The volume of traffic and materials that flow in and out of transfer stations—and the range of operations that will be conducted within—necessitate thorough consideration in the planning phase to accommodate the needs of the facility, its operators and its customers.

To minimize bottlenecks and to create maximum efficiency, municipalities and private companies typically rely on experienced consultants to help design these facilities.

One such consultant is JRMA, a Brea, California-based firm that specializes in transfer station design and other structural engineering projects.

According to JRMA CEO Jim Miller, a facility’s design will ultimately be determined by a myriad of factors.

New age of transfer stations

Miller says the type and volume of material collected are among the first criteria that influences how a facility is built.

“Volume is one thing you have to think about because that determines the size of the facility,” he says. “You also have to consider the range of services that a transfer station has to provide. For instance, if it’s only taking municipal collections and only collection trucks are coming in, that calls for a more straightforward layout. If it’s open to the public and you have self-haul capabilities and public drop-off access, that would be another factor that changes the size and even shape the facility needs to take. Also, transfer stations that have visitor and/or education centers add the need for more space. Then, if you’re doing any material recovery, that changes how you need to think about it as well.”

The recycling requirements many municipalities have to adhere to today have resulted in a fundamental shift in how transfer stations need to be constructed. Modern stations need not only more space than those constructed in previous decades, but also unique areas for different types of materials.

“If you go back 30 years, we weren’t really doing recycling. Municipal recycling wasn’t as widespread, and we weren’t segregating materials inside the transfer station like we are today,” Miller says. “Back then, it was simply garbage in, garbage out. Garbage would come in in one vehicle and get loaded into another and out the door it would go. In that scenario, you didn’t need a big facility or a lot of operational space. These days, you have your green waste in one spot, your wood waste in another, your hazardous waste somewhere else, with your paper and plastics in another. All these operations force you to segregate materials, and that takes a larger floor.”

As municipalities move to tackle more recycling responsibilities, Miller says that building with the future in mind is a smart way to prepare for potential growth.

“I always tell people, ‘Your transfer station is like your garage at home. It’s never big enough,’” he says. “The first key is to build the largest facility you can build within your budget and site limitations. If you have to build a smaller facility, design it so it can be expanded in the future and configure traffic patterns in ways that they can potentially accommodate more vehicles as needed.”

Designing for the community

Transfer stations, like other waste management facilities, are often governed by strict regulations and subject to intense public scrutiny. In an effort to fulfill community development standards and mitigate potential nuisance complaints stemming from traffic congestion and things like odor, dust, noise and light emissions, those in charge of designing these facilities need to work to preemptively curtail issues before they become a problem.

Miller says that capturing the air and treating it with a biofilter or an activated charcoal system before it is released from the facility can help preserve air quality. He also stresses the importance of having an air handling system that draws air into the building and strategically placing misting systems for dust and odor control. Air quality requirements can also be affected by neighboring locations. For instance, proximity to sensitive receptors such as hospitals, schools and daycare facilities may require added vigilance when it comes to air maintenance.

Beyond emission concerns, there are aesthetic requirements that must be taken into consideration. This is especially true in urban settings.

“If you have a transfer station in a more heavily populated urban center, you’re probably going to have development standards that require a certain architectural level of appearance,” Miller says. “You might have landscaping requirements and you could be required to have a certain amount of site space that you would otherwise like to have for operations dedicated to things like parking and traffic.”

Miller says that the flow of traffic is always one of the fundamental concerns when mapping out a transfer station. He says that allowing for the appropriate queuing distance can help control traffic flow. Additionally, having separate lanes and segregating municipal and public vehicles, especially in higher-volume facilities, can help cut down on congestion while leading to improved safety.

Although allocating separate spaces for haulers and public vehicles can cost more in the short term, it can lead to greater savings in the long run in the way of more comprehensive liability.

“Operators have insurance requirements that require exhaustive safety standards, so designing a facility so it can be safely operated is very important and it’s worth paying for,” Miller says. “To be able to achieve a level of safety that is satisfactory to all the stakeholders is an essential aspect of planning the build of a site. Beyond segregating big truck traffic from personal vehicles, designing those facilities so that there’s little or no interaction between loaders and that kind of equipment and the public is important for eliminating danger.”

Miller says that other safety best practices like proper signage, minimizing cross-traffic and segregating the public from potentially dangerous areas and fall hazards can also help prevent on-site accidents in a transfer station.

While open layouts can help make maneuverability more seamless, Miller says that a balance has to be struck with environmental concerns in mind.

“Operationally, you’d love the whole building to be open. However, when you’re having to deal with environmental constraints, you probably want the fewest number of doors and the smallest openings you can because the bigger the doors, the more expensive it is to run a ventilation system and the harder time you have with controlling odors and other issues,” Miller says.

Asking for help

Designing a transfer station that is versatile enough to evolve with a community’s needs isn’t easy. That’s why those in charge of overseeing the planning of a site would be wise to do their homework. Miller says that learning from existing builds and relying on professionals who have successfully planned site layouts are the best ways to avoid common transfer station planning mistakes.

“There are several thousand transfer stations in the country—that’s a lot of builds to go off of from which you can reference,” Miller says. “Secondly, there’re a lot of consultants out there with experience designing transfer stations who can be brought in to help during the planning process. Those are the two primary things: Go out and check to see what other people are doing and learn from it, and then hire a good consultant.”

Miller cautions that although there are a number of consultants who boast experience designing transfer stations, it’s critical to make sure that the individuals with whom you’ll be working are ones with demonstrated builds under their belts since employee turnover and retirements can shake up a company’s personnel.

As with any building project, quality matters. Miller says that operators should work with consultants so that every foot of space in a facility is laid out with a specific purpose in mind and designed to stand up to the rigors of daily operation for a predetermined amount of time.

“You need to consider the service life of a transfer station at the front end and design accordingly, because with just a few little changes here and there that aren’t necessarily going to cost a lot of money, you can extend how long a facility remains viable,” Miller says. “So, designing a facility to work for 50 years versus designing for 20 years might not cost a lot, but can be vitally important for allowing a structure to grow with your needs over time.”

The author is the editor of Waste Today magazine and can be contacted at