The Weight-Watchers Debate

Trash scales are like a virus: Once one hauler catches it, it spreads to the competition. When someone discovers scales can lower costs, a price war breaks out. News of this shows up in trade magazines, and more companies catch the virus.

Sooner or later, everyone involved in waste management is likely to own a scale: in the ground, over the axles, on the forks, on the side and rear tippers, in the garage ...

In the garage? Yes. In fact, one manufacturer even is designing a scale for residential customers, who, it believes, will use the device at home to check on haulers' billing practices when charge-by-weight becomes a reality for residential collections.

Discerning the future of scales would be easier if we knew just what kind of weighing will have to be done by what kinds of operations. Scale manufacturers are placing their bets now, anteing up their companies based on their predictions of the future of weighing waste.

Some are wagering that most, if not all, scales eventually will have to be certified as legal-for-trade. Others believe that the future lies in uncertified scales that are used to audit weights and manage profitability.

Managing Your Weights In the commercial waste hauling field, executives at Kent, Wash.-based Vulcan On-Board Scales believe that legal-for-trade National Type Evaluation Program (NTEP) scales at best will find niche applications. As a result, the company does not offer - and does not plan to offer - legal-for-trade versions of its on-board scales.

"There will be applications for certified scales on some recycled materials," says Vulcan's Rick Talbot. "Some haulers may opt for a pay-by-the-pound approach for commercial applications, but the vast number of people now running commercial routes are not interested in a certified program. They simply want to earn a profit on individual accounts and to make informed decisions about pricing in competitive situations."

Vasko Rubbish Removal Inc., St. Paul, Minn., recently installed Vulcan on-board scales on five front-loaders and three rear-loaders for just this purpose. "We've been using scales since 1987 for front- and rear-loading commercial and industrial applications," says owner Gary Vasko.

Vasko says the value of scales lies in the ability to audit commercial accounts and ensure profitability. He keeps the auditing process as simple as possible: Two or three times per year, drivers record weights for existing accounts on their route sheets. New customers are checked within the first 60 days.

"We don't need a data management system beyond what we already have to run these checks," he says. "We can enter the data the driver records into our accounting system and do a profit and loss check on accounts."

Can't a hauler with years of experience simply eyeball a container and figure out the same thing? "I've been picking up garbage since I was a kid, with my dad," Vasko says. "You would think that I could look at a restaurant and say, 'That's a six-yard container. It looks heavy. It must weigh about 1,000 pounds.' But when you check, it weighs 2,000 pounds. Even with all my experience, I can't guess close enough on the heavier weights, and that's where it really matters."

Closely estimated weights also are important for extra commercial pick-ups. "Extra pick-ups almost always weigh more than regular pick-ups," he says. "We base extra pick-up charges on estimated weights. Of course, we tell customers that the weight is an estimate [as per regulations].

"All in all, we couldn't earn a profit without our scales," he continues. "In fact, all of the independents in this area live and die by scale systems."

Although some hauling operations require on-board computer support and heavy data management, others do not need sophisticated scaling and data management technology. "There are many commercial haulers and transfer stations that can benefit from straightforward scale equipment," says Lori Dohrmann of Weigh-Right Inc., South Hutchinson, Kan.

"A basic scale system is good enough to help reduce maintenance costs for chronic overloaders," she continues. "By preventing overloading, you reduce tire, brake and suspension wear, while promoting fuel savings."

Most haulers underload their trucks by about 10 percent to avoid overload fines, she explains. If that's true, then a hauler relying on $400 revenue days can increase a truck's productivity by about 10 percent, or $40 per day, by loading closer to capacity. Twenty-five days per month times $40 equals $1,000 per month. Three months of such operations would pay for a set of scales.

The Southeastern Public Service Authority of Virginia (SPSA), Chesapeake, currently is testing this concept on trailers used to haul ash from a waste-to-energy power plant at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth.

"We're trying to increase the loads of ash we transport from the power plant to a regional landfill," says Irvin Gentry, SPSA's director of operations. "The legal limit for our trailers is 18 tons. In the past, we've loaded the trailers only up to about 14 tons. We have done this for two reasons. First, of course, we want to make sure we're legal. Second, because of the way we have to unload the ash at the landfill, overloading would create operational problems for us."

The scale test may provide a solution for SPSA's underloading problem. "On the scaled equipment, we're now averaging 16.5 tons to 17 tons per scaled trailer," Gentry says. "We estimate that with the number of trips we make per year, if we install these scales on all of our ash trailers and weigh all of the loads coming out of the power plant, we'll save $100,000 per year or more."

One of the effects of scale system's popularity has been the attraction of new types of products. For example, a number of companies have begun manufacturing scales that convert changes in air-suspension system air pressure into weight.

"A speedometer helps truckers control speed," says Martin J. Ambros of Air-Weigh, Eugene, Ore. "Pressure and oil gauges help maintain correct engine operations. But most trucks have no weight gauge indicator telling whether the truck is loaded correctly and legally because these gauges [are] too expensive."

Ambros has seen sales grow dramatically with the rising popularity of air suspension trucks. "We have a total of 3,700 units out now," he says. "More than 2,000 of this total has been sold in the last 18 months. I estimate that between 10 percent and 15 percent of these sales have gone to tractor-trailer applications in transfer stations."

One of its customers, the Solid Waste Services division of Anchorage, Alaska, purchased its first air-suspension trucks in 1994.

Since then, Rick Nissen, the division's general foreman, has equipped 14 transfer station trailers with the scales.

While the trailers must be weighed with certified scales before they leave the transfer station, the air-suspension scales prevent under- and over-loading on the tipping floor.

"We position the trailers under the floor, and a loader fills them up," Nissen explains. "The loader operator keeps an eye on a scoreboard, which tells him the weight of material in the truck. He loads it as close to the maximum as possible. Then, we bring the trucks around and weigh them on our platform scales and enter that information into our system.

"Without using scales to check the original load, we would have to take the trailer back constantly to add or remove some of the load," he continues. "This way, we get it right the first time."

Is Legal-for-Trade the Future? While many scale manufacturers are willing to bet their market shares in the waste management industry on uncertified scale technology, others believe the future eventually will require legal-for-trade scales and some form of charge-by-weight collections on both the commercial and residential sides of the business.

For example, MASS Corp., Markham, Ontario, Canada, submitted a weigh-in-motion scale for front loaders for regulatory certification in Canada this past June. Now, the company is setting its sights on U.S. certification. In addition, MASS is developing a certifiable weigh-in-motion system for side- and rear-loading residential collection trucks.

According to MASS' Steve Frame, the company's entire product line has been designed to meet the needs of what company executives believe to be an "emerging and irrepressible trend" toward charging-by-weight.

Frame lists four issues that he believes are driving charge-by-weight:

* customers' demand for fairness;

* the basic requirements of managing costs in waste hauling businesses;

* the societal need to promote recycling; and

* the pressure exerted by citizens on government for low taxes.

"If citizens want low taxes, municipalities eventually will have to begin charging for different services, including tax collection," Frame says.

Are many municipalities already experimenting with variable waste collection rates? "Yes," Frame says, but he contends that the only fair and practical way to vary rates is charging by weight.

Then, there is the pressure to manage waste hauling businesses more closely. "The problem in the waste business always has been selling by volume and paying by weight," Frame says. "That's an anomaly that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to manage costs properly.

"If [the] government wants to encourage recycling, there has to be a way to add value," he continues. "Charging by weight provides a way to do that. [People are saying] 'If you want me to go to the trouble of sorting trash for recycling purposes, what will you give me in return? Right now, you can't give me anything, because you can't tell me how much glass, metal or paper I'm giving you.'

"But if I set up a system under which I charge you a certain amount per pound to pick up your trash and then give you a certain credit per pound for recycling, you would be more inclined to recycle," he says. "You would work at it and get better at it because I've made a little bit of extra work worth something to you."

Executives with Hardy Instruments Inc., San Diego, essentially agree - with several variations on the theme. "Legal-for-trade scales are one way of varying rates," says Hardy's Dave Ness. "And we're seeing a real increase in variable rate structures in the municipal collection markets. For example, many municipalities are implementing radio frequency identification systems that can help set rates fairly."

Hardy also has developed an early prototype for an automated, side-loading, weigh-in-motion scale. The prototype is not legal for trade; it has been tested and continues to undergo modifications.

"This is a difficult technology to develop," Ness explains. "We don't want to spend millions of dollars if it's not going to happen. But we're watching the market carefully, and if we think it is going to happen, then we'll spend the money. Overall, however, there is not enough interest in charging by weight to view it as a real trend, just yet."

On the other hand, Ness continues, almost all haulers want an accurate picture of each account's weight. Some are tracking weight and auditing accounts with uncertified scales. Others are tracking weights with legal-for-trade scales.

"Those companies want the assurance that their scale is accurate," he explains. "This has led to what I believe is an exciting trend for us: The managers of better companies now are basing fees on assumptions about how heavy the account is going to be. And they are asking an important question: 'If you use a scale somewhere in the process of setting rates, does that scale have to be legal-for-trade?'

"Some haulers are beginning to think there is a potential that this issue eventually will be raised," he continues. "As a result, they are buying legal-for-trade scales now as a form of insurance against future problems."

Who will win the debate between weight management and charging by weight?

No one can say just yet. But the hour of reckoning grows a bit closer every year.