On the Map

Many waste companies are turning to GPS systems to track their trucks and to automate tasks.

Not long ago, a school bus and a refuse collection truck from LeMay Enterprises Inc. in Tacoma, Wash., collided. The school bus driver said the LeMay driver pulled out onto the road right in front of the oncoming bus. “I couldn't avoid hitting the truck,” the bus driver told the local media. Police officers at the scene concurred and assigned blame to the driver of the garbage truck.

The driver, however said that he was on the shoulder of the road backing up to a can, and that the school bus veered off the road and hit him. LeMay Operations Manager Rick Thompson decided to look into the matter using a global positioning system (GPS)-based program manufactured by Routeware in Beaverton, Ore. The program is installed in the roughly 200 trucks in LeMay's fleet.

Thompson printed out the information from the system and drew a map that detailed the truck's location. “I used [the program] to trace the movements of the truck up through the accident,” Thompson says. “I found that the truck was backing up when the accident occurred.” The technology also proved that the truck was on the shoulder and not on the road.

He pulled up the times and GPS latitude and longitude readings as well as the speed of the truck and the direction it was traveling at specific times along the route. He then recorded that information on the map.

Later, he took the information package to the police, presented LeMay's view of the accident and asked them to take another look. “After reviewing the information, the police found that the school bus driver was at fault,” Thompson says. “That saved us a lot of money in legal fees.”

In fact, many waste management firms say they are saving money with GPS-based systems. They are conserving fuel, reducing wear and tear on roll-off trucks and front loaders with more efficient dispatching, and cutting paper and ink expenses, which are saved by paperless routing.

Waste firms also are generating higher revenues by using GPS to retain existing customers and to convert delinquent accounts into profitable ones. Finally, companies are integrating GPS tracking systems with their accounting systems to accelerate billing and reporting processes.

Big Savings

LeMay runs more than 250 trucks across a rural area of Washington state, with about 80 percent of the fleet handling residential work. The fleet is “live” on its GPS system, meaning that a cellular network enables the dispatcher to send and receive data from trucks on their routes, wherever the trucks might be. Likewise, the drivers can communicate with dispatch as they finish pick-ups, sending all relevant information about what was picked up and missed, and why.

Also, if a truck breaks down, a helper truck sent to finish the route does not have to return to the office for a route sheet. Instead, a dispatcher simply sends the data to the helper's onboard computer.

By using the GPS-based system and accompanying onboard computers, roll-offs can be dispatched out on the road, not by a voice call to a cell phone, but with text that identifies the customer, provides the most efficient directions from the driver's current location, and even displays a map showing the recommended route. “We've had this system working on our roll-off trucks for nine months,” Thompson says. “And it saves us a lot of time, which means that our drivers can haul one and sometimes two extra boxes per day.”

The onboard computer has a red and green button that the driver uses to record what happens at a stop. The process is the same for residential, commercial, roll-off and other services. When a driver makes a pick-up, he or she hits a green button. When the driver misses a pick-up, he or she hits a red button, and then follows a menu to file an explanation, such as a car was blocking the container or the container wasn't out.

This information is instantly transmitted over the cellular network to the dispatcher's computer. Thus, when a customer calls to complain about a missed pick-up, the dispatcher knows what happened and can suggest a plan to remedy the situation.

Over a couple of years, the GPS-based system will save thousands of dollars in paper, ink and printer costs, according to Thompson. “We assign our drivers five-day routes,” he says. “So multiply five days by 80 drivers. That comes to 400 route sheets to print every week. Each five-day route sheet has an average of 150 pages. That is 60,000 pages per week in paper, ink and printer wear-and-tear costs that [the system] eliminates.”

Retaining Good Customers

Steve Reed, vice president and chief operating officer of Granger Waste Services in Lansing, Mich., aims to satisfy 90,000 residential customers, 7,000 commercial clients and several thousand roll-off customers. The company also maintains recycling and composting facilities. Granger, too, has installed a GPS tracking system.

“The system gives customer service people real-time information about what is going on in the field,” Reed says. “If a commercial customer calls and says that we missed a pick-up, we can check right away. If the pick-up has been made, and someone filled the dumpster again, we'll certainly go back and pick up a second load.”

Prior to installing the system, it took too long for customer service representatives to retrieve this kind of information, Reed says. “Drivers would write the information in their logs, and we would have to wait for them to return to the office to respond to customers' questions. Now, we can resolve customer issues immediately and accurately, which has improved our customer retention rate.”

The system also has enabled Granger to convert delinquent accounts to good accounts. Reed says stop service orders often got lost in the old paper system. The new system makes it possible to mark delinquent customers on the drivers' lists with “stop service” stamps.

When customers call to complain that their trash wasn't picked up, customer service explains the problem. “We often find that customers are unaware of their unpaid service,” Reed says. “We have also discovered that these customers start paying their bills on a timelier basis, thus reducing our delinquency rates and improving our day's sales outstanding ratio.”

Smoother Billing

At Hillsboro Garbage Disposal Inc. in Hillsboro, Ore., seven automated side loaders collect residential trash while four front loaders handle the commercial work. Each truck is equipped with a Routeware onboard computer that is interfaced with a Tower 6.0 accounting system from the TransComp Systems Division of Oxford, Pa.-based PC Scale Inc. “The beauty of this system for our commercial work is that when [the GPS system] confirms that service has been performed, our dispatcher and customer service people will release the information to billing,” says Jason Barnes, Hillsboro's IT director.

More important to Barnes is that the interface speeds the creation of reports required by franchise agreements between Hillsboro and the county where it operates. “They have strict reporting requirements that include tonnages and numbers of customers for trash, recycling, yard waste and motor oil collection,” Barnes says. “When we first started, we were doing this by hand with averages. To save time we needed to automate.”

Hillsboro's GPS-based onboard computer system automatically records pick-ups and misses. The system senses when the arm on an automated side loader or a front loader lifts and dumps garbage into the truck and records the pick-up for the customer. If no pick-up is made, the driver uses a touch screen to select the appropriate reason why a pick-up is missed.

“It's more accurate because the driver doesn't have to remember to press the green or red buttons indicating a completed pick-up or a missed pick-up,” Barnes says. “The system does it for them. It's safer because drivers don't have to take their eyes off the road to use the green button. They do have to use the computer to explain a missed pick-up, but we want them to stop to do that.”

The enhanced touch screens are mounted within a driver's normal field of vision. Typically, residential drivers, for example, sit on the right side of the truck, taking their eyes from the road and looking to see where the trash containers and the side-loader arm are located. To prevent the need to look away from the road, Hillsboro mounted the monitor in the right-hand corner of the cab.

A Valuable Tool

Haulers have discovered that GPS technology can improve productivity in the field and in the office, and can promote accuracy in customer service, helping to satisfy and retain customers. The solid waste industry has a reputation as being slow to embrace new technology, but GPS has landed on waste firms' maps.

Michael Fickes is a Westminster, Md.-based contributing writer.