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Screening Topsoil

Topsoil being screening into a pile by a mobile scalping screen

Topsoil screening can be a great source of income, especially if you are transporting material away from a site to dump or have access to free soil to screen. You are essentially making money from dirt!

In this post, we’re going to explain a bit more about topsoil screening, why people want to buy topsoil, and discuss some of the numbers around selling topsoil. Of course, we’ll also be helping you decide what machine might be right to get you into making money with topsoil screening!

<div id="What-is-topsoil?">What is topsoil?</div>

As the name suggests, topsoil is soil found at the surface of the ground; usually the first two to twelve inches deep depending on the area. Topsoil contains broken down organic material from leaves, dead animals and vegetation, and makes a huge difference to how plants grow because it's full of nutrients. This also means it's much darker in colour than other types of soil.

Other than just soil, topsoil is also made up of a mix of rocks, water, contaminants and other organic materials like plant roots, sticks and weeds. In it's raw state like this it isn't very useful, because these rocks, sticks etc will hold back the roots of new plants from sprouting and can restrict water flow. It is really only used as a fill material or to level low areas.

But if topsoil is screened to remove larger rocks and things like sticks and roots, it can be very useful for gardening and other applications where plant growth is promoted. It is also generally worth a lot more after it has been screened, which is what we’re interested in!

<div id="What-is-screened-topsoil?">What is screened topsoil?</div>

We've covered screening before, but just to recap; screening is the process of separating materials into different sizes or grades.

When it comes to topsoil, screening is used to remove the larger particles that we mentioned above; rocks, sticks, weeds etc. This is done by passing mixed topsoil through a mesh, so the smaller particles fall through and the larger ones stay on top. Using different sized meshes will create different grades of screened topsoil, but the average is around 1/2 inch or 10mm.

The larger rocks that are removed from the topsoil can be used as fill material, run through a wash plant to be used as decorational rocks, or put through a crusher so that they can go back into the screener and be screened to the desired size.

person holding screened topsoil
Example of screened topsoil

So why would you want to screen your topsoil? Screened topsoil is more expensive than regular topsoil because it is ideal for lawn work, or growing vegtables and plants. It allows for the best water/nutrient flow, doesn't restrict root growth, and is very rich in the nutrients plants need to grow.

Generally speaking, the finer the soil is screened the more expensive it will be. So by screening topsoil you are increasing the value of the material for resale. You can literally make money selling dirt! We talk about the numbers on this a little later in this post.

<div id="Screened-topsoil-vs-unscreened">Screened topsoil vs unscreened</div>

Unscreened topsoil is fine to use for certain applications. However, sometimes screening will be required depending on the end use case. Here's a quick breakdown of the benefits and uses of both screened and unscreened topsoil;

Screened topsoil uses

  • Gardening
  • Lawn preparation
  • Flower pots and planters
  • Walkway base
  • Growing vegetables

Screened topsoil benefits

  • Loose and easy to manipulate
  • More consistent texture
  • Less contaminants
  • Allows for better flow of water and nutrients
  • Easier for plant roots to grow in
  • Nutrient rich; will produce taller plants or more fruit on certain trees
  • Less likely for weeds to grow as their roots are removed

Unscreened topsoil uses

  • Filling low areas/holes
  • Leveling
  • Wall support
  • Raised bed filler
  • Construction projects
  • Landscaping (shaping, then topped with screened topsoil)

Unscreened Topsoil benefits

  • Cheaper
  • No processing required
  • Better support in some cases

<div id="Topsoil-vs-compost">Topsoil vs compost</div>

Compost is topsoil containing some form of organic material, that has been left to ferment. By allowing the organic material to decompose and break down, compost becomes even better than topsoil at promoting plant growth.

The topsoil to be composted will be left in rows for up to a year, and regularly “turned” in order to prevent heat build up that can cause fires.

machine turning a row of compost

Turning topsoil into compost takes a lot of time and effort, but in some areas, compost can sell for a lot more than even screened topsoil. For example, in our pricing research below, we found that compost in Texas sold for an average of $42 per cubic yard, compared to the $34 for screened topsoil.

That’s a sizeable difference, and if you have the space and time to create compost, it could be worth while considering!

<div id="How-much-is-screened-topsoil-worth?">How much is screened topsoil worth?</div>

range of prices for topsoil and compost graph
Topsoil price range by state

So if you're reading this you might be wondering if it's worth your while getting into topsoil screening. To help you decide, we gathered some data on prices of topsoil, screened topsoil, and compost in three different states.

These prices come from a range of suppliers across these states and are priced using a standard unit of $ per cubic yard. To make this a bit simpler, below are the average material prices per state, and the overall average from our three states.

a table of the average price of topsoil in texas, florida and massacheusetts
Average topsoil prices for Texas, Florida, and Massachusetts

As you can see, topsoil is always the cheapest, whereas screened topsoil and compost are always the most expensive. Unusually, in some states the difference in price between screened topsoil and compost is very different. But on average, screened topsoil costs about $31 per cubic yard.

Considering the extra time and effort that goes into turning topsoil into compost, it's probably worth doing a quick check of the material prices in your area before deciding whether or not you want to produce compost.

Regardless, a $31 average for topsoil is a lot of money! Especially if you're taking material away for waste or have access to free topsoil to process.

<div id="How-to-screen-topsoil">How to screen topsoil</div>

So if you've seen the numbers and want to try your hand at making some topsoil, you'll need a topsoil screener. There are lots of different types of screeners ranging from small excavator buckets to huge stationary plants that can process close to 1,000 tons of material an hour.

To understand how to screen topsoil we first have to take a look at the different types of screeners and the work they are best suited to.

  • Trommel screens - These are mostly used for wet a sticky materials, where you need impact to break apart the material. The trommel’s rotating drum carries the material up to its side, assisted by “lift and cut” bars. The material then falls off and impacts the drum’s mesh, causing the sticky material to break apart and fall through the mesh. They can also be used like a sieve, and rock back and forth to shake the material through the mesh.
yellow trommel screening processing mulch
Trommel screening mulch
  • Scalping screens - Scalping screens are very versatile machines and can handle a range of materials from demolition waste to fine topsoil. They work on a decline and can be set up to intake or output a variety of material sizes depending on the need.
scalping screen screening topsoil
Scalping screen screening topsoil
  • Fine Screens - These machines make a finer product by working with a screening deck that is on an incline, generally producing a product in the 1-6mm range. But it’s also worth noting that you can’t dump large rocks and stones into these machines as they will likely damage the fine mesh.
finishing screen working in a sand plant
Finishing screen

Here’s a couple of different screening applications and the methods that are best suited to them;

  • Sand plant = Fine screeners - Powerscreen Chieftan, Anaconda SR, or McCloskey S ranges
  • Concrete recycling = Scalping screens, The Powerscreen Warrior or Portafill MR range
  • Small contractor looking for 2 products on a small scale = If the demand is in the range of 20-25 tons and hour, a screening bucket like the Italdem GV1500 would be a good option
  • Topsoil = Fine screens, or scalping screens, depending on what size of product you're looking for (topsoil normalling around the 10mm range)
  • Coal - Fine screening/finishing screen - where the aim is to get soot out of mix

<div id="What-is-the-best-screener-for-topsoil?">What is the best screener for topsoil?</div>

When it comes to topsoil screening, we're really interested in getting fine material out of our soil mix, because that's where the value is. Generally speaking, the finer the product, the more expensive it is. Topsoil is usually in and around the range of 1/2 inch or 10mm grade size.

So if you want to screen topsoil, you should be looking at machines that can produce a fine product. For example, a scalping screen can produce a fine material size in the range of around 3/8 - 4/5 inch (10 - 20mm). Meaning it would work well for screening topsoil.

Here are a few screen types that are suitable for topsoil screening;

  • Fines screeners
  • Scalping screens
  • Trommel screens
  • Screening decks
  • Screening boxes
  • Screening buckets

The best topsoil screener for you depends on a range of things, like how much screening you want to do, whether you need a unit that is easy to transport or store, and how much you want to spend!

Taking a look at output, you should estimate how much time you plan to spend screening soil, as there's no point buying a machine that is too big or too small for your needs.

You'll also need to consider the supply and demand of topsoil in your area. Chances are you won't have an unlimited amount of topsoil around you to process, and even if you do, you need to make sure there are enough people around you that want to buy screened topsoil.

Once you've figured out how much time you have to screen, and how much material you plan to process, you can take a look at different screen types and models.

To make this a bit easier, here's a rough guide to how much material the different types of screens can process per hour. We've also added in some basic projected income based off our $31 average price for topsoil from before, and assuming topsoil weighs around 1.5 tons per cubic yard.

  • Excavator screening bucket 20-25 tons/hour = $410-$510 per hour
  • Screen box 20-50 tons/hour = $410-$1020 per hour
  • Larger mobile screener 50-600 tons/hour = $1020-$12,300 per hour
  • Very large static screener 500-1000 tons/hour = $10,200-$20,500 per hour

If you already have an excavator a screening bucket might be a great option. They're fairly cheap (as low as $25k) and can be used on a site to sort material pretty quickly and reduce the need to transport stuff to and from a job.

Screen boxes like the Robotrac or Portafill MR-2 are also a great option where budget is a limiting factor ($50-150k) but you want to process more material.

But as you can see, once you go over around 50 tonnes/hour you can't use a screen box or screening bucket and will need to invest in a larger screening machine. Larger units will significantly up the amount of topsoil screening you can do and have the potential to make a lot of money for you per hour. But bear in mind they'll also cost a lot more, getting into the $100ks and sometimes over $1 million.

One of the nice things about buying a larger screen is that there is usually a big demand for them, so you can easily rent it out to recoup some of the cost of financing the machine. If you buy something like a tracked scalping screen, that can process a variety of materials, you can probably claw back the cost of financing your machine by renting it out for 1 week a month.

If you’re looking to invest in some equipment to screen topsoil, Machinery Partner is always here to provide free and unbiased advice on what machine might be right for you. We have over 15 years of experience with crushing and screening and no allegiances to one manufacturer or product, so we’ll always put your needs first. Give us a call or send us an email and we’ll be more than happy to help you start your journey into topsoil screening!

If you enjoyed this article check out some of our other posts, or consider subscribing below and we’ll put out posts in your inbox once they’re live, no spam, scout’s honour!


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