In 1998, the sanitation department of Muncie, Ind., racked up $384,000 in workers' compensation claims, the majority of which were related to injuries from lifting bulky items into refuse trucks. By 2006, claims were down to $38,000. Superintendent Bobby Smith attributes much of the reduction to the department's increased use of grapple trucks.
Like Smith, solid waste managers across the country are adding grapple trucks—also called knucklebooms—to their fleets to enhance efficiency and reduce crew injuries. Most grapple trucks require only one operator instead of the three or more required to manually load bulky items into a rear loader or trailer. Pick-up cost per ton can drop 50% when a city converts to a grapple truck, and the machines are versatile.
“You can use a grapple truck for almost anything,” says Dean Scharmen, public services director for Indian Rocks Beach, Fla., who uses the machine for roadside cleanup and sidewalk and utility maintenance in addition to trash collection.
Like all equipment, selecting the combination of truck body and tool that will best serve a community's population and density is key to getting the most out of a grapple truck.
Sprawling and rural areas with minimal population, larger cities where trash isn't set out in high concentrations, and communities with call-in collections are well suited to this traditional configuration, the most popular because of its ease of use: It requires just one operator/driver to load, haul, and dump trash.
Cities with minimal or occasional bulky collections that already own a rolloff or hooklift truck can build the loader/body onto skids so it can be dismounted and stored when not in use. Removable grapple loaders are convenient because you only use them when you need them. The city of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, first used its hooklift-mounted grapple loader for flood cleanup. Since then, says Gary McClure, solid waste and recycling operations manager, the vehicle has been used by other departments for roadside cleanups, catch-basin cleanout, and clearing drainage ditches and waterways. Because it's versatile, requires less labor, and can be detached from the vehicle when not needed, the vehicle has contributed to significant equipment and manpower cost savings.
The two-cab, rear steer system is good for high-volume route collection. The driver uses the chassis cab to drive across town and, after reaching the route, changes to the rear-facing upper cab to load trash. The upper cab has controls for steering, acceleration, braking, air conditioner, and horn, plus twin joystick controls for loader operation. The driver trails and loads into a haul truck. When full, the haul truck departs for the landfill, and an empty one takes its place. The practice allows the grapple truck to continuously remain on the route; the catch is that it requires more supervision to coordinate routing and movement of haul trucks.
The city of Houston currently has 12 rear steer grapple trucks. Daniel Guiterrez, deputy director of solid waste, says the vehicles have helped the department attain loading average of 5 tons per hour. Other cities have experienced similarly high productivity with their rear steers. Each of Homestead, Fla.'s three rear steers hauls approximately 25 to 30 tons a day. And Corpus Christi, Texas, has eight such vehicles that load between 28 and 31 tons a day while sorting at the curb.