Turning Grease into Gold

Florida pumper renders yellow, brown grease and turns it into a desirable commodity.
Turning Grease into Gold
Metro-Rooter's steam and electric powered inorganic debris removal system. A very important first step before processing brown grease.

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Master plumber Tom McLaughlin has his own play on the phrase, “When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade.” For the owner of Metro-Rooter Plumbing Services in Jacksonville, Florida, it’s more like, “When life gives you grease … you turn it into dollars.”

McLaughlin, who founded his company as Certified Environmental Services in 1978, has made grease handling more than just a footnote to his company, which also provides plumbing contracting, lift station operations and repair, pumping services, septic and drainfield installations, industrial pipe cleaning and video. It’s a full-fledged profit center, recycling both yellow and brown grease.

He’s been collecting yellow grease for 10 years but added the brown grease handling service just a few years ago.

He started his grease handling services after doing research on the Internet, as well as visiting several pumpers with similar businesses and finding mentors to help him with the process. “It was a slow process,” McLaughlin admits, but he got his grease processing station started around 2014.

Grease has been a sticky situation – pun intended – in the industry for decades. You can’t just dump it in sewage treatment plants.

“When we first started out … the school and the rule on grease was to bury it. Problem was, it would never dry up,” McLaughlin says.

So, stuck with yellow grease (used cooking oil) and brown grease (from grease traps), pumpers like McLaughlin started looking for disposal alternatives. For McLaughlin, the solution was to render it himself, and, ultimately, turn it into a valuable commodity for others.

In addition to collecting grease from restaurants (which are mandated to recycle used cooking oil) and other commercial sites, Metro-Rooter also gets grease from community users; Jacksonville has collection bins for grease throughout the city. And citizens have started getting on board with dropping off their used grease from home cooking. “It’s been slow, but people are starting to catch on,” he says.

McLaughlin uses the same process to render both yellow and brown grease, but yellow is easier to render. “It’s a relatively simple process,” he says.

“You’re simply adding heat. We put grease waste into processor tanks. We bring the temperature up sufficient enough … that the oil will rise to the top; that’s the part you can sell, then you’ve got a waste product. Then you have the water, which I call polished water, on the bottom.”

When the grease heats up, the inorganic material stays inside the processor; the polished water can go to the city sewer. Hydrocarbons go into dewatering boxes and then to a landfill.

Alternately, hydrocarbons, McLaughlin says, have the potential to become a fuel – but it could take six weeks to three months for them to dry.

“We don’t have time to stock all this stuff,” he says, adding that he has been doing some testing on emissions and to see how clean the hydrocarbons burn. Then it’s a matter of finding an end user.

The grease remaining on the top after rendering can become biodiesel fuel; McLaughlin produces about 6,000 gallons every two months. “We will sell the oil to those who make biodiesel,” he says, noting that he makes about $5,000 per load. “Prices are down right now.”

Yellow grease is especially profitable, McLaughlin notes. He does about one load a month of 6,000 gallons (or 45,000 pounds); that can be sold for 23 cents per pound, and it can also be sold to biodiesel companies.

As a busy plumber and pumper, McLaughlin has plenty of other work to focus on. But adding the grease handling and rendering services has proven a solid investment for him. For him, the startup costs for the grease handling was around $300,000. Still, while there is value added to a company’s services, McLaughlin cautions that there is a lot to consider before jumping into the grease pit, so to speak.

You need to have space for the processors, he says, but he also reminds owners that there are odor issues when handling grease, as well as the safety concerns of dealing with boilers and steam. Just like he did, McLaughlin recommends, “You should definitely find a mentor.”


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