Electrostatic particle ionization (EPI) is the buzzword for an environmental technology. “This technology works by emitting negative ions into the air. The ions go to work capturing and holding particles onto interior surfaces. The net result is ventilation enhancement that results in faster gain and less mortality,” explains Matt Baumgartner, general manager of Baumgartner Environics, Inc. (BEI), the Olivia, MN-based firm that developed, patented and now markets EPI systems.

Baumgartner says EPI technology has met and surpassed the criteria laid out by the world’s largest pork producer, Murphy-Brown, LLC. EPI units were installed in two, 2,000-head production nurseries and tested against two matching nurseries without EPI units. The tests ran for five turns, approximately 44,000 nursery pigs, with the following advantages in the EPI-equipped nursery:

  • Average daily gain increased 12.2%.
  • Average weights increased by 9.3%.
  • Mortalities were reduced by 26.1%.

Besides these production gains, Murphy-Brown also checked dust particle size, ammonia and hydrogen sulfide levels and odor in the barns. Bagged air samples were sent to Iowa State University for olfactometry analysis.

Environmental science gets a big play with Murphy-Brown. In their field studies, researchers measured a 57.7% reduction in particulate matter (PM) of 10-micron size; a 47.8% reduction in PM of 2.5 microns; and a 43.1% reduction in PM of 0.05 microns. In addition, EPI-equipped barns had 55% less ammonia, 58.6% less hydrogen sulfide and an 18.9% reduction in odor compared to control barns.

In the trials, EPI systems were installed in 60 x 100-ft. rooms with one room cross ventilated, the other equipped with diffused ventilation drawn through holes in a plastic ceiling. Adjacent and identical nursery rooms served as controls. All other controllable parameters, such as genetics, sow farm source, etc. were held constant. Differences due to barn and cycle were included in the statistical model.

The three main components of the EPI system are power supply, corona points and insulators. Corona points are barely noticeable “sharpened points” from which negative ions jump into the air, grabbing particles, clumping them into larger chunks and holding them on surfaces.

“The strength of the probability out of our testing convinced us fairly quickly that this appears to be an innovation well worth our time,” notes Bob Coffelt, business development manager at Murphy-Brown’s western division.

“When we first looked at it, the system appeared to be fairly unorthodox. But the results speak for the system. Pigs simply do better,” Coffelt says.

“Maintenance requirements are low and the installation unobtrusive,” he adds. “It tends to challenge one’s concept of the improbable values of dust suspension and odor issues. The sensory impact would lead one to believe that odors were lower in rooms equipped with EPI.”

“This is a significant change in environmental systems with a net result of improved pig performance,” explains Steve Pollmann, president of Murphy-Brown’s western division. “We’re excited. The science is sound. Even though understanding the technology is a bit of a challenge, the takeaway is that EPI in our test runs provided documented evidence of the potential benefit of this technology.”

Ionization’s Track Record

Baumgartner points out that the concept of electrostatic precipitation is not exactly a new science. Ionization was first used in 1842 and commercialized in 1907 to prevent sulfuric acid mist and lead oxide fumes from affecting a downwind California vineyard.

Today, perhaps the most successful industrial use of electrostatic precipitation is to reduce the ash loads released into the environment by coal-fired power plants. This industry uses electrostatic precipitation as an end-of-pipe solution where, after combustion, more than 95% of the ash is removed from exhaust gas before it escapes into the air.

Much the same happens in swine barns. Realizing the hazards of dust inhalation, USDA scientists in the 1980s began focusing on methods to improve air quality. Dwaine Bundy, at Iowa State University’s Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering Depart-
ment, and Michael Veenhuizen, president of Livestock Engineering Solutions, Inc., Greenwood, IN, conducted a study in 1987 that achieved 90% simulated dust reduction with electrostatic precipitation technology. The potential of production gains in real dollars through dust reduction was apparently overlooked entirely, and interest in the technology never really caught hold.

USDA scientists also found that gas molecules, such as ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, were absorbed by the dust particles in swine barns and contributed to respiratory disease. The data indicated between 35% and 60% of swine raised in confinement suffer from pneumonia. It follows that a reduction in dust has a net health benefit.

Baumgartner Environics, initially launched as an environmental solutions company, became aware of this preliminary USDA data and decided to take another look at electrostatic precipitation. “A driving factor was the ongoing health and performance challenges swine producers were bringing to our attention,” notes John Baumgartner, BEI president.

However, the only logical means of getting real mileage out of EPI technology depended upon conclusive evidence from the swine world. Murphy-Brown was receptive to testing the technology and its impact on pig health and gains in production.

“The results are exhilarating. It is rare when a production improvement technology and an environmental improvement technology can be verified so quickly,” Matt Baumgartner says. “It takes consistent and reproducible data to show a statistical confidence level of 99.9% in a dataset. The EPI tests with Murphy-Brown did just that.”

Installation and Payback

“We think EPI technology in swine barns is on the threshold of becoming the next ‘must-have’ production improvement technology. Improved performance is key to a sustainable swine industry,” John Baumgartner summarizes. The technology has a “verified payback” of about 18 months, he adds.

Installation in a 60 x 100-ft., 2,000-head nursery is approximately $500. A single EPI power supply uses about as much electricity as a 100-watt light bulb. All other critical components are fabricated from plastic or stainless steel, so corrosion is minimal. About the only “wear points” are the ceiling insulators, a minor cost item, he adds.

Matt Baumgartner says the EPI system can be readily installed by on-site employees. In mid-May, he and two crews installed systems in 10 rooms at Murphy-Brown facilities in North Carolina. The first day, four employees installed the system in four, 23 x 60-ft. nursery rooms. Over the next two days, they split into a pair of two-man teams and completed installation in six more rooms. “It’s a ‘quick learn’ for installing these systems,” he assures.

Murphy-Brown plans to install EPI units throughout their western division, which entails over 655,000 nursery spaces and 864,000 wean-to-finish spaces. Plans are to do additional testing in wean-to-finish facilities.

“EPI units will be installed in all the former Premium Standard Farms nursery facilities in Missouri and Oklahoma, all nursery facilities of Circle Four Farms in Utah, plus Murphy-Brown’s Yuma, CO, nursery operations,” Matt Baumgartner says. “We’re tremendously pleased because this major North American hog production business only makes moves on innovations when their own testing convincingly proves the decision.”

Hardware and materials used in an EPI system are American-made. A California firm is building the power supply units, which feature programmable microprocessors for automation control of motors. At full power, a unit draws 100 watts/hour. With 10-cent electricity, a unit costs about 24 cents/day to operate.

Additional information about the EPI system can be found at www.BeiAgSolutions.com.

Dick Hagen is a freelance writer based in Olivia, MN.