There are generally three options for building a public works fleet.

New trucks are good when the alternative is three engine code lights in a week and/or lost time waiting for your truck to be serviced. Used equipment could mean buying somebody else’s problems. Refurbished vehicles offer something new in an old package: trucks that perform just as well at a cheaper price.

In 2012, when I was hired to oversee public works in a small New Jersey town, most municipalities wouldn't think of refurbishing a solid waste truck with more than 20 years of service. But I had more than two decades of experience and have always thought outside the box.

Among numerous challenges, the most obvious was the lack of garbage trucks available to fulfill our collection responsibilities. My first week on the job, our mechanic retired a 1990 rear loader and parked it next to another 1991 rear loader that was already out of service. Both were deemed unsafe to operate and too costly to repair.

The town’s governing body had approved the purchase of a 2012 rear-loader for around $225,000 shortly before I arrived, but we needed two more garbage trucks.

With three automated garbage trucks and two rear-loader trucks to serve a population of more than 9,000 citizens, borrowing a truck from neighboring towns had become the norm when breakdowns occurred. I was uncomfortable with this, though; I felt we needed to be self-supporting and not rely on others to make up for our deficiency.

Looking no further than our own yard

I decided the 1991 rear-loader could be made serviceable without having to do a complete refurbish. We replaced the tires and brakes for $3,000 and made some suspension repairs. It still looked a little rough around the edges, but was safe to use for brush and bulk collection and would be a valuable backup truck during breakdowns.

Now we needed just one more truck.

Further analysis of the 1990 rear-loader uncovered the need for suspension work as well as replacing the engine, tires, brakes, a broken axle, rotted and rusted body parts—and, of course, a new paint job. The frame and cab were in great shape with normal wear and tear, but no signs of fatigue that are sometimes evident on large trucks. It was simply tired after two decades of hauling trash.

To confirm the truck hadn’t reached the end of its usable life, I consulted with many frame, body, and engine specialists about potential repairs. They assured me it could live on and serve our town for many years to come.

If I could convince the mayor and council that refurbishing the truck would be half the cost of buying one, we’d have the third and final truck to complete our fleet. While presenting the idea, some were automatically on board while others had questions like, “Are we sure we want to put that much money into a truck that’s more than two decades old?”

I explained that the older, non-computerized truck technology was reliable, and mechanics would be able to fully restore it to service. Our department would also be able to perform traditional maintenance more easily because the truck has few computerized components. They put their faith in my suggestion and approved $90,000 for the project.

Rather than hiring one shop to do all the repairs, we subbed them out to several reputable specialists. While one mechanic was an expert on engine repair, another was more experienced with the unique body work needed for garbage trucks. After obtaining necessary quotes from various vendors and transporting the truck from place to place, we have a functioning rear-loader that looks brand new.

The process took about nine months, but we were willing to sacrifice the time to get the best quality work at the best value. The refurbished 1990 truck has been in service for almost two years and will provide residents with many more years of reliable trash collection. The 1991 rear loader used for brush and bulk collection has been back in full-time service for almost four years.

Refurbishing the 1990 rear loader saved about $125,000. Repairing the 1991 rear loader enabled us to collect more brush and bulk trash. But maintaining a public works fleet isn’t just about the dollars you spend. Having the equipment you need to do the job is a priceless investment, and buying new isn’t always the answer.