A Little TLC: The Secret to Leesburg’s Class A Biosolids Program

It took some publicity and a little local marketing to create a successful Class A biosolids program. Find out how Leesburg, Virginia, went from land-application to distributing more than 900 tons of pelletized product annually.
A Little TLC: The Secret to Leesburg’s Class A Biosolids Program
Tuscarora Landscaper’s Choice, or TLC, is the final product of Leesburg's state-of-the-art heat-drying facility.

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For years, the town of Leesburg (Virginia) Water Pollution Control Facility land-applied Class B liquid biosolids to neighboring farm fields.

“For that particular time and that particular volume, it was adequate,” says Rodney Lloyd, assistant plant manager and supervisor of solids handling.

But that program could only be viable for so long in a community just 30 miles from the nation's capital. Since 1990, the town’s population has grown from 16,000 to more than 50,000. The town’s wastewater treatment infrastructure had to keep pace.

When the plant upgraded from trickling filters to an activated sludge process, it generated more biosolids while prime locations for land application were lost to development. The town was also preparing for more stringent nutrient regulations. So at the end of 2001, Leesburg completed a state-of-the-art heat-drying facility to produce Class A biosolids pellets — the first such facility in Virginia.

Creating pellets
The pellets are created from the inside out. The process starts with a dried core, using recycled oversized crushed pellets, fine particles and dust from the screening process. This material, which is at least 92 percent dry, is mixed with wet cake from the belt filter press to produce a 65 to 72 percent dry material. It then enters a triple-pass rotating drum, where hot air inactivates pathogens and dries the pellets, building them around the core. When the pellets are dry enough, they are separated by size by a layered vibrating screen. Granules larger than 10 mm are directed to a trash container, and the remaining material is sent to a cooler that uses effluent to take the pellets from 170 F to about 90 F. After that, the pellets are conveyed to one of the utility’s three storage silos.

Leesburg brands the biosolids as Tuscarora Landscaper’s Choice, or TLC. It is packaged in 25- and 50-pound bags and provided free to town residents for personal use; it’s also sold in bulk at $70 a ton. TLC has been well received — and well used — since the heat-drying facility went online. In 2003, the first full year of production, 121 dry tons of product was either sold or distributed to citizens. In 2015, that increased to 903 dry tons. The three storage silos get nearly full in winter, but once spring hits, it’s hard to keep up with demand.

“The response has been all good,” Lloyd says. “People love what it does to their grass. It is high in iron, so it gives people a lot of good, green grass. And some of the farmers in our the area swear by it. We have one gentleman who sells hay to southern states, and he says it’s really helped his hay crop.”

The education process
A public education process that started six months before the heat-drying facility went online helped ensure that positive reception, says Lloyd. Plant management held several public informational meetings and did interviews on local TV and radio shows. Early public concerns were soon put to rest.

“When you have those initial meetings with the public, there are always some folks who will have negative things to say,” Lloyd says. “There was some of that and a few people were kind of loud in their opposition, but once word got out about the product, that died down really quickly. We explained that it was a lot like Milorganite [a fertilizer produced and marketed nationwide by the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District since 1926] and that helped us a lot. We didn’t have many hang-ups as far as getting the public to buy in.”

Once the heat-drying facility went online in February 2002, the public outreach continued. In April, Leesburg hosts an annual flower and garden show, and the town’s utility typically sets up an informational table on various topics such as how to improve water use. For the 2002 show — and several shows afterward — the utility promoted TLC and gave away free samples. The utility also held a promotional period early on and gave away bags of the product and sold bulk amounts at a discount.

The product remains free for residents using it for lawns or gardens.

“That’s what really grew the interest,” Lloyd says. “If you give someone a small 25-pound bag and tell them to just try it out in their garden or plant a tree in it, and that they’ll see results, I think you’ll have some success.”

Marketing advice
That’s Lloyd’s advice to other utilities trying to market a biosolids product to the public — make it an easy decision for people. Leesburg still sees a good chunk of revenue — about $70,000 annually — through commercial bulk sales.

“When you offer something to someone for free, even if they have some apprehension, they’re at least going to try it out,” Lloyd says. “The residents already pay their sewer rates. We don’t need to hit them again.”

Then let positive results and word-of-mouth handle the rest. For example, take another benefit of TLC: It repels deer.

“Deer don’t like the human scent, so it does have a tendency to repel deer, although we don’t advertise that,” says Lloyd. “But people talk and evidently word has gotten out. I get quite a few calls asking about its ability to repel deer.”

It is TLC’s tangible benefits more than any specific marketing or branding strategy that Lloyd says has helped product use grow. The name of the product, Tuscarora Landscaper’s Choice, produces a slick advertising slogan based around the “tender loving care” acronym: Give your plants some TLC. But Lloyd says there wasn’t a lot of time spent crafting that name.

“Tuscarora is a small creek where we used to send our effluent before we expanded into a larger facility,” Lloyd says. “It’s a pretty big name in this area, and that just got put together with ‘Landscaper’s Choice.’ It’s a catchy name. I certainly don’t think that hurts, but I don’t think it’s the name as much as it is how the product really works for folks.”


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