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Export Regulations Equipment Focus: Balers

By Megan Quinn
Adaptable and energy-efficient balers with solid maintenance support can meet your current needs and accommodate new opportunities as markets shift.

Maybe you’re in the market for a new baler because of a catastrophic baler breakdown after years or decades of steady service. Maybe you need a more energy-efficient model that will churn out bales without eating up so much power, or perhaps one that will match your current volume of material.

Whatever the reason, it might have been a while since you bought a baler. After all, stationary balers are meant to last between 10 and 20 years, and some manufacturers say their balers can last 30 or more years depending on the type of material you run through them and how well you maintain them. Regardless of how long it has been since your last purchase, consider following these tips to ensure your next baler purchase is a good investment for decades to come.

Make Your Checklist

As you browse the options, manufacturers and distributors advise you to keep in mind a short checklist of important questions: What materials will you be baling? Do you plan to switch among different types of materials? How often? Some balers work best when handling one type of material; others allow you to switch materials and grades more easily.

Recyclers “need to decide their production requirements, present and future, and what materials they plan to bale,” says a sales director for a baler manufacturer and distributor in California. Volume is another critical consideration, he says. What tonnage of material will you bale, and what rate do you need to meet? It’s important to envision not just your current volume, but what you think your volume will be in the future.

A spokesman for a baler manufacturer in Georgia puts it this way: During a sale, “one main question I ask is, ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’ One baler might do five to 10 tons an hour. If you think that in five years you can do up to 10 tons, this might be the baler for you. If you want to expand to 15 [or] 20 tons an hour, then it is better to purchase a baler that will allow you to do so.”

In other words, it’s a good idea to purchase equipment that can do more than you actually need right now, says a sales representative for a baler manufacturer in North Carolina. The last thing you want is to purchase costly equipment that won’t be able to keep up with future demand, she says. “We advise customers to get a [baler that can do] a little more, whether it’s more capability to bale more or bale faster.”

Cost is another consideration. It might be smart to upgrade, but only if you think you can get your money’s worth from the baler that best fits your needs. In challenging economic conditions, says the North Carolina baler rep, many recyclers are cautious about spending their money on big-ticket items like balers, but they can feel more confident about spending the money on the necessary equipment once they find the right fit.

Versatility and Volume

For their daily operations, most recyclers use horizontal balers, in which the ram compacts materials by sliding in from the side rather than from the top, as with vertical balers. The specific horizontal baler design that fits your needs will depend on how much material you have to bale, what characteristics the materials have, and how fast you need to make the bales.

Single-ram, open-end extrusion balers work best when you have high volumes of one type of material you need to bale quickly, manufacturers advise. These machines can typically bale plastic, paper, and nonferrous metals. The baler compresses materials through a long extrusion chamber, creating the first bale, called the plug bale, then compressing each remaining bale against the previous bale. This process is great for pushing out large amounts of one type of material—productivity can vary from a few tons an hour to up to 40, depending on the horsepower put into it and the type of material, several manufacturers say. Yet extrusion balers are not ideal for producing one bale at a time or quickly changing the type of material—for example, from plastic to nonferrous metal or vice versa. “With a single-ram, you cannot take all the bales out of the chamber to make the next bale [when] you are changing grades or types of material,” the baler spokesman in Georgia says.

Single-ram, closed-end balers, sometimes called closed-door balers, in contrast, handle a variety of materials, from nonferrous metals to paper. Some models are better than extrusion balers for handling stubborn materials, such as PET or HDPE, that have rigid memory, making them tough to crush, a Minnesota baler company says. Yet most of these closed-end balers have a much smaller throughput capacity than the extrusion balers. One Alabama baler manufacturer says its largest closed-end model can do roughly 20 tons in a typical shift, and several other companies estimate between 1 and 2 tons an hour, depending on baler and bale size. The closed-end baler is one of the lower-cost models, which can start at about $75,000 and go beyond $110,000, some manufacturers estimate. Baler capacity and types of materials used to build the baler may factor into its cost, the North Carolina company spokeswoman says.

Two-ram balers can be the best of both worlds: They can bale large volumes and also bale different types of materials. The first ram presses materials against a steel wall instead of against the previous bale, and the second compression ram ejects the finished bales from the chamber. The machine can make tighter and more uniform bales, the Georgia baler spokesman says. The two-ram baler is “a terrific product for multiple grades of material. A recycling facility may run PET for an hour, sweep the baler out, and start running aluminum cans,” he says. “When you’re done with the bale in the two-ram, you can push it all the way out.” This versatility and volume come at a higher cost, however. Without any attachments or accessories, a narrow-box two-ram baler can start at $250,000, with a wide box costing $450,000 to $500,000 or more, according to various manufacturers.

Recent Improvements

Manufacturers say balers have not changed dramatically in the past 10 years, but several key features have definitely improved, such as energy efficiency and higher baling pressure. Energy efficiency is critical when energy costs are a big slice of scrapyards’ expenses. The newer models likely have improved energy efficiency, even if the rest of the baler might look similar to older models, the California baler distributor says. One Connecticut-based baler producer says it offers a model that will cut energy costs in half compared with “traditional” two-ram baler models, while the Georgia baler spokesman says its machine “does more with less power now.”

“Motors today that turn the pumps are more efficient than they were five, 10 years ago,” he says. Some newer-model power units, for example, “have two 75-hp main motors that save power on start-up by starting one 75-hp motor at a time instead of a single 150-hp main motor. The two-motor systems also allow the power unit to use only one motor instead of two during times when production is low, which is meant to save energy costs.” It’s also worth asking about the actual performance, not just the horsepower, he adds. Some manufacturers “use a motor that may be labeled 100 hp but can pull amps like a much larger motor.”

Newer models also might offer higher compression forces than models from 20 years ago, these experts say. Older machines had an operating pressure of about 3,000 to 4,000 psi, for example, but newer machines can create 4,000 to 5,000 psi at their maximum operating pressure in both single- and two-ram models, several manufacturers say.

What Not to Do

A shiny new baler won’t stay reliable for long when you don’t use it correctly. Unfortunately, some manufacturers say they have seen abuse of balers—neglect or actions that shorten the machine’s life span, rack up easily avoidable repair costs, and potentially put operators in danger.

Trouble sometimes starts when companies switch from processing one type of material to another. Switching between commodities and grades is hardly uncommon, but be sure your baler can handle all the materials you plan to bale. Even though many balers have computer-control systems that can calibrate the equipment to the proper conditions for different materials, operators still need to feed the baler properly to get maximum production and avoid problems, the California sales rep says.

The Georgia baler spokesman says he often sees companies change the materials they bale, sometimes because of new business opportunities. It can be good for business in the long run, but it also can be hard on the baler. “When you buy a baler to do nothing but [OCC], but, suddenly, say you get into the nonferrous metal business and are baling up structural aluminum or something else that is definitely not [OCC], you will damage the baler. I had a customer who started baling insulation, which was never talked about during the sales process. Insulation is very abrasive and ate the liners out much quicker than cardboard would,” he says.

Some operators tinker with the baler settings to get more out of a baler’s performance. That could backfire when those adjustments push the limits of what the baler can handle, such as when “people turn the pressure up for heavier bales when the system was only designed to go to a certain level,” he says.

Talk in depth with baler companies to make sure the materials you work with every day won’t cause problems for the new machine you’re considering—and when conditions change at your yard, consult with the manufacturer or a certified repair technician to make sure your baler can handle any new demands.

Safety also is a major concern, baler manufacturers say. Misusing the baler on materials it wasn’t designed to handle, filling it too full, or rushing to fix a jam can lead to major injuries and death. Newer models with upgraded safety features, such as redundant safety checks, could be both a timesaver and a lifesaver. For example, the North Carolina sales rep says her company’s new baler boasts a unique design that allows operators to clear jams by pushing a button outside the machine instead of going into the baling chamber. “We definitely take safety into consideration, first and foremost,” she says. “Jamming is definitely a common problem, and people climb [into the baling chamber] to fix it. Then they have downtime and loss of production” while the baler is locked out, or they rush to clear the jam and take shortcuts that can create safety risks, she says.

Maintenance and Repair

Keeping balers in tip-top shape will help prevent accidents, too, this representative adds.

Routine preventive maintenance also can help you avoid problems that can lead to unscheduled downtime. Finding a model that is easy to maintain and comes with good maintenance support, either from the manufacturer itself or a certified technician familiar with your model, can make such efforts easier.

When zeroing in on a baler that is right for you, ask about the maintenance needs of specific models, such as whether they have readily available parts in case something needs replacing. Several manufacturers say they make their own parts in-house, so customers can rapidly order and receive needed replacements and avoid having too much downtime. Does the company have a good warranty and easily accessible service support? Warranties can vary slightly. One Alabama manufacturer warrants that its new horizontal balers will be free from defects for one year or 2,000 hours of service, for example, while a different Alabama manufacturer’s horizontal baler has a one-year warranty, parts and labor, but does not mention hours of service.

Several baler companies say they pride themselves on having responsive repair departments that can dispatch a knowledgeable technician when there’s a problem. This has become especially important during the current tough economic times, the Georgia baler spokesman says, because many scrapyards are choosing to make more repairs on their existing balers rather than purchase new equipment. “Our dealers are doing a lot of repair work right now,” he says.

Routine maintenance is another cost, but experts say scrapyards cannot afford to skip it, even in lean times. Several baler companies say they give detailed instructions in the baler’s user manual for daily, weekly, or monthly checks or actions. Someone from the manufacturer or an authorized dealer also should visit for a regular check, which includes checking the oil and examining electrical components, pump pressure gauges, filters, and liners.

Check with your baler company to find out the cost of such checkups. One baler manufacturer says its maintenance could be about $500 for an authorized dealer to “check everything front to back” on an annual basis, which includes testing oil, changing filters, looking at the liners, checking hydraulics, and other services. Most manufacturers declined to give an estimated cost for typical maintenance, however, saying the cost can vary widely based on the type of baler you have, the environment where the baler operates (inside, outside, or in particularly dusty conditions), and whether you live in an area where costs are higher than other regions of the United States.

Most of those variables, as well as the amount of time you spend running your baler and the types of materials you bale, factor into how frequently you should conduct routine maintenance checks, the Georgia baler spokesman says. “If you have a nice, clean warehouse, maybe you do this once a year, but in applications where you have a dirty environment, you might do it quarterly.”

Megan Quinn is reporter/writer for Scrap. This article originally appeared in the January/February 2016 issue of Scrap magazine. Reprinted with permission.

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Buying Used Balers

When money is tight, the thought of replacing a baler can lead to some stressful budget calculations. That’s why some baler sales reps say they are getting more inquiries lately about whether or not a used model can do a good job at a lower price. Many of the same guidelines apply when you’re purchasing a used model as when buying new: Look for the models that can handle your present and estimated future tonnage and that are suitable for the types of materials you regularly bale or plan to bale in the future. Also ask about what kind of repair coverage you can get and whether parts—and technical expertise—are available, a North Carolina baler manufacturer says. The price difference between new and used balers depends on the size of the baler, its age, and what shape it is in. “Sometimes you can find a really good older baler that works better than a newer model. Perhaps it was built with higher-quality materials,” she says.

Used balers can save you money, but there is a downside: hidden wear problems. As a North Carolina baler company rep puts it, “We [refurbish] the used equipment that we sell, but we only offer a warranty on new equipment because there is just no way of knowing what the used equipment has been through in its life.”

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