LIKE WOMEN, TARPS come in varying shapes and sizes. But regardless of what system or material you choose — canvas, plastic, mesh screen, automatic, semi-automatic or hand-cranked — there are several qualities to look for when deciding which one fits your fleet family.

Tarps are used to contain waste as it is transported. The goal is to keep waste away from the public so they are out of harm's way. Most states mandate loads be covered, so finding a tarp and deployment system is crucial. What features play a role in the purchasing decisions?

Strength and Durability

Tarping systems are designed to have a sustained lifecycle. How long a product lasts depends upon how well it is cared for and how often it is used. For example, most hardware for an automatic tarping system — hydraulics, cylinders, arms and spools — can last four or five years. The number can vary, but generally haulers should notice wear within six months if the driver is abusing the system. The lifecycle also is dictated by the care the material receives. If drivers routinely inspect the cover, checking it for holes or snags, this can extend the tarp's life to up to three years.

Only trial and error can verify whether a tarp can stand the test of time. However, working with a manufacturer to obtain the best system for your individual operation is key. Be sure to test equipment before making a major purchasing decision and inform the manufacturer of your company's specifications.

Service, Support, Logistics

Companies should be able to obtain parts from their manufacturers or suppliers in a timely manner. As a rule, if a part cannot be delivered within 24 hours, haulers should consider finding another distributor, regardless of the part size.

“There's nothing worse than having a tarper not working, and you can't get any parts for it,” says David Peck, fleet manager for Waste Industries, Raleigh, N.C. “You have to either have the parts shipped reasonably quick, or be located in close proximity to your supplier.”

For example, if a tarp system is manufactured in Dallas and the part is needed in Raleigh, N.C., the chances of receiving a 22-foot arm overnight is slim, Peck explains. “[An arm] isn't something you can stick a UPS (United Parcel Service) label on and ship. You have to do more logistics work. It would change my opinion of whether I need to look as far as Dallas [for a supplier] or if there is [another supplier] in Mobile, Ala.,” Peck says.

Safe, Simple Design

As with any equipment, safety always is a concern. Automatic or semi-automatic systems can prevent drivers from risking life and limb to manually cover loads. Safer environments generally require the least amount of interaction between the driver and tarp system.

“An automatic cover system eliminates the driver from having to climb on the container, pulling and lifting heavy tarps,” says Gary Simmons, vice president of fleet management for Casella Waste Systems, Rutland, Vt. “This makes it easier on the driver, helping to eliminate fatigue and potential injuries.”

Another safety element can be determined by how well the system is designed. Yet even a poorly designed tarping system can be improved with better safety precautions.

“I've seen … systems [where] if you're standing close to the control valve while operating it, the arm comes down and hits you on top of the head,” Peck says. “It's a simple matter of repositioning the valve to make the system more safe.”

A well-designed system also requires keeping technology simple so that it can be easily repaired because adding in a complicated tarp system to the maintenance team's list of repairs could impede optimal workflow and significantly increase costs.

Manufacturer's Reputation

Along with investigating product features, haulers should research manufacturers. Find out how long a company has been in business and what safety precautions have been taken to ensure that the tarp does not interfere with normal, safe vehicle operation. Also, how productive is the tarping system, and is it cost-effective?

Network with others in the industry to gather this information. For example, find a company that is approximately the same size and handles the same type and volume of materials, then ask what they like or dislike about their tarp manufacturer. Also talk to several manufacturers to match your company's needs with their capabilities. Ask the manufacturer what their warranty covers and request a list of references. Your research should help you compare the quality and prices of a particular manufacturer's products to determine if they fit your needs.

Price and Value

Finally, discuss price because tarp systems initially can be a major expense and money is a concern for all businesses. But instead of scrimping up-front on costs and sacrificing quality, look to maintain cost-effectiveness by properly caring for trucks and tarps in the long term.

“I have tried to get by a little cheaper a couple times, but the products did not last,” says Gilbert McKnight, owner of McKnight Enterprises, Indianapolis. “The bars bent, and we were forever working on them. It is not worth it to try and find a deal.”

Peck agrees that price should not interfere with driver or the public's health and safety. “I don't care what price it is. If a product is not safe, I'm not going to buy it,” he says. “If a tarper interferes with the normal, daily activity of the driver and makes his job extremely complicated, I'm not going to add that to his duties.”

Evaluating a tarp and system can be boiled down to weighing features against price, service and value. If only it were that simple when bringing home a girl to meet mom.

Rebekah A. Hall is Waste Age's managing editor.