Evaluating Grain Elevators

by Teresa Acklin
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A thorough analysis of the physical condition of a grain elevator and the market it serves is needed before deciding whether to upgrade, purchase or lease the facility, according to James F. Voigt, vice-president of operations and engineering for ADM/Growmark, Decatur, Illinois, U.S. The hardest part is knowing where to start, said Mr. Voigt, speaking at the 70th annual conference and exposition of the Grain Elevator and Processing Society in Tampa, Florida, U.S. He offered the following checklist for evaluating grain facilities.

   It is not difficult to evaluate a grain facil- ity if you go in with a plan, an evalua- tion form and a little experience. Although there many different grain elevators with different purposes and designs, they have many things in common that make this analysis easy.

   Don't start in the elevator, however. The first step is to determine who is directing the analysis — a manager, an owner, a board of directors or yourself? It is critical to have a clear, common goal and to know who has set that goal. Once the goal has been clearly established and you know to whom you are accountable, you can begin.

   Before beginning the analysis, ask yourself, “Is this facility is right for my company's needs? If so, should it be purchased or leased? What portions of the facility need to be upgraded or modified? What market does the elevator serve? Is that market undergoing change? What is my company's current position in that marketplace? Who is our competition? What is our financial situation? What can we afford to invest? What is the acceptable rate of return on this investment? Where do we want to end up?”

   After answering all of these questions, it's time to evaluate the grain elevator. Start by walking through the facility. It is better to evaluate an operating facility than an idle one. The opportunity to see the operation and hear the equipment as it is running is extremely helpful.

   Whether the elevator is running or idle, talk to the facility operators. The people who make things happen on a daily basis know the strengths and weaknesses of the facility. Ask open-ended questions and listen carefully to the answers. Match these answers and follow-up questions with your own experience.

   Be observant. Don't rush. Ask questions about things you don't understand or haven't seen before. Listen and observe.

   Breaking down a grain facility into its component parts simplifies the process. Location, traffic flow, receiving systems, sampling, drying and cleaning systems, aeration, transfer systems, load-out, and electrical systems are all important in the analysis. Look at utilities, probing and grading areas, office areas, maintenance areas, employee areas, structural integrity, security, transportation services, leases, easements and right-of-ways, tax issues, regulatory compliance, personnel, rolling stock and operating costs.

   After walking through the facility, sit down and summarize your thoughts. The use of an evaluation form simplifies this task (see Page 22).

   List rated capacities and actual capacities for all equipment and systems. Make a note of the physical condition of all critical equipment and the elevator in general. What were its strengths and weaknesses?

   Once the evaluation form is completed, compare it against your company's goal. Is the facility capable of accomplishing this goal? If not, where are the problems or bottlenecks? Prioritize the problems that must be overcome.

   With this evaluation and prioritized list of weak areas, develop a number of possible options to improve each bottleneck. There is rarely a time when there is only one solution to a problem. Develop as many options as you can. Rely on your past experience, the present operator's input or seek advice from a peer or consultant. Don't get trapped by habit or boxed in by walls. Look outside the box for solutions.

   Take this list of possible solutions and apply them against your goal. Select the best option, then design a plan to implement that option. Remember to stay focused on your goal. If your intent was to develop a high-speed efficiency train loader, don't get sidetracked on long-term storage issues.

   Now, prepare a cost-versus-benefit analysis. Estimate the cost of all of the available options and consider any time constraints involved. Calculate a payback for the project. Each company has its own method of determining acceptable return on investments. Stay with your company's methodology. Don't let emotions overrule procedures.

   Re-check your progress. Ask yourself, “Am I still on the path to reach my original goal?” If the first option does not meet the payback standard, look at other options and apply the economic analysis to each. Determine what you want versus what you need versus what you can afford. Don't buy a Cadillac if all you need or can afford is a Chevrolet.

   Depending on the scope of the project, there may be a need for engineering. Determine if this function be performed in-house or if professional help from an outside engineering or consulting firm is needed. When searching for a consultant or engineering firm, look closely at the company's reputation, philosophy, dependability, availability, capability, insurance and cost.

   Once a plan has been drawn up for modifications, decide who will perform the work. Again, determine if the work can be done in-house or if a design-build contractor is needed. Do you have the time and ability to oversee the job yourself? This is not the time for uncertainty. Know your limitations, as well as the contractor's limitations, and use people who can do the job properly and safely.

   Apply the same standards in picking a contractor as you did an engineering firm, but place special emphasis on the contractor's safety record.

   Either you or the consultant will need to check into what permits are required, and the time and procedures needed to obtain them. These may be as simple as a building permit but may also include environmental permits, easements, variances, highway access, grade crossing and utility relocation.

   Before the first shovel of dirt is removed or conveyor is purchased, take the time to re-evaluate your goal. What were the bottlenecks? Does this plan solve these problems and meet your goal?

   Can you justify the expenditure? Does it pay back? Are you comfortable with the engineer and the contractor? Do you have the required permits?

   Most importantly, listen to all those involved and be open to new methods and technology. Don't go into the project with preconceived ideas. Stay focused. Pay attention to details. And don't force the project.

   Following this simple procedure can save time and many headaches. Don't be overwhelmed. It is only a grain elevator, with the basic purpose of moving grain from point A to point B. It is not rocket science, but it sure can be fun.


   General information:


   Year built


   Annual capacity


   Upright concrete storage capacity

    Number of bins

   Steel bin storage capacity

    Number of bins

   Flat storage capacity

   Temporary or bunker storage capacity

    Number and type

   Total storage capacity

   Limiting factor in capacity

   Traffic flow:

   Traffic bottlenecks

   Truck receiving systems (complete for each system if more than one):

    Pit size

    Capacity in bus/tonnes per hour

    Capacity in trucks per hour

    Leg capacity

    Conveyor capacity

    Scale location and type

    Turnhead/spout capacity

    Type and length of hoist

   Total truck receiving capacity

   Limiting factor or bottlenecks

   Rail receiving systems (complete for each system if more than one):

    Pit size

    Capacity in bus/tonnes per hour

    Capacity in cars per hour

    Leg capacity

    Conveyor capacity

    Scale location and type

    Turnhead/spout capacity

    Car movement method

   Working track space (number of cars)

    Rail size and condition (based on 70-foot cars)

   Total rail receiving capacity

   Limiting factor or bottlenecks

   Sampling systems:

   Truck receiving method and type

   Truck loadout method and type

   Rail receiving method and type

   Rail loading method and type

   Barge loading method and type


   Drying systems:

   (complete for each system if more than one)

   Type/model Rated capacity

   Actual capacity

   Fuel Dry leg capacity

   Wet leg capacity

   Total drying capacity (based on five points moisture removal in corn being dried at 180°F)

   Limiting factor or bottlenecks

   Cleaning/scalping systems:

   Cleaner/scalper type/model

   Capacity Leg capacity

   Number and type of screenings bins

   Aeration system:


   Air flow

   Number of bins with aeration

   Controller presence

   Limiting factor and bottlenecks

   Loadout systems:

   Truck loadout

   Capacity Leg used and capacity

   Conveyor capacity

   Bins used

   Scale type and location

   Limiting factor or bottleneck

   Rail loadout:


    Number of loading points

    Number/type of loading spout

    Track space available for loading

    Scale type and capacity

    Number and size of shipping bins

    Method of moving cars

    Limiting factor or bottlenecks

   Barge loading:

    Tower capacity

    Time to load barge

    Leg capacity

    Belt size and capacity

    Spout type and capacity

    Number of barges at dock

    Method of barge movement

    Number of moves to load

    Scale type and location

    Water range (high/low)

    Describe dock configuration, construction design, mooring lines, etc

   Total barge loadout capacity (in barges per day)

   Limiting factor or bottlenecks

   Electrical system:

   Utility company

   Size of main


   Demand charge (yes/no)

   Transformer size

   Owned (yes/no)

   Total connected horsepower

   Number and location of motor control centers

   Type of starters and switch gear

   Limitations and bottlenecks

   Other utilities:

   Describe water and gas service; name utility and line sizes

   Limiting factor and bottlenecks

   Probing and grading systems:

   Location and type of probe

   Location sample delivered to

   Type and number of moisture meters

   Type and number of protein analyzers

   Other grading equipment


   Describe location and layout of the office

   Maintenance areas:

   Describe the shop, storage and maintenance equipment

   Employee welfare:

   Describe lockers, showers, break and lunch rooms

   Structural integrity:

   Describe condition of walls, roofs, tanks, towers, trusses, etc.


   Describe fences, locks, alarms, etc.

   Transportation services:

   Rail service

   Harbor service

   Major highways

   Leases, easements, right of ways:

   List any of these and like information.

   Tax issues:

   Annual property taxes (in U.S. dollars)

   Appraised valuation

   Regulatory compliance:

   Dust collection type and location of systems

   Describe ladders, catwalks, guardrails

   Describe machinery guarding

   Fire protection/explosion suppression

   Location, number and type of manlifts and elevators


   Number of office employees

   Number of supervisory employees

   Number of outside employees