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Auto Recycling Fluid Options

Options available to auto recyclers who need to drain and properly handle a variety of fluids have increased noticeably.

The relationship between auto salvage operators and the automotive fluids drained from the vehicles they acquire has changed significantly in the past two decades.

Much of what has been happening in the past few years can be matched with similar examples of what happens when a material or substance shifts from being a waste to a secondary commodity.

For many veterans of the auto salvage and dismantling industry, it can be difficult to think of the transmission fluid or gasoline drained as anything but waste.

However, thanks to oil prices with a rising moving average and a growing infrastructure of entrepreneurs collecting fluids for recycling, many salvage companies are treating their recovered fluids with new-found respect.

For health and safety reasons, auto dismantlers have long been draining and separating the fluids that come along for the ride when they purchase an end-of-life vehicle.

What they do with those fluids became subject to greater scrutiny in 1980, when the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) was enacted as law. Part of this legislation (often referred to as Superfund) addressed the release into the air, water or ground of even small amounts of substances common to salvage operations.

Motor oil, other automotive system fluids, lead-acid batteries and cleaning fluids used by dismantlers were among the things with the potential to be labeled as hazardous waste if not properly handled.

For many of the fluids, recycling markets have developed in synch with the willingness of dismantlers to store spent fluids in segregated tanks and drums and the rising cost of oil per barrel.

Petroleum-based fluids have enjoyed the most recycling attention, especially as the per-barrel cost of crude oil has escalated in the face of surging global demand for oil.

A multi-layered used oil market has developed in many regions. In California, the oil recycling market is described by the Automotive Recycling Association (ARA) ECAR website this way (

Used Oil Transporters: Companies that pick up used oil from all sources and deliver it to re-refiners, processors or burners.

Used Oil Re-refiners and Processors: Facilities that blend or remove impurities from used oil so that the oil can be burned for energy recovery or re-used. Included in this category are re-refiners who process used oil so that it can be re-used in a new product such as a lubricant and recycled repeatedly.

Used Oil Burners: Used oil is burned in boilers, industrial furnaces or hazardous waste incinerators for energy recovery.

Used Oil Marketers: Handlers who either a.) direct shipments of used oil to be burned as fuel in regulated devices or b.) claim that certain EPA specifications are met for used oil to be burned for energy recovery in devices that are not regulated.

The market for used oil has changed quickly enough that many companies in the market have had difficulty adjusting to the change, according to Brant Long, general manager of Lamb Fuels, Chula Vista, Calif.

Lamb Fuels collects and recycles not motor oil but rather the gasoline or diesel fluid drained from end-of-life vehicles. It is a segment of the fluid recycling market that has developed even more recently and rapidly than the engine oil market.

“We’ve got clients who have gone from paying to dispose of this as an expense to either being in a net zero situation or even to developing a significant revenue stream,” says Long. “Some of our potential customers just don’t believe it because of the way things had been done for so long. It’s a struggle to get some of them to change.”

Lamb Fuels works with a customer base that includes large used auto parts chains with large vehicle inventories, smaller dismantlers with one location and companies and facilities outside of the auto salvage sector, such as airports, railroads and vehicle fleet terminals.

The company’s customers store their drained gasoline in tanks that can hold as much as 500 or even 4,000 gallons of fuel.

Lamb Fuels’ 8,000-gallon tanker trucks arrive and first test and sample the drained fuel. Fuel that passes this test is pumped into the tankers and arrives at a Lamb Fuels facility for what Long calls a “long-term filtration process.”

This recovered and filtered gasoline or diesel fuel can then be blended with compatible new fuel and delivered to end users such as fleet terminals or in the retail sector. “At this point, it passes all tests for retail sale,” says Long.

Among the surprises that have been revealed in this emerging market is the amount of gasoline that can be recovered within the auto salvage sector. “We find an average of 4 gallons of gasoline per [salvaged] vehicle,” Long says of the studies Lamb Fuels has conducted.

Thus, larger salvage facilities that maintain an influx of 50 to 100 cars purchased per day can quickly fill up even a large tank, notes Long. In the case of one customer, Lamb Fuels has installed sensors in this company’s gasoline storage tanks so Lamb’s dispatch center will know when the time is right to send one of its 8,000-gallon tanker trucks to that location.

The model has been a winning one for Lamb Fuels, which has grown steadily in the past six years, adding storage and filtration facilities in several locations well beyond Southern California.

Long says the company will locate a facility in regions where its larger customers are doing business, helping to ensure a supply of product and also earning goodwill with its customers.

The combination of regulations and market opportunities available has provided an opportunity for equipment suppliers to step in with systems to efficiently drain, collect and store fluids.

Iron Ax, Wadley, Ga., has been offering its EnviroRack system for several years and has sold about 150 of the units to customers, according to company president Charlie Hall.

“We developed it because we saw the need in the industry to safely drain these fluids out of automobiles,” says Hall.

With vehicles lifted onto the EnviroRack, the force of gravity drains fluids quickly into a waiting funnel, says Hall (with a little help from a small vacuum in the case of brake fluid).

Hall estimates that one person can drain the fluids from a vehicle in from one to three minutes using the EnviroRack, “depending on how much gas or other fluid is in [the vehicle].”

Iron Ax makes the EnviroRack to be portable enough to be towed on a flatbed or even a rolloff truck, so portable car crushing firms can bring the system with them.

Other EnviroRacks stay in place at dismantling yards, such as the very first one sold to a customer in Michigan. Hall recalls that the Michigan customer received a visit from a state inspector not long after installing the system. “That inspector walked around the rack and said it was the nicest thing he’d ever seen and that he was proud the recycler was trying to do the right thing by the environment,” says Hall.

Other companies offering automotive fluid drainage and storage systems include Austria’s SEDA Environmental; United Kingdom-based Vortex Depollution Systems, with an office in Aurora, Colo.; Drain Tech products, which are developed and marketed by Foss Auto Salvage, LaGrange, N.C.; and W.E.N. Industries, Merrimack, N.H., the makers of Gas Buggy fluid transfer units.

Prices paid for spent oils or drained gasoline are subject to the same volatility of every other secondary commodity that auto recyclers or scrap dealers might encounter.

Potentially, however, investments made in several links of the automotive fluids supply chain during this decade—collecting, storing and either combusting or re-refining the fluids will be sufficient to have led to an established market.

by Brian Taylor, editor-in-chief of Recycling Today Magazine.