Factor UTB is a leading Australian specialist when it comes to both the design and construction of plants for water, waste water, and sewage treatment. Over the years, they have developed an unrivalled depth of experience and expertise in project management, technical management, financial management, collection systems, process and process control, structural design, civil design, mechanical design, and geotechnical design.
The history of Factor UTB is relatively unique. The company was founded by Rex Gibbs in 1983, and at first acted as a specialised engineering design and construction group. Their initial work included several one-of-a-kind projects, such as reconstruction of historical footbridges, and the development of diamond saws for cutting headstones. Since their projects often had something to do with water, progressing to water treatment was a natural next step.
“We first made the switch in 1998,” recalls Rex. “At the time, we were doing some consulting work and buying waste water treatments for some of our customers. We found that the people who were supplying the systems weren’t very good at it, and one of our customers said ‘I’m sure you can do this better than most of the people you’ve engaged.’”
“So we ended up deciding to go into the waste water treatment business, and started buying some technology out of Europe,” he continues. “However, because of the Australian high-cost environment, we found that despite the fact we produced very high quality water, the capital costs for the systems meant that we just weren’t competitive in the market.”
“It was then that I had an idea to take out some tanks and still manage to accomplish the same result as these multi-part treatments,” he concludes. “From that process we managed to eliminate all the tanks but one in the system.”
The end result of Rex’s work was a new base technology for waste water treatment, which is essentially a controlled bio-reactor – or as they call it, the Sequencing Batch Reactor (SBR). Over the least 15 years, Factor UTB has built more than 40 of these systems for a variety of customers including municipal councils, to pulp and paper manufacturers, wineries, animal sow yards, and regional communities.
A unique technology
“What we do is batch treat the water through what is essentially Darwinism,” Rex explains. “We monitor the oxygen in the water, and use our technology to deliver more of it than the organisms can take up before turning it off. This selects for naturally occurring specimens already living in the tank and pipes, favouring those that are the fastest at metabolizing oxygen and absorbing food in the water – which is almost anything organic.”
“It’s like a four star hotel for bacteria,” he remarks. “If they do what we want, life is pretty darn good for them.”
The whole system is also very clean and energy efficient, according to Rex. “It’s entirely a biological system. We don’t use any chemicals. The only chemicals that go in are for the reactor to balance alkalinity and acidity. The bugs also convert all their food into about eighty per cent carbon dioxide and nitrogen, which goes into the atmosphere, while the remainder is a solid biomass that can be easily recycled.”
“The whole system is also all automated,” he adds. “We don’t have to have a man standing there opening valves and pressing buttons. We further provide remote telemetry, to monitor all the systems we’ve installed.”
“For example, we had a call from a customer in New Zealand who’s been cleaning his tanks and had a bit of unusual activity from farming – which is actually very normal but he wanted to know what was happening. We were able to look at how the system was controlled and said it was normal and healthy and to just keep doing what they were doing.”
In 2013, Factor UTB’s proclivity for innovation earned the company some attention from the local industry. At the South Australian Engineering Excellence Awards, they won the Environment category due to their work on the Waste Water Treatment Plant for Matua Marlborough Winery.
According to Rex, the award-winning plant was built according to a two-stage design based on a highly controlled Sequencing Batch Reactor. It was completed in 22 weeks from the initial purchase.
“The client planned to double the size of their winery, but could only get a council approval with the condition they got their waste water management under control,” explains Rex. “They came to us telling what tonnage they were producing, the expansion and so forth. I had a look at the Winery and we came up with three proposals – cheap, mid-price, and expensive. Within about three pages, their chief engineer said ‘We like the expensive one, can you formalize the proposal?’”
“So we put together a ten page proposal and sent it to the board, and it came back with an order priced at $5 million. All of that was just from a ten page proposal and a one page order – that’s a level of trust that takes a while to develop.”
Rex says the SA Engineering Excellence Award carries a great deal of prestige, and is considered a proud achievement by every member of the company. The award-winning plant was actually the first project Factor UTB has ever entered in the awards, as Rex felt it was the first one that “ticked all the right boxes.”
“There are eight categories you can enter into, and they don’t always give awards for each category,” he explains. “If they don’t think your product is good enough, they’ll call you a finalist but won’t give you an award. If nobody is good enough for judges, then there won’t be an award for that category. It’s very unusual compared to typical awards, because you truly have to win it – and that’s just what we did.”