Weigh Up And Pay Up

Private haulers hoping to penetrate closed markets look at it as a marketing crowbar. Haulers that control their markets see it as a looming nightmare of competition.

Municipal solid waste departments believe the issue is a fait accompli, as the privatization movement rumbles on. Commercial customers with light weight trash pray for it, while those with wet, heavy trash wish the idea would dry up and blow away.

Residential customers don't think about it and won't, until it arrives, at which point, they will torture haulers with local political initiatives that will confuse the issues of whether or not to buy on-board scales and dictate what kinds of scales to buy and when.

Municipalities versed in the to-and-fro of political issues probably hold the most realistic views on charging by weight, and some already are testing the waters. At least one - Oakland Park, Fla. - has taken the plunge and installed a charge-by-weight program on its commercial routes.

The results? While the city's collection revenues have declined, collection costs have declined more, while recycling revenues have risen.

Greg Gomez, manager of the mu-nicipal services division, says that he has pushed his superintendent and staff to find and solve the problems related to charging by weight - but as of yet, they can't find any problems to solve.

Ten months after installing the system in June 1996, Gomez was required to give a problem status to the city.

"My report was two paragraphs," he says. "We just didn't have any problems."

Come on? No problems? Gomez ponders the question for a minute and then lights up. "Yes, I made a mistake as the program got un-derway. I forgot that the hand-held computers we use needed backing up. We weren't doing that, and as a result, we lost a day of data downloading."

No big deal. The program got back on line as soon as Gomez discovered the hand-held computers could be set to back up the data automatically during downloading.

Oakland Park is a small municipality with a population of 28,000. It provides full-service solid waste removal and recycling pick-ups for residential single-family homes as well as commercial accounts, which include businesses, condominiums and multi-family housings.

In 1992, it altered its disposal method with a move from landfilling to incinerating. The higher costs of incineration caused the disposal costs to skyrocket.

Additionally, the city's aggressive recycling programs stirred some concerns among commercial condominium and multi-family property managers. "They were recycling like mad, but receiving no benefits in terms of their costs," Gomez says. "We couldn't develop a special fee just for them. In looking at our options, we decided that we had to go to weight-based collections for all our commercial customers."

Gomez searched for charge-by-weight precedents and technologies that he could tailor to the city's operation, but found "no precedents that fit us," he says.

By 1994, sensing that the available technology could be integrated into his operation without causing undue disruptions, Gomez asked LTS Scale Corp., Twinsburg, Ohio to develop a system.

While LTS supplied the scales, Cardinal Scale Manufacturing Co., Webb City, Mo., handled the integration of the software system that connects the reader and the on-board computer.

Cardinal also provided the software that conveys the data from the truck computer into the management and billing offices.

LTS installed static-weighing fork scales on Oakland Park's five front end loaders, which required replacing the existing forks with new ones containing 10K National Type Evaluation Program (NTEP) approved load cells. The standard LTS system includes: a bolt on fork attachment with a multiple flexure design, a junction box, weigh position switch and wash-down capabilities.

System options include: Texas Instruments radio frequency (RF) identification reader, RF identification tags for the containers, a Psion hand-held on-board computer with a cradle, a printer, automatic hydraulic op-eration and software for automatic billing.

Oakland Park purchased the full package with all the options. "We believed automation would prevent errors, possible misuse and delays," Gomez says.

The operation sequence requires the driver to place the container on the scales and energize the hydraulic lift. As this happens, the system takes over. The RF reader checks the tag number on the container and matches the account in the system database. The hydraulic lift raises the container to a "weigh" position and stops. The weight stabilizes, and the system records gross weight. The lift completes the dump sequence, returns to the weigh position and records tare weight.

The cycle ends as the lift returns to a "down" position. The computer automatically calculates the net weight and records it in an on-board computer that connects to the scales through a cradle.

At the end of the route, the driver removes the computer from the truck and plugs it into a cradle in the office to download the data. "You load the transaction file, which is essentially a bunch of scale tickets, into the office system," says Cardinal's Stephen Cole.

"The system then updates all the customer information and generates a series of reports detailing customer activity," he continues. "The office system then generates an ASCII file that the billing department uses to generate invoices."

Oakland Park's Results Ten months into the program, Gomez and his staff reported the results.

The city serves 879 commercial accounts. Of those, 710 - or 74 percent - reduced their waste removal costs.

About 400 accounts realized savings of 20 percent to 50 percent, and 169 customers paid more under the weight-based system than the volume-based system.

Revenues declined accordingly. Customers paid nearly $500,000 less in hauling fees. The city's report projects that annual trash removal revenues will decline by about $600,000.

Some customers saw their removal costs decline from as much as $20,000 a year.

Those accounts with heavy refuse, such as restaurants, ended up spending $12,000 to $20,000 more annually.

Still, the winners far outpaced the losers. To assuage the ill will of the losers, Oakland Park has introduced a consulting service designed to help customers reduce the weight of their solid waste and boost recycling capabilities.

These services include a reference library and an outreach program that assesses disposal and recycling practices and develops programs to improve performance.

The overall decline of removal revenues, of course, chills the outlook of private haulers pondering charge-by-weight.

"It really isn't such a big deal," Gomez says. "From a true cost accounting point of view, our finance people have welcomed the change, because it makes the business easier to manage and it provides a way to compensate for lost revenues by taking advantage of new collection efficiencies."

Before installing the scales and starting the new billing, Gomez first reorganized his routes. Because container size and pick-up frequency don't matter under a charge-by-weight system, he replaced many two-cubic-yard containers with eight-cubic-yard containers - dramatically reducing the number of weekly stops.

"We went from 108,000 annual pick-ups to 92,000," Gomez reports. "That let us reduce our fleet by one truck and our labor force by two drivers.

"Once we established the lowest number of pick-ups, we created new routes," he continues. "If we were cutting our customers' costs, we should be able to pick the best time to provide our service. That didn't work out all the time, but it did in many cases."

Customers faced with higher costs complained. But they also looked for ways to reduce their waste streams. The city's monthly average tonnage dropped by 241 tons, and recycling tonnage increased by a monthly average of 64.52 tons - a 52 percent increase.

Gomez handles the increase in recycling with the two-cubic-yard containers he had taken off the refuse routes and with the collection truck he didn't need anymore. "By converting the smaller containers and the truck to recycling, we have no cost increase related to the increased recycling," he says. "The lower collection costs and higher recycling revenues compensate for the lower collection revenues. Everyone is happy."

Interfacing With The Office When the University of California, San Diego, issued a request for proposal for refuse removal, the specifications required the generation of reports showing waste amount per building across the campus.

Coast Waste, a division of USA Waste Services Inc., Houston, won the contract, satisfying the university's requirement with an on-board, weigh-in-motion scale from Hardy Instruments Inc., San Diego.

Coast's Eric DeJong asked his software supplier, AOL Technologies/ WAM, Reno, Nev., to integrate the scales into Coast's existing system. "That took a little bit of back-and-forth between the two companies, but the system is working well," he says. "We can pull monthly reports per building and report how many pounds of waste are pulled from each."

Every day, DeJong's drivers download a routing program into the on-board package. A screen in the truck tells the driver the route, stop by stop. After making a pick-up, the driver scrolls down to the next stop and moves through the route in order. At day's end, he removes a card from the on-board system and downloads the data into the office system. "From there, we can generate a report that gives the weight per building, per stop, per container, and so on," DeJong says.

Coast Waste runs 75 front loading trucks and has installed the Hardy system in two of them. One truck handles the university account, and the other audits Coast routes to track profitability by account.

While this system runs smoothly, some haulers have run into problems related to system integration that are dependent on two or more companies: The scales won't "talk" to the on-board computer which miscommunicates with the office billing system.

However, companies are striving to find ways to correct such occurrences. In January 1997, Hardy developed its Strategy System, a fully-integrated proprietary system, from scales and readers through on-board computers to office management and billing software designed to automate record-keeping.

"If you are buying from two different vendors, you have to make sure they are absolutely married," suggests Dave Ness, Hardy's president.

Rick Talbot, director of marketing and sales at Vulcan On-Board Scales, Kent, Wash., says that customers should be able to choose the scale systems that is best for their operation and then find a software system that will operate it.

"There are all sorts of on-board scales and on-board computers," he says. "Depending upon how you want to manage your organization, it may mean that my scale will work best - or that another manufacturer's scale will be better for you." The key is, of course, doing your homework beforehand.

Talbot believes it's important to develop standard interfaces so the end user can select the proper system for your needs. Some operators don't want sophisticated systems; they want something to record and print the time, date, weight and that's it. Others want all the bells and whistles.

"There is a lot of confusion in the market today," Talbot says. "For the time being, I think the key thing is to buy technology that can grow. Does a scale have a port so you can add to the system? Does the company offer a family of products for all of the vehicles in your fleet? Will the same scale software interface work with all of those systems?"

In the end, operators must weigh the options before weighing their pick-ups.

Automating Installations Like refuse collection companies, transfer stations, recycling centers, and landfills face ever-increasing pressures to automate operations. These pressures originate from governments seeking to reduce solid waste streams and an increasingly competitive marketplace that requires refuse businesses to understand and tightly manage costs.

"Regulations are driving all of these kinds of businesses toward the use of more technology," says Chris Bagley, general manager of Sooner Scale Inc., Oklahoma City.

"Landfills, for example, have always kept records on computers," he continues. "In the past two years, however, they have been tying scales into these systems. In Oklahoma, legislation prompted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) goal of reducing solid waste streams by 25 percent and passed by the state in 1995 requires landfills to have truck scales and to weigh on-site."

Since then, a number of states have adopted legislation that mandates certain reductions.

"Different states have set different goals, often higher than our 25 percent guideline," EPA environmental engineer Steve Levy says.

He points out that government regulatory requirements do not singularly drive the adoption of technology. "I think the privatization movement influences the need for technology as well," he says. "More and more communities are using private haulers and privately-operated disposal sites. When a municipality picks up the refuse and carries it to its own facility, it doesn't matter how much tonnage comes in. Those departments have their annual budgets, usually from property taxes, and they run the facilities with that money.

"To some extent, if they don't weigh the refuse, the more tonnage they estimate, the lower their unit costs look," he continues. "But, when you enter into full-service contracts - including put-or-pay contracts with waste combusters - you pay on a tonnage basis because the private operators have to track costs. So, private landfills, recycling centers and transfer stations need technology to do that."

San Francisco-based NorCal Waste Systems Inc. exemplifies the technology needs of private vendors. The company owns 22 subsidiaries, including residential and commercial haulers, transfer stations, recycling centers, and landfills. In addition, it manages some municipality-owned facilities.

"The function of scales at our landfills is to weigh and transmit data into our information management system," says Bill Durbin, NorCal's director of information technologies.

"When a truck comes across the scales at a landfill, a reader identifies it. That information is stored in the computer system along with the weight of the refuse being delivered."

NorCal has a home-grown reporting and record-keeping system that knows each truck's tare weight, number, routes, route jurisdiction and that jurisdiction's waste composition.

As the trucks arrive, the system routinely tracks daily information such as the amount of refuse generated, collected and landfilled.

Before building the NorCal system, Durbin first answered a key question: What are the business goals that technology can help achieve? For a landfill, the business requirements might include billing or simply collecting weight and providing that information to whoever does the billing.

"At NorCal, we do both," Durbin says. "We own landfills, and we operate some for others. Both of these kinds of businesses have different technological requirements. For one, we collect information and pass it along. For the other, we manage the profitability of the business. The first requires relatively simple record-keeping, while the second involves sophisticated tracking and reporting.

"We use this information to manage our business and to meet California's regulatory requirements on reporting the amount of refuse generated in a community," he continues. "We're not on the bleeding edge of technology, but we are capitalizing on technology that's proven."