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Preparation is Paramount

Preparation is Paramount
Before implementing automated collection, haulers must lay the groundwork

In the world of consumer electronics, the flashiest technology creates the most buzz. Consumers are enticed to upgrade to the latest release of the Windows operating system to improve the performance of their computer or install the perfect multi-media entertainment system to enhance the viewing experience of weekend football games.

Yet, as many people have found out the hard way, jumping on the bandwagon and purchasing the latest technology without doing your homework, and possibly getting assistance, can be frustrating at best and severely problematic in the worst cases.

Likewise in the waste collection business, automated collection offers the enticement of improved collection efficiency through higher on-route productivity, lower labor costs and standardized service levels. However, the actual implementation of automated collection can be far more complicated than at first perceived.

Fortunately, a great many private and municipal service providers have made a successful transition to full or semi-automation, or a combination of the two. Valuable lessons can be learned from these experiences. Given that manual waste collection is still prevalent in many areas of the nation, this article seeks to highlight some of the critical considerations of making the transition. While any new technology will require some getting used to, converting to automated collection entails a keen awareness of several significant issues that must be dealt with effectively.

"Carting" the Customers

The biggest initial obstacle municipalities face in implementing automated collection systems involves overcoming the fears that elected officials and senior municipal managers have of changing the residents' ingrained set-out habits. In subscription based systems, where there is no direct municipal oversight, many private haulers have had much less of a problem informing their customers about carts and making the change, perhaps because there are elected officials worried about an angry electorate. A common perception among elected officials is that customers who are used to setting out their own bags or cans will find the idea of having to deal with an oversized, government-issued cart a drawback, if not downright objectionable.

Municipalities and private service providers should plan on a clear and aggressive public information campaign to inform residents about both the use of the carts (cleaning, storage, responsibility for maintaining and ownership) as well as the benefits that automated service may accrue to the collector (lower cost and fewer injuries) and the community (better neighborhood aesthetics). The most successful sales pitch for converting to automated collection can be made if the conversion is done so in conjunction with a decrease in price, or at least with cessation of price increases for some period of time.

Customer surveys also can be a helpful tool to inform and embolden elected officials. In a 2007 pre-pilot survey of 1,000 residents in Titusville, Fla., 85 percent of respondents indicated that they supported the use of new solid waste technologies if it made financial sense. In this same survey, residents who had experience with automated carts prior to moving to Titusville overwhelmingly supported their implementation. On the strength of this feedback, the city implemented a six-month pilot program, and mid-pilot survey responses from residents further supported automated collection. While the customer survey and pilot process took extra time and may have caused Titusville to incur extra expenses, laying this groundwork enabled the city to confidently move forward in adopting automated collection.

Managing the Cart Inventory

Once the case is made for customers to accept automated collection service, the question of cart ownership and upkeep will arise. For municipalities that opt to contract out their automated collection, it may at first appear reasonable to require the contract hauler to provide carts. In practice, the least costly arrangement (for the customer) is for the municipality to procure and own the carts. Haulers who are asked to supply carts will do so, but can be expected to factor in the depreciation cost and maintenance/replacement costs along with an appropriate mark-up for return on invested capital plus profit.

Capitalizing on Reduced Collection Frequency

Perhaps the biggest advantage of automated collection is that it shifts the burden of lifting wastes from a person to a hydraulic arm, which can lift greater weights. Accordingly, the standard size cart that is compatible with automated trucks is sized to hold a week's worth of garbage for the average family of four.

In other words, automated collection is not just designed to reduce labor on an existing route, it is intended to enable the traditional twice weekly manual collection to be reduced to one weekly service. Unfortunately, from the perspective of elected officials and senior solid waste managers, a reduction in collection frequency can be equated to a reduction in service.

Yet, the most meaningful cost savings opportunity when converting to automated arises when collection frequency can be reduced concurrently. Informing municipal officials and customers alike that they will receive the same level of service with a once-per-week automated program compared to their twice-per-week manual program can be a challenge. It is often necessary to implement the conversion to automated in conjunction with an expansion or improvement of another program, such as going to single-stream recycling to simplify recycling set-outs.

Fleet Management

Obvious but not to be overlooked, an automated side-loader truck has a different operating and maintenance profile than a rearloader, as well as different replacement schedules. Preventive maintenance on the hydraulic arm requires daily attention either by the operator or maintenance staff. Making thousands of movements per day puts increased strain on the hydraulic arm's pivot points, making daily greasing a priority.

Depending on body manufacturer, the packing mechanism can require regular attention such as cleaning behind and greasing the packing blade. As with most of today's collection equipment, the use of electronic actuators and on-board computers increases the challenges facing the maintenance staff. The days of the back-yard mechanic are gone. These mainstays of past maintenance shops have been replaced by highly skilled technicians using state-of-the-art diagnostic equipment to trouble-shoot electronic and computer system problems.

The Evolution of Automation

It is worth noting that waste collection equipment vendors are continuing to refine and improve the selection and functionality of automated technology. A variety of hydraulic arm configurations, hopper heights, truck bodies and cab configurations now are available. Up until several years ago, automated trucks were entirely of the sideload, "one-arm bandit" style of vehicle that had only one real application: residential curbside collection. However, advancements now enable haulers to connect hydraulically plumbed carry cans, which operate with an automated joystick, to the forks of frontloaders.

Private and public sector haulers alike have found benefits in providing fully automated residential curbside collection with a frontloader. Frontloaders are a known quantity when it comes to fleet maintenance, and installing the frontload automated carry can is a relatively simple add-on. Frontloaders are the workhorse of commercial collection fleets, and the use of frontload automated cans can enable standardization of the residential and commercial collection fleet. Further, for rural routes where drive distances are longer and trip time to the disposal site can be long, frontloaders maximize payload before having to depart for the landfill.

In summary, just like you can ultimately have that high end surround-sound system with the digital HDTV entertainment center that you've always dreamed of, so too can you successfully convert to fully automated collection to serve your residential and small commercial customers. The key in both is to do your homework, learn what it takes to make it work and seek expert assistance if you have any doubts. History suggests you won't regret it.

John Culbertson is a principal for Orlando, Fla.-based MidAtlantic Solid Waste Consultants and can be reached at jculbertson@mswconsultants.us.