Saving Hard Money With Software

Remember the good old days, when file cabinets were bulging with records and a mouse was something you set a trap for?

While computers have changed all that, today's business people still must be convinced that any investment - including software - has to improve their bottom line.

"Our software definitely has saved time which saves money," says Cathy LaRocco, office manager for American Waste Systems (AWS), Lilburn, Ga. Her sentiment echoes industry-wide, because no matter if you manage a landfill, a waste facility or a collection service, impeccable time management is your cornerstone in achieving the competitive edge.

Just ask software veteran Gene Dunn, vice president of American Waste Control Inc., the largest privately-owned commercial and industrial waste company in Tulsa, Okla., who computerized his operations in 1983.

"When we purchased our first computer, we went from a manual system of billing, collections and routing to a fully-automated system," he says. "Our initial investment in 1983 was a lot for a small, growing company. Since then, we have upgraded either equipment or software or both about every two years."

His goals? Saving money and making money. Did it happen? You bet. "Our expectations were realized fully right from the start," he says. "By using this system, we were able to increase productivity and profitability without increasing personnel."

Not all software can fit the bill when it comes to your operation's unique needs, and a little forethought and financial planning will go a long way in realizing a system's full potential. Fortunately, with the recent technological hardware and software advances, solid waste managers enjoy a greater choice.

For example, new, user-friendly, PC-based software which provides fast, accurate billing, scalehouse management and reporting have been developed. Such software often includes a variety of interfaces which allow data to import into Windows-based programs for data analysis and report generation. The net result is that these programs will allow you to handle more customer accounts, while saving both time and money.

Refuse industry software falls into three major categories:

* Route management monitors and manages both vehicle operations and routing.

* Disposal site systems manage and report tonnages received at landfills or transfer stations. This software must be capable of maintaining a database of collection vehicle information, including customer accounts, vehicle tare weights/net load weights and should interface with on-site scales.

* Refuse billing/accounting software includes billing data, collection service levels and payment tracking and will provide some degree of interface with the first two categories.

A company's software package may combine any or all three of these categories and tailored for the user's needs. Some companies provide a complete or integrated package, while others offer separately-priced modules which are assembled into a user package.

When surveying the software available, the first question you should ask is: "How do I need to increase my productivity?" If your collection business is booming, then you want to increase the number of customer accounts handled by a customer service representative per hour.

For example, when AWS started a new company three years ago, it needed a software package that could keep pace with the projected rapid customer growth. "We were looking for flexibility, because in three years, we've grown from zero customers to 16,000 customers," LaRocco says. "The software had to be able to change as we grew."

Besides flexibility, user-friendliness and menu-driven screens ranked high on her software feature priority list. The selected software, designed by AOL Technologies, Reno, Nev., allows one person to input approximately 200 new accounts per day, keeping up with the pace of AWS' business, she reports.

Adaptability was also the primary software feature sought by Nick Casagrande, manager of information systems for Eastern Environmental Services of Florida in Dania. "When we started, we had two trucks and needed a software package that could grow with our needs," he says. "Since it had to handle the large volume of customers, I looked for a program that was not only fast but flexible, that would let me do route profitability in the future and also allow me to write my own software."

Get What You Need Understanding your present and future needs is critical when selecting and implementing a new software package. For the city of Tucson, Ariz., the ability to link disposal sites with a central billing system and with each other was a necessity.

Before installing the software, none of the sites had computer communications, reports Karen Hochede, systems analyst. "The only interaction we had [among sites] were phone lines. We tried to update the master file in our administrative office and then send updates to each landfill, but we could only do this once a week," she says.

"We needed to get a system where we regularly could share data among the sites." Increasing communications through networking software eliminated the "window of opportunity" that allowed delinquent customers to sneak into another site that did not have records of the outstanding balance.

Reporting was another critical issue. "Because we didn't have a lot of the data combined, reporting was a labor-intensive task," Hochede says.

The selected system, purchased from Ontario-based PC Automation allows Hochede's office to perform reporting it was unable to do before. For example, the system automatically updates each site daily, rather than weekly.

"After the sites are closed, we take the individual daily transactions, bring them to the central administration office, run background programs to synchronize the data and move the transactions to the main server which we then can send into our billing system," she says.

Simultaneously, any individual account updates that have occurred during the day are transferred to all the sites so that they have current information the following morning.

"We also have the option of doing this at intervals throughout the day," she says. "Or if the main office needs to open an account immediately, it can dial directly into the site, make the change and allow that account to use the landfill that same day." With older generations of software, features might be limited in relation to your present operation, and an upgrade is your best bet. For example, Matthew McCauley, vice president of Resource Recovery Systems, Centerbrook, Conn., found the first generations to be limited in their ability to handle multiple tonnage off a single truck at his material recovery facility.

"They had a lot of problems dealing with compartmentalized vehicles," he explains. "We had to use the truck's light weight from the first load as the gross weight for the second load. Most systems can do that in a rudimentary form where you take the truck off the scale and start the ticket over. Essentially, we had to change our operation to suit the software."

However, the newer generations have eliminated such problems, allowing McCauley to track multiple material weights with just one pass. And, although the selected vendor, Creative Information Systems, Manchester, N.H., did not have the precise applications McCauley needed, he says the company "was able to address our need by modifying the software to provide [the necessary] feature."

Know The Features Identifying the features that are most important to you also is critical to selecting the most appropriate software.

When the Trail Road Landfill, Ottawa-Carlton, Canada, purchased its systems, it focused on three essential features, reports Chris Woods, waste scale supervisor. "User friendliness was a must," he says. "If you have a package that is difficult to understand, then the imputted information can be erroneous.

"But," he continues, "equally important is consistency and security. The security is inherent at the operating system level as well as at the application level."

The third - and for some, the most critical - feature Trail Road sought was vendor customer support. "The support has been there when we've needed it," Wood says. "It's important because there usually isn't an awful lot of technical expertise residing at a landfill site."

What else is crucial? "Customer support, training and warranties on equipment go hand-in-hand," says Dunn, who experienced "very few problems" installing his system from North American Business Technology, Cockeysville, Md.

A vendor's knowledge of the refuse industry - and how they incorporate that knowledge into the software - are other qualities to watch for, he adds.

While most software vendors are sensitive to their customer's needs and try to be accommodating, realistically, it is difficult for them to meet 100 percent of everyone's requirements with one package. So, sometimes, you might have to accept software that meets most, but not all of your requirements.

"Some of the features within our package are flexible, and some of them are the way we get them," says Dave Carter, waste scale technician for the municipality of Toronto. "It meets what we need it for right now. But, there are some changes that we would like to see happen."

The municipality is in constant contact with its software vendor, who Carter reports has been "pretty good at making changes for us and coming up with ideas that will accommodate us as well as other customers." However, he acknowledges, "They're not going to put something in a package that's specifically just for us, excluding everyone else. We'll pay for that portion if that's the case."

Innovative software which may allow a user to integrate a variety of components pushes the efficiency envelope in refuse operations.

For instance, the landfill system of Merced County, Calif., is a 24-hour-per-day operation. Currently, a scale house operator must be scheduled at night to handle the more than 10 trucks that use the landfill during these hours. However, Merced expects that a creative combination of software and hardware will eliminate the night shift and, thus, increase productivity for both the landfill and its users.

"It's an add-on to the software package which runs like an ATM machine," explains Curt Hartog, solid waste manager. At the entrance, a driver punches in his truck number onto a mounted keypad which automatically records the data and spits out a ticket at the station.

"We have an automatic gate that's going to hook up to this computer that will open when the transaction is complete," he adds. "Right now, we have a guy who just sits out there and punches in those four digit numbers for the 10 or 11 trucks that arrive. The software will free him up so we can use him during the day."

The county also performed an analysis of its weigh loads to see if it can automate just the packer trucks during the day - a move which will slice the scale house attendant's workload in half.

"That's significant because now we can delay the need to add two scale house attendants by 10 years. It's a significant labor cost savings," he says.

"You've got to be efficient to survive, and part of [efficiency] is automating as much as you can and getting top-of-the-line software," Hartog continues. "Let's face it, that's your bottom line. If that scale house doesn't run, you don't make any money."