Focus on Fundamentals

Focus on Fundamentals

The best trucks and shop systems in the world don't amount to much unless a refuse operator firmly commits to the basic blocking and tackling principles of fleet management

The refuse world runs on trucks. Without them, the business implodes — drivers can't pick up the customers' trash, can't take it to landfills and thus can't make any money. That's why, when it comes to effectively managing refuse vehicles, no matter what their application — rear-packer, front-loader or roll-on/roll-off for dumpster service — they must be spec'd correctly and maintained diligently. If they aren't, a refuse company is going to find itself parked on the side of the road with no business to be had.

To keep trucks up and running doesn't require a lot of newfangled software, either. Rather, it demands diligent focus on bedrock fleet management principles, which software and other technologies can then improve upon or make more efficient.

"There are a couple of key points you need to keep in mind in the fleet management game," says Douglas Weichman, director of the fleet management division for Palm Beach County, Fla. "The first thing is to make sure you've spec'd the vehicle correctly for the function you intend it to perform. Make sure you set up the spec range in the 90th percentile — meaning it can handle the toughest conditions in the expected job category, be it refuse, utility service, whatever."

Though it can raise the purchase price to set up a truck spec this way, it saves money over the life of the vehicle because it reduces wear and tear during nominal operation and saves fuel, because the engine doesn't have to work at 100 percent power all of the time.

"The most important piece of all of this is preventive maintenance," Weichman says. "You've got to be rigid about it, from one end of the vehicle to the other. My philosophy is that you cannot overdo it when it comes to maintenance. That includes buying quality parts, because you can't afford the cost of maintenance related to breakdown service."

"Your truck goes down, your customer still wants that container delivered or hauled out of the way," says Sherman Rogers, president and owner of All Waste, Shelby Township, Mich. "They don't care that you don't have a truck."

Rogers' 10-year-old company serves the greater Detroit area, providing waste removal from construction, industrial, commercial and residential sites, and there's no room in his market for failure. "The Detroit market is tight," he says. "If the contractors don't get their can the next day, they'll switch to another hauler. They want great service, so we make sure we keep the trucks running."

Looking at Life Cycle

Examining all the cost factors associated with owning a truck over a certain period of time is what "life cycle management" is all about. According to a white paper published by Kirkland, Wash.-based Kenworth Truck Co. a few years ago, "life cycle cost" has long been discussed in the trucking industry, but rarely defined.

Its definition, according to the company's experts, is the sum of the direct and indirect expenses incurred during the life of a truck, meaning purchasing decisions shouldn't be made strictly based on initial acquisition cost but rather by evaluating the total cost of ownership.

Direct truck "life cycle" expenses under this definition include fuel, maintenance, fixed costs, and finance (acquisition cost, interest and resale). Indirect "life cycle" expenses are broader but no less critical. They include the effects of driver turnover, load maximization, trip times and opportunity costs.

To completely address both direct and indirect life cycle costs as a single package, fleet management practices should focus on spec'ing the right truck, fuel economy, maintenance and customer support, trade cycles, driver retention, financing, and fixed costs. Yet driver ergonomics and comfort cannot be left out of the life cycle equation, either, for drivers are the ones using the trucks every day.

Many of those factors are interrelated, says Chuck Woolever, the recently retired deputy director of San Diego's refuse collection division. "We tried to spec a standard truck for the application in regards to both the chassis and body — the same transmission, body components, engine displacement, etc. — so they'd be easier and less costly to maintain," he says. "Now, we needed to use different trucks for different jobs — rear packers, front loaders, etc. — but within each of those applications, we tried to spec a standard truck with as little customization as possible."

Woolever says he also believes refuse truck drivers play a hugely critical role on the maintenance side of the life cycle management puzzle. "It's not all on the technician's shoulders," he says. "Good maintenance practices start with good pre- and post-trip inspections by the drivers. If you miss a problem on the inspection side, you'll take the truck out on the road where you'll break it, and that now means a more expensive fix is required."

"Drivers complete the life cycle circle," says Steve Ginter, vocational product marketing manager for Mack Trucks, which recently relocated its headquarters to Greensboro, N.C. "They help the maintenance side identify unexpected problems before they become breakdowns. Even attention to small items by drivers is critical. Take wipers, for example: if they are dull, they can permanently streak your windshield. A driver can spot that issue and make sure maintenance knows about it."

Making It Tough

The real goal fleet managers shoot for in the refuse segment, though, is vehicle longevity — and that means the truck must be tough enough to withstand years of pounding.

"The landfills are the toughest environment," Rogers says. "You're driving through a landfill, you're carrying a lot of weight, and the landfill is not an even surface. They don't get 100 percent compaction. They leave a lot of low and high spots. It's like driving through enormous potholes. All that twisting and turning — that's what tears the truck apart."

"The refuse environment is just not forgiving," Ginter says. "It's full-throttle and full-brakes, stopping and starting all day long. Or it's chassis articulation under full loads in landfills. You just have to expect these extreme conditions."

Ginter says many customers look at upgrading specs on the front end so the truck will be robust enough to last a long time — typically 10 years on the front line and two or more as a spare. Even small items can make a big difference over a decade or more of service.

"Take trunion bushings, for example," Ginter says. "Bronze bushings are standard on our truck because they last longer — yet require regular greasing to achieve long life. A fleet has the option to switch to less costly urethane bushings, which require no maintenance, but they won't last nearly as long, so you'll have to replace them at some point."

The same factors surround suspension shock insulators — nicknamed "elephant pads" in the refuse market due to their size. "There are four total — two for each rear axle," Ginter says. "They come standard in rubber but for just under $200 per insulator you can upgrade to urethane, which will last much longer. Choices like that affect the life expectancy and maintenance requirements for refuse trucks."

In the end, this is what focusing on the fundamentals of fleet management in the refuse industry means: making trucks a reliable, long-lived tool to help the company make money. "Everything needs to be used together in concert — the specs, the maintenance, the ease of use and comfort by drivers," Ginter says. "Those are the basics you need."

Sean Kilcarr is a senior editor of Fleet Owner, a sister publication of Waste Age.

Shorter Ownership?

One way fleets could gain significant life-cycle savings would be to shorten the ownership period of their trucks — reducing it to five years, compared to the typical 10 to 12 years most refuse operators employ. At least that's what Chuck Woolever, the recently retired deputy director of San Diego's refuse collection division, believes.

His reason? Reducing the vehicle trade cycle to five years keeps repairs (outside of the required regular maintenance such as engine oil changes) under warranty coverage — and it's in years six, seven, and eight that maintenance costs tend to start rising significantly for refuse trucks.

"That's why there's no middle ground when you look at shortening the trade cycle — you either go with five years or stay at 10 years and beyond," Woolever says.

"If you keep the vehicle seven years, for example, you won't be able to avoid big-ticket repair items, and it'll be fully amortized," he says. "That's why a five-year trade cycle holds some promise."

The other advantage to a shorter ownership cycle is that refuse companies would be able to incorporate newer technology such as emission control devices and advanced safety systems into their fleets at a faster rate. "The technology for refuse trucks is just changing so quickly today," he says.

Woolever cautions, however, that a shorter trade cycles are by no means a slam-dunk decision. A detailed cost benefit analysis needs to be conducted to make sure a refuse fleet would save enough money from the reduced maintenance costs, increased resale value and newer technology to offset the greater capital investment required to buy trucks on a five-year replacement plan instead of a 10-or-more-year plan.

"You need money to be able to do this," he says. "That doesn't mean advantages are not there. You just need a deep fleet analysis of all the costs weighed against all the potential savings and benefits."

— Sean Kilcarr

Things to Ponder

Refuse fleets need to consider the following factors as they plan their equipment purchases, says Melissa Gauger, marketing manager for Warrenfield, Ill.-based Navistar's severe service truck division.

Maintenance: Gauger says refuse fleets should track their maintenance expenses to determine the optimal life of their trucks based upon the body style, load and the hours of use. "When the maintenance costs start to significantly increase, that may be the time to consider purchasing a replacement truck," she says. "The challenge that some larger refuse fleets face in terms of equipment end-of-life is whether or not the sale of the used equipment will allow a smaller or start-up refuse hauler access to low-price equipment."

Spec'ing for life: Spec'ing long life components and fluids — such as coolant and synthetic oils, including engine oil — is a major help in lowering life cycle costs of refuse vehicles. "Whether the customer plans to keep a truck five or 10 years, a good preventative maintenance program is critical," Gauger says. "For the customer who plans to keep the truck five years, spec'ing long life components and fluids will help them get a higher resale value. For the customer who plans to keep the truck 10 years, they will encounter few days in the shop and more time on the road with a good preventative maintenance program."

Outside help: Trucks are becoming more complex, Gauger says, with more computers and control systems than before. Training drivers, technicians and maintenance staff is even more important today than ever — and having an understanding of what the hauler's in-house shop can perform is critical. "As far as outsourcing, the [waste company] would again have to look at the payback for outsourcing," she says. "For a smaller [firm], outsourcing the maintenance and repairs might make more sense than setting-up a shop or training technicians how to repair the next generation of engines, control system, etc. For larger fleets it may not make as much sense."

— Sean Kilcarr

TAGS: Trucks