Aging Gracefully

AS AUTOMATED COLLECTION RAPIDLY approaches its 30th birthday, it's no longer necessary to argue about the feasibility of using one-armed trucks. Over the years, better lift systems, durable hydraulics and improvements relating to fuel efficiency, reliability and long life have helped to make automated collection the standard in residential collection operations. So instead of criticizing equipment, it's more appropriate for the industry to look at the lessons learned from the pioneers of automated collection programs.

In March 1974, Tempe, Ariz., decided to “go automated” with one truck. Today, the city is servicing 33,000 accounts on a Monday Tuesday, Thursday Friday schedule with 22 automated side loaders. While the city is required to provide twice per week refuse collection under a variance, the city also offers one day recycling collection and one day refuse collection. All of the automated collection trucks use a Heil 26-yard body with Rapid Rail lifts, with 19 of the trucks operating on Volvo-White chassis. The remaining three chassis are Peterbilt. The city uses 50- to 300-gallon carts from Rotonics, Toter and Rehrig.

Rely on Residents

As Tempe's automation system has grown, the city has improved the operation and management of the system. But a key factor in automation, the city solid waste department says, is residents.

“One of the challenges we had with automation was that people [at first] did not understand the mechanics of it,” says Julia Bennett, solid waste services director. “Residents would roll the cart out, and they wouldn't make sure that the handle was facing the curb. So when [drivers] picked it up with the handle facing the wrong way, only half of the trash would come out of the cart.” This meant a lot of trash didn't go into the hopper and instead, wound up on the ground. “The driver would have to pick that all up,” Bennett says.

As this slowed operations down and created extra work for drivers, it became clear that education is paramount. “A lot of drivers will live with something that is not efficient,” Bennett says. But her department makes efforts to inform residents about proper trash placement, especially because Tempe is a transitory community with many college students coming to and leaving from the city.

The city of Casper, Wyo., agrees that automation cannot work without residents' cooperation. The city began its automated collection program in 1983, starting with a pilot. By 1985, the city's residential operation was fully automated. “We currently run five trucks, five days a week, says Robert Orpet, solid waste collection and recycling supervisor. “We use the Wayne Curb Tender automated system and have been using that since the mid-'80s when we started our program.” Collection occurs once per week and bulky collection for items that do not fit in the container occurs twice per month in each neighborhood. “We will take a chair, large box or appliances because they don't fit in the garbage can,” Orpet says.

But unlike most cities that provide individual cart service to each customer, Casper places 300-gallon containers placed in alleyways that are shared by three residential units. Approximately three-fifths of the city's customers are on the 300-gallon system, while the remaining customers receive 90-gallon carts if they do not have alleys.

“Casper is a very old town, and we still have some 14-foot alleys,” Orpet explains. “You put a 10-foot-wide truck down a 14-foot alley, and you don't have much clearance.”

In addition to having residents share trash containers, customers also needed to be taught to secure their trash, Orpet says. “I've lived in Chicago, and it does not compare to Casper as a windy city,” he says. To prevent litter problems, “residents need to securely bag their trash before they put it in the containers,” he says. For example, Styrofoam packing peanuts “have to be contained because the minute you take that can and put it over the top of your truck and the stuff starts going in, if you've got 40 mile per hour winds, you know where it is going,” he says.

Working with Manufacturers

Casper's litter problems also were avoided by working with product manufacturers. “I started calling two years ago and nobody had a 100-gallon trash can liner,” Orpet explains. “Now, I think there are three manufactures that have come up with the idea for residents. This allows residents to put a large plastic bag in the automated container, throw all their trash in it, and when they roll it out to the curb, just tie off the bag at the top. Everything is secure.”

Bennett notes that working with manufacturers is not only beneficial in developing new products, but also in cutting costs. Tempe has generally seen a 4 percent increase each year in the purchase price for automated trucks, but those costs generally reflect the cost increases in the economy as a whole. Nevertheless, the city believes it “will see manufacturers start to offer guaranteed maintenance and buyback programs on refuse trucks,” says Bob Stoudt, fleet director. “It will be interesting to see how those numbers will stack up. If the numbers are favorable, the results could be more fixed costs and scheduled replacement, especially during hard economic times,” he says.

As another example, although Tempe has not yet installed global positioning systems (GPS) on its trucks, Bennett has seen other communities work with manufacturers on incorporating the technology. Thus, she believes GPS could play a significant role in improving efficiency.

“We would like to have the GPS systems on the trucks for better routing and to address driver efficiency issues,” she says. This would allow the city to better monitor customer issues. “The way we operate right now, [if] someone calls us and says their can was missed, we don't tell them we'll see you next week, we go and get the can,” Bennett explains. But with GPS, the city could determine whether the can was missed because the customer did not put their container at the curb on time. And if it's the customer's fault, the city then could trim back its callback rate, she says.

Greensboro, N.C., believes residents and equipment manufacturers have been integral in getting all the automated collection program pieces to fit together. The city began its automated collection programs in February 1984, with a two-neighborhood pilot using one Heil 7000 and 2,000 test carts. Based on the pilot's success in the first 18 months, the city gradually expanded its automated fleet to a total of 36 trucks servicing 65,000 residential customers. Now, the city's fleet is comprised of the same trucks on Volvo single axle chassis with pusher axles. The city collects residential trash once per week from 26 routes. Each household uses two 90-gallon containers: one for recycling and one for garbage. Cart brands include Heil proto-mold, Snyder and Roto.

“We are a full-service city,” says Don Inman, Technical and Fleet Support division supervisor. “We have a lot of spoiled folks in this town. They get good service … and when you put something out on the curb in Greensboro, it doesn't matter what it is, it disappears.”

Without equipment manufacturers and residents working in concert, automation would not be possible, Inman says. “Our city is growing fast, [so] what we try to do is get more production with the same amount of vehicles,” he notes. “We have had very little expansion as far as the vehicles and people are concerned, but we are more productive than we used to be.”

To improve efficiency, the city made many equipment changes in its own shop, as well as by working with manufacturers. For instance, one of the biggest challenges that the city faced was coming up with a cart that would not tip over after being emptied, Inman says. So, the city asked manufacturers to develop standard looking carts, but that were of a certain weight to keep the wind from blowing them over, as well as had a 110-degree lid.

“The reason we wanted the 110-degree lid is whenever you dump the container and set it back down, the driver would, with just a simple snap of the arm, shut the lid,” Inman explains. “In this city, if you leave the lids up on the containers or the lid is folded back, you get a lot of complaints from residents. Everybody wants their cans upright, and all the lids shut. We're very careful, and we really stay on our drivers about not turning the cans over and making sure the darn lids are shut.”

Eager Drivers

Indeed, drivers are another piece of the automated collection program puzzle. The city of Virginia Beach, Va., automated its collection program in 1985 and now serves more than 125,000 customers using a fleet of 50 Freightliner cabs with Heil bodies. “We were one of the first communities on the East Coast,” says Wade Kyle, fleet and waste management administrator. “As a matter of fact, we had to go all the way to Phoenix to look at the system when we were evaluating it in the early 1980s.”

After his staff spent three days in Phoenix evaluating automation, “on the flight back, the guys that were there said, ‘We don't even want to go home until we have this system in place.’ That was a good selling factor for the crews,” Kyle says.

Based on the feedback, the city planned an automated implementation schedule where 20,000 customers would be phased-in each year during five years. “The first 20,000 experienced some problems, although we spent an enormous amount of time going around to city meetings and explaining how the system was going to work,” Kyle says. But once the community made it over the learning curve, “we had people [scheduled to move to automated] in the fifth-year plan calling us and saying, ‘why can't we get it now?’ but it was only the second year. So it only took the first 20,000 to convince the remaining 80,000 or 90,000 that it was going to be a good system. If we tried to take it away from the public right now, they would revolt.”

Like many of the cities that implemented automation in the early years, Virginia Beach has learned to tweak the system to gain greater efficiencies. “We have been able to absorb growth through better efficiencies of routing,” Kyle says. “Our manual collection crews could only get about 500 homes a day. Now were getting between 1,000 and 1,500 per day, so it's a little bit of a difference in productivity.”

However, the city could only increase productivity with the cooperation of its drivers and their understanding of equipment. “Originally, we had around 70,000 [customers] when we first started. Today, we have 125,000 customers, and we have not added any personnel since 1995,” Kyle says. “The guys don't mind taking on a few more homes every few months because they are in an air-conditioned cab of the truck and not slinging garbage.

The drivers recognize that automation has extended their careers by being able to work more years without injuries, Kyle says. “An individual is able to work longer in this career that they normally could have doing manual labor. I have guys that have over 40 years of service right now.”

Automation also has allowed women to enter the waste workforce. “We can show them that they are really just professional truck drivers,” Kyle explains. “Quite frankly, the few women that we have came from being bus drivers, so it was a natural change for them.”

Back to Equipment

But as the industry gets used to automation, its up to equipment manufacturers, again, to come up with new innovations that keep improving the industry.

Because of the increased productivity with automation, one of the biggest challenges now facing Virginia Beach is durability of the lifting arms, Kyle says. “Originally, we started off with 800 or 900 homes a day. We're up to 1,000 to 1,500 now, and that puts a heck of a demand on that moving mechanism.”

The city does its best to maintain the equipment daily, but expects manufacturers will continue to step up with continued equipment improvements. Tacoma, Wash., agrees, as it looks down the road for a arm capable of picking up 35- to 300-gallon carts with one truck.

The city began automating through its commercial operation in the late '70s, according to Dave Carlisle, assistant division manager for the Solid Waste Division. “We started to get into 300-gallon barrels, replacing the old rear-load castor box types, and then we slowly converted over to residential,” he says. Residents first were offered either a 60- or 90-gallon container, but customers complained that the 60-gallon size was too big. So, the city opted for a pay-as-you-throw system that uses different container sizes.

Now, recyclers can opt for a 20-gallon cart, which inserts into a 35-gallon cart. And 35-, 60- and a 90-gallon carts by Schaefer also are available. Carts are serviced using a fleet of 25, fully automated Wayne Curb Tender trucks on Peterbilt chassis that pickup trash from 52,000 residential customers. Each customer has three carts for recycling, garbage and yard waste.

When the city first went to pay-as-you-throw, a lot of people went down to the smallest container possible to save money,” Carlisle says. But many customers realized the capacity was not big enough, started shifting back to that the next size up. Now, the majority of the city's customers use 35-gallon carts, a 60-gallon recycling bin and a 90-gallon yard waste cart, he says.

Operations run Monday through Friday, using 78 drivers for residential and commercial. The city originally started with 21 collection routes and, through efficiencies, has reduced that number to 17 routes.

Yet the biggest advances in Tacoma's automated program have been in the collection trucks' arms and gripper mechanisms. Previously, operators would need one set of grippers, and another set to pick up larger containers, Carlisle says. “The arms would work for about two weeks and then start to fall off. You would start out in the morning working just fine and half way through the day the lift would catch and you would dump the cart backward into the street,” he says. “The work that has been done on the arms has improved quite a bit in the past five to seven years.”

“There is no comparison to the stuff we were using in the '80s to what we're using now,” Casper's Orpet concurs. “Years ago, we use to replace truck basically when they were junk. Now we are on a six-to-seven year replacement schedule.”

As fuel costs continue to increase and fleets are pushed to reduce truck emissions, Tempe expects equipment to improve even further.

“The fuel issue is one that is hurting everybody right now,” he says. “Fuel is 25 percent of our maintenance and operation costs, so we consider fuel efficiency when we purchase equipment … And with the [reduced] emission engines on the horizon, that's something we're all going to have to face.”

But even without those improvements, “automation is still in my opinion, the best thing today,” Greensboro's Inman says. “I talk to people every week, and they say, ‘this is the best thing you guys ever did because it eliminates cardboard boxes, bags and old beat-up tin cans out on the street.’ When you drive down the street, everything looks good.”

Lynn Merrill is the director of public services for the city of San Bernardino, Calif.