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SOLUTIONS TO COMMON equipment problems can sometimes create unintended challenges for waste haulers. Consider, for example, the lowly truck tarp.

What began as a simple way to reduce litter during waste transport later became one of the most common causes of driver injuries as they scrambled atop the loads to secure manual tarps. Today's automated tarping systems have helped to reduce accidents and workers' comp claims significantly, but they are also some of the most fragile parts of collection vehicles and can require frequent and costly maintenance.

Regardless of cost, tarping systems appear to be here to stay. All 50 states have long-standing ordinances requiring secure tarps for roll-offs and open-topped trailers on public roadways.

“It's really less of a state issue and more of a local issue,” says Matt Murphy, owner of PFE Distribution, a Denver-based waste equipment distributor. “Cobb County, near Atlanta, for example, is famous for giving out $400 tickets to trucks that aren't properly tarped. The manual tarpers are just getting crushed by this.”

When shopping around for tarp systems, the key issue is not necessarily new technology. Automated and semi-automated systems have been around for decades, and many tarp manufacturers and dealers admit that not much new has been developed in the past several years.

“All the manufacturers pretty much have it down to a science,” says Kevin McGee, parts sales manager for Mid-Atlantic Waste Systems, an equipment distributor based in Chesapeake, Va., specializing in Pioneer Cover-All, O'Brian Manufacturing and Donovan Enterprises tarping units.

Tarping systems for roll-off trucks come in several variations of three basic designs: 1) manual tarps; 2) fully automated tarping systems, which consist of two pivoting hydraulic arms located along the truck rails that unroll the tarp like a window shade across the load; and 3) semi-automated tarping systems, which involve a hydraulic tower or gantry that lifts the furled tarp straight up from behind the cab and requires the driver to pull the tarp back over the load with a cord.

The true differences can be found in the way each tarping system can be adapted to each hauling operation in terms of durability, efficiency, simplicity, flexibility and, above all, safety.

Safety and Speed

Driver safety outweighs all other concerns when choosing a tarping system, according to Phil Headley, manager of technical programs and standards at the Waste Equipment Technology Association, Washington. “The main goal is to keep the drivers off the trailers and containers,” he says. “When you have drivers getting up on the truck, tying down the tarp and tamping down the load, you get too many unnecessary injuries in the field.”

Most landfills and transfer stations, Headley says, have set up areas to allow trucks to tarp their loads. Most facilities also will not permit trucks that are not sufficiently tarped on their property.

“The trend is to pay a little more for a system that lets your driver stay on the ground, especially up north, where you have ice and snow to deal with,” McGee says. “If you have just one fall, it justifies paying for a system.”

Gary R. Simmons, vice president of fleet management for Casella Waste Systems, Rutland, Vt., says that the adoption of fully automated tarping systems by Pioneer for his 400 roll-off container trucks has “just about eliminated injuries and workers' comp claims contributed to tarping” during the past 25 years. The fully automated system also has helped to reduce driver fatigue because it eliminated the need for drivers to climb onto loads, he says.

Fortunately for haulers, the enhanced safety features of fully automated systems also result in faster loading times for crews. “Once you get an automated system, it can take just 30 seconds to cover a load,” McGee says. Some systems for open-top trailers can cover a load in about 7 to 9 seconds, he says.

“With a [semi-automatic] gantry system, you have to raise the gantry, then tie it down and walk around, then lower the gantry,” McGee says. “The whole process takes three to four minutes. For a typical roll-off driver, six to seven pulls a day is pretty good. If you can buy something that lets you get that seventh pull, it will be worth the money.”

Simmons agrees that extra minutes can be a deciding factor when choosing a tarping system. “The benefits you receive from the roll-off automatic tarps versus the semi-automated tarps far outweigh the costs,” he says. “I estimate [my crews can achieve] a minimum time savings of a half an hour per load.”

Bring It On

Yet for all the high-tech solutions that the industry invents for tarping, the harsh reality is that garbage collection is still a rugged, dusty business that doesn't treat delicate machinery kindly.

“The real problem with tarpers is that they get beat up a lot,” says Jim Kennedy, director of purchasing and maintenance for Milwaukee-based Onyx Waste Services, which primarily uses Pioneer and O'Brian tarpers on its 430-truck roll-off fleet. “The rollers tend to stick out farther that the containers on the trucks, and they get bounced around, which can damage the hydraulics,” he says.

Raleigh, N.C.-based Waste Industries USA has used O'Brian automated and semi-automated tarpers on its 260 roll-off vehicles for more than three decades, says Carolyn Peck, purchasing manager. “Over the years, there have been many improvements in the arm durability and strength by all manufacturers,” she says.

The fabric covers, which typically face even worse wear and tear than the tarping system hydraulics, usually last a matter of months before needing patching, reinforcing or total replacement. “Covering trash has never been easy because the nature of the product itself,” Peck says. “Trash has sharp edges, it is never level on top, and you have large and small loose items in an open-top container that is moving 55 to 65 miles per hour down the highway, all of which are abusive to the mesh fabric of most autocovers,” she says.

Some newer, tougher fabrics, however, are beginning to turn some heads in the industry. Recently, polyvinyl chloride (PVC)-coated polyester mesh and black knit polypropylene mesh with rip-stop technology, which is designed to resist further tears after a tarp has been punctured, began entering the market, Murphy and McGee say.

The mesh construction of tarps is crucial to its performance, Peck says. “Any product that does not let air travel through it will parachute in the wind,” she explains. “This affects the performance of the truck and the gas mileage, and allows loose trash to escape.”

Waste Industries has used O'Brian's nylon mesh tarps for many years, Peck says. Not only is the mesh about 25 cents less expensive than solid vinyl, it also is more durable and dries faster after a rainstorm, she adds.

Simmons says Casella's Pioneer tarps are made of water-repellent 90 percent-weave-count polypropylene monofilament mesh and include 9-ounce coated waterproof material, a wear pad and reinforcements. By testing different materials with tarp manufacturers, Casella has increased its replacement tarp life “by up to four times,” he says.

Simple and Flexible

Tarp system durability is further determined by proper maintenance, Kennedy says. “There are always two parts of the equation: How is it manufactured and how well do we take care of it? I have to remember that I'm just as responsible for keeping them running as the manufacturers,” he says.

Simplicity often encourages maintenance. “As with anything, the more parts that you have, the more potential there is for items to break,” Peck says.

Consequently, Murphy says he's seen several of his customers choose “low-maintenance systems that may cost a little bit more but are worth the investment.”

“Some of the [customers] get wrapped up in complicated automated systems and find that their moving parts are more vulnerable to damage and can't get out of the cycle of buying replacements,” he explains. Many larger haulers, he adds, are considering automated systems with fewer exposed components and more easily replaceable parts, such as upper arm assemblies. “Some of the new ones use just a steel tube with nothing else inside,” he says. “If you bend it, you can make a switch in 30 minutes.”

Because wear and tear are facts of life, it's important to choose a manufacturer that has readily available parts — ordered via secure Web site, fax or telephone — with same-day shipping, Simmons says. Equipment suppliers also should offer extended warranties and product support.

Peck also says she trusts the simplicity and control of semi-automated systems. “I would be concerned about the safety of a [fully] automated tarper,” she says. “If the system failed for any reason, it could hurt the driver or open while moving down the road and lose part of your load. Plus, I think it would be cost-prohibitive.”

Jim Hemmelgarn, president of C&D hauler Hemmelgarn Services, Sidney, Ohio, says his fleet of six roll-off trucks has been equipped with Donovan's semi-automatic and automatic units since 2000.

“Most manufacturers design systems to work on 20-, 30- and 40-yard containers, but ours are 10, 12, 16, 20, 30, 32 and 40 yards,” he says, explaining that his tarping equipment had to accommodate all roll-off sizes.

Despite the pros and cons of automated and semi-automated tarping systems, the demand for both remains strong. With the number of landfills and transfer stations dwindling across the country, forcing haulers to travel longer distances each year, the popularity of tarping systems is expected to grow.

Today's tarping system innovations — speed, easier maintenance, adjustability and simplicity — have been driven by technology and changes the waste industry desired, Peck says. “The design of the containers will dictate the design of future autocovers,” he says, “but with the recent pricing of steel, I don't see open-top design changes happening soon.”

“Waste companies are no longer trying not to save money by buying cheaper systems,” Kennedy says. “And manufacturers are all working hard, trying to do this a better way; to make products that are more accommodating to our needs.”

Randy Woods is a contributing editor based in Seattle.

TAGS: Trucks Safety