VOC abatement yields results
December 21, 2009 | 6:00 pm CST

Where many woodworking production facilities have viewed the government's more stringent environmental regulations as a bother, Yield House Industries Inc. saw an opportunity and seized it. Not only has the company installed equipment to meet the requirements of the federal Clean Air Act while still maintaining finishing quality, but Yield House is offering its finishing services to other manufacturers that can't meet the tough compliance criteria.

Those regulations presented a daunting challenge to Yield House, a company that bills itself as the largest U.S. manufacturer of solid wood furniture sold through mail-order catalogs. Started in 1947, the company has achieved a wide reputation for its primarily country-style pine furniture, available either fully assembled and finished or in unfinished RTA kits. Today, the company has diversified its offerings to include a number of hardwood lines, but pine still figures prominently. That raised a set of finishing issues. Facing the new regulations, the company explored a number of alternative finishes, including waterbased. But Gil Graves, production manager for Yield House, says none of the finishes they tried gave satisfactory results.

"We did not have any success spraying waterbased products," says Graves. "We tested these products for more than 18 months and could never achieve the quality or consistency necessary to meet our standards."

Among the problems were grain raising in pine and final finish appearance that didn't meet Yield House standards. The company needed something that would allow them to continue to use conventional nitrocellulose lacquer and catalyzed lacquer while still meeting environmental regulations.

The solution was a sophisticated VOC abatement system designed to destroy VOCs before they are discharged into the atmosphere. Graves says the company began installing the system back in 1994 while they were moving into and modernizing their current plant in Conway, NH.

Located far from major metropolitan areas, the company and its employees pride themselves on being able to take care of their needs without outside help. "Self-sufficiency is a way of life," says Graves. So it was natural that when it came to meeting the challenge of new regulations affecting finishing, that philosophy of self- sufficiency came into play. After obtaining components from a variety of manufacturers, Yield House staff created an environmentally sound finishing system uniquely suited to their needs.

At the center of the finishing operation is a state-of-the-art VOC abatement system that Graves says delivers between 85 and 95 percent destruction efficiency. The abatement system is completely integrated with Yield House's finishing facilities, which are designed not only to be environmentally sound, but efficient and safe as well.

The entire finishing area is designed as a negative pressure area. Three Binks spray booths pump air at the rate of 7,000 cubic feet per minute out of the finishing room. Graves says that, even with the door open, it's still a negative airflow situation. That means no hazardous fumes can escape the finishing area. For extra safety, bulk finishing materials are stored in a separate hazardous materials room and piped into the finishing area.

Yield House uses both manual spraying and robotic sprayers in its operation. The usual process consists of staining, sealing, scuffing, and then finally lacquering. All fumes from the sprayed materials are captured in the spray booths and fed into a large tank mounted partly in the outside wall of the building. The tank contains pellets of a material called zeolite, which Graves says looks a lot like rabbit food. VOCs are captured in the zeolite pellets, while filtered air is evacuated from the bottom of the container.

Next, hot air is fed up from below to release the VOCs from the zeolite. The volatile material is then pumped into a catalytic combustion chamber to be burned off at 750 degrees. During combustion you can view the flames through a small inspection window on the unit. But in testament to the efficiency of the system, no plumes or smoke are visible coming from the unit's towering chimney. Tests by state environmental officials and independent laboratories have confirmed the efficiency of the system, Graves says.

A control panel with a lighted map of the abatement system constantly monitors all parts of the process. If anything is not functioning correctly, Graves says, the whole system automatically shuts down.

Although installing the system was expensive, Graves says it is relatively inexpensive to operate. Besides, he adds, the company is already trying to capitalize on its investment by providing finishing services to other companies that, for whatever reasons, aren't prepared to meet all the requirements of the Clean Air Act. Firms that emitted 50 tons or more of HAPs in 1996 were required to comply by November 21, 1997. Companies that emitted less than 50 tons of HAPs in 1996 have until December 7 of this year to comply.

Yield House officials suspect small to mid-size companies will be hardest hit by the regulations. It is those companies that they hope to attract for contract work.

"When we built our existing facility we designed it to take on outside contracting and handle an eight-fold increase in our existing production levels," says Claude Jeanloz, vice president of Yield House Industries. "There are a lot of manufacturers out there scrambling to meet the compliance deadline. We have the capacity to provide a great service to them for a fraction of what compliance would cost."

Currently, the company operates basically with one shift, but Graves and Jeanloz say they would like to see the plant running around the clock. So far, most of their efforts to attract contract work have been through word of mouth, but more recently they've added business through brokers and some telephone sales.

For more information about the contract-finishing program, you can contact Gil Graves at Yield House Industries, 71 Hobbs Street, P.O. Box 2525, Conway, NH 03818-2530; or phone 603/447-8500.

Efficient plant comes from team effort

W hen Gil Graves, production manager for Yield House Industries Inc., says his company has a philosophy of self-sufficiency, you have only to step out on the factory floor to see the proof. From the automated roughmill operation to a shrink-wrapping machine in the shipping department, nearly every part of the operation shows how the company has capitalized on its own employees' Yankee ingenuity to create a cost-effective, modern, efficient operation.

It all starts even before the machinery arrives at Yield House's plant in Conway, NH. Graves says the company prefers to buy used equipment and modify it to suit their needs. They keep track of machinery auctions and other opportunities with a computer database. When they find something they can use, they have a rigging crew available to pack it up and deliver it to their plant. Once on site, an in-house maintenance crew does whatever is necessary to get the machine ready for the factory floor. Modifications may include electrical, mechanical, or computer work, all handled in house. Even the conveyor belts to carry material and components from one machine to another were built by Yield House staff.

In Yield House's fully optimized roughmill area, improvements in efficiency mean that four workers can now do what used to require seven or eight, says Graves. Work begins with the Compu-Rip computer-driven 31-inch gang ripsaw. Once ripped, the material is defect-marked and optimized on an automated cut-off saw. A PC-based computer system running programs developed by Yield House staff helps workers meet goals for cost per board foot and lumber yields.

Graves says that while they were initially anxious, employees have gotten behind increasing computerization and other improvements. "Computers have made them better," he says. "They know what's expected. They know what's coming."

Following ripping on a Mattison 202 ripsaw, lumber is stacked and taken to the production area. To create equalized glued-up panels, lumber is processed through a Taylor Opti-Sizer, glued, and clamped up on a Taylor clamp carrier. Depending on what the final product is, material may be processed on a variety of equipment, including a Weinig moulder, Jenkins and Mereen-Johnson tenoners, and Timesaver widebelt sanders.

All along the way, stock moves from station to station along Yield House-designed and -modified conveyor systems. At junctures between stations, you'll see workers multitasking. For example, they will stack up stock going into one machine so there is time to pull product off a nearby conveyor belt and stack it.

And an Access-based PC computer program developed at Yield House tracks the work every step of the way, right on through assembly and shipping. Graves says he can keep track of every part of the operation from the laptop computer in his office.

For kits that are shipped unfinished and unassembled, Yield House staff developed a shrink-wrapping system that holds all the parts in place to a cardboard backing so they can be shipped with minimal packing and less danger of damage in transit. About half of Yield House's production is in unfinished kits.

For products that are finished, they take advantage of the new VOC abatement. That system alone is testament to Yield House ingenuity, but there is more. The robotic spraying systems used for some products were built by Yield House's own engineering and computer programming team.

Claude Jeanloz, vice president of Yield House, notes that even dealing with the so-called "Year 2000 problem" in the company's computers is something they're handling without the help of outside contractors. "We're a very vertically integrated company," he says.

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About the author
William Sampson

William Sampson is a lifelong woodworker, and he has been an advocate for small-scale entrepreneurs and lean manufacturing since the 1980s. He was the editor of Fine Woodworking magazine in the early 1990s and founded WoodshopBusiness magazine, which he eventually sold and merged with CabinetMaker magazine. He helped found the Cabinet Makers Association in 1998 and was its first executive director. Today, as editorial director of Woodworking Network and FDMC magazine he has more than 20 years experience covering the professional woodworking industry. His popular "In the Shop" tool reviews and videos appear monthly in FDMC.