This episode of the Dusty Jobs Podcast features our very own Charlie Miller. With almost 50 years of experience Charlie details the history of coming up in the business and how he got to Imperial Systems. He also goes over a brief history of Dust collection and the invention of the baghouse. Charlie also gives us his insight on what the current state of dust collection is as well as what we might see in the future.
Dusty Jobs Podcast Episode 10 – History of Dust Collection with Charlie Miller
Narrator: Welcome to the Dusty Jobs Podcast from Imperial Systems. Industry knowledge to make your job easier and safer.
Donovan: Welcome to another Imperial Systems podcast. Thanks for joining us today. With us today is Charlie Miller. How are you doing today Charlie?
Charlie: I’m doing just fine. How about yourself?
Donovan: I’m doing great. Charlie is one of our sales engineers here at Imperial Systems and he has been doing this for – man, how long have you been doing this now Charlie?
Charlie: I started in 1971, so this is my 49th year.
Donovan: 49th year. Now Charlie is, I would say, our most senior and veteran sales person here. He has a lot of knowledge and experience with the industry. We’re here today just to learn a little bit more about dust history, where it’s come from, and little bit about the dust collection industry, a little bit of dust history on that. Let’s hear a little bit about Charlie’s history. Charlie, tell us a little big about yourself. Tell us how you go started in dust collection. What’s your story? Where did this whole journey begin for you?
Charlie: Well, I’m a Pittsburgh boy. I grew up here, and right after I graduated from high school I moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, and I started working for a company. It’s actually was a company headquartered here in Pittsburgh that had a very small division in Cincinnati that was their air systems division. They designed and made building products, ventilation products, roof ventilations, powered ventilators, powered louvers, things like that.
Donovan: What were you doing there? What were you doing for those guys? What did you start out doing?
Charlie: I started out in the shop. I was in the sheet metal union. I started on the shop floor. I operated a press brake and a shear. I spent a lot of time cutting louver blades and forming louver blades.
Donovan: Still have all your fingers?
Charlie: Yeah, I was pretty careful about that. I worked form them for, oh, I don’t know, maybe a year or year and a half. I’d always liked drafting and I expressed a desire to join their drafting department. They asked me, “How much drafting experience do you have?”
I said, “I took a couple classes in high school, things like that.”
So, they said, “We do have an opening in drafting and we can put you in there but we want you to go to the community college and take a few more drafting classes.” I agreed to do that. So I started in their drafting department. That’s actually when I started going to college by the way because I was right out of high school when I moved to Cincinnati. So, I went to the university of Cincinnati, and took a few drafting classes and decided I wanted to go on. So I got into their engineering program while I was there. I actually spent ten years at night college getting my engineering degree.
Donovan: Oh, wow. So this was while you were working as a draftsman, and then you were doing your education at night?
Charlie: That was when I started, yes. Anyway, I worked for that company for, oh, about nine years. The economy took a downturn, and I was laid off. So, I was laid off for a little while I got picked up by another company in Cincinnati, Kirk & Blum, which at the time was one of the biggest sheet metal contractors in the nation. There were only a few that were bigger than them, and I think Kirk & Blum were in the top three. I started in their engineering department on the board making drawings, making systems drawings. Up until that time I didn’t know much about system work. I didn’t know anything. So I was fortunate to work with a couple of senior design people who actually taught me the correct way to design dust collection systems.
Donovan: So you went from just kind of working on parts and pieces of different systems to actually putting the whole system together?
Charlie: That’s correct.
Donovan: You help us out with a lot of that here.
Charlie: Well, I try.
Donovan: Well, I know everybody here really appreciates your knowledge and experience in that realm. We’re glad to have you on. So after Kirk & Blum did you end up here?
Charlie: Well, I was with Kirk & Blum, I’m not sure how long I worked for them in their engineering department. Kirk & Blum liked to hire internally, okay? At the time I didn’t know it, but they had one of their senior sales engineers didn’t have very good health. He told them that he was going to retire. So they approached me and asked me if I would be willing to work with this gentleman and start making sales calls with him because they wanted to groom me for a sales position. I said, “Well, yeah, I’d love to do that.” At the time I didn’t know that this gentleman was not in good health. I didn’t know he was retiring. I didn’t know any of that stuff. I just knew I was going to get out and start looking at jobs and help him do some quoting.
So, about six weeks of that I find out I was being promoted into sales and this gentleman was leaving. Again, with that I was very fortunate to work with some very, very senior sales engineers that had been in the business for a long, long time. Kirk & Blum being the company that it was actually it was a global company because they had sales, we had sales in Europe. I know one of the jobs I worked on was in Saudi Arabia. They didn’t have plants in the other countries. They sold everything domestically. They sold all over the world.
Donovan: So you’ve had work that are jobs you’ve sold, jobs you’ve worked on that’s just everywhere now, huh?
Charlie: Yeah, a little bit.
Donovan: That’s fun. A little bit of Charlie all over the world.
Charlie: Yeah, not really all over the world, but there are a few over there. I know I have some systems we put in in Saudi Arabia for the Air Force base over there. Theres a few other places. I think we sold some equipment that went over to Korea.
Donovan: Now, the story I heard about how you came on with us is Jeremiah ended up bidding against you on a job and was so impressed with your quote, and I think he lost to you. He lost the job to you and then you ended up coming on board with us. He kept harassing you to come be a salesman for us. Does that sound about right or am I…
Charlie: That’s almost correct, up until the point that you said Jeremiah lost the job because Jeremiah won the job.
Donovan: Oh, he won the job!
Charlie: He won the job, but everything else is true. Jeremiah had somehow saw my quote while he was at the customer’s. I don’t exactly know how that happened, but he said that he got so mad reading my quote that he was going to hire me. You have to remember, this was back ten years ago, and Imperial Systems ten years ago was not the Imperial Systems we have today. Jeremiah was selling. We had another guy here that actually started in the shop and was selling. He wasn’t doing systems, he was just helping out. Then you had Chalmer. Chalmer was selling. I was just stretched to the limit. He was trying to run his company and he was out there traveling. I think he wanted to hire me mainly because his wife was getting a little upset with him being on the road so much.
So he called me at Kirk & Blum and offered me a position. On his first call I thought, ‘This is some kind of joke.’ Yeah, yeah, he’s just another head hunter. Okay, I’ll think about it. Then he called me back a second time and asked me about it, and I said, “Well, I don’t know. Let me think about it.” I actually brushed him off a couple times. Well, the third time he called me I said, “Well, this guy’s really serious.” At the time I was actually thinking about early retirement because I really didn’t like the direction that Kirk & Blum was going in. The Blum family had sold the company to CECO, and I just didn’t like it after it wasn’t a family company anymore. I didn’t like the feel. It was like the employees didn’t really matter anymore.
So, I was actually thinking about retiring. Coming up here to Imperial was like going back home. I did have some things that I had to worry about because my daughters lived with me. Although they were grown, mature adult women they still lived in my house and I had to make sure they were happy with everything before I agreed to coming up here. So, we talked it over and my daughters said, “Go for it.” I came up and met with Jeremiah. We had a good conversation. I was a little dismayed when I first got here because, let’s face it, Imperial Systems wasn’t real impressive, you know?
Donovan: We were little back then, huh?
Charlie: The old plant wasn’t real impressive, and that was before the expansion, so it was really tiny. I went in and I met the people and I liked Jeremiah immediately, especially when I found out that he was a bike rider. So I accepted the position, and I came and worked for him.
Donovan: And now we’re here.
Charlie: And now we’ve grown tremendously since I’ve started. It’s amazing how much we’ve grown in ten short years.
Donovan: Are you saying that’s because of you, Charlie?
Charlie: No, no, no. I’m not saying that at all. I give all credit to upper management and the foresight they had to do what they did.
Donovan: I think we’ve put a pretty good team together here.
Charlie: I think we have an excellent team together. I think the salesmen we have now, on board are very knowledgable and they do a really fine job.
Donovan: Yeah, I would agree. Needless to say, that definitely means that you have a lot of knowledge in this industry. You have been doing this for a long time and today, what we’re really going to dig into now is try to help us understand how this whole thing got started. I mean, dust collection has been around for how long now?
Charlie: Well, dust collection really grew up with the industrial revolution, which started right after the Civil War. Industry started booming in this country. Railroads, mining, oil, and especially in this area with being the home of the oil industry. Companies just started exploding all over the place. The very first dust collectors that were designed were cyclones. The very first cyclone was designed by a guy named John Finch, I believe his name is, in 1885. He had a company in New York called The Knickerbocker Company. It was a textile mill. He designed the very first cyclone, and patented it for his business. By 1900, cyclones were widely used everywhere. They were like a staple in the industry. That remained the best technology that was available up until the early 20s when the first fabric filter dust collector was designed and patented by a guy in Germany. I think his name was Wilhelm Beth, and he designed the first – he patented three designs for shaker dust collectors.
Donovan: Gotcha. So we’re talking prior to this we have the cyclone, which basically is just a tube that circulates the air around and as it circulates around the heavy dust falls out of the bottom, right?
Donovan: Maybe some particulate, smaller dust makes it back out, but for all the heavy stuff it goes to the bottom. Then the gentleman form Germany took it one step further, right? That’s what happened next.
Charlie: Well, yeah. It was a completely different design. A cyclone works just the way it sounds. You have a little mini cyclone inside that housing and the faster the air spins it throws the dust out until it reaches a vortex point at the bottom and then a second a spiral turns up the middle and comes out the top. Those cyclones are great for, I don’t want to say coarse, but down to about 20 microns they’re pretty efficient.
Donovan: They still hold their place in a lot of dust collection today. We still build them here. It’s not like they became obsolete, but more dust collection came about.
Charlie: They’re good. They’re inexpensive dust collection devices where you don’t need really, really fine filtration. If you’re discharging outside, I mean, you can’t see 20 microns.
Donovan: That’s very small.
Charlie: The fabric filter actually brought the dust into a compartment and passed the air through a fabric media that separated the dust from the air stream and then the air streamed on the other side of the filters. The shakers would shake the dust off and it would fall down into a hopper to be discharged.
Donovan: Now, this is where the term “baghouse” comes from, right? This is where baghouse started, and a lot of people still call all dust collectors a baghouse, but this is really where it got started, right?
Charlie: That’s pretty much correct, yes. That what where the term came from.
Donovan: It’s like a housing with a bunch of bags sticking down out of it.
Charlie: That’s right. Of course, over the years his design was improved upon. A lot of people got into the game. You know how many different manufacturers we have for dust collectors. But the filters improved. They got more media in them. They got finer weaves. They just got more efficient. The next evolution of the dust collector was not until the early 1970s when the first cartridge collector was developed. With a cartridge collector, they just took a baghouse dust collector, replaced the fabric filters with a cartridge media. The main advantage I guess to the cartridge collector is that the filtration is much, much finer than the baghouse.
Donovan: So it allows you to get even more dust out of the air.
Charlie: That’s correct. It’s like our CMAXX filters are efficient down to .3 microns. That’s real small.
Donovan: That’s like taking fume out of the air. That’s very small.
Charlie: Yes it is. Our CMAXX is great for fume systems. It’s great for weld smoke or plasma smoke or anything like that. It’s a great collector for that.
Donovan: So who was the first person to actually come up with this whole cartridge idea?
Charlie: Oh, do you really want me to tell you that?
Donovan: You can say it, it’s alright.
Charlie: The first cartridge collector was developed by Torit. They’re the monster name in the industry.
Donovan: I think a lot of people still refer to any dust collector with that name. It’s kind of like a Kleenex brand.
Charlie: That’s exactly right. They’ll say, “Hey, can you come up and look at our Torit?” And then I find out its something besides a Torit.
Donovan: Right, and it could be even a baghouse or a cyclone, and people call them all Torits. Sorry, didn’t mean to sidetrack you there. Go ahead. Keep going.
Charlie: That’s okay. I’m old. I forgot where we were going. Ask me another question.
Donovan: Well, we were talking about how the Torits were the first ones to come out with it, but their style was a vertical collector, right? Or a horizontal collector?
Charlie: That’s correct. Their style was a horizontal collector. They still tout that as the best way to arrange them and I disagree, because you know how they work. The dust comes down and falls on them and just lays up there. They lose, you know, thirty percent of their efficiency right off the bat.
Donovan: When you stack the filters on top of each other it cascades down onto the next filter, onto the next filter, onto the next filter before it reaches the hopper. So your top filter goes on to the second filter, on to the third filter until it reaches the bottom. It does allow you have a little bit of a smaller footprint, though, when you’re having it as it does allow you to go vertical with it. I know that’s one of the differences between them. After that style came out, after the horizontal style came out on the cartridge collector now we move to a collector style that’s a little more like what we have, is that right?
Charlie: Yeah, that’s pretty correct. It’s amazing how many people copied Torit on a horizontal style filter. Ours, of course, is a vertical filter. So, the dust comes up from the bottom. It doesn’t come down from the top. Theres no way you lose any filtration surface when its collecting the dust. So, personally, I think that the vertical cartridge is a superior arrangement for the filters.
Donovan: Now, I was thinking about this too, Charlie. As things progress, you said the first baghouses were shaker styles where they actually took the bags and kind of shook them and that’s how it tried to knock the dust off. Even that has changed over the years. Even that style and way of cleaning those cartridges and filters, baghouse filters, that has changed too, right? We have a lot of different techniques for that now.
Charlie: Most dust collectors today use compressed air. They use a tank on their collector that stores compressed air. They’ll have tube sheets that blast air down into the filters to clean them off. That’s the way our CMAXX works. That’s the way most collectors work today. Shakers really are not…I mean, they’re still being made, but they’re not as prevalent today as collectors using compressed air.
Donovan: So even the baghouses are using compressed air these days?
Charlie: Yes. Now, our BRF uses compressed air – our medium pressure BRF uses compressed air, but it has it’s own PD pump to provide that so there’s no plant air that’s needed to work that.
Donovan: It’s a whole system on it’s own. So you don’t have to worry about drawing air out of your system in your plant and drawing away from other things that you’re using it for.
Charlie: There are areas where the baghouse, our BRF, is a better solution than the cartridge. Some of the things when we look at a job, we have to see what is the best technology here. Now our CMAXX is always going to be our flagship. That’s our number one collector. Unlike some of our competitors that make cartridge collectors, they don’t have a baghouse to go to. They’ll push their cartridge collector for anything. Whereas Imperial will say, “Well, this application really isn’t good for a cartridge collector. We really should be putting a BRF on it.”
Donovan: I have seen too that we got the whole way back to the cyclone, which is the original, and sometimes you need not just one solution, but multiple solutions. I’ve seen that too where a cyclone will go in front of a baghouse or in front of a cartridge collector, right? That’s another thing. So it’s interesting that while cartridge collectors and things have changed, that technology is still valid and that idea is still good in certain settings where you’ll have a cyclone and then put it into a baghouse.
Charlie: You see that a lot in recycling plants. Tire shredders, things like that, where you don’t want all that heavy fluff from the tires that are being shredded to go into your filters because that will clog up a dust collector, and will clog up the filter media almost immediately. So we always put a cyclone in front of our BRF on recycling jobs.
Donovan: So it’s almost a pre-filter almost. It helps with the heavy dropout on that, right?
Charlie: That’s true. It gets the bulky stuff out of the airstream so only the fine dust – and we’ve already talked about it. The cyclone is not really a high efficiency filtration system, but it is good to remove the bulky stuff and then the finer dust can go out of the top and go through our more efficient dust collectors.
Donovan: So, Charlie, here’s my question now. We’ve talked about where dust collectors have come from. We’ve seen a lot of progression through the years. We’d like to think, and we often say that right now the CMAXX is pretty state of the art. We’ve done a lot of things to it to make a great dust collector that has a lot of features and benefits. Where do you think the future of dust collection – well, actually we forgot a whole subject.
Charlie: What was that?
Donovan: Now, we’ve got into explosive dust more recently. That has been the latest in dust collection. You’ve been in the industry during that time frame where it has really become a concern, right?
Charlie: Yeah, well, you know the whole thing about the safety. We can go back before that. The first dust collection systems weren’t really designed with worker safety in mind, or really the environment in mind. They were more just to make somebody’s process more profitable. It wasn’t until 1970 that we had OSHA or the EPA which are both government agencies that oversee worker safety in OSHA and the EPA is the Environmental Protection Agency that protects the environment. Those were the two big laws that were passed that really helped our industry because companies were now being forced to worry about worker’s health and keeping a clean environment for them and an area that was…
Charlie: Safe, exactly. And the same thing with the EPA. People, before the EPA, were just dumping stuff outside right into the environment. So those two laws themselves helped tremendously. The third thing that came along was today’s concern about explosion prevention. That’s gotten more stringent over the years. What triggered that was the Imperial System explosion in 2008.
Donovan: The Imperial Sugar?
Charlie: I’m sorry, Imperial Sugar, I’m sorry. Yes.
Donovan: And that was quite the explosion.
Charlie: Yeah, well, we had explosions all along but it was never thrust in to the forefront of the American people. Flour plants exploded all the time, but until that explosion where they saw fourteen people dead and over forty injured, then they decided something had to be done. That’s when they started making the NFPA guidelines more than guidelines. The NFPA laws came on, and you had to be compliant.
Donovan: It keeps betting better for the worker, which creates a better environment. In the end, that’s good for everybody.
Charlie: The newest legislation that’s out there now requiring people to get a dust hazard analysis.
Donovan: Which we’ve talked about on here, so if you guys aren’t familiar with dust hazard analysis, go back, listen to one of our previous episodes. We have that information. You can check that out. Sorry, keep going Charlie.
Charlie: Things are going to keep progressing. The laws are going to change. Somethings going to come around where they have to do something else. The EPA guidelines are actually laws I guess. They change every couple years. They revise it and change something on it.
Donovan: They’re always trying to make it safer. Make it better for the worker and that’s one of our missions here too.
Donovan: We’re trying to create a healthy environment for those people and I think the future of our company is to continue to try to do that with any innovation and any way we can do that.
Charlie: And you can just look at our product line and the fact that we’ve done all the stringent testing we’ve done on our collector. We have the Rhino Drum now, and all the options we have for keeping our equipment safe from an explosion. These are things that are important. If you have a catastrophic failure some place, and one of your employees is maimed or killed, what’s it going to cost to you? You can’t put a cost to that. You can’t put a price to that. So, you know, the explosion stuff is very, very important and almost all the dusts are explosive these days, unless you’ve got rock.
Donovan: It’s always good to have that tested and checked to make sure you know what you’re dealing with and to help create a safe environment to for those who are working. Is that where you see the future of dust collection going? Continue with safety?
Charlie: I think somewhere, eventually, they’ll develop a transporter that will take the dust and just zap it someplace into space.
Donovan: There you go. Straight out of the building.
Charlie: Now you know my Star Trek background.
Donovan: Well, Charlie, thanks for coming on. Thanks for giving us your knowledge. Thanks for sharing you past experience in your own life and your past experience with dust collection. I just want to say if anyone has any questions or anything else, maybe we’ll try to have Charlie on again to answer some questions. You can always email them to us. We’ll catch you next time.
Narrator: Thanks for listening to the Dusty Jobs Podcast. Breathe better, work safer.