Scales and Weights at MRFs and Transfer Stations Where Do All Those Data Go
A look at how automated data management gives customers the information they need on the spot.
No doubt about it: The information age is upon us, with the collection, manipulation, and dissemination of data more and more the basis of decision-making. Data collection and management programs developed by scales manufacturers and independent software design firms offer MSW personnel involved with materials recycling facilities (MRFs) and transfer stations - everyone from bean counters to operations personnel - a chance to review/manage/manipulate data from the scale house in a way that enhances the value of the information and suggests new opportunities.
For some companies, this means organizing information already in their PCs so that data from the scales can be used in billing, collection, and route management and to increase operational efficiency. For others who have already "turned on" those specialized modules in their PC software packages, the challenge comes to provide adequate linkages to other software packages so the information is accessible to those who can utilize it in reports and long-range planning and perhaps - as suggested by Bud Latta, director of engineering, processing, and disposal for the City of Edmonton, AB's Waste Management Branch - to close the waste management loop.
"Information is a hot commodity," Latta observes. "Everybody's got questions. Everybody wants information, and because they're used to computers and the Internet, they want it right now." Latta says his operation looks at establishing (at a minimum) a two-level data-sharing system that would include a companywide Intranet to make it possible for all employees, from high-level managers to operations personnel, to be working off the same up-to-date data. "That way if someone calls our PR person, or a councilman calls someone at one of our operations, they won't get different information. We have the functionality available in the software we have now. It's just a matter of getting an IT [information technology] person to set it up."
"I look at the industry as being in a third generation of automation," says Jon Tarrant of Paradigm Software LLC in Baltimore, MD. "I think of the first generation as the software that gave us computerized data-entry forms, printed tickets, and maybe the ability to automatically open the cash drawer - basically a glorified cash register. The second generation was the ability to run some reports beyond the basic data and analyze what we reported. I see the third generation as software that allows our customers to put the data they collect into the hands of their customers.
"One of the things I see as I go around the country is that it's not enough anymore just to offer good rates. Our customers have to give their customers some additional incentive to use to their facility. This can be the ability to get to the customer quickly the information about their loads: tonnage information, for example, or the number of loads per day, where they came from or what time the load came in, and how long their equipment was on-site.
"Think about it. If you could have all of your information about the previous day's transactions, you could at least know how much you're going to be billed for that day's worth of business at a particular facility, and this could give you a tremendous edge over your competitors. Think of the benefits to municipalities if they were able to provide their citizens with up-to-date monthly or weekly figures on how much material was processed at a facility and how much revenue was being brought in without the staff having to generate reports and fax them out. That's where I see the next generation going. That's what we're driving to provide our customers."
In this third era of automated data management, information culled off the scales at transfer stations and MRFs by packaged or custom-designed software allows managers to easily and accurately track waste diversion, increase their dispatch and route management efficiency, track vertical integration of services, and provide a record of the combined transactions from MRFs and transfer stations as part of larger operations. Data that are properly collected, managed, and consulted can help maintain a more effective and cost-efficient day-to-day waste management operation and provide a sound basis for forecasting trends and planning for future needs.
Data Management 101
At its most elemental, automated weighing allows the verification of basic transfer and sorting transactions. Weighing inbound loads, with stored tare weights or when combined with outbound weighing after tipping, allows managers to compile an exact record of what a facility takes in (particularly important if you want to monitor and/or bill outside haulers), while weighing loads bound for a recycling facility or a landfill offers a window on transfer costs and verification of charges at disposal facilities.
Penny Erickson, operations supervisor for Portland, OR's Regional Environmental Management Division, had this in mind when she updated one of the municipality's two transfer stations. Based on the success of the automated inbound weighing operation installed at the Metro South transfer station, located in a high-growth area of the community, Erickson replaced an old scale and added software (Weightronix Scales and Information Systems Inc.'s WeighMaster-EZ) to weigh loads outbound to the landfill or recycling plant. "About three years ago, we implemented ISI's tag system, which allowed us to automate probably 85% of the incoming loads brought in by commercial haulers," recalls Erickson. "We've increased efficiencies almost a ton in the last year and a half. Fifteen-hundred pounds over a year is about a quarter-million dollars' savings to us. Now we're going to use the same automated system for the outbound transactions and couple the two together to increase efficiencies a little more."
The two transfer stations are municipally owned but run by independent contractors (one good reason to weigh inbound loads). Although designed for 400 tpd, each facility is doing 1,500-1,800 tpd, about 30,000 tons a month. (The recent automation allows Metro South to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week.) What's unusual about the Portland operation is that contract commercial haulers collect only 40% of the waste that the two transfer stations process. The rest is self-haul, which can total up to 900 customers in a busy summer weekend at the Metro South station, for a total of about 376,000 customers last year. Unlike the automated scales used by the commercial haulers, where the truck drives onto the scale and is immediately recognized by the software and weighing proceeds, the self-haul system is manual. It is managed as a one-time transition wherein the vehicle is weighed at arrival and the customer leaves a deposit and then settles up based on the difference between inbound and outbound weights.
Billing and rate changes for the automated scale customers are handled in WeighMaster's various data-based look-up files, one of which tracks approved trucks, another the approved accounts. When an operator enters an ID number, the system verifies the number and cross-references it to the account information. Truck and tag numbers are unique, which makes for efficient tracking of transaction activity. "It's very user-friendly," remarks Erickson. The database file is reconciled on-site each day and sent via e-mail to the accounting office, which uploads a version of the information for billing. Rates for waste types are entered into a rate table. And despite the differences in operations, data from the manual scales are integrated with the data from the automated system into one database file to provide an overall view of facility operation.
"We're working now with ISI to utilize its Windows office package," says Erickson, "which will allow us to easily reconcile the data and make the range of reports and queries we're capable of virtually endless - anything from totals for the day to individual hauler accounts for the year to self-haul totals versus commercial loads."
Scale data also provide the basis for feedback to the commercial haulers, although not in the format Erickson would like. "Currently haulers get a monthly statement that tracks all their transactions at our facilities," she explains. "We have discussed giving them this information in electronic format so they can manipulate it and get information on changing or adding routes, adding more equipment, or checking on personnel efficiency. Now if they want to track that data truck by truck, they have to hand-enter the information into some sort of database and do the research."
In a similar manner, the City of Scottsdale, AZ's Solid Waste Management Division installed a totally automated system in its one transfer facility, combining Cardinal Scale's software with that company's scales. The system uses tare weights for city-operated trucks that collect about 500 tpd of solid waste on routes that are run Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday (collecting commingled recycling Thursday and Friday). Before building the transfer station, all collection was direct haul to landfills or the recycling facility. The new scales keep track of inbound and outbound loads, with drivers also weighed at the landfill and recycler so the data can be integrated with the totals from the transfer station for a more accurate picture of the city's diversion totals (currently 30%) and to track recycling trends. According to James Livingston, area waste management service coordinator, the tallies at the transfer station also help keep tabs on how much each hauler collects and help provide a more accurate view of the city's overall waste management costs. The data also help to track transfer station use to determine a target date for expansion (the facility was built with half of a second tunnel completed). "We are trying to be proactive," states Livingston, "planning for a facility that will serve us well for the next 30 years and keep the money in the community." He notes another benefit of the automated weighing system: It functions as a deterrent against unauthorized haulers dumping at the transfer station instead of at the landfill. "We want to make sure that we're not taking in waste from the direct-haul system," says Livingston, "because it costs us an extra $6 to transfer anything that comes in here."
Weighing, for Report's Sake
In Las Vegas, NV, which grows at the rate of 5,000 new residents a month, Republic Services of Southern Nevada designed its own software to interface with the Mettler Toledo scales. It recently installed them at two new, two-tunnel transfer stations planned with route data from the company's first generation of customized scales software. (Mettler provides its own software, WinBridge, but Republic Services programmer Eric Stewart says the company began custom designing programs years back and stuck with it. Currently the Nevada facility maintains a nine-person data processing department, including five programmers.)
The company has exclusive contracts with the City of Las Vegas and several surrounding municipalities to collect residential solid waste and operate a landfill. Currently, they only weigh loads inbound and use the information internally for a twice-daily operations report. According to Stewart, who based his Windows update of the company's original DOS program on his own experience as a dispatcher, one advantage of the system is that tracking what comes across the scales provides a picture of what's happening in the field. "When the truck comes onto the scales, the reading goes straight into the computer, which takes some of the work off the dispatcher who used to enter the data manually," he explains. "Additionally, we used to track when it was a truck's last trip in, which ramp it was directed to, things like that. Now once the truck is registered by the scales and the truck or rolloff box number is entered, that information is immediately available. I put this capability in the new software, along with some other refinements the dispatchers requested, so now when the truck comes across the scales, the dispatchers can hit a button and the computer will tell them who's on it, what the route is, who the foreman is, and so on."
Management, the shift foreman, and dispatch receive copies of the twice-daily reports. Stewart is in the process of developing programming that will allow users to call up the daily data using a range of dates, thereby creating a customized weekly or monthly report. How are the reports used? "Weighing income loads helps us keep track of how each route is doing," says Stewart. "Based on the numbers generated in the daily reports, for example, we were able to evaluate collection routes and select the most efficient sites for the new transfer stations. We had trucks driving all over the city that were coming back to a transfer station miles from their routes." Currently, both new transfer stations operate only one tunnel. Presumably scales information will be used to determine when it's the right time to open the second tunnel and perhaps to update the company's third facility.
Keeping It in the Family
For a company like Allied Waste, the scales data it collects using Weigh-It software from Trux Management Systems (Cambridge, ON) is the basis for three critical functions: billing, tracking integrated service, and verifying special waste rates. Mike Kikkert, infrastructure manager for the Allied Waste Scale Systems Support Group in Crestwood, IL, calls the software versatile enough to handle both the debit and credit applications auditors call for. "What you have in an operation our size is hundreds of installations all around the country that can be very different in the way they operate," says Kikkert. "Much of our business is intercompany, but we have a rather large quantity of third-party customers as well, and we want to track our transactions accurately.
"We view the weight process as two pieces. We apply the generic term Œticketing' to the first part of the process, Œbilling' to the other side of it. Typically we will group the remote ticketing locations together and bill at a central location where the data are tied to software that allows us to view our Windows applications remotely. So one side of the operation sits there all day at the scale house and generates transactions. At the end of the day, it communicates with a central database so the transactions can be billed. While it's communicating, it checks to see if there are any new customers or new rates for materials or new approvals for special waste at our landfills.
"We then use the information to keep track of the intercompany-versus-outside transactions, which vary with individual facilities. Everyone in a ticketing system is set up as a unique number, but Weigh-It allows us to use its coding structure to identify in one report outbound data at any level for company versus third-party inbound. This is important since Allied prides itself on the amount of vertical integration of waste it achieves; that is, that a high percentage of company-collected waste goes to company transfer stations and landfills. We also use the information for budgeting purposes. We are constantly tracking the amount of real billed dollars for third-party customers."
Similar to everyone else we spoke with, Kikkert wasn't much concerned about using scales data to track cheating on the part of inbound haulers or outbound transfer agents. "The potential always exists, depending on the personnel, but the way we've structured the data, customer approvals can only be entered by the remote billing stations. Ticketing stations don't have the ability to enter customer approvals or rates." Finally, Allied uses weight data to track landfills that accept special wastes and to facilitate its own corporate special waste rates approval process. Centralizing the database allows the company to authorize or get approval for the various wastestreams at each facility.
Tracking Multiple Functions
In Turlock, CA, population 50,000, Mike Billington, comptroller of Turlock Recycling Company, Turlock Scavenger Company, Turlock Transfer Company, and Turlock Sorting, relies on integrated data from two different scales to keep track of operations and track the overall efficiency of the multiple, independently run companies he oversees. Billington, a Paradigm Software customer since 1998, gradually expanded the system's applications as the company expanded operations. Management uses the data to generate billing, for tracking diversion (and thereby comply with state law), and for customer feedback. The hauling operation has a contract with the city and the county to collect solid waste but also takes in self-haul. Turlock Scavenger picks up commingled recyclables and delivers them to Turlock Sorting, where they are then shuttled to Turlock Recycling. There is also a separate collection route for baled cardboard, and the company purchases recyclables off the street.
"We have a contract with the city to pick up garbage and a separate contract for a portion of the county," says Billington. "We have agreements with the county to haul our waste to the waste-energy facility and another contract with the farmer we haul our compost to." All of which amounts to a lot of data to track and manage. Last year Turlock's residential collection of all materials amounted to about 27,000 tons. The company uses what it calls a team approach for the three pickups it makes for solid waste, greenwaste, and recyclables. The drivers operate on a grid system. As soon as one truck is loaded and makes a run to the transfer station, the driver calls in and the supervisor directs another truck to start at the point where the first truck left off. The idea, Billington explains, is to minimize trips to the transfer station and keep drivers working the same amount of time.
Inbound solid waste collected in company trucks is weighed using tare weights while any self-haul is weighed inbound and outbound after tipping. The buyback recycling center, which takes in recyclables from the street, uses regular platform scales. The two different scales were "a prescription for error," says Sam Paulissian, the companies' CIO. "We track the weight on both scales and export out of Paradigm and into our accounting package to provide billing information to the city for customers who use drop boxes instead of the usual residential containers and to bill our county customers. This includes the data from the scales as well as extra pickups and delivery charges. For the hauling company, we also want to do some integration with another program that does our work orders and our routing. Right now, after the truck pulls onto the scale and the tag is printed, someone has to turn around and put the information into the other system. We want to get to the point where, when the truck pulls onto the scale, this pulls up the work order number so that the attendant doesn't have to reenter the information into the Paradigm system."
Billington says managers track the scale tags and run reports daily, weekly, or monthly. He uses the monthly reports, but operations people monitor the totals more routinely, checking on volumes of materials collected and processed. They also balance routes and track what goes to the waste facility and the landfill. A particular challenge included modifying the software to be used with the scales in the recyclables buyback center, where the volume and pace of transactions proved unusual compared to traffic on the truck scales. Furthermore, there was a fundamental goal to keep the time spent on individual transactions to a minimum. Paradigm also added a second number counter to solve the problem of consecutive certified numbered tags on the automated system that are required to comply with state diversion regulations.
Closing the Loop
In Edmonton, a city of 650,000, the challenge of managing integrated functions emerged on a grand scale with the establishment of the municipality's new integrated waste management center, which includes a state-of-the-art MRF for processing commingled bagged and source-separated or semi-source-separated recyclables (currently about 30,000 tpy), a 13.2 million ton-capacity engineered landfill, the largest co-composter in North America (design capacity: 200,000 tpy), a leachate treatment plant, and a landfill gas recovery system. The city's sewage sludge management facility is also located on-site. Although the city owns both the compost facility and the recycling plant, they are operated under private-sector contract. Residential waste is collected 50/50, in city trucks and by contract haulers, and is transferred to the compost facility, which also composts 22,000 dry tpy of biosolids. Commercial waste, collected by outside haulers (maintained as account holders in the city's database), goes to the landfill.
"The stars aligned," remarks Bud Latta, describing the derivation of the integrated facility. "We were running out of landfill space. We had a pretty green city council at the time; the citizens were sick and tired of hearing about our efforts to find a new landfill and we needed a solution to biosolids management. Currently we're achieving a 70% diversion of the wastestream between composting and recycling."
The main scale house for the operation is a four-scale installation - one scale on either side - usually configured with one for inbound and the other for outbound loads, plus two additional scales in the outside lanes. Each can be run in an attended mode and has a complete workstation. The software is Geoware from PC Automation (Waterloo, ON), which the city previously installed in its Clover Bar Landfill. Inbound loads are processed using an automated traffic control system and a radio frequency-based automatic vehicle identification system, also from PC Automation.
Planning is a primary use of the data. "We do an ongoing planning exercise," says Latta, "where we look at trends both in recyclables and waste. The compost plant is new for us, so we're looking especially close at those data because we want to see where we're headed with quantities. We want to know, for example, how they vary seasonally and which outside influences have an effect on the amount of waste that shows up at the plant in a given week. We want to be prepared both from the collecting and processing side. We do waste characterization studies on an ongoing basis and take the waste characterization samples and apply those percentages to the total stream to look at trends in waste types: more paper, less organics - those types of things. We've done a lot of long-range planning the last few years, and having good data certainly is critical to making the right decisions.
"Besides long-range planning, the way data are collected and managed allows us to develop reports for executive information and particularly to provide high-level summaries for managers so we can answer questions from the city council like tons processed in the last month. I can sit in my office miles from the facility and if I want to know how many tons went to the compost facility the day before, I can generate the report without having to set foot in the facility or ask anybody a question. We also use the data for rate setting. We need to keep track of where the money is being spent so we can factor it into developing future rates for the end customer."
In addition, the way data are collected and analyzed led Latta to brainstorm future efficiencies, such as managing material that can't be processed in the recycling plant. "We tracked this and found there's a lot of plastic and large chunks of wood in that wastestream. We're projecting that we could produce a fuel gas from it. If we are able to implement this process, we'll be diverting 95% of our residential waste from landfills and producing energy and compost. The center is a good example of integrated waste management: doing what makes sense for each component of the wastestream. If we're able to do the gasification of the residual after the compost operation, we will be taking the best value for each component of the stream and managing it in a way that makes the most sense for that component. And, yes, it all goes back to the ability to manage data: knowing what you've got and where it's going."
Author's Bio: Journalist Penelope Grenoble O'Malley is a frequent contributor to Forester Media.