Launch Slideshow

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Is automated collection for you?

Is automated collection for you?

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    Photo: O'Fallon Environmental Services

    Left: O'Fallon, Mo.'s, Heil model 7000 trucks speed the waste collection for the town, which is growing rapidly.

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    Photo: City of Florence

    This 2003 Mack MR with a McNeilus 40-yard bed is picking up trash at an apartment complex in Florence, Ala.

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    Photo: McNeilus

    Above: Leach's Pendulum Packer, a packing system that allows cans to be dumped while the pendulum is in motion, is standard on the Crocodile model. Photo: Leach. Right: Houston recently added 21 AutoReach automated side loaders from McNeilus. A tandem gear pump allows all functions—including the packing arm, tailgate, and ALLCAN Grabber—to be operated at idle, minimizing noise levels and lowering fuel consumption.

Changes For Employees

Automated refuse collection vehicles may have a negative connotation for many workers and drivers, though. Instead of the two or three people required for a semi-automated truck, typically only one driver is needed for fully automated vehicles. Drivers of automated collection vehicles often have better conditions than those working in a semi-automated environment. Rather than slogging through the rain and cold, operators of automated refuse collectors spend their shifts in climate-controlled comfort, picking up and dumping containers with an automated arm, seldom leaving the vehicle cab.

“The biggest hurdles of the job involve controlling costs and personnel issues,” said David Koonce, manager of sanitation and landfill operations for the city of Florence, Ala. Dealing with these personnel issues is often a hairy job for public works management.

Turnover for manual collection is often high, but moving workers to automated vehicles can help reduce this problem. To offset the problem of “losing” valuable employees when a department moves to automated trucks, many public works directors offer options. Some employees are offered early retirement, while others are moved to different departments or even within the same department (such as to a new recycling team).

Automated truck drivers are often paid more than their counterparts. For example, in Little Rock, drivers and laborers are union eligible. “They are covered by the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees,” said Atkins. “My positions and their pay ranges are as follows: refuse collector (a laborer): $17,492 to $23,986; solid waste equipment operator I (entry-level rear loader driver): $18,595 to $25,539; solid waste equipment operator II (experienced rear loader driver and/or roll-off driver): $19,663 to $27,761; and solid waste equipment operator III (automated side loader operator and/or knuckleboom driver): $20,771 to $29,473.”

So, again, why switch to automated vehicles if you have to pay more in wages? Actually, a public works department probably won't have to pay more in wages, since overtime will be cut or eliminated, training costs will decrease due to less turnover, and the overall number of drivers and helpers will decrease.

Other Considerations

There are many pros and cons to automating a trash fleet. A city may opt to provide its residents with uniform trash cans, costing anywhere from $35 to $50 each per can. This is often a large up-front cost, but these containers often last more than 10 years, making them expensive for the immediate budget, but less expensive in later years. Some departments mount video cameras or back-up warning signals on their trucks, increasing safety. These have high initial costs but can reduce injuries and accidents, lowering insurance and decreasing sick days.

Maintenance of automated vehicles is often higher, since the hydraulics of the lift system have to be maintained regularly. “Our biggest hurdle is probably vehicle maintenance,” said Atkins. “Side loaders are more expensive to operate and have more maintenance issues than a rear loader. Summertime heat here in the South aggravates the problem.”

Hiring qualified drivers can be an issue, though many departments like to train and promote from within. “At times hiring qualified employees becomes a problem, especially drivers with a commercial driver's license,” said Atkins. “Although I've been able to increase the pay scale three times over the past six years, we still don't compete with private companies. We offer what incentives we can with taxpayer's money; however, our options are limited.”