meet our objective
of reducing our inputs of labor and equipment time.

ANATOMY OF AN AERATED STATIC PILE & AERATED BIN SYSTEM


There are three distinct components of an aerated compost system, including 1) the
plenum layer; 2) the initial compost mix; and 3) the compost cover. Examples of an
aerated static pile and an aerated bin system illustrate these components (Refer to
Figures 3-1 and 3-2, below).

Figure 3-1: Section View of an Aerated Static Pile

Figure 3-2: Section View of an Aerated Compost Bin

The plenum layer is located on the bottom of the pile and typically consists of coarse
woody material. The purpose of this layer is to allow the airflow to be distributed evenly
across the base of the pile. It is important that this layer be sealed on all sides by the
initial compost mix to maintain pressurized airflow and prevent “short circuiting” to the
open air.

The initial mix consists of the feedstocks that are being composted. This represents
90% or more of the pile volume. The initial mix parameters need to meet the target
values, as described above.

The compost cover is placed on the top of the pile and consists of previously
composted material that meets the criteria for a Process to Further Reduce Pathogens
(PFRP), as described above. For compost bins, this layer should be at least 6-inches
thick and for aerated static piles, it should be at least 1-foot thick.

The compost cover is critical to the ASP method of composting and serves six
important functions:

1. The cover provides a thermal blanket to ensure that all “raw” feedstocks reach
temperatures suffient to destroy pathogens, parasites and weed seeds (131 oF for at
least 3-days).
2. It also serves as a biofilter for odor control. The odorous gases (i.e., volitile organic
compounds, or VOC’s) that leave the pile get absorbed in the cover layer and are
digested by the micro-organisms that reside there.
3. In addition to helping manage odors, the compost cover also retains nutrients, mostly
nitrogen. The biofilter layer is every efficient at retaining ammonia that would be
emitted from the pile.
4. The cover also acts as a vector barrier (vectors include flies and other insects, birds
and rodents). Any fly larvae in the mix will “cook” in the high heat of the pile and
because the cover consists of stable compost, it does not serve as a breeding habitat
for flies and insects. Birds and animals that may be inclinded dig into the pile will
quickly realize how hot the mix is and will stop abruptly.
5. The cover layer helps retain moisture in the initial mix of materials. When air is
delivered to the base of the pile, it will heat up and pull some moisture out of the
pile. This effect is compounded when the top of the pile is dry due to evaporation
(exposure to the sun). By wetting down the compost cover layer we are able to retain
more of the moisture in the core of the pile.
6. Finally, the cover layer improves the overall aesthetics of the compost system. While
this may seem like a minor issue, the saying “People smell with their eyes” is
absolutely true. Good housekeeping around the compost system will let people know
that you are composting in a proper fashion. This is particularly important when
dealing with highly putrescible (i.e., potentially malodorous) feedstocks such as food
waste, fish by-products, mortalities, etc.

THE LIFE CYCLE OF A COMPOST PILE


The life cycle of a compost pile is graphically illustrated in Figure 3-3, below. The
vertical axis of the graph represents the temperature of a compost pile in degrees
Fahrenheit and the horizontal axis is time. The range in time depends on the method
of composting and the types of feedstocks, but in general it represents roughly 30 to
60 days.
The curved line represents a series of temperatures at a specific location within the
pile over a period of several weeks. In this illustration, the curve line assends to a
peak temperature of approximately 170oF, and then decends steadily to approximately
65oF where it then stabilizes.

Figure 3-3: Life Cycle Curve of a Compost Pile – Idealized

There are three zones on this graph, labled A, B and C:

1. The Mesophilic Phase is typically short lived in an aerated compost system (1 to 3


days), and represents the time interval when the initial pile temperatures are less than
or equal to 104oF (which is equivalent to 40oC);

2. The Thermophilic Phase is much longer lived and represents the time interval when
the pile temperature is above 104oF. Zones A & B are also referred to as the Active
Phase of Composting, and this typically lasts 21 to 30-days. The Active Phase is
predominantly a bacterial driven process wherein a wide variety of bacteria consume
the readily available forms of carbon (protiens and carbohydrates). Their metabolic
process results in the production of CO2, water and great deal of heat. We utilize this
heat to destroy pathogens, parasites and weed seeds in the mix.

3. The subsequent Curing Phase is the longest lived phase of the composting process
and is predominantly a fungal driven process. The fungi serve to degrade the more
resilient forms of carbon (hemi-cellulos, cellulose and lignin), and ultimately produce a
compost product with a soil-like appearance. Curing generally take 30 to 60 days to
produce a finished bulk product, however curing should be allowed to continue for at
least 6-months for a bagged product. The vertical line that divides Zones B and C is
dashed to represent this as being a transitional process, not a definitive point in
time. Different areas of the compost pile will undergo this change at different times,
depending on the temperature regime.
There are three horizontal lines which represent temperatures of 104 oF, 131oF and
158oF, respectfully.

 As stated previously, the 104oF line represents the threshold between mesophilic and
thermophilic composting, and the corresponding types of bacteria that at work;
 The 131oF line represents the threshold for pathogen inactivation. Please refer to
Section 3.5 for a discussion on a Process to Further Reduce Pathogens (PFRP); and
 The 158oF line represents the temperature at which the heat limits the number and
diversity of bacteria in the compost pile and the system become inefficient. With
composting, hotter is not better. Because compost is self-insulating, once a pile gets
hot it tends to stay hot unless we take some action to remove the heat from the pile.
The temperature curve represented in Figure 3.3 is idealized to illustrate a
concept. The temperature curve shown in Figure 3.4, below was derived using actual
data and is more representative of the true life cycle process of an aerated compost
pile.

Figure 3-4: Life Cycle Curve of a Compost Pile – Actual Data

INITIATING THE AERATION PROCESS


When an O2Compost System is used to process animal manure, each bin is generally
filled over a period of 3 to 4 weeks. During this period, the manure begins to
decompose aerobically around the perifery of the pile and anaerobically within the core
of the pile. The pile core temperature is often 130 degrees or higher, even without
airflow.

When the raw feedstocks near the top of the bin, they should be raked out to form a
level surface and then covered with a 6-inch (plus) thick layer of finished compost
(refer to Section 3.8).
At this point, the airflow is started, with a typical cycle time of 30-seconds On / 30-
minutes Off. With every On Cycle, fresh air is infused throughout the compost pile and
within 12- to 24-hours the pile temperature will typically jump 30o to 40oF.

When the airflow is first started (the first cycle or two), you will likely notice a strong,
pungent odor emitted from the pile. This is a direct reflection of the mix being in an
anaerobic state. Within a few cycles, however, the odors will convert to a “friendly”
organic fragrance and these will further soften over the next few days of composting.

ADJUSTING AIRFLOW TO MANAGE PILE TEMPERATURES


There are three levels of aeration associated with ASP Composting:

1. Sufficient airflow to meet the microbial demand. This is the amount of oxygen that is
required to optimize the biology of the system;
2. Sufficient airflow to dry out the compost mix. By increasing the airflow, we drive off
steam and the pile moisture content begins to drop; and
3. Sufficient airflow to cool the pile down. By further increasing the airflow, we are able
displace heat from the core of the pile and replace it with cooler, ambient air.
There is an inherent comflict with this situation, one that requires compromise. As I
stated in Section 3.9, high pile temperatures (much over 158oF) result in the reduction
in the number and diversity of bacteria in the compost pile and the composting process
becomes inefficient. However, as stated in Section 3.7, if the moisture content of the
mix drops much below 50%, the composting process stops altogether.

This problem is greatly exaserbated during the winter months when we introduce cold
ambient air into the compost pile. Cold air is also very dry air and once heated it’s
moisture holding capacity can be very high. Under these conditions, it is very easy to
dryout a compost pile by over-aerating it.

Therefore, we need to be very careful with our rate of aeration to avoid drying. As I
said above, you cannot wet down a dry pile by applying water to the surface. The pile
needs to be broken down and all of the dry materials need to be rewetted incrementally
as the pile is being reconstructed. Needless to say, we want to avoid this if at all
possible.

The Compromise: “It is always better to have a pile that is too hot than a pile
that is too dry”.

MANAGING FOR ODORS


The principle means of managing odors at compost facilities is to maintain aerobic
conditions throughout the compost pile. However, “the rather obvious odor from
anaerobic metabolism has led to a widely held belief that if composting is fully aerobic
there will be no odors. This simply is not true.

“Many low molecular weight, odorous intermediates are produced even during aerobic
composting. Ammonia (NH3), acetic or pyruvic acid, and citric acid are examples. The
aerobic intermediates are generally less obnoxious to humans than their anaerobic
counterparts, but they are not odor free.

All living systems, both plant and animal, excrete odorous molecules on a nearly
continuous basis. The atmosphere becomes a soup of these odorous molecules,
present in minute concentrations. All starting substrates for composting are derived
from plant or animal materials. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that these
substrates will contain many molecules that are potentially odorous, some pleasantly
and others disagreeably so.” (1)

(1) The Practical Handbook of Compost Engineering, by Dr. Robert T. Haug1, 1993

The objective with composting is to manage odors, not eliminate them. With
O2Compost Systems, the first few aeration cycles will displace anaerobic off-gases
from the core of pile resulting in a short term impact near the compost system. Within
a few aeration cycles, however, the character of the odor will “soften”
considerably. For this reason, and because we always add a biofilter cover layer on
top of the pile, we never have complaints about our compost systems generating
offensive odors.

CONVERSION OF NUTRIENTS
The macro- and micro-nutrients found in raw manure are considered unstable because
they are mobile and can leach out of the manure and impact surface and ground water
resources. During the Active and Curing Phases of composting, the bacteria and fungi
that do the composting work for us, also convert these nutrients into more stable
forms. As a result, the nutrients in compost become slow release and are gradually
contributed to the soil over a several year period.

ASSESSING FINISHED PRODUCT QUALITY


The most definitive way to evaluate compost quality is to conduct laboratory tests on
a representative sample. A representative sample is one that has been combined
from a number of “grab samples” gathered from several locations in the compost
pile. A thorough discussion regarding sampling and laboratory testing is presented in
Section ___ of this Training Manual.

A second reliable way to evaluate compost quality is to conduct a simple growth


trial. Compost is a soil amendment and should not be used exclusively as a planting
medium. By treating some plants and not others and then comparing the growth of
these plants over a period of weeks, you will very likely see a significant difference in
amount of foliage, flowers and fruit that are produced.

There are two ways to set up a growth trial: first compost can be blended in with
existing soil or a potting medium (e.g., a bagged planting mix) at a rate of 25% to 50%
by volume. Second, it can be used as a “top dressing”, where a small amount is placed
directly on the top surface of the soil. When the soil or potted plant is watered, the
nutrients are drawn out of the compost much as tea is drawn from a tea bag.
A third way to evaluate compost quality is to smell it. That’s right – You Can Smell
Compost Quality! A good quality compost should have a soil-like fragrance, often
referred to as a “forest duff odor”. It is a mild organic odor that may remind you of
when you “played in the woods as a kid”. If your compost has a strongly-sweet or
sour-acrid odor, it is not yet fully stabilized. Set your compost aside, make sure that it
is moist, and allow more time for curing to take place.

Note: It is always a good idea to cover your curing pile with a tarp to: 1) prevent
excessive leaching of the nutrients; and 2) keep wind-blown weed seeds from finding
a new (warm and nutrient rich) place to call home.

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