Putting Your Best Spec Forward: The Art and Science of Specifying Refuse Trucks

Msw Bug Web

While some equipment managers have preferences for certain manufacturers or components because of quality and reliability experience, there may be times when telling a vendor how to build that truck might not be the right approach. The debate between performance versus design rages. Coupled with that debate is the need to standardize the fleet to improve maintenance costs, so there’s a desire to go with one brand at the potential exclusion of other equally qualified vendors.

The private sector doesn’t face the challenge that the public sector deals with—that of drafting comprehensive specifications that must go out to bid. But both sectors must have a clear understanding of what they want on that next sideloader, otherwise they might end up with a piece of equipment that is an operational and maintenance nightmare. In the end, it all boils down to the art and science of specifying refuse trucks in order to purchase the ideal truck for collecting trash, greenwaste, or recyclables.

The typical refuse truck is the sum of its parts from a variety of manufacturers and builders. There are a half-dozen chassis manufacturers that assemble components such as engines, transmissions, and drive trains from submanufacturers into a brand-name unit. On the body side, there are a dozen national and regional manufacturers assembling frontloaders, automated and manual sideloaders, and rearloaders of varying capabilities and capacities. The science comes from understanding how all of the components fit together to optimize vehicle performance. The art comes from creating a combination that works best for your application.

Starting With a Blank Canvas

In order to develop an appropriate specification, it’s important to collect and digest information relating to the latest technology. “Prior to writing specs, I’m constantly gathering information from numerous manufacturers to keep up with what they’re doing,” notes Rick Carnley, manager of sanitation fleet services for the City of St. Petersburg, FL. “That’s a very critical area for me: keeping up with it on a daily basis to see if there’s any changes in the technology. Once it’s time to write the spec for the equipment, I pretty much make a decision based on all its components. I decide at that point what I want, and I write the spec accordingly.”

Carnley uses a variety of sources to obtain information, including vendor sales representatives, trade journals, and equipment shows. The Internet, with its proliferation of manufacturers’ Web sites, allows him to stay current on a daily basis. “I use the Internet extensively. I check 25-30 sites a week, and in a lot of cases, I will check the same site weekly to see if there have been any changes. We want to keep up with what’s going on, especially with engines, because there’s a lot of changes going on in engines right now due to EPA standards.”

In addition to regularly visiting the Web sites of those manufacturers whose products he uses, Carnley also conducts keyword searches to scope the market. “I’m a real nut when it comes to keeping up with technology. If I’m looking for the axles that I run on the trucks, instead of going to the [manufacturer’s] site, I’ll just search for ‘axles’ and see what comes up. I do that quite a bit because we’ll find information that somebody, possibly even a user, has put up [in terms of] problems or situations he’s gotten into that he couldn’t resolve. There are numerous articles that will come up by using a keyword search such as ‘axles.’ Sometimes I accidentally find things I wasn’t specifically looking for that will distract me, but it’s useful information.”

Collecting information on the various components and equipment is only half of what is needed to prepare a specification. The other half of the equation is understanding the concerns of the personnel who will be operating and maintaining the vehicle. “We work very closely with equipment-services management,” states Wayman Pearson, key business executive for solid waste with the City of Charlotte, NC. “I’ve developed a process that’s really geared toward the user. We primarily start with focus groups; I’m talking about the operators and the front-line supervisors. We’re structured in four zones, so we’ll pull some people from each zone and set up focus groups, key operators, and a supervisor. Basically, we find that even from zone to zone the type of input from the operators is pretty consistent. We ask them what they are looking for, and usually there’s a reference to the existing piece of equipment, what’s right with it, what’s wrong with it. Then we sit down with equipment services and let that information evolve into what it means in equipment terms. Then we go back to the employees [and say], ‘Here is what you said you need,’ so it’s kind of a closed-circle–type process. We have found that if the operator is not satisfied with a piece of equipment and feels that he hasn’t had any input, he doesn’t take care of that piece of equipment as well. Part of our process is to ensure that they take ownership of that piece of equipment once it arrives. It’s very, very intense in terms of the input from the employees.”

Special considerations relating to the environment where the truck will be operating must also be taken when developing specifications. For example, in Plano, TX, the city provides the bulk of its collection in alleys. “We have a given reach where the arm extends beyond the truck,” states Darrell Cokely, technical coordinator. “We have hardly any street pickup, so we’re very limited on what we can use. We have to be sure that the arm can reach out, pick up the container, retract itself after dumping the container, and then move down that alleyway without damaging fences, hydrants, and gas meters. We also insist on a certain amount of dexterity with the arm; we need sensitive hydraulics so the operator has a really fine control over the operation of the arm.”

Having the vendors demonstrate their product as part of the specification development allows everyone to see if it will meet needs. “When we went to automation, we started demonstrating different pieces of equipment,” recalls Pearson. “Most of the manufacturers come with their standard arm, so that’s part of your overall evaluation of what piece of equipment you buy in terms of the body. In terms of the dump ratio, time, and motion, study how many seconds from the time it grabbed the cart to [when it] set it down. Some are faster. You look at your own particular situation. Do you need a longer extension based on your geographic areas? You don’t necessarily look at an arm in isolation. You look at it really in conjunction with the overall piece of equipment you’re going to buy.”

Translating these special operational needs into a workable specification that passes muster with the purchasing manager is a delicate balancing act. “Since we have a very specialized fleet for the alley pickups, most of the vendors are not willing to change their tool and dies to meet our needs in the design of the equipment,” states Cokely. “There’s only one or two cabs and chassis out there that can meet the turning radius that we have to have in these alleyways. We have had complaints of the specifications being too tight. What we’ve done is studied the market and the operations here and what we must have to do the job. I have to justify the entire specification. Anyone can bid on it, but they have to meet our specification.”

Working closely with the equipment vendors in the development of the specification allows them the opportunity to understand your operation. In the private sector, this can expedite purchases of equipment, especially for fast-growing operations. “We’re a new company, and we’re moving forward at a very rapid pace,” observes William VanderVelde, president of Premiere Waste and Recycling Inc. in Chicago, IL. “We get a couple of contracts signed, and it’s like, ‘Holy smokes, we need another piece of equipment.’ We start double-shifting the equipment we have. We usually need [new equipment] pretty quick. The problem with going through the dealers is that you have to wait so long to get what you’re looking for. It seems like most of the equipment they keep in stock is all stripped down and it’s always missing quite a few things you need. You also learn which dealer you can rely on. We’ve dealt with some that keep wasting your time with stuff you don’t want, but they’re just trying to sell you something. I guess after you weed out those guys, you know who you can trust, you call them, and they call you when they get what you’re looking for.”

Learning From “Lessons Learned”

The scientific method requires much trial and error, and both public and private waste haulers have developed their current specifications through such a process. As a result, specifications have evolved into statements of what works or didn’t work in each particular operation. While the basic components of chassis and body are the same from operation to operation, still evolving is the art of assembling each component into a total package that a driver can comfortably and safely operate for 40 or 50 hours. “Based on my experience, one of the things I started to focus on more and more is making sure our operator, who’ll be in that truck over the span of nine to 10 years, is comfortable,” states Pearson. “It might seem minor, but we spend a great deal of time on mirrors—do they give the driver great visibility? All those things really relate to how many accidents [the operator] has, and we find that his fatigue factor directly plays into accidents. We start with trying to ensure that the equipment is safe, comfortable, and productive.”

The advancement of technology can be a boon or bane to the operation of the truck as well. “One thing we have absolutely no control over is the air dryers we’re using on the vehicles,” Cokely points out. “These trucks do 1,000 homes a day each, and that’s a pretty heavy workload on the brake system. We had to maintain the air-dryer filters, and then we still had trouble with the carbon buildup in the air line between the compressor and the filter. We’re continuously looking for a way to solve that problem. Another problem that we have no control over is the new ABS systems on the brakes. We’ve had a couple of them come apart on us already, and the trucks are brand-new.”

While there is a tendency to spec the minimum requirements in order to control costs, such an approach can be short-sighted. For example, Carnley from the City of St. Petersburg has learned that requiring a higher horsepower than might be expected for the flat terrain of Florida can actually increase the life expectancy of the engines. “I’ve always had the belief that if you try to operate the engine at 90-95% of its capacity all the time, then the life of that engine has to decrease,” he states. “I feel that by adding horsepower and also requiring a higher-torque engine, that engine is never operated above 85-90% of its maximum capability; therefore, the life is extended. Also, fuel mileage is affected. We do see better fuel mileage with the higher-horsepower engines and especially with a loaded vehicle. The engine is not working as hard to pull that load because it does have additional horsepower that will help it get there.”

The bottom line in developing specifications is to get the piece of equipment that meets the needs of the operation. That truck has to be a profitable, maintainable unit for a long period of time. It has to be something that the drivers are satisfied with driving day in and day out. While what goes into the specification involves a lot of science, like any piece of art, once you’ve created it, you’re going to have to live with it for a long time.  Msw Bug Web

The Science of Alternative Fuels As more attention is turned toward air-quality concerns and the contribution of diesel exhaust to air pollution, the topic of alternative fuels immediately surfaces. Recent studies by the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) relating to diesel exhaust as a possible carcinogen have created a ground swell of interest in alternative fuel systems such as liquid natural gas (LNG) and compressed natural gas (CNG). currently the SCAQMD is looking to adopt a series of rules that would mandate the purchase of alternative-fuel vehicles for municipal fleets and private operators, such as refuse companies working under contract for municipalities. While the jury’s still out on the final outcome of the rule-making process, the impact of such an action will certainly reverberate across the country, affecting how refuse trucks may be specified in the future.One company that has stepped up to the alternative-fuels plate is Waste Management Inc. Over the last several years, the company has experimented with LNG- and CNG-fueled trucks in two separate regions of the country. At the company’s Washington, PA, operation, a fleet of seven Mack trucks operates on LNG. More recently, the company incorporated a fleet of CNG-fueled trucks at its Palm Desert operation. “We were in the process of renewing a franchise for refuse hauling, and the city was very interested in what we could do to start introducing natural gas trucks into our fleet,” explains Kent Stoddard, director of government affairs for the western area based in Sacramento, CA. “The city itself had been really aggressive. The transit district down there has gone to natural gas, and I think the postal vehicles in the area are natural gas, so there’s just been a real push in that particular community to provide for the cleanest conceivable vehicles. We started by getting a grant from the South Coast Air District to introduce natural-gas trucks; we started with 14 that we brought in. Now, once we got into that process, things really started happening at the state level.”

State regulation and laws began driving the process, including several lawsuits relating to diesel exhaust. “Several major grocery manufacturers were sued for failing to warn surrounding communities of exposure to diesel exhaust,” Stoddard recalls. “More recently, the State Air Resources Board designated diesel particulate as a toxic air contaminant and started a number of regulatory measures to try to reduce exposure to diesel exhaust. Finally, we have the proposal for the South Coast rules that says that public fleets, when they replace or they expand their fleets, shall do so with alternative fueled vehicles. There’s a lot of regulatory activity that has come about while we started demonstrating whether or not natural gas would work in our industry. We’re going to gain as much experience as we can with the cleanest fuels available, and we ultimately don’t know where all this is going to end up: natural gas, compressed natural gas, liquefied natural gas, clean diesel, hybrid, electric hybrids, ultimately fuel cells—let your imagination run wild. We do know that there’s tremendous pressure to develop and use the cleanest fuels that are technologically feasible in our industry.”

Waste Management worked with manufacturers to develop the engines and fuel systems needed to make CNG/LNG a reality. “We try to work closely with our engine and chassis manufacturers to really figure out what they could give us,” Stoddard points out. “We were so far ahead of the curve that it wasn’t necessarily ‘what we want,’ it’s ‘what in the world can you guys give us?’ We started with a gas engine and there was a whole bunch of issues—fouling plugs, some starting problems, and overheating problems. That was kind of the first-generation engine. Then we got to a second-generation engine, and for the manufacturers and us, we learned as we went. Now we’ve probably reached the point where we’ve gotten pretty comfortable with the engines we’re running. There were issues that came up, but working with the manufacturer, we got through all those to the point that now we don’t think a lot about those trucks being different or a weird or unusual part of our fleet. They’re now integrated into the fleet. We run them every day. They’re front-line vehicles. We expect the same performance out of them that we do our diesel fleet, and I would say we’re really getting it. So the distinction that they’re somehow experimental is, I think, to a large extent gone, and now they’re just a little different.”

Stoddard says that as alternative fuels become a part of the specifications for collection trucks, training of both drivers and mechanics is important to the program’s success. “We want everybody to understand what kind of properties the fuel has.” Safety training and monitoring systems within the shops are part of the infrastructure needed to support alternative fuels. “We have to make sure we’re building in the time so that the mechanics are really comfortable and understand both the diagnostic side of it as well as how to do the necessary maintenance work and repairs,” he stresses.

Stoddard is very excited about the potential for alternative fuels in the future but warns that the infrastructure to fuel these vehicles must be factored into the equation. “I think very few operators would want to immediately convert their whole fleet. You start by introducing these vehicles into your fleet, which does present a problem because you’re not using enough fuel to really warrant building your own onsite fueling station. What’s critical early on is figuring out how to partner with some other fleet or municipality that might be using natural gas or thinking about going to natural gas so that you at least have a temporary fueling option. You’re looking for an arrangement where, once you have enough trucks and you’re using a fair amount of fuel, you partner with an independent fuel provider that will front the capital, and you enter into a long-term fueling contract so you’re not having to front your own capital. You’re simply amortizing that over a 10-year fueling contract. Frankly, with today’s diesel prices, those contracts look pretty good. You might even save some money.”

Leveling the Playing FieldA common complaint by many manufacturers who respond to written specifications is that there is a tendency to write a specification for one particular brand. While the desire to maintain a standard as well as experience with individual components or systems can drive the process, it’s important to consider if the need to tell a manufacturer how to build the truck should outweigh what you want the truck to ultimately do. It becomes a balancing act for the specification writer.

“I think that a lot more intelligent decisions are being made,” remarks James Johnston, vice president and general manager for McNeilus Truck Company in Dodge City, MN. “I think it’s narrowing it down to your specific application, your labor issues, the cost of the equipment, and the budgets that are available. In the past, people got in the habit of buying this rearloader for the last 20 years. It’s common knowledge that a lot of specs are written around a few different products. That makes it very difficult for people to do open-minded decision-making. If the specs are written with small glitches so that not too many manufacturers can meet the spec, that kind of defeats the purpose of the spec process, doesn’t it?”

Over the past several years, the selection of engine and transmission manufacturers has actually shrunk, which limits the range of components available to specification writers. It almost harkens back to the era when Henry Ford offered any color the buyer wanted, provided it was black.

The drive to be more competitive has forced a change in the system. While once it was desirable to stick with what you know, being business-minded means continually analyzing the selection of equipment. “I think that the good-old-boy system of how we buy equipment is going away fast because it doesn’t make good common business sense,” observes Johnston. “If we lose a bid and we put down what we have to offer, but it really didn’t meet their needs, then so be it. If we lose a bid because of a relationship or because that’s the way it’s been for 20 years, then I’m very disgruntled. Everybody, including municipalities, needs to make good common business sense decisions. I see less and less of that good-old-boy system all the time, but it’s still very frustrating when you see a bid spec and there’s no way you can meet it, but there’s no way anybody else can meet it either. You know that good business sense hasn’t been portrayed.”

Kevin Watje, national marketing manager for Scranton Manufacturing/Nu Way in Scranton, IA, has also experienced the frustration of losing bids because of brand-preference spec writing. “The spirit of this spec writing or bidding process is to give us a fair chance, but it also gives the citizenry a competitive price on trucks. The mission for a municipality, as I see it, is to deliver goods and services to its taxpayers at the most efficient cost. They’ve said, ‘Let’s go out, take these trucks to bid, and try to get the most competitive price with the best deal.’ In essence, that really doesn’t happen in many, many cases. I was down in Missouri, and they actually took the highest bid on a frontloader, and it was $50,000 higher than the lowest bid. This was a community of about 20,000 people. When you buy something because you have a preference and you pay $50,000 more for it, what about the people who come to the meeting that night and want some money to help institute a new drug program to keep kids off drugs and they say no?”

Both Johnston and Watje encourage municipalities to look at what the equipment must do as opposed to how it should be built. Specifications that look at a combination of features designed to do the job and that are scored accordingly provide a more level playing field. “Out of 10 manufacturers, there’s perhaps one that might offer a substandard product to a bid, but on the whole, my competitors and I have pretty good equipment,” Watje remarks. “To be fair with everybody, it should probably be more of an open spec.”

Steve Bradshaw, vice president and general manager of Smart Truck Systems in Moreno Valley, CA, sees buyers getting smarter as the market forces them to be more competitive. Customers are doing more research and using manufacturers as one source of information among many. “Purchases of equipment are becoming more sophisticated. The days of photocopying a specification that somebody wrote 10 years ago and reusing it over and over are gone because things have changed. People are going on-line and getting specs off of the Internet. They’re doing their homework. They’re taking an active role in looking at how the equipment is going to be used and how it’s designed and how it’s going to serve the needs of their market.”

Part of that homework involves anticipating future requirements and talking to manufacturers in detail about how today’s equipment will measure up tomorrow. “With bridge laws and weight requirements becoming more and more strict, I think people are becoming more aware of how important the construction of refuse bodies is, in addition to the overall truck. If they’re buying equipment that’s going to have to last seven to 10 years, and legislation changes the legal load requirements on the roads that they run, they want to be ahead of the game. So when they specify trucks, we go over the kind and type of material and steel that we use,” says Bradshaw. In other cases, customers base specifications on performance—”The truck needs to do this number of lifts in x number of hours”—and leave it to the manufacturer to figure out how to make the vehicle best meet the performance requirement.

Although he acknowledges that manufacturers can’t predict the future with any greater accuracy than their customers can, Bradshaw points out that a company selling vehicles across the country often has a broader perspective on how legislation and performance requirements are changing. “People look to us to be knowledgeable on what’s happening in the industry. CNG [compressed natural gas] is a perfect example. In a specific area, there might not be any mandate. They can run regular diesel-powered trucks all day long and not have any problem, but they are interested in asking us what we hear, what’s going on in the rest of the world.”

Richard Kemner of RDK Truck Sales of Tampa, FL, which specializes in the sale of both new and used refuse equipment, feels that municipalities restrict themselves by the low-bid process. “In most cases, a municipality goes after low bid, but I take a different approach. Most municipalities are forced to try to reckon with the strip-down model due to their bidding. We educate them up front. You may spend another $2,000 getting the right transmission for your application. I’m after their trades. When I sell you the new truck, either today or five years from now, when you get that vehicle back in, that’s when I want it. My main business is the used business, but if I educate a municipality to get the right equipment up front, in the long run, it’ll be better off for me too. Basically, most municipalities have junk bids—that’s what I call them.”

Kemner looks toward improving the quality of the equipment that municipalities purchase up front in order to maximize the value of the truck when it comes off the line and goes out the door. “You encourage them to use it as a trade-in. If you don’t need it in your fleet any longer, I encourage you to get rid of it and spec in the right equipment. I’ll tell you what my honest opinion is on any equipment. The biggest thing is to get the right equipment in there for the job, get rid of your problems, cut your maintenance costs, and in the long run, we’ll all be better for it.”

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