Who's On-Board with Truck Scales?

February 1, 2000

12 Min Read
Who's On-Board with Truck Scales?

Randy Southerland

On-board truck scales might be the industry's most "experimental" piece of equipment. Nearly two decades ago, scales were being tried out by haulers attempting to avoid axle-weight fines.

Later, some haulers decided on-board scale systems might help determine the profitability of commercial accounts. They reasoned that while commercial customers may prefer paying a flat rate, haulers sometimes have to absorb heavy tipping fees or bid without clear cost information.

In the end, however, whether you're using on-board truck scales to audit or bill, these systems must prove to be worth their cost.

The owners of one private commercial Midwest hauler claims its company has undercut the competition anywhere from 15 percent to 25 percent using on-board scales to produce accurate pricing.

"The other companies can't figure out how we're doing it," says one owner who requested that his company name not be used in this story. "None of the other companies have these scales, and we think that is a real competitive advantage. We want to keep it that way as long as possible."

The company's customers have the option of paying a flat rate or by weight. The flat rate is based on data from all their customers' containers, which are weighed regardless of how the customer is charged.

"We can put them into one of our pricing categories depending on their type of business," he says.

His competitors in the hauling business "are guessing," the owner remarks. "They don't know what their hauling costs are, so their disposal costs are pretty much a guess."

A Fair Price for Garbage A better, fairer price and improved service was rationale enough to use scales, says Greg Gomez, director of the Overland Park, Fla., Sanitation Department. "We've been using the scale system in our commercial operations since June 1996," he says. "We went to this system to establish equity and fairness - that's what weighing garbage is all about. It's a more equitable system. It's a true user service paying for what you throw out."

The department now has a firm grasp on customer needs, thanks to three years of using scales. It knows exactly how often to pick up each container and what size containers each account should use.

Gomez also believes his LTS front loader scales system has produced a better response to recycling.

The 18-employee department services 1,280 commercial dumpsters in this city of 28,000 people. The fleet includes three front loaders and one roll-off for bulk items.

"We provide every service in the city including recycling, residential pickup and a limited arrangement for taking tires, but we don't provide roll-off service," Gomez says. "Instead we're contracting that to a private company."

The original impetus for converting to a pay-by-weight system was the local incinerator's $81 per ton tipping fees. "We realized that 64 percent of our budget was going to disposal fees," he says.

The scales, which must be National Type Evaluation Program (NTEP) compliant and state-certified to charge by weight, have worked extremely well, Gomez says.

"There's a little more maintenance involved," he says. "There are wires going on the outside of the truck and sometimes these wires will get torn off and you have to maintain them. Overall, when you look at what you're getting in return, the maintenance cost is nominal."

The fear that the system would add considerable time to the route has not been realized, Gomez adds. On most routes it adds no more than 20 minutes per day.

"The extra time for pick up ranged from eight seconds per stop to as much as 12 seconds to 15 seconds per stop - depending on the driver's skill," he says.

Scales are mounted on the front lifts. A transponder on the dumpster's front sends a signal to a Texas Instruments reader that records the container number and transfers it to the truck's on-board computer. Each truck's average of 140 daily transactions are downloaded to a central PC at the end of the shift.

"That information is run through an Access-developed program, which we call our 'weight-based application' and stored there," he says. "At the end of the month it's electronically transferred to City Hall, where it's converted to their billing system."

Gomez remains a fervent advocate of billing by weight after the city's experience with the process.

"I'm perplexed by the comments in the articles I've read over the years that have come from people who have had problems [billing by weight]," he says. "Most problems are solved by modifying the software. If it's just a simple relational database such as Access, you can make the changes yourself."

Problems are more than offset by the rewards of lower costs for customers who recycle, as well as greater fairness in pricing, Gomez adds. Eventually, he believes others will adopt this system.

"A mindset that has to change," he says. "People will have to see the need for [bill by weight] and with our town, there was a clear need. Here people were recycling and were not being treated fairly."

Town Lands Big Account A more limited approach to charging by weight has been adopted by the city of Craig, a Colorado community of 10,000 inhabitants near Steamboat Springs.

According to roads, bridges and solid waste director Randy Call, the city experimented with scales a year ago following a jump in landfill tipping fees - from a little more than $1 per ton to $16 per ton.

"We bought them to check our rates," Call says. "We use them for construction dumpsters, building sites and clean-up sites that we may dump four or five times a day. Our rate is set on those plus a landfill fee because the containers can vary so much in weight. We knew a long time ago we were eating the landfill fees by giving [construction accounts] a flat rate when we were dumping asphalt shingles by the ton."

Since the city put scales on its front loaders, Call has nailed down the actual costs of hauling waste to the landfill and has produced what he says is a fairer rate.

Most of Craig's 400 commercial accounts are billed a flat rate. "Temporary construction accounts" that don't sign one- to two-year contracts are billed by weight plus a hauling fee.

Call admits that the city is not using the scales to its full advantage, although that could change if the city adopts more widespread use.

"We could use them for every account, but our fees are not structured that way," he says.

Currently, the scales are set up on the forks of a single front loader to measure gross, tear and net weights. Data is printed from the on-board computer located in the cab. Although this information could be downloaded to a laptop, the driver prints a hard copy with the account number for each stop and turns these tickets in at the end of the route. City workers then key in the data for billing.

To save money, the city did not equip each box with a transponder. Instead, the driver records each account number by hand. The customer receives a copy of this bill with a copy of each weight ticket.

"[The customer] knows what he's paying for and the dates and times his container was dumped," he says.

Craig's six trucks service about 400 commercial and 3,200 residential accounts. Local competition comes from two private haulers.

Call says that the scales' greater accuracy has been a competitive advantage. One of the city's largest accounts, Tri-State Generation, is the state's largest power plant. It is billed a flat fee plus landfill fees.

"We have to bid this account every three years," Call says. "We can keep our fees tighter now that we know our hauling costs. We just don't know what they're going to be disposing. It keeps us in the hunt. I know that with the scales, we'll probably never lose that contract. It's a major account for a department our size."

He notes that the other area hauling companies try to bid "a ball park figure and they have no idea what it really costs them." Call believes that the accuracy of his information has allowed the city to beat its competition by as much as 15 percent.

The scales, manufactured by LTS, are certified and tested each year for accuracy by the state. Drivers also match their calculations against landfill receipts.

Craig has a fleet of two front loaders, two fully automated, and two rear loaders. Although he doesn't provide roll-off service, Call says he seldom sees competitors' roll off boxes in the city. He attributes this to his pricing.

"We're competing with two private companies, so we have to be careful about what we do and don't get into," he says.

Call says if the local government decides to, billing-by-weight might be extended to the city's other commercial accounts.

Despite being thousands of miles apart, both the cities of Overland Park and Craig share a devotion to a way of doing business that, for them, has proven to be equitable and profitable. So far, scales' following has been slow. But charging by weight may find its place in the waste industry as times and minds change, and others in the industry become aware of its success.

It's no surprise that technology will play a large role in the 21st century. But how will this affect waste haulers?

According to a Waste Age survey of suppliers and manufacturers, waste haulers will be more knowledgeable about what their containers weigh and how to charge for their services because software and scales will give them a better grasp of their business. Also, integrated software packages will operate across platforms, creating a more professional, efficient approach. Here are additional comments.

Alan Mastic, WAM Software Inc., Reno, Nev.: The trend in the industry is toward more sophisticated software that can do more things for the client, such as billing and operations routing, fleet maintenance and other functions that keep a close watch on costs.

Patrick S. Sweeney, TransComp Systems, Orange, Calif.: An important aspect of this movement will be Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), which takes software applications from all areas of an organization and weaves them into an orderly integrated system to provide quick access to meaningful management information.

This system, along with web-based software applications - programs and services that customers access directly from the Internet - will become more popular. A move to readily available computer technology will be fueled largely by open architecture software systems.

Barry Grahek, DesertMicro, Jacksonville, Fla.: Software databases will move from being housed and maintained at the hauler's site to being maintained on the web for easier access to more users. No longer will users buy software. They will be able to subscribe to it as a service for a low monthly fee, similar to the Internet. This will make it more affordable for companies of all sizes.

To aid communication, integration of route management software with real-time, two way text messaging will be available to trucks. Global Positioning Satellite technology will allow real-time tracking.

Steve Cole, Cardinal Scale Manufacturing Co., Webb City, Mo.: Increasingly, smaller companies are using PC software. Smaller companies are connecting their scales to PCs to take full advantage of the technology. Multi-state national companies have been using computers, but now the small mom-and-pop operations are looking for the same type of information.

To be competitive, you have to know what your costs are per ton-miles of running your trucks. Those small details are necessary to know whether you're making a profit or not, or making the margin you want to make.

George Pierce, Trash Flow, Waterbury, Vt.: Companies still are trying to get Windows-based products up and working properly. Currently, many haulers and landfills still are using DOS-based products.

Software will allow customers the ability to run multiple offices without dedicated phone lines. For instance, some systems allow all of a company's offices to operate at the same time and synchronize the information using existing telephone lines. Electronic funds transfer features also will reduce or even eliminate the need for billing.

Bob Pittman, Rice Lake Weighing Systems, Rice Lake, Wis.: Software is fast becoming the backbone of each company's system. The threat of the millennium or Y2K bug created a new interest in software and forced users to review their old DOS systems. This revealed several potential savings in labor costs that would be possible by streamlining management processes. For example, some scale systems will eliminate the need for personnel during operation.

Rick Talbot, Vulcan On-Board Scales, Kent, Wash.: Scales increasingly will play a vital role in assuring more accurate pricing. These scales will allow companies to maximize their payload weights while minimizing the number of loads.

Jack Ewing, SI Allegany Technologies, Cumberland, Md.: The desire to determine the weight of individual commercial bins at the customers' locations has increased dramatically. This desire is fueled by the move by many landfills from a volume-based disposal fee to weight-based disposal fee systems.

In-motion scale systems will continue to allow the user to determine individual commercial bin weights, as well as to provide information on net payload and gross vehicle weight. This information can be provided without reducing a driver's productivity.

Dave Dohrmann, Weigh-Right Inc., South Hutchinson, Kan.: The waste container itself will change. There will be a scale on the bin that will allow the customer to know how much he is throwing out. That will cut down on billing surprises.

Hospitals and other businesses have come to us and asked, "Do you have a way of putting a scale on this roll off?" he says. "We want to make sure this is the right weight."

Overall, changes are on the horizon for waste haulers and processors - both large and small - if they can adapt to the evolving technological environment.

Those who do evolve will be increasingly successful as they use these technologically based tools that have the ability to make them more efficient and profitable. Those who don't may find themselves left behind in tomorrow's waste industry.

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