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Composting > Grinders & Shredders

Grinders & Shredders

During the 1950s, mainstream interest in municipal composting developed in America for the first time. Various industrial processes already existed in Europe; most of these were patented variations on large and expensive composting tumblers. Researchers at the University of California set out to see if simpler methods could be developed to handle urban organic wastes without investing in so much heavy machinery. Their best system, named the U. C. Fast Compost Method, rapidly made compost in about two weeks.

No claim was ever made that U. C. method produces the highest quality compost. The idea was to process and decompose organic matter as inoffensively and rapidly as possible. No attempt is made to maximize the product's C/N as is done in slower methods developed by Howard at Indore. Most municipal composting done in this country today follows the basic process worked out by the University of California.

Speed of decomposition comes about from very high internal heat and extreme aerobic conditions. To achieve the highest possible temperature, all of the organic material to be composted is first passed through a grinder and then stacked in a long, high windrow. Generally the height is about five to six feet, any higher causes too much compaction. Because the material is stacked with sides as vertical as possible, the width takes care of itself.

Frequent turning with machinery keeps the heap working rapidly. During the initial experiments the turning was done with a tractor and front end loader. These days giant "U" shaped machines may roll down windrows at municipal composting plots, automatically turning, reshaping the windrow and if necessary, simultaneously spraying water.

Some municipal waste consists of moist kitchen garbage and grass clippings. Most of the rest is dry paper. If this mixture results in a moisture content that is too high the pile gets soggy, sags promptly, and easily goes anaerobic. Turning not only restores aerobic conditions, but also tends to drop the moisture content. If the initial moisture content is between 60 and 70 percent, the windrow is turned every two days. Five such turns, starting two days after the windrow is first formed, finishes the processing. If the moisture content is between 10 and 60 percent, the windrow is first turned after three days and thence at three day intervals, taking about four turns to finish the process. If the moisture content is below 40 percent or drops below 40 percent during processing, moisture is added.

No nuisances can develop if turning is done correctly. Simply flipping the heap over or adding new material on top will not do it. The material must be blended so that the outsides are shifted to the core and the core becomes the skin. This way, any fly larvae, pathogens, or insect eggs that might not be killed by the cooler temperatures on the outside are rotated into the lethal high heat of the core every few days.

The speed of the U.C. method also appeals to the backyard gardener. At home, frequent turning can be accomplished either in naked heaps, or by switching from one bin to the next and back, or with a compost tumbler. But a chipper/shredder is also essential. Grinding everything that goes into the heap has other advantages than higher heat and accelerated processing. Materials may be initially mixed as they are ground and small particles are much easier to turn over than long twigs, tough straw, and other fibrous materials that tie the heap together and make it difficult to separate and handle with hand tools.

Backyard shredders have other uses, especially for gardeners with no land to waste. Composting tough materials like grape prunings, berry canes, and hedge trimmings can take a long time. Slow heaps containing resistant materials occupy precious space. With a shredder you can fast-compost small limbs, tree prunings, and other woody materials like corn and sunflower stalks. Whole autumn leaves tend to compact into airless layers and decompose slowly, but dry leaves are among the easiest of all materials to grind. Once smashed into flakes, leaves become a fluffy material that resists compaction.

Electric driven garden chipper/shredders are easier on the neighbors' ears than more powerful gasoline-powered machines, although not so quiet that I'd run one without ear protection. Electrics are light enough for a strong person to pick up and carry out to the composting area and keep secured in a storeroom. One more plus, there never is any problem starting an electric motor. But no way to conveniently repair one either.

There are two basic shredding systems. One is the hammermill, a grinding chamber containing a rotating spindle with steel tines or hammers attached that repeatedly beats and tears materials into smaller and smaller pieces until they fall out through a bottom screen. Hammermills will flail almost anything to pieces without becoming dulled. Soft, green materials are beaten to shreds; hard, dry, brittle stuff is rapidly fractured into tiny chips. Changing the size of the discharge screen adjusts the size of the final product. By using very coarse screens, even soft, wet, stringy materials can be slowly fed through the grinding chamber without hopelessly tangling up in the hammers.

Like a coarse power planer in a wood shop, the other type of machine uses sharpened blades that slice thin chips from whatever is pushed into its maw. The chipper is designed to grind woody materials like small tree limbs, prunings, and berry canes. Proper functioning depends on having sharp blades. But edges easily become dulled and require maintenance. Care must be taken to avoid passing soil and small stones through a chipper. Soft, dry, brittle materials like leaves will be broken up but aren't processed as rapidly as in a hammermill. Chippers won't handle soft wet stuff.

When driven by low horsepower electric motors, both chippers and hammermills are light-duty machines. They may be a little shaky, standing on spindly legs or small platforms, so materials must be fed in gently. Most electric models cost between $300 and $400.

People with more than a postage-stamp yard who like dealing with machinery may want a gasoline-powered shredder/chipper. These are much more substantial machines that combine both a big hammermill shredder with a side-feeding chipper for limbs and branches. Flailing within a hammermill or chipping limbs of two or more inches in diameter focuses a great deal of force; between the engine noise and the deafening din as dry materials bang around the grinding chamber, ear protection is essential. So are safety goggles and heavy gloves. Even though the fan belt driving the spindle is shielded, I would not operate one without wearing tight-fitting clothes. When grinding dry materials, great clouds of dust may be given off. Some of these particles, like the dust from alfalfa or from dried-out spoiled (moldy) hay, can severely irritate lungs, eyes, throat and nasal passages. A face mask, or better, an army surplus gas mask with built-in goggles, may be in order. And you'll probably want to take a shower when finished.

Fitted with the right-size screen selected from the assortment supplied at purchase, something learned after a bit of experience, powerful hammermills are capable of pulverizing fairly large amounts of dry material in short order. But wet stuff is much slower to pass through and may take a much coarser screen to get out at all. Changing materials may mean changing screens and that takes a few minutes. Dry leaves seem to flow through as fast as they can be fed in. The side-feed auxiliary chippers incorporated into hammermills will make short work of smaller green tree limbs; but dry, hardened wood takes a lot longer. Feeding large hard branches too fast can tear up chipper blades and even break the ball-bearing housings holding the spindle. Here I speak from experience.

Though advertisements for these machines make them seem effortless and fast, shredders actually take considerable time, energy, skilled attention, constant concentration, and experience. When grinding one must attentively match the inflow to the rate of outflow because if the hopper is overfilled the tines become snarled and cease to work. For example, tangling easily can occur while rapidly feeding in thin brittle flakes of dry spoiled hay and then failing to slow down while a soft, wet flake is gradually reduced. To clear a snarled rotor without risking continued attachment of one's own arm, the motor must be killed before reaching into the hopper and untangling the tines. To clear badly clogged machines it may also be necessary to first remove and then replace the discharge screen, something that takes a few minutes.

There are significant differences in the quality of materials and workmanship that go into making these machines. They all look good when freshly painted; it is not always possible to know what you have bought until a season or two of heavy use has passed. One tried-and-true aid to choosing quality is to ask equipment rental businesses what brand their customers are not able to destroy. Another guide is to observe the brand of gasoline engine attached.

In my gardening career I've owned quite a few gas-powered rotary tillers and lawnmowers and one eight-horsepower shredder. In my experience there are two grades of small gasoline engines, "consumer" and the genuine "industrial." Like all consumer merchandise, consumer-grade engines are intended to be consumed. They have a design life of a few hundred hours and then are worn out. Most parts are made of soft, easily-machined aluminum, reinforced with small amounts of steel in vital places.

There are two genuinely superior American companies, Kohler and Wisconsin-that make very durable, long-lasting gas engines commonly found on small industrial equipment. With proper maintenance their machines are designed to endure thousands of hours of continuous use. I believe small gas engines made by Yamaha, Kawasaki, and especially Honda, are of equal or greater quality to anything made in America. I suggest you could do worse than to judge how long the maker expects their shredder/chipper to last by the motor it selects.

Gasoline-powered shredder/chippers cost from $700 to $1,300. Back in the early 1970s I wore one pretty well out in only one year of making fast compost for a half-acre Biodynamic French intensive market garden. When I amortized the cost of the machine into the value of both the compost and the vegetables I grew with the compost, and considered the amount of time I spent running the grinder against the extra energy it takes to turn ordinary slow compost heaps I decided I would be better off allowing my heaps to take more time to mature.

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