Keeping the Fleets on the Street

May 1, 2001

11 Min Read
Keeping the Fleets on the Street

Randy Southerland

To keep garbage trucks on the road, fleet managers — in both the public and private sectors — are finding they must be creative and vigilant to adapt to today's changing collection conditions.

Among the diverse challenges that must be overcome are: hiring and training good people, keeping abreast of new regulations, creating a safe work environment and knowing when to turn to the latest technology for solutions.

Being flexible and maintaining clear communication within the company itself also is key to ensuring trash gets picked up. Consequently, maintenance managers play active roles in local management teams and are involved in all aspects of the decision-making process at Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.-based Republic Services.

“We want to ensure that at staff meetings, the maintenance manager is part of those discussions,” says Jerry Wickett, Republic's vice president of purchasing and maintenance. “If it's about improving or increasing business, [the maintenance manager] needs to have containers available to be set up. He needs to know what this potential new business will look like so we can schedule and have containers, roll-off boxes and vehicles available.

“In addition, if there are particular challenges involving operations, such as special pickups, the maintenance manager needs to be in the loop so that he's not scheduling work on vehicles when there's going to be a sudden spike in the level of utilization,” Wickett adds. The maintenance manager has just as important a role as the other managers and must be in sync with everyone, he says.

Getting Good Mechanics

Part of ensuring a company's trucks keep rolling together includes recruiting and retaining qualified service personnel, an ongoing challenge for many fleet managers. Although vehicle sales have slowed, the demand for certified and experienced mechanics continues to rise, pressing waste haulers to search harder for good help, Wickett says.

“In our business, the bulk of the work occurs during second-shift, and we're competing with some Class A truck dealerships that have very nice facilities and a lot of work during the first shift for seasoned guys,” he says. “So that continues to be a challenge for us.”

Nevertheless, “[maintenance] is becoming something that you have to focus more and more on,” says Peter Callais, president and CEO of Houma, La.-based SWDI Co. “The demands of the public and the authorities are getting stricter every day. Our fleet is pretty new. The average [truck] age is two to three years old. Maintenance still is a problem, especially when you send [trucks] to landfills and things get torn up there because it's a rough environment.”

A company's in-house staff must be skilled in more than just maintenance, however. Mechanics must be able to diagnose problems to determine whether trucks can be fixed in-house or need to be sent to an outside repair shop.

Fleet management companies largely rely on their vehicle dealers for major overhauls of engines and transmissions, and for in-warranty work, Wickett explains. Companies must be aware of just what level of service local dealers are able to give them. With the number of trucks being sold, it sometimes can be difficult to get the turnaround time haulers need.

“If someone needs two weeks to repair a transmission, that gets to be a difficulty for us,” Wickett continues. To avoid lengthy repairs, proper maintenance becomes a central issue.

Many companies entrust complex and in-warranty repairs to dealer shops. However, Cincinnati is one of a few large cities that has centralized its fleet service for all municipal vehicles.

“We pay for it, but they fix it,” says Daryl Brock, Cincinnati's director of public services.

Training is Key

To ensure they have mechanics that can determine whether to send trucks out to be fixed or handle problems in-house, fleet managers now are placing a much greater emphasis on training. Many companies send their mechanics to schools and seminars sponsored by the equipment manufacturers. This familiarity with brands also can be an important factor in managing a fleet.

“We're most interested in people who are familiar with the brand of equipment we use,” Callais says. “We're interested in proficiency in the equipment we have rather than formal standards. We want to see that [mechanics] have a certificate showing that they went to an International school or Mack Trucks school.”

Republic Services works closely with the national manufacturers that supply its equipment to ensure training programs conform to the company's needs. Some manufacturers even have agreed to provide customized programs onsite that could bring together several divisions of the company.

In Cincinnati, because the public agency has made picking up the trash, as well as maintenance, every worker's job, training has become essential. Without it, Brock says, workers “will go out and pick up anything and everything.”

“Our trucks are not designed to deal with all of that,” he continues. “As a result, we have a lot of maintenance problems. Now we are trying to orient our workers to be a little bit more discriminating. If we can't [pick up something] on the [regular] truck, then call in and we'll get another truck.”

As part of its training program, the city of Cincinnati released a memo to its workers detailing what can be placed safely into trucks and which bulkier items, such as furniture, need to be left for specialized vehicles. This policy is designed to prevent workers from overpacking to minimize the number of trips to the distant city landfill.

The city also has retained a consultant to assist in standardizing routes and tonnage carried by trucks.

Prior to providing training, Brock says, “It was not unusual for one truck to bring in 17 to 18 tons of garbage and another to bring in only 10 or 11 tons. We try to average around 13.”

Yet despite the best intentions, fleet managers say training can be an ongoing challenge. In many instances, the industry has been slow to adopt advanced electronics in engines and transmissions.

“The past three or four years, we've probably caught up with the over-the-road guys in terms of electronics, but along with that goes training,” Wickett says. “With handheld computer tools, we have to be sure our people are trained and understand how to use them.”

Regulations Play a Role

Fleet managers also face the challenge of providing worker safety and comfort. While President George W. Bush has rescinded the sweeping ergonomic regulations proposed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Washington, D.C., many haulers continue to strive to make the lives of their workers easier.

“It's pretty complicated, especially for the garbage business,” Callais says. “The nature of the job is repetitive. The only way to eliminate repeated motions is not to have people involved, and you can't pickup trash without people. We have semi-automated [pickup] in some areas. But even then we have to handpick the trash and the green waste,” he says. “When you do the same thing over and over, there is the issue [of repetitive motion injuries]. Of course, it's hard to tell what causes [these injuries]. So we try to provide all the proper training and safety equipment, such as back braces.”

Other haulers also place great emphasis on proper training and regular safety meetings to reduce the amount of time lost to injury.

In Cincinnati, for example, the sanitation department has invested in air-cushioned seats for its trucks, more automated equipment and adjustments in existing equipment to make work friendlier.

Garbage trucks are not meant to be driven over expressways for great lengths of time, Brock says. “Even in those normal stop-and-go drives the ride is bumpy,” he explains, “but when you have to take it over the expressway to get to your landfill, it's even worse. Our Department of Environmental Management conducted a study that helped us take a harder look at whether we needed to go to air suspension for the seats. The new trucks we're getting in May or June use an air-ride suspension, which is very important.”

The city has made other changes to improve worker comfort, as well. For example, many workers, particularly shorter employees, often complained that the hoppers on trucks were too high, Brock says. After the public agency lowered the height, workers no longer had to lift the cans completely over their heads.

Cincinnati also has converted its once entirely manual fleet of trucks to semi-automated in many neighborhoods. “I believe about 95 percent of the fleet has been converted, but not all of Cincinnati has been converted over,” Brock says, noting that the arms don't work in congested areas.

“There are some areas that lend themselves much better to semi-automated pickup than in other areas,” he says. “[Automated] cans don't do well on hillsides.” Areas with tightly parked cars on both sides of a narrow street also make a semi-automated system difficult, if not impossible, to use, he adds.

Alternative Fuels

Perhaps even tougher than dealing with safety concerns is keeping up with legislative issues and regulations. In the bellwether state of California, for instance, revolutionary changes are taking place in the types of equipment haulers are using, as emissions regulations may make diesel fuel obsolete.

“Starting July 1, 2001, we are no longer allowed to purchase diesel-fueled vehicles for refuse,” reports Alex Helou, project manager for the Solid Resources Collection division of the city of Los Angeles Sanitation Bureau. “The South Coast Air Quality Management District passed that measure last July. What we've been working on is trying to anticipate all the changes and all the challenges we're going to be facing in converting our fleet from diesel into alternative fuels.”

Already, Los Angeles has spent the past four to five years developing alternative fuel sources for its collection trucks. A few years ago, the sanitation district purchased two compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles.

Initially, “we used them for refuse and found that they had a lot of problems. For example, they had limited range,” Helou says, noting the distance was about 20 miles. Because Los Angeles' routes require the trucks to travel between 20 miles and 50 miles per day, “we installed more tanks onboard the refuse trucks so they could make their rounds without having to refuel two to three times a day,” he adds.

Another initial problem was that the trucks were limited to 9 to 10 tons of refuse per truck. “If you go over that limit, the CHD (community health department) fines you,” Helou says.

Based on its experience, the city decided it needed better technology for the long haul, so it began testing dual fuel vehicles developed by Caterpillar that run on 15 percent diesel and 85 percent liquefied natural gas (LNG). The diesel fuel acts as the pilot that gets the truck going and then turns the running of the vehicle over to the alternative fuel, Helou says.

The environmental advantage to these vehicles is that they produce much lower particulate matter and also lower nitrogen oxide, he adds. South Coast Air Quality Management District has placed tight restrictions on emission of these substances.

Eventually, Los Angeles will transform its entire 670-truck fleet from diesel to dual-fuel vehicles during a two-year phase-in period for the regulations. After then, all diesel fuel will be phased out, and the emphasis will be placed entirely upon alternative fuel, Helou says.

At that time, “we'll … be looking at … liquefied natural gas or compressed natural gas — whichever is doing better in the market at that time,” Helou continues. “During that time, we will be buying up to 400 dual-fuel vehicles, thanks to some grants.”

In San Francisco, Norcal Waste Systems Inc. also is making bold moves with alternative fuels. Currently, company tractor-trailers carry garbage from the city to a distant landfill. The same trucks then are used to haul recycled materials to secondary recycling facilities such as scrap yards, glass plants and paper mills. Norcal's goal is to convert its long-haul fleet of 32 18-wheelers to a LNG system.

The company believes LNG holds great promise for developing a cleaner fleet of trucks, says Robert Reed, Norcal's spokesman. “We plan to use it in some of the collection fleet in San Francisco. Over time, the entire collection fleet could be converted to a cleaner burning fuel.”

Norcal's fleet consists of about 100 vehicles, primarily for residential pickup. “[The trucks operate] in tight quarters,” Reed says. “In some cases, houses are right up against the neighboring house. As part of the 100, we also have a lot of commercial trucks that pick up front loading containers. There are narrow streets and overhead wires for city buses. It takes a lot of skill to drive a collection truck in San Francisco for garbage and recycling.”

Such an obstacle course could be an apt description of what is required of other fleet managers, as well. Drivers must negotiate the difficult and often conflicting demands of their companies and customers with great skill. But whatever challenges are ahead — whether it's maintenance or coping with increasing regulations — fleet managers know they must be adept at keeping the fleet on the street.

Randy Southerland is an Atlanta-based free-lance writer. For more information about truck maintenance, visit

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