Reverse Osmosis 101+

Ohio Maple Days 2022 did not disappoint.  The food was fantastic, the vendor room crowded, and the presenters shared a wealth of knowledge of expertise across a wide range of subjects.  Joel Oelke, Regional Sales Manager with Leader Evaporator/H2O Innovation, shared an encyclopedic wealth of knowledge regarding reverse osmosis leading up to the lunch hour.  Before we get into a few highlights, be sure to mark your calendars for next year’s conference December 8th and 9th!

At its simplest, reverse osmosis is a process by which sap is passed through a membrane to remove water thereby concentrating sugar.  The pure water pulled out of the sap is referred to as permeate.  The increasingly sugary solution – concentrate.  The benefits are obvious – it saves space on numerous fronts and greatly improves efficiency at the evaporator by reducing time, fuel, and labor.  While the list of pros is long, suffice it to say – reverse osmosis is one of the biggest technological revolutions the maple industry has experienced in the last 100 years.

While reverse osmosis is a true game changer for maple producers, the technology is also one of the most complex and expensive pieces of equipment in the sugarhouse.  It is easy to become intimidated by what’s necessary to implement and maintain a unit, and mistakes chalked up to the “school of hard knocks” can be expensive.  Here are just 5 rules of thumb that I pulled from Joel’s presentation to share in this article.

#1 – RO’s efficiency rating (how many gallons can a unit process per hour) is given at a solution temperature of 55 degrees Fahrenheit.  Because sap is kept at cooler temperatures to ensure syrup quality, you need to factor the lower temperature into your unit’s efficiency rating.  This is especially important to consider if you are shopping for a new RO unit.  Here’s a simple figure to calibrate your RO’s operating efficiency.  If you purchase a unit rated at 600 gallons per hour but expect to run sap at an average temperature of 40 F, you can multiply 600 by an efficiency downgrade of 0.75 (or 75%) and expect a 450 gallon per hour operating rate.

#2 – A second factor influencing RO efficiency is the concentrate level you are trying to achieve assuming you start around 2 Brix.  The more you want to concentrate your sap, the less efficient your unit will be.  Let’s continue with the example we started above in italics.  If you want to take 2% sap to 8% concentrate, your RO unit will run at the temperature-corrected peak of efficiency and achieve your calibrated 450 gallons per hour rate.  However, if you concentrated to something higher, say a 12% level, your operation would get dinged with an additional 30% loss in efficiency.  Here’s what the math would reveal – 450 gallons per hour multiplied by 0.70 = 315 gallons per hour.  Below is another figure to help you calculate the efficiency factor of concentration.  Remember, you must factor in both penalties – sap temperature and concentrate level – to properly estimate your efficiency rating.  And this all assumes you are running a clean, properly-maintained RO unit!

#3 – The desugaring, rinsing, and washing cycles are what keep your expensive reverse osmosis investment operating at the peak of performance.  Long story short – each cycle is critical to maintaining your unit.  And do not – especially in the wash cycle – generalize across all RO units.  Specific models and manufacturers use different membranes which are tailored to different types of soaps and chemicals as well as amounts of each.  Consulting the manuals and consulting with your RO manufacturer reps – just like Joel – is best practice for getting maximum life and performance out of your reverse osmosis technology.

#4 – Don’t let your improved efficiency get you in to trouble.  What I mean is this – sap that goes through a reverse osmosis unit comes out as warmer concentrate.  So, A) the process of reverse osmosis physically warms the concentrate above the temperature that it went in the machine, and B) you aren’t concentrating just sugar with an RO unit, you are concentrating everything – including microbes and bacteria.  The warmer concentrate coupled with a denser community of “nasties” can get a producer in big trouble if the evaporator is not synced up in work flow and their facility can not properly keep concentrate cool.  Stopping short of laying out any specific recommendations for how to integrate and streamline your sugarhouse sap-to-syrup processing, just know that the clock is ticking extra fast once you start concentrating sap.

#5 – If you properly size, run, and maintain an reverse osmosis unit, you can expect roughly a 3-year payback on your purchase when accounting for saved fuel and labor.  A rough cost estimator predicted a $4 cost savings per finished gallon of syrup using fuel oil in a 110 gallon per hour evaporator.  Obviously there a lot of moving parts for each unique scenario, but the bottom line is this asset does not 10 years to recoup costs.

Hopefully these quick 5 points help you make sense of reverse osmosis and how you might consider incorporating or upgrading an RO unit in your sugaring operation.  Thanks for an extremely informative talk Joel!

Fall Maple Assessment – Get Ready for Next Season, Part II

Read the first installment of our autumn mini-series “Get Ready for the Season” here.  The first article focuses mainly on the woods, and Part II sticks to the sugarhouse.

It is perfectly natural after a long hard season to put off sugarhouse cleanup and maintenance. This can be a major mistake. Getting the sugarhouse ready for the next season starts immediately after last season has concluded.  Dirty unmaintained equipment sitting around in warm weather can promote the worst of unsanitary conditions that will surely haunt you into the upcoming season.

Let’s start with storage tanks. Not everyone can afford bright shiny stainless-steel tanks that are easy to clean. Many producers substitute more affordable plastic tanks. Unfortunately, plastic tanks have earned the reputation of lowering syrup grades due to rapid microbial growth. All of the elements for rapid growth are present. The sap supplies the food and the tanks warm quickly. Where do the microbes come from? They are hiding in the porous interior of the tank. That porosity is what makes it almost impossible to thoroughly clean a plastic tank. You may get by for two or three years but sooner or later the tanks will have to be scrapped. The cost of three or four plastic tanks over a ten-year period can add up quickly. Consider the economic value of a stainless tank that should last forever if handled and maintained properly.

Reverse osmosis (RO) has revolutionized the dynamics of the maple syrup industry. For the commercial producer, the RO has drastically slashed labor and fuel expenses. When it comes to maintenance, the most critical element is maintaining the primary filter or membrane. Membranes that are not maintained properly can be severely damaged. Damage can lead to the passing of sugar into the permeate tank. This results in a hidden loss of profits going down the drain. Always check your permeate for abnormally high sugar content. Washes of both soap and acid are used in the cleaning process followed by an extensive permeate rinse. A properly maintained membrane should last for many years. Another critical but oft overlooked issue are increased levels of chemicals being discharged from the sugarhouse. When you are using an RO, you are discharging thousands of gallons of liquid through your sugarhouse drains. You are also discharging acids and soaps through the same drain. If possible, neutralize the chemicals by bringing both acids and soaps back to a neutral 7.0 pH before you flush them down the drain. Neutralizing agents are readily available from your maple dealer.

Producers tend to overlook where and how they store there concentrate before boiling. When you concentrate sap, you are creating the perfect storm for a microbial outbreak. You are doubling, and in some cases tripling, the amount of sugar in the tank. When you run the sap through an RO you also boost the concentrated sap’s temperature by at least 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Assuming the concentrated sap is housed in a relatively warm sugarhouse, it makes no difference if you are using a stainless or plastic tank, microbial populations always explode in concentrated sap. The first line of defense is to boil the concentrate as soon as you can to prevent grade deterioration. If you only have enough money to purchase one stainless steel tank, make the purchase for your evaporator feed tank. This is doubly true if you are concentrating with reverse osmosis.

One of the best maintained pieces of equipment in any maple operation must be the evaporator. After all it is the center piece of most sugarhouses. Producers tend to take pride in how their evaporator looks inside and out. Here are a few things to consider before you start the season. Make sure all of the fittings and gaskets are functioning properly. It is good idea to do a test boil before using. You do not want to waste sap or concentrate if there is a malfunction. During the season, always start each day with clean niter-free syrup pans. Do not let niter build up. Excessive niter can cause a pan to overheat and even burn. Make sure you are using defoamer properly and in the proper place. If you are going to be shut down for a long time due to a warm spell, plan on draining your pans to prevent microbial buildup. Attempting to keep the liquid on the evaporator will only lead to contamination of fresh sap when it arrives and the production of poor-quality syrup. In a freezeout situation, make sure to inspect your pans to make sure they are not freezing solid. If they are, light a fire and thaw out your pans so they do not break. Again, emptying the pans is not a bad idea. Along with your evaporator make sure your filter press and auto-draw off are functioning properly. Improper maintenance of your evaporating and filtering equipment can result in the production of poor-quality syrup that will cost you money in the long run.

After the season, make sure everything is cleaned and stored properly. There are many ways to clean an evaporator and it comes down what works for you. Avoid using any kind of detergent in the cleaning process. Hot water and elbow grease wins out every time. At the end of the season, make sure your syrup is stored properly. There is nothing worse than opening a barrel of your top grade, only to find out it has spoiled. Syrup is best stored in a location where it stays below 70-degree Fahrenheit. Even though you hot pack your syrup it is wise to roll the drums, if possible, several times during the offseason. This agitation helps eliminate moisture condensation from collecting at the top of the drums due to temperature fluctuations.

If you are planning to upgrade your sugarhouse, keep in mind that this is the best time to make sure your facility can pass a state or federal inspection. All of the rules and regulations are available online through OSU Extension.

You have now done a comprehensive evaluation of your sugaring operation. What are your most cost-effective “low hanging fruit” items? Act now – season will be here before you know it.