Superior consolidates Houston operations, builds sophisticated wash rack

CONSOLIDATION of three smaller terminals in the Houston, Texas, area gave Superior Carriers Inc an opportunity to build one of the most impressive new fleet facilities in the region. It is also the largest terminal and wash rack complex in the Superior system.

When fully operational, the four-bay wash rack is expected to clean at least 750 tank trailers a month. Cleaning services initially will be limited to Superior's own fleet, but commercial cleaning should commence by the fourth quarter of 2003, according to Superior's management team.

“This new terminal with its tank cleaning capabilities is part of our growth strategy in the Gulf Coast region,” says Richard T Lewis, Superior's chairman and chief executive officer. “Houston is the largest tank truck market in the country, and we want to be able to grow with that market. We want to be a major player.”

Superior has been in the Houston market for many years. It started with a small presence that got a big boost from the Grace Logistics Services acquisition in 1995. More growth came with the Central Transport purchase in 1997 and acquisition of Matlack assets in 2001.

The biggest challenge of the Houston growth was that the various fleet components were scattered across the greater metropolitan area. “We were running more than 80 trucks out of three different terminals,” Lewis says. “We knew we needed to put everything under one roof, and we've been looking for the right location for about four years.”

The situation in Houston was not unique for the company. Superior policy was to integrate some acquisitions into the core parent carrier while others (Central Transport, for example) were allowed to remain largely independent.

That policy changed over the past year, and Central Transport was fully merged with Superior Carriers on January 1, 2003. Other operations also have been rolled in, with the sole exception of Carry Transit, a dedicated foodgrade carrier.

“We need to present a unified image in our chemical hauling operations,” Lewis says. “Houston is an example of the way consolidation also boosts efficiency by eliminating redundant facilities and services.”

Terminal network

With the consolidation, Superior now has 39 terminals in the United States and Canada. Sixteen of the terminals have wash racks. The company also has 16 SuperFlo rail transfer locations.

Many of the terminals were built by Superior Carriers, but the company also has terminal operations at commercial wash racks. “It all depends on how active we are in an area,” says William J O'Donell, Superior's president and chief operating officer.

Activity also is one of the factors in determining whether a wash rack is part of a Superior terminal. In addition to cleaning volume, carrier management looks at the types of commodities being hauled in an area and customer service issues.

“We try to operate our own wash racks wherever possible,” O'Donell says. “We'll send our equipment to one of our own wash racks as long as we don't incur excessive out-of-route miles.”

Commercial racks

While Superior Carriers prefers to use its own wash racks whenever possible, commercial facilities remain important to the tank truck carrier. Management is very selective in the commercial wash rack selection process, though.

“We look closely at the quality of the operation,” O'Donell says. “We prefer companies with multiple locations, and we consider factors such as ability to meet deadlines and prices. Office space is another factor. Regulatory compliance is absolutely critical.”

Driver amenities are a consideration. “It's an area that needs a lot more attention industry wide,” O'Donell says. “What's needed are more cleanliness, more comfort, and decent foodservice. Parking areas need to be upgraded. Internet connections would be a plus.

“Drivers do a lot of waiting, and they need a decent place for that. It helps them feel good about their jobs, and improves their attitudes. At Superior, we listen to driver comments, and we won't force them to use a commercial wash rack they don't like.”

New wash rack

The concern about driver comfort can be seen in the new Houston terminal, which is located in the Bayport industrial park. The driver area in the administrative part of the terminal includes a well-equipped break area with separate men's and women's showers and lockers.

“We spent extra money to provide better facilities for the women,” says Brian T Nowak, Superior's southern region vice-president. “Superior has quite a few women drivers now, and we expect to employ more in the future. We're actively recruiting women because the driver shortage still exists.”

The new terminal is on a 21-acre site, about 8.5 of which have been developed. “This is really the ideal location for us,” Lewis says. “This was land that had never been developed, and it was right across the street from one of our largest Houston customers. We're also close to most of our other customers in the Houston area.”

By far the largest in the Superior system, the terminal complex includes a four-bay wash rack, maintenance shop for tractor and trailer service, and enough parking to handle at least 150 tank trailers. The facility will be included in Superior's ISO 9001-2000 certification.

Besides the driver area, the administrative section of the main building has a dispatch center and regional billing department that handles billing for five Superior terminals across the southwest. The carrier's growing activity in Mexico will be coordinated from the Houston terminal.

“Our Mexico manager has his office at the terminal,” Nowak says. “Houston will be the base for our Mexico inbound and outbound traffic. We even see it as a transfer point for interlining with our Mexico carrier partners once the US-Mexico border is opened.”

In the not-too-distant future, management also would like to add rail capabilities for transloading of chemicals and other products. Rail access is available through an easement on the north side of the property. Managers say they probably will start with a single 800-ft section of track.

Sophisticated cleaning

With the volume of traffic that is expected through the terminal, the wash rack will be an important asset. It is certainly the key feature of the facility. “This is a premier wash rack with state-of-the-art systems,” Lewis says. “We started with a two-bay design but increased that to four bays during the planning process based on the amount of growth we are expecting in the next few years.”

The WCM Group Inc was brought in as project coordinator for the overall terminal development and for the wash rack in particular. Michael Gunn was the lead project coordinator for WCM.

“WCM has done a good job for us in the past,” Lewis says. “They have the engineering and environmental expertise.”

Gunn points out that the project took about two years, and a year of that was just for the air permit. “Our efforts paid off because we were able to certify the wash operation for well over 1,500 chemical products,” he says. “The permit has enough flexibility to add more chemicals through relative equivalency in the future.”

Steel building

Cleaning operations are in a steel building that is separate from the administrative and maintenance building. The wash rack building is divided into three sections separated by concrete block walls. The approximately 12,000-sq-ft building has a concrete floor that was poured over a 60-mil high-density polyethylene liner.

The first section is the equipment room, which contains two 100-horsepower Hurst boilers with low-emission burners and an Ingersoll-Rand 50-hp rotary air compressor with Nirvana series desiccant dryer.

“Initially, we were going to put in just one boiler, but we got such a good price that we decided to add a second one from the outset,” says Stephen J Lowman, Superior's Houston terminal manager.

The air compressor and dryer system incorporates some of the latest technology and has enough capacity to supply compressed air for the tank cleaning and maintenance operations. The compressed air, which is dehumidified to -40° F dew point, is used in the final stage of tank trailer drying. Initial tank drying is done with two 7,000 cfm heated dryers in the wash bays.

A six-vat recirculating wash system from Niagara National also is housed in the equipment room. Four of the vats are heated. Equipped with two main supply pumps, the system is configured for cleaning two tank trailers at a time. Sellers Model 360 spinners are used with the wash unit.

Four bays

In the middle section of the building are the four wash bays. Each bay is 25 feet by 80 feet, and eave height is 24 feet. The galvanized steel structure that frames the building is expected to maintain excellent corrosion resistance in the high-humidity of the cleaning environment.

From top to bottom, the tank wash area was designed for operator safety, efficiency, and convenience. Above are translucent panels in the roof and 400-watt metal halide lights to provide even illumination over the entire work area.

The metal halide light fixtures were selected because they are designed for a wet environment. Because each fixture provides a great deal of light, fewer fixtures were needed. The lighting elements have a long life, with some applications getting in excess of 15 years.

Operators perform most of their cleaning duties on hydraulically actuated galvanized platforms from Goldline International. Each of the four platforms provides a spacious work area with fall protection in the form of side rails.

The wash system is configured to enable workers on the platforms to control most of the cleaning process without having to climb up and down the stairs. “They don't have a lot of need to go up and down, which makes the operation safer and more efficient,” Lowman says.

The floor is generally free of clutter. In addition, the floor was coated with an epoxy-based material to provide a slip-resistant work area.

Wastewater treatment

The third section of the wash rack is the wastewater treatment area. Wastewater generated in the cleaning operation receives minimal pretreatment in a Pan American Environmental waste separator. Wastewater is then held in one of three 10,000-gallon steel storage tanks prior to discharge to an industrial sewage treatment plant. Conical bottoms on the tanks facilitate collection and removal of settled solids.

One of the big advantages of the site selected for Superior's new Houston terminal is its proximity to the Gulf Coast Waste Disposal Authority treatment plant in the Bayport industrial park. Superior was able to tie into the treatment plant's sewer line, a factor that will generate significant savings in coming years.

“We calculate that Superior saves three to five cents a gallon through being able to release its wastewater directly to the treatment plant,” Gunn says. “That's compared with transporting wastewater for off-site treatment. In addition, the Gulf Coast Waste Disposal Authority has broad parameters for waste profiles because it specializes in industrial wastewater.”

Outside the wastewater treatment room is one of the most sophisticated pieces of machinery in the cleaning operation — a thermal oxidizer from Advanced Environmental Systems. Vapor abatement is mandatory in the Houston area.

The thermal oxidizer chosen for the Superior operation has a quench and scrub system for chlorinated products. The 400-cfm unit is very efficient, ensuring a 99.9% vapor destruction rate. It is fueled by natural gas.

All of this gives Superior Carriers the most sophisticated tank wash rack in its own terminal system and one of the most modern in the Houston area. It's helping to ensure that the carrier is indeed positioned for continued success.

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