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Refined automated tarp systems make it easier than ever to secure your load.

Today's Truck Tarping systems aren't perfect, but, in haulers' minds, they're close.

Fleet managers say that despite always being on the lookout for the latest and greatest tarping systems for their fleets, the fully automated systems they now use are as efficient as they could have ever imagined. “Back in the '80s and '90s, when [tarping systems] were evolving, it seemed like we were looking at [issues] all of the time,” says Dan Cowher, fleet director for Veolia Environmental Services of North America, Lombard, Ill. “I don't hear of issues anymore.”

Veolia operates a fleet of nearly 600 roll-off trucks. Each year, Cowher says, the company buys nearly 60 new trucks and fits each with a fully automated tarping system.

Many medium- to large-sized haulers already have replaced manual or semi-automated tarping systems with fully automated systems or are in the process of doing so. A major incentive for switching to fully automated systems, fleet managers say, is to minimize or eliminate workers' compensation claims related to drivers having to maneuver and secure tarps over their loads. “Driver safety is paramount,” Cowher says.

Cincinnati-based Rumpke Consolidated Cos. operates 274 trucks that require tarping systems. The company is moving toward replacing all of its manual tarping systems with automated ones. Currently, it has converted nearly 70 percent of its fleet to fully automated systems, adding approximately 30 fully automated systems during the past year.

“You don't want the driver climbing into the load, exposing himself to anything that might be in there,” Cowher says. “If you have to cover a load, which we feel we have to do on all of our loads, then the best thing to do is protect the driver.”

The Southeastern Public Service Authority (SPSA), Chesapeake, Va., operates a fleet of 110 municipal solid waste trailers out of its Portsmouth, Va., facility and has begun to convert its old tarping systems to fully automated systems. Pat Lee, a vehicle and equipment maintenance superintendent for SPSA, says reducing driver injuries from manual systems was the main reason behind the authority's shift.

Officials at Jacksonville, Fla.-based Waste Pro say they adopted fully automated systems at the behest of their drivers. “I think our drivers prefer [them] a lot more over the others,” says Fred Wood, senior vice president of Waste Pro. “They seem to be happy with that tarping system.”

Maintenance Costs and Driver Error

One of the biggest problems associated with fully automated systems when they were first being developed were increased maintenance costs, either from poor system design or failure due to driver error.

Two years ago, when Rumpke was having many problems with its tarping system, the company turned to one of its truck body suppliers to design a system that would significantly reduce maintenance costs. Tim Mastropoalo, director of purchasing for Rumpke, says the old system's problems were numerous: the arms were too rigid, the hydraulic cylinders leaked and the trucks simply were not getting enough life from the tarps themselves. “With all of the old systems, there was an immediate reduction in workers' [compensation] load but increased in-door traffic for bent arms and maintenance costs,” he says.

One of the changes Rumpke made was to move the arms from outside the rear fenders to inside the fenders. Mastropoalo says the arms were constantly getting caught on tree limbs. Moving them narrowed the dimensions of the tarping system. Another change was the addition of a device to elevate the tarp while it was placed over the load, which helped avoid snags and punctures. “If you're going to spend $250 on a tarp, you want that tarp to last,” Mastropoalo says, adding that the new system will hopefully extend the life of the company's tarps to more than 12 months.

“When [automated tarping systems] first came out years ago, the drivers weren't used to them,” Cowher says. “I don't know if the engineering was where it is today. It seemed like we were replacing arms [and parts] a lot more than we do today.”

Sometimes the problems have nothing to do with how the system is engineered or how the tarp is made, but instead stem from driver abuse of the system. SPSA discovered this while investigating tarping options.

Jeff Harbin, operations manager for SPSA, says he received numerous complaints of blowing trash coming from the authority's trailers. After investigating the tarps already in place and looking at alternatives on the market, SPSA concluded that the major problem was not faulty tarps, but driver error in using them. More often than not, the drivers were not monitoring their loads before deploying the tarp, which lead to ripped tarps and loose loads.

“Another reason we kept the same tarps we were using was that we learned that we weren't strapping them down the best way we possibly could,” Harbin says. “Between that and drivers making sure they had removed any loose trash from the top prior to closing it and securing it, we found we were keeping more trash in the trailer with the same tarp we had. We were just not doing an efficient job of strapping it down.”

Cowher agrees and says that the life of a tarp depends, in large part, on the attention of the driver. Other officials agree that most repair and maintenance costs can be attributed to driver error or lack of attention. “You can put a system on a truck that will last 10 years if the driver takes care of it,” says Wayne Dodd, Atlanta division manager for Waste Pro.

Companies such as Waste Pro address this factor by providing routine employee training for using the tarp systems. In addition to on-the-job training, Waste Pro also offers its drivers a $10,000 bonus for three years of incident-free safety performance, which includes incidents with damaged tarping systems.

What to Look for When Shopping Around

Besides product durability, Cowher says companies in the market for new tarping systems should pay close attention to acquisition costs, which should always be about 40 percent of the total cost of ownership. It's very common, he adds, for companies to look for the lowest possible acquisition cost when they look at tarping systems for their trucks. He argues that sometimes the lowest acquisition cost does not always lead to the lowest cost of ownership — just because a system is cheaper to acquire does not mean it will cost less in the long run.

“We try to look first at which tarp is going to provide the lowest total cost of ownership,” Cowher says. A better engineered product might cost more up front, but will often times be more durable and lead to lower maintenance costs over the life of the product, he adds.

Almost equally important to well-engineered products, haulers say, is professional installation. “[A system or tarp] is not just something thrown on,” he says. “[It has to be] put on the truck well and right so that it's not getting ripped off. So [we] have to be cognizant of how we can engineer and install this thing that's going to hold up on a refuse-type roll-off truck.”

Additionally, the petroleum-based composition of many tarps can lead to fluctuating prices for haulers. Mastropoalo says because of this fluctuation, tarp pricing is one of the most volatile parts of the purchasing process. However, “it's just one of those tried and true things that you need to have on a truck,” he says.

Chris Carlson is the associate editor of Waste Age.