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Inside Phoenix’s Cash Processing Center: 'Daunting' And Can Smell 'Like Running Shoes'

(Photo courtesy of Federal Reserve)
An employee at the Phoenix Cash Processing Center prepares a bank order.

A two-story building in west Phoenix serves as a sort of giant ATM for banks across the state.

The Federal Reserve’s Processing Center is where banks make deposits and withdrawals to meet customer demands. KJZZ takes you inside where hundreds of millions of dollars move around.

At first, it feels like you’re going through airport security. But past the main entrance it starts to feel more like a prison.

Beyond bulletproof glass, there’s a wall covered with weapons and getting closer to the cash involves slowly moving between thick doors.

“I was in awe,” said Rick, recalling his first few weeks on the job. We agreed to use his first name only to protect his identity because he works with a lot of money. “I was actually petrified because I was surrounded by so much.”

“You just have a certain respect or a certain feel around money,” Rick said. “When you’re surrounded by so much, I mean it’s daunting, it really is.” 

So, how much are we talking about? Through October of this year, the Phoenix Center processed 850 million bills — or notes as the Federal Reserve calls them. 

Take The Tour

Abby McLennan manages operations in Phoenix and provided a tour starting with the currency receiving room. It’s where armored trucks deliver bank deposits and employees perform what they call strap and bundle counts. 

“So, the containers that you see in the room,” McLennan said. “Each container can hold approximately 450 bundles.” 

A container of ones can add up to $450,000, while a container of twenties can total $9 million.

The next step in the verification process takes place just across the hall, in another room surrounded by glass walls. Before I can enter, McLennan calls for a police escort and has me put on an orange vest. 

“It’s just so they can visually recognize you, that you’re not part of the team,” she explained.

Workers like Olivia feed bills into a big machine. 

“It’s going to go through sensors, and the sensor will detect if the currency needs to be shredded or sometimes we have suspect notes that come out,” she explained.

Suspect notes could be counterfeit so they’re sent to the Secret Service for investigation. Notes that are shredded are considered “unfit.” They may be worn or torn, which could make it tough to determine whether they’re real. 

Last year in Phoenix, machines shredded more than 108 million notes. In the past, McLennan said a company took the residue to create insulation, but now it goes to a landfill. 

“Just due to changes in the marketplace,” she said. “But we’re always actively looking for ways to recycle that shred residue as much as possible.”  

Back in the '90s, Arizona developed a reputation for dirty money.

At that time, banks had to ship cash back and forth to Los Angeles. To cut travel costs, they often held onto notes past their prime.

So in 2001, the Federal Reserve opened the processing center in Phoenix. 

Meet Bonnie and Clyde

About 50 people work here, along with two non-humans, nicknamed Bonnie and Clyde.

They are automated guided vehicles, and they’re the only ones allowed inside the vault.  Cranes move up and down, grabbing containers for Bonnie and Clyde to carry to their co-workers.

“We actually have magnets that are embedded into the floor,” said McLennan “And, that’s how they determine where they’re going.” 

What’s That Smell?

For a visitor, being around so much money is a little like breathing in a wallet full of cash, but for Rick, who has spent eight years working with it, the odor varies.

“It can smell like a casino, smoke. It can smell like a gymnasium, running shoes or track shoes,” he said.  “Even sometimes smells like dirt.”   

Rick also has a different view of all that cash. Remember how he first described feeling in awe? Well, he said that disappeared after about three months.  

“Now it’s a recycling operation,” he said. “Bring it in, get it out.”

But, that sense of awe returns when you ask Rick to compare new money to notes that are labeled "fit" meaning they have been around a while. 

His face lit up as he said, “New money is crisp, it’s clean. It has that sort of smell of sweet ink. It’s very, very different than the fit. You usually know the new money isn’t going to come back for quite some time.”    

The average lifespan for denominations under twenty is about five years. Our biggest bill, the hundred, generally lasts the longest — 15 years. 

Learn more about U.S. currency here, hereand other facts about cash.

EDITOR'S NOTE: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified who is feeding bills into the big machine.

As a senior field correspondent, Christina Estes focuses on stories that impact our economy, your wallet and public policy.