WHEN CONTEMPLATING what tarping system to buy, think of your purchase as a potential marriage. The goal is to have the tarping system for as long as you own the vehicle, so you definitely want to play the field and see what's out there before choosing the perfect one. Furthermore, if you consider a few key issues beforehand, you can decrease the chances that your walk down the aisle will end in divorce court — or with your trash on the road.

Keep It Simple (and Safe)

The goal of a tarping system is to maintain compliance with the law by keeping trash in the truck as it is transported down the road. Fairly simple, right? Many, like Jim Kennedy of Onyx Waste Services, Milwaukee, Wis., believe your tarping system should be as well.

“Sometimes, people shoot themselves in the foot with this stuff and try to make it do too many things,” says Kennedy, director of purchasing and maintenance. Don't get caught up with too many bells and whistles, or you will potentially be spending more time (and money) on maintenance later.

One way to ensure your tarp system is not overly complex is to carefully inspect the design efficiency of each system you are considering. “If the cover doesn't roll back up properly; if the arms hit the sides of the box; or if the spread on the arms aren't quite right — those types of things make [tarps] terribly inefficient,” says David Peck, fleet manager for Waste Industries, Raleigh, N.C.

Also consider whether you want an automatic or manual tarping system. A manual system will be less costly and will have less maintenance because it won't have any automated components. However, a manual system will take longer for the driver to operate. It also might lend itself to higher workman's compensation claims, as the driver will have to exert more physical effort to get the container covered. For Gary Simmons, vice president of fleet management for Casella Waste Systems, Rutland, Vt., “the safety concerns far outweigh the savings,” so he's sold on an automated system.

An automated system, on the other hand, costs more and will potentially have more maintenance issues down the road because of its hydraulics and pivot points. But automation may not be best in every operating environment. Some narrow alleys and other tight spots don't allow enough room for an automated system's arms, in which case a manual system might be necessary, he cautions.

Another design aspect to consider is safety. Look for a system in which the controls are easily within the operator's reach and ergonomically correct. Also consider the speed at which the system operates; anything that stops too abruptly or moves too quickly might not give the operator time to properly react, Kennedy says. On a similar note, a good feature to look for is a neutral position on the hydraulics so that the system stops in whatever position it is in when the driver releases the handle.

A Worthy Reputation

The manufacturer's reputation also is important. Because the tarp system you purchase hopefully will be in use for many years, it is essential to choose a company that will be able to meet your service needs.

Simmons recalls how he learned from a bad experience. “Years ago, I installed an auto-tarp system, and after a few years the manufacturer stopped selling replacement parts. This is why it is so important to deal with suppliers that provide tarps as their core business with the financial strength to remain leaders in the industry.”

The manufacturer should be able to supply replacement parts in no more than 24 hours. Anything longer than that means excess vehicle downtime — and financial loss for your company, Peck says. Also consider the price tag on replacement parts to see if the system will be cost-efficient a few years down the road.

The company should be responsive to questions and concerns — in addition to providing replacement parts. “If we pick up the telephone, there has to be someone on the other end to be able to communicate with our maintenance technicians,” Peck says. If possible, ask others in the industry what their experiences have been with certain companies' service and support. Does the company allow you to place orders from a secure Web site, fax and telephone?

Conveniences such as the ability to file warranty claims online are worth noting as well. Be sure to speak to several different manufacturers and ask what their warranties cover and for how long. Ask for references of customers whose operations and size are similar to yours.

Then, ask the manufacturer about the availability of factory training. The more your drivers and maintenance staff can learn about the system's proper operation and care, the less potential there is for tarp system abuse and neglect.

Testing the Waters

While gathering information for your purchasing decision, get the input of your drivers, as they will be taking care of the tarp system on a day-to-day basis. Drivers and maintenance staff should test the equipment before purchasing so they can make an informed decision about any snags or annoyances that may hinder their daily work. Most manufacturers will let you test equipment by bringing one to your company on a trailer. If your budget permits, it might be a good idea to purchase a piece of equipment and try it out extensively on one of your trucks before committing tarps for your entire fleet.

At What Cost?

Of course, pricing should weigh in your decision, too. Prices vary depending on the functions you desire. Nevertheless, most equipment ranges from $5,000 to $8,000 for an automatic system. A manual or semi-automatic system will typically cost about $3,000 to $4,000. Keep in mind that installation is not normally included in the price and can add approximately $1,000 to the total cost. So be sure to ask about installation and initial service costs before placing your order.

Nurturing the Relationship

Just like in a marriage, the care you put into the system often determines what shape it's going to be in a few years down the road. Although the goal is to keep the system for the life of the vehicle, a more realistic life expectancy is about seven to eight years. This can be increased, however, by properly training operators so that they understand all of the product's features and limitations, thereby reducing maintenance.

“Operator care is the No. 1 contributor to a happy, long life in the tarping system,” Kennedy says. “No. 2 would be a good, regularly scheduled maintenance program.”

About every 150 operating hours, inspect the hydraulic system and grease the pivot points to reduce friction. The tarp itself also should be inspected for tears and snags and repaired at the first sign of damage. This will extend the life of the tarp.

In the long run, tarp systems are fairly simple pieces of equipment, but you don't want to make a hasty decision when picking your vehicle's life partner. After all, you want to be sure you have found the right one for your fleet — before taking that walk down the aisle.

Wendy Angel is Waste Age's assistant editor.