May 1, 2005

7 Min Read
Time to Automate

Michael Fickes

IT CAN TAKE YEARS TO FIGURE OUT the best way to implement a new technology. While desktop computer technology was invented in 1947, it took 30 years to build practical devices and another decade before the technology was put to profitable use. Automated waste truck technology has had a similar evolution. The first mechanized garbage truck appeared in 1969. It took 20 years to refine and now automated waste trucks are helping the industry manage costs and profits.

Few waste companies today buy new trucks without considering automation. Research conducted by the Washington-based Waste Equipment Technology Association says 15 percent of all refuse collection vehicles sold in the United States in 2003 were automated side loaders. Industry research also estimates 17.5 percent of all U.S. haulers own at least one piece of automated refuse collection equipment. So the question for waste haulers has become not whether to automate, but how and when to do it.

Show Me the Money

San Francisco-based Norcal Waste Systems has found an answer: Automate wherever possible with a plan designed to limit disruptions to company operations, according to the company. To date, five of Norcal's 20 operating companies have automated operations. Four others are in the process of switching from semi-automated to automated collection.

Automation is alluring for several reasons, and in large measure because of cost savings, according to Paul Smith, Norcal's corporate safety director. Drivers can operate automated trucks by themselves, eliminating the need for helpers that typically work with drivers on manual trucks. This subsequently causes labor costs for automated collection fleets to plunge in comparison to manual fleets. Automated trucks typically also can handle more pickups, so a hauler often can cover the same routes with fewer trucks.

Smith, who will discuss the company's experience with automated collections at WasteExpo 2005, says he plans “to talk about increased productivity, lower labor costs, fuel savings and fewer serious injuries.”

No system is perfect, however. Smith says the trade-offs for automated equipment, for example, are that automated trucks cost more than conventional rear loading and semi-automated trucks. Switching to automated vehicles also requires purchasing compatible containers for residents. Automated trucks tend to raise maintenance costs — not because equipment is unreliable — but because it is more sophisticated, he says.

Real World Conversion

It is easier to talk about converting from manual to automated equipment than it is to do it because a number of issues can hamper the process. Haulers may not have the money to cover container investments, for instance. Existing equipment replacement schedules may make it difficult to move to automated trucks. Companies that do not want to lay-off workers will have to place them in other jobs before converting.

Communities that are automating must tailor conversion strategies to operational realities, Norcal recommends. Vacaville Sanitary Service, Vacaville, Calif., for example, hit on the idea of converting to automated equipment within its normal equipment replacement cycle while meshing the conversion with the addition of new green waste services.

One of Norcal's 20 operating companies, Vacaville services 30,000 residential households along 20 routes. Services include refuse collection, curbside recycling and green waste collection.

About 22,000 of the households served by the company lie along nine routes in Vacaville. In the mid-1990s, the company switched from manual to semi-automated equipment for city routes. The conversion increased productivity and reduced worker's compensation injuries enough to make it worthwhile, says Ed Farewell, general manager.

But the real improvement came with a strategically planned conversion to fully automated equipment beginning seven years ago. “In 1998, we decided to add green waste collection to the services we provided for the city,” Farewell says.

He identified four routes that would collect green waste collection for the city's households. He initially decided to assign the routes to four existing semi-automated trucks. However, he wanted to add the new services without increasing labor or operating costs.

Farewell consulted his equipment replacement schedule and noted that a number of trucks in the Vacaville fleet were due to be replaced. He wondered if it would be a good time to convert Vacaville to automated trucks for green waste collection. Using the firm's routing software application, Farewell refigured the existing nine routes for automated pickups and learned that he could eliminate four of the nine refuse routes.

In short, Farewell could buy five automated trucks and convert the Vacaville operation from nine refuse routes to five, plus the four green waste routes. The strategy would raise capital spending, but reduce labor costs and add an entirely new service for the city.

“Automated trucks cost only about $30,000 more than semi-automated trucks,” Farewell says. “By converting to automated equipment on our regular equipment replacement schedule, it had less impact on ratepayers. Converting to automation also meshes well with the addition of new services like green waste collections because you can reduce or even avoid layoffs.”

Drivers and Customers

Converting from manual to automated operations hinges on customers and good communication, which can be challenging. Drivers have to learn to use a new truck, and customers have to learn new ways to take out the trash.

“People in general dislike change, and drivers are no different,” Farewell says. “So there is always some resistance among drivers. But our experience has been that once a driver is trained and working with an automated truck, you can't take it away. Now when the automated trucks go in for service, drivers don't like the older trucks used for temporary backup vehicles.”

Since Vacaville had been using semi-automated equipment with special containers, the move to full automation had little effect on customers. In cities where a Norcal operating company has switched from manual to automated trucks, the company launched substantial customer communications programs.

Safety Results

Smith has tracked the safety results of the company's automated operations. “We've seen fewer overall injuries and fewer serious back injuries,” he says. “With manual and semi-automatic equipment, you have to manipulate and lift containers. With automated trucks, you don't. So there is less exposure to lifting injuries. But you will see an increase in repetitive motion injuries from operating the joystick. You can also have trunk and neck rotation incidents from craning around to watch the container.”

Despite the manageable drawbacks, Smith says automation has significantly reduced payouts for worker's compensation injuries. Automation has also improved productivity, slashed operating costs and made it easier to add new revenue generating services. It should be no surprise, then, that the waste industry is growing more and more automated.

Michael Fickes is Waste Age's business editor based in Cockeysvile, Md.


By and large, specifying automated trucks has a lot in common with specifying manual equipment. The process begins with an evaluation of the collection area. The number of pickups per day provides an indication of body size needs, says Steve Bell, a direct equipment salesperson with Heil Environmental Ltd., Chattanooga, Tenn.

Distance to the landfill also is something to consider. The farther away the landfill, the fewer times the trip should be made. Larger capacity bodies can hold down landfill runs.

The size of a company's maintenance department can be a factor. Haulers with small maintenance departments might consider trucks with fewer moving parts that require less maintenance.

Specifying issues also arise with the engine, the steering configuration and the placement of automated controls. Norcal Waste Systems prefers low-entry vehicles that make it easy to get in and out of the truck. Norcal's specifications also require arm controls inside and outside of the cab. “There are always areas like tight alleys and cul-de-sacs that aren't compatible with automated service,” says Ed Farewell, general manager of Vacaville Sanitary Service, a Vacaville, Calif.-based Norcal collection company. “You have to get out of the truck to dump cans in these neighborhoods.”

Farewell specifies dual-side steering with a full complement of driver controls — flashers, gas pedals, etc. — on both the right and left sides of the cab. “When picking up, you operate from the right side of the cab,” he says. “But out on the road, when you're not picking up, you should be on the left side like other drivers.”

According to Paul Smith, Norcal's corporate safety director, Vacaville Sanitary originally specified automated equipment with steering, gas and brakes only on the right side of the truck. “We incurred an accident because of that — during a right turn at an intersection,” he says. “We've also found that it is safer to drive in traffic on the left side of the cab.”

Finally, don't forget containers. “You need durable, stable carts,” Farewell says. “The design of the opening around the lid and rim must be wide enough to allow the trash to dump out easily without getting jammed. It should also have thick enough walls so that the grabber on the automated arm doesn't pinch it in the middle and slow down the pickup.”

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