Adventures in Automation

Automation could be the best thing for your collection operation — but you must overcome the potential pitfalls. Phasing in new equipment and training drivers can be costly and time-consuming, but by eliminating manual loading, you can collect refuse more efficiently, stabilize expenses while improving service and reduce job-related injuries.

Automation enables one person to do the work of three manual collectors and can be implemented gradually, converting one route or several routes per year. But the best automation path for a private hauler in Minnesota might not work for a municipal hauler in Indiana.

So before embarking on an adventure of your own, heed the words of those who've braved the road.

Protecting Personnel

Bobby Smith, sanitation department superintendent for the city of Muncie, Ind., implemented automation two years ago, with one route, five days a week.

“We really wanted to change in some way because our total personnel cost was way too high,” he says. Smith also pursued automation to make collection safer for employees, reduce workers' compensation claims and provide more efficient service.

Instead of picking up 600 homes a day with a three-man rear loader, the city switched to a one-man automated route, picking up trash from between 700 and 800 households.

Currently, Muncie operates four automated routes and will soon begin converting the fifth. By the end of 2002, nine collection routes will be automated.

The city's transitional approach was necessitated by a lack of funds and a desire to test the new method before implementing it across the board. Muncie purchased containers with property tax funds and runs five automated trucks on its routes. One truck is used for backup.

The benefit, Smith says, is that automation has cleaned up the neighborhoods “because everyone has a container and the trash is not on the ground.”

“It's more efficient and has helped my payroll and cost of personnel go down tremendously,” he continues. “[Going] from a three-man truck to a one-man truck was one big reason. I had to do that to compete with private industry.”

Smith predicts the entire industry will have to move to either semi-automated or automated collection in the future because it's more efficient, faster, cleaner and safer.

“The sanitation department has more workers' comp claims than the police or fire,” he explains. “Ours have decreased by almost half [by the switch]. When you're talking about $300,000 or $400,000, that's a significant number to cut in half.”

Added Productivity

“Anything that contributed to the man actually getting off the truck, physically picking up the can and lifting it to dump it into the truck, [which could cause injuries,] have pretty much gone away. [These injury concerns] just don't exist anymore,” says Don Johnson, the city of San Bernardino, Calif.'s fleet manager, who notes that the city's workers' compensation claims have been reduced by automating in 1991.

Automation also can help to increase productivity, Johnson adds. In 1991, San Bernardino began automation with 10 trucks and a one-container system. Because the equipment was too costly for the city to purchase all at once, those first trucks were phased-in with the city's rear loader fleet and tested in a north section of the city.

“A lot of the newer homes, newer construction and newer housing tracts were in that area,” Johnson says. “They tested for some time in this one small area and then expanded. It was mainly just for trash pickup, and then they started with the recycling containers, too, until it was citywide.”

Four years later, the city was fully automated. The last purchase of automated trucks was made in 1995, which completed the fleet, Johnson says. Today, San Bernardino now operates a three-container system with 48 automated trucks. All routes throughout the city use a three-can system, and residential trucks pickup household trash, green waste and commingled recyclables.

At first blush, it appears the city created more work for itself by automating. The city is doing more than twice the number of pickups than before automation, Johnson says. He quickly adds, however, that automation has increased productivity and diversion.

“Some of our routes [today] are pretty large,” Johnson says. “They average anywhere from 900 to 1,200 homes a day. Before, even with a two-man crew, the routes were less than half of that — 400, maybe 500, homes a day. [Previously,] there was no recycling program, and now there is. The routes are bigger, plus the diversion is pretty great because of the green waste and commingled recycling programs.”

Workers' compensation issues, routing efficiencies and competition was what drove Dick's Sanitation/Lakeville Sanitary (DSI/LSI), Lakeville, Minn., to automate, says Jason Herter, safety director.

Dick's Sanitation's move toward automation began approximately five years ago. And like many city and municipal haulers, DSI/LSI implemented the equipment in stages. The company currently still is converting some of its routes.

“The major reason for [the phase-in] is the cost involved,” Herter says. “It's very difficult for a small hauler to absorb the payments. The truck alone can run around $180,000. You also have to purchase thousands of carts and find the manpower to distribute them.”

But like Johnson, Herter says he's also seen significant growth in his routes.

“If a route is set up properly, a driver could easily increase his or her number of pickups by 30 percent,” he says. “The number of employees needed does drop if everything is working correctly. The cost to the customers remains the same, due to the massive capital outlay. However, automation may enable you to submit a more aggressive bid.”

Less Means More

Bill Brock, public works director for the city of McMinnville, Tenn., says his community was successful in implementing automation citywide after studying the equipment and processes for months.

According to Brock, when McMinnville made the decision to switch, manpower was becoming a problem. “We felt like it wasn't going to get any better, so we needed to make a move toward automation.”

Brock began investigating other automated operations. “We sat down and talked to everyone from the drivers to the owners of the business: What's the good, the bad and the ugly,” he says.

Brock considered a pilot but found that when other haulers tried to begin automation with just one area of town, people in other areas felt slighted. So in January 2001, with a flurry of radio and newspaper publicity, the small town implemented automated collection citywide and hardly skipped a beat.

The city moved from rear loaders one week to two automated side loaders the next. Also in one week's time, the city placed one 96-gallon refuse container in front of every resident's home, ready for use on the next collection day.

Of course, automation “is something that you just don't need to jump into because it's very expensive,” Brock cautions. “Our main reason was to try to give better service to our residents.”

The Good, Bad and Ugly

Drivers also must be trained to operate the new equipment. “There's a big learning curve for the operator used to driving a rear loader truck,” Muncie's Smith says. “You have to be a little bit more aware of where you're at.”

In San Bernardino, all employees had to be trained to operate one-man, automated, right-hand drive trucks because they operated left-hand drive units with a two-man crew for manual collection.

During the transition, San Bernardino operated two different truck models, Johnson says. “So [employees] had to be trained on the operation of the automated truck, the arm and how everything worked,” he says. “There were some pretty extensive training [sessions] for the operators and the mechanics because it was a totally different type of operation.”

In Minnesota, some towns mandate driveway service or have alley pickups, so robotic arms are simply not feasible. Herter says he experiences most of his turnover on these routes.

And there are other drawbacks, Herter adds. “The equipment is expensive and costly to maintain,” he says. “It takes twice the labor and equipment to complete the route if a primary truck goes down. Rookie/swing drivers frequently damage containers while familiarizing themselves to each truck's tendencies.”

Nevertheless, most haulers who have automated say the pros outweigh the costs and other cons.

“The equipment is much more expensive than the old, rear loader trucks,” Johnson says. “But with the number of employees we have, the way the city has grown [and] the area they have to cover, [our drivers] would never be able to do [the job] with the number of employees or the trucks we have if they weren't automated.”

“We spent $600,000 to get into this, and it's been well-worth it,” McMinnville's Brock says. “It gives us more time for our trucks to go into the city garage for routine maintenance. Before … you sometimes just let things go when you couldn't get it into the garage. Our trucks are being maintained a lot better.”

Brock says McMinnville picks up garbage in zones, Monday through Friday. The city plans to cut one of the pickup days and go to four-day collection. So automation has provided a shorter a week and allows for one full day of vehicle maintenance at the city's garage.

“Even though automated trucks are great, they're big on maintenance,” Brock says. You've got to maintain these vehicles … There are a lot of electronics … a lot of sensors, and those have to be maintained. We're into high-tech in garbage now.”

Fortunately, McMinnville says the manufacturer provides the city with a full day of vehicle training, as well as training courses for the mechanics.

This has helped the drivers learn the operation very quickly, he says. “It's a joystick-type operation,” he says and very easy to learn.”

Look Before You Leap

Before plunging into automation, Johnson suggests talking to other haulers about their equipment.

“If [haulers] are not familiar with what's out there, he warns, you might make some bad mistakes.

“Take my advice,” he says. “Never buy used equipment without trying it out first-hand.” I've purchased equipment after seeing pictures, videos and spec sheets and still got burned.”

Herter also suggests buying new equipment and keeping a backup vehicle. “Unfortunately, new equipment might not be an option due to the expenses involved,” he says.

Of course, waste managers also must keep in mind that while automation changes operations, it also is a big adjustment for customers.

When a route is switched, about 10 percent of the customers may be upset and will not want to use the containers, Muncie's Smith says. When customers have had complaints in Muncie, the department called them within 30 days. A second call, however, found that every person who complained had changed his or her mind, Smith says.

Certainly, Smith says the more education you provided to customers and employees, the easier it is to convert to automated. Smith learned this lesson the hard way — automating the city's first route was difficult because Muncie didn't provide enough education through radio, TV, newspaper and mailings, he says.

Learning from that experience, Smith says he has compiled all of his customer's questions and created a Q&A sheet to answer future questions.

And as the first municipality in Indiana to go to automated collection, Smith seems satisfied with his progress. “In 1998, I had 11 routes, and now it's nine,” he says. “I had 63 people, today I have 49, and that number will probably end up about 40. After [other haulers] see that, [automation] speaks for itself.”

Keeping Customers Content

Overall, automated collection can improve the public's attitude toward collection service, the haulers say. Surveys of users after three weeks or more have indicated a 15-to-1 or higher preference for automated collection, according to Smith. A Scottsdale, Ariz., “favorability index” found that the percentage of those approving the city's refuse collection is 65 percent for households with manual collection and 92 percent for those with automated collection.

Brock says educating people is probably one of the most difficult parts of automating. Haulers need to consider everything from where to place the container in front of the houses to how to educate residents because not everyone reads the paper or listens to the radio, he says. In McMinnville, convincing customers that a 96-gallon can will hold their garbage has been one of the biggest challenges.

“We sent out a leaflet with every can we set out describing the can, pickup day and where to place the can,” he says. “We have a large Hispanic population here, so we did the leaflet in English and Spanish. We even went as far as to spray a pink dot in front of every residence that told Stringfellow (the distributor that placed all the cans throughout the city per the contract) where to place that can. [The dot] also told the resident where to put that can for us to pick it up.”

Brock says handicapped and elderly also required more assistance.

“There's a little drawback because you have to work with them and you have to assist some of these people with their can,” Brock explains. “A 96-gallon container for an elderly person is sometimes difficult to get to the street, so we try to assist some of the residents.”

Yet no matter how much education you provide, some customers won't be worth the extra effort, DSI/LSI's Herter says. “Some customers will simply refuse to use your supplied container,” he says. “This is when you must ask: Is it worth keeping the customer? With the rising costs of insurance and the continued need for efficiencies, I sometimes let customers go. It only takes a handful of stops to negate the benefits of automation.”

Swartz is a free-lance writer based in Springfield, Mo. Visit for more information about automated collection.

Automation Fact & Fiction


  • Multi-use trucks provide operational flexibility.

  • Transitional (semi-automated) collection programs are less efficient than well-administered, fully automated collection programs.

  • Despite the 20+ year history of successful savings through automation, some skepticism will continue to exist at the start of each program.

  • Customers sometimes put waste outside the container.

  • Automated collection requires appropriate container placement.

  • Bulky waste cannot be collected via automation.

  • People are creatures of habit.

  • The best time to establish new behaviors is when a new program is announced and established — especially if it coincides with the delivery of new containers.

  • Properly set-up and administered fully automated programs cost less than semi-automated programs.

  • New programs create complaints from customers.

  • Within 30 to 60 days, complaints from changing to automated service virtually disappear.


  • 95-gallon carts are not large enough for once-a-week collection of a family's waste.

  • Fully automated collection programs are experimental technology.

  • It is difficult to train customers to place all waste in the container. However, it is more difficult to retrain customers once program behaviors have been established.

  • It is difficult to train customers to place the container where a truck can service it. However, it is more difficult to retrain customers once program behaviors have been established.

  • It is easy to add procedures and regulations after a program has been accepted.

  • Customers reject separate bulky-waste programs. Scheduling bulky items makes operational sense, and allows for a “per-item” fee if appropriate.

  • Fully automated trucks are more difficult to operate.

Source: Heil Corp.

Automation Q&A

Among the most common customer questions about automation are:

  • What is automated collection?

  • Why is automated collection better than traditional methods?

  • What is the difference between fully automated collection and a semi-automated cart system?

  • What will it cost me, the homeowner?

  • Will containers make it through a delayed holiday work schedule?

  • What will you do if a medical (or physical) condition prohibits my handling the container?

  • What about parking on collection days?

  • What if vehicles block containers in the street?

  • Will citizens complain because containers are located inconveniently?

  • What are vandalism costs?

  • Who replaces damaged containers?

  • What happens when a homeowner moves?

  • What if my container is stolen or destroyed?

  • What will the city do with its existing fleet of collection trucks?

  • Will the city provide backup equipment?

  • Will the introduction of automated collection mean the sanitation department will layoff employees?

  • How does the system work in inclement weather?

Source: Bobby Smith, City of Muncie, Ind., Sanitation Dept.