You Ask: Solar Trash Compactors Under Trees. Work?

A resident is curious if tree shade affects the city's new solar-powered trash compactors. Plus: a science fair home experiment! Write us at albany@patch.com with your questions.

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Home to 15 public solar , with adjoining recycling bins, the city of Albany is on the cutting edge of cleaner energy practices. 

By squashing trash with the heat of the sun, the bins require fewer gas-fueled truck pick-ups than standard containers, said Claire Griffing, Albany’s sustainability coordinator. The recycling compartment, which isn't a compactor, makes it easy for folks to toss cans, bottles, and paper (in the same bin), decreasing the chances these end up mixed with trash—or on the sidewalk or lawn, she said. 

But one Solano pedestrian observed that at least some of Albany’s Big Belly Compactors sit under trees. 

And he asked Patch, does leafy shade crimp their job? 

The answer was swift: “No, per the vendor/manufacturer the panel is not sensitive to a variable shade element,” said Nicole Almaguer, city clerk.

Big Belly’s website explains

All of our components do not require direct sunlight. As long as the solar panel can “see” the sky (i.e., not under a roof or tree), the station will work reliably on diffuse light. This is a central area of BigBelly Solar’s technical advantage: the company has extensive intellectual property in intelligent energy management, allowing the solar compactor and fullness indication systems to work reliably 24/7/365 in rigorous environmental climates and light conditions. For example, a BigBelly Solar Compactor can operate for a day on the equivalent energy it takes to make a piece of toast.

I didn’t speak to the manufacturer, but it sounds unlikely that Albany’s tree-shaded compactors will slow or stall for lack of sun power, but if they do that the company would step in to assist.

Science fair idea

Further intrigued? A little googling found a back yard experiment geared for a science fair called Effect of Tree Shade on Solar Collector Efficiency. It’s not identical to measuring the influence of Solano greenery on sidewalk trash compactors, but has some similarities, and could be adapted. Kids? 

Note: If I read this correctly, the home experiment results contrast somewhat to the promises of Big Belly. Albeit the back yard technology was homespun, and the experiment measures the effect of sun on water temperatures, not on energy expenditure such as mashing garbage. 

While we’re on the compactors

This is as good a chance as any to see how the compactors are going.

“So far the containers have been very well received,” Almaguer said. “They also include side panels that can be utilized for advertising, which we intend to make available for events and other items of interest for advertisement."

The bins are more vector-proof than traditionals, and designed to prevent drippage and fly-away debris, she said.

Adds Griffing:

“We’ve gotten some great feedback. The only problem is that people want to see more of them!”

The city's regular, old bins are still out there, with no plans for removal, Griffing adds. 

The compactors, located on Solano and San Pablo avenues, with two in Memorial Park, were installed as part of Albany’s “new” November 2011 agreement with Waste Management of Alameda County, which contracts with the city to provide garbage services. 

The agreement, which came with not insignificant  and is updated every 10 years, also added curbside battery, cell phone and florescent (CFL) light bulb recycling, . 

What's been your experience with the city's solar compactors/recycling bins? Tell us in the comments.

Click the "Keep me posted" button below for an email alert when we write about garbage services in AlbanyRead more on the city website about Waste Management services for Albany residents

If there's something in this article you think , or if something else is amiss, call editor Emilie Raguso at 510-459-8325 or email her at albany@patch.com.

Ross Stapleton-Gray August 20, 2012 at 04:53 PM
"Vector-proof" is a quote, so not quibbling with the reporter, just with overuse of jargon. "Vector" would presumably be shorthand for "vermin are vectors for disease," but professions (such as vector control officers, formerly "rat catchers," though I appreciate that they also deal with mosquitoes, possums, etc.) ought to speak plainly to lay audiences.
John Doh! August 20, 2012 at 05:03 PM
I've noticed that the compactor side is starting to sell like a garbage crock pot. Are the insides cleaned, not just emptied, on a regular basis?
Catherine (Kate) Rauch August 20, 2012 at 05:07 PM
OK. I just got off the phone with Matt Volpi, director of marketing for Big Belly Compactors. He essentially said that light reaches the solar panels from many angles as the sun moves, so unless the panel is completely or near-completely obscured trees shouldn't be a problem. Sun filtering through and around leaves does the job. The panels charge a battery, which works the compactor. He also said the amount of energy used for compacting is "tiny," a short intense zap; so the battery isn't continually used. "The equiv. of brewing one pot of coffee a week." Sensors tell the battery when to compact. The system either works or doesn't - it doesn't slow down. I've asked for more on how long it takes to charge a battery in what conditions, and how long a full charge lasts. Average normal battery life is 2-4 years. Comes with one year warranty; customer training. I'll pop some of this in the story.
Alan Eckert August 20, 2012 at 05:45 PM
I really like the science fair idea. Is there a way to work with the schools on this? It seems like it would be a great cooperative effort and would encourage kids to look into science that would actually help the city.
Tony Caine August 21, 2012 at 04:13 PM
It would be interesting to see a cost/benefit analysis for these things. To me they look like a feel-good money waster. A small additional cost of a larger container to hold uncompacted trash which is then compacted by the garbage truck should be compared to the solar cells, battery, electronics and mechanics of this device (repeated at every location) implies that this device would never recover its initial costs as well as the maintenance costs for breakdowns and battery replacements.


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