Keeping trash trucks on the road continues to challenge maintenance departments in municipal and private refuse collections operations alike. From new technology to aging assets, shrinking budgets, and expanding safety and environmental regulations, mechanics are taking on more demands, and the demand for effective training has never been greater. If that observation sounds like hyperbole, don’t take our word for it. We have some of the busiest fleet managers and maintenance trainers here to advise us on the best strategies for staying ahead of the curve in these challenging times.
Start with Felix Espinoza, fleet manager for the city of Denver, CO. Denver’s refuse vehicle fleet numbers about 128 trucks and although they are part of a fleet of thousands of city vehicles, they have the toughest job and the challenges never let up. “They are probably our highest dollar maintenance costs,” says Espinoza. Much of that cost comes from the evolving equipment and staying current with new technology, both hardware and software, so Denver’s maintenance crews must adapt quickly. “There’s not a week that goes by that we don’t have some sort of training person in here. If it’s not an outside vender, it’s something organized by an internal department. Then we have environmental people, safety people, and HAZMAT people and outside vendors coming in when they have new engine monitors or new hydraulic systems, or whatever.”
Espinoza is proud of the fact that the maintenance department can keep up with the constant state of change, but it’s a tough balancing act. “We have mechanics and supervisors all screaming for training, and, yes, it’s disruptive and hard to take mechanics off the floor, but we don’t have much choice. We have repairs and, unfortunately, with something like a hydraulic system it has a two-year warranty. After that, we have to know what the heck we’re doing with them.”
One such hydraulic system resides in a Peterbilt Model 320 HLA hybrid-hydraulic refuse collection truck. In 2008, Denver was chosen as a pilot site for the 320 HLA and the equipment worked out so well that the city bought five more. The hybrid uses an Eaton hydraulic launch assist (HLA) system that stores energy from braking to assist (or launch) the truck during acceleration. The components of the system include a transfer case, accumulator, hybrid control unit, pump/motor, and reservoir. Obviously, it’s a bit more complicated than a standard drive train, and though repairs were handled under warranty in the past, Espinoza is depending on the training from Eaton to guide his crews when they take over repair responsibilities. “We had Eaton out here couple of times to do training and updates for our mechanics, and they’ve been very responsive to our needs,” says Espinoza.
The importance of training for Denver’s staff is no surprise to Brad Fraley, HLA product service manager, Eaton Vehicle Group, Southfield, MI. “Depending on the customer taking delivery, we’ll have a proactive approach and train them ahead of time and many want to be prepared before the truck is delivered,” says Fraley. The typical class size is around 10 people so there’s plenty of time for an instructor to interact with individual mechanics. In certain applications Eaton tailors the course to a specific end-user versus a dealership. “It’s different because the customer is more maintenance oriented while the dealers lean towards more heavy repairs,” says Fraley.
Good training can make a world of difference when it comes to the power takeoff unit (PTO), a critical component of refuse vehicles, according to Jeff King, marketing manager for Chelsea Products Division in Olive Branch, MS. “We are concerned about the distributor having the right knowledge and tools, and that leads to the mechanic that ends up doing installation and turning the wrench,” King explains. “We depend on good communication and put out bulletins to all our customers, whether they are builders or distributors.” New model year changes are cause for much of the technical information updates, and King cites wiring changes to Dodge Class 3, 4, and 5 vehicles as a typical example. “In 2011 Dodge had a change in the wiring, so we had to make a change in our wiring to be compatible. We need to put that information out to the customers so they have instructions on the proper way to install their PTO with the new wiring.”
The issue of wiring connects us quite appropriately to the growing use of complex electronic systems, and it’s a trend that makes training even more important for a company like Chelsea. “I’ve been doing this for 35 years, and the biggest thing I’ve seen in the last 10 years is the integration of the electronics into the vehicle,” says King. “It’s added a whole new level, so now the mechanic has to be trained in how to wire these things and he has to become something of an electrician.” Part of that training should include looking for the unexpected, as in a case that King encountered with sensors on a new Ford 2011 model. “The wiring and electronics presented some unique challenges, to put it mildly,” King recalls. “If the driver’s door wasn’t completely closed and the dome lights were on the electronics for the power takeoff engagement would not function properly.”
As hydraulic systems continue to evolve, the need for hydraulic oil monitoring and filtering becomes critical to performance and systems life, says Dan Schultz, new business development manager, Schroeder Industries, Leetsdale, PA. “The perception is that in a gear-pump system it doesn’t matter how much dirt is in the oil, because it doesn’t really push anything,” Schultz explains. “But compared to engine tolerances for particulates that run up into the four-hundredths of an inch range, hydraulic oil filtration is much more sensitive and captures particulates in the two-thousandths-of-an-inch to five-thousandths-of-an-inch range.” Schroeder’s answer to the problem is a full line of filtration products and systems, based on a condition-based maintenance program.
Condition monitoring helps to avoid downtime for repairs and higher maintenance costs. Moreover, it can keep a maintenance department out of trouble with the EPA and other regulatory agencies. “There are many regulations regarding keeping track of oil,” notes Schultz. “The EPA can come in and audit a shop and look at their incoming oil, and it must be supported by the oil that leaves the shop because the numbers need to correlate within some degree. So these trucks that are leaking and dripping and using 10 gallons of hydraulic oil every week are a source of unaccounted oil.” Schroeder recommends a program approach for getting the full benefit of extended oil life and lower maintenance costs. The program includes filtering bulk oil as it enters a holding tank and again before it’s pumped into the collection truck’s system.
The growing need for mechanics to become electricians may well indicate a turning point in how maintenance departments train and develop their staff, says Bob Nicholas, fleet director, for Waste Pro, Longwood, FL. Waste Pro is a solid waste and recycling company serving 60 locations throughout Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama. “We are moving into automated equipment, and there are several challenges beyond just greasing the parts,” says Nicholas. “Certainly the training to get the staff knowledgeable on grease points and frequency is minor compared to the challenge of finding electrical troubleshooting mechanics that can think through and spot issues.” At this point, Waste Pro relies on its supplier base at the distributor and OEM level to keep trucks on the road, but Nicholas says the company needs something more flexible because those resources aren’t there in the evenings when Waste Pro needs to get it done and have the trucks running for next morning. In the past, Wastepro had a system of annual meetings with maintenance managers, plus training for mechanics as needed, but not on a set schedule. That changed in April of 2011, as the company implemented a schedule of training sessions consisting of two to three per month on a variety of components and/or IT type processes.
Training from manufacturers and dealers will be included, but Nicholas observes that Waste Pro is crossing a threshold. “We’re transitioning from the kind of equipment that the typical mechanic could handle to a new generation of equipment that is going to make it very difficult for some mechanics to make that transition. I attended some of the training for the new automated arm equipment that has electronic controls, and I’ve experienced this first hand. I have been a mechanical engineer, and still it’s even hard for me to grasp.”
In Waste Pro’s case, the solution may lie in a new category of support person that has computer expertise and some electronics knowledge, yet they would not function as typical mechanics or technicians. Rather, they would advise mechanics and interface with manufacturers and dealers, finally handling administrative duties that Nicholas sees as a distraction to the core duties of a mechanic.
“Instead of trying to train each and every technician, we could develop an administrative or apprentice position with computer skills,” says Nicholas. “Much of what we do involves computers these days with software programs and the need to troubleshoot sensors. So we’re looking at a higher-level administrative person that can work with a mechanic and guide them to the right area. Rather than training a hundred mechanics maybe we have 15 people doing tech support.”
The situation at Waste Pro is typical of the growing pains in the industry, according to Nathan Anderson, sales manager, Bodyworks, Monrovia, CA. “Training is going to play a more crucial role today than it has in years past because across the board the economy has forced haulers to do a lot more with a lot less,” says Anderson. “With budgets cut for parts purchasing and worn parts staying in use to the point of failure rather than replacing at the first sign of wear, those are factors that contribute to the need for training updates. You have to keep people up to speed and competent, and the endgame is keeping trucks out of the shop and on the road.”
Moreover, don’t forget the operators. “For a hauler today, it really becomes imperative to have operator training and specifically for them to understand how the manufacturer designed the units to run,” adds Anderson. “If the trucks are being taken out and beaten up, and there’s no proper preventative maintenance, such as regular greasing, you’re going to have unnecessary breakdowns.”
Getting back to the effective training methods, Anderson advises trainers to be sensitive to the needs and experience of the mechanics, because there can be such a thing as too much training. It can happen from pushing people into extensive training programs that are repetitive or below the attendee’s skill level. “It’s the responsibility of the manufacturer’s representative to identify the customer’s needs,” Anderson says. “He shouldn’t be teaching basic electricity and hydraulics when nine out of 10 guys in the room are 15-year veterans. Now it’s a situation with the second half of the day where the crucial updating information is scheduled and he doesn’t even get half of the group’s attention.”
For Anderson, one bit of information that does get a room’s attention is his assessment of new electronic systems such as programmable logic controllers (PLC). In his experience it’s much easier to be at a customer’s facility and look at a problem that involves newer electronics.
“These days when you have a PLC, it’s probably telling you what’s wrong,” says Anderson. “You just have to look and listen and refer back to the manual. So these sophisticated electronics are actually a luxury because the training will give you the product knowledge to know what’s going on. It doesn’t eliminate all diagnostics, but it helps tremendously.”
Yes, PLCs are getting popular, but don’t stop training on traditional relay-driven products, says, Norman Engle, service manager for E-Z Pack Manufacturing in Cynthiana, KY, a manufacturer of refuse truck bodies and OEM garbage truck parts.
“A lot of products are PLC driven and rely on computer processors, but the E-Z Lift Mechanized Arm relies on a more traditional technology,” says Engle. “Some of the new kids are not used to the relay-driven systems, and we have to reintroduce them to basic electronics and make them understand that everything shouldn’t be thrown away in case you have to fall back and trace the relay’s path. The old compactor guys really understand this process.”
Engle’s training relies on methods that he has developed over many years. “It’s a general philosophy, and my years in the military reinforced this method of training,” explains Engle. “First, you train to task, then test the task, and finally make your adjustments later along the way.”
Not surprisingly, he believes strongly in getting his students involved with a hands-on approach, while referring to manuals and reference materials to reinforce the experience.
“Typically there are some mechanics in the field that still do not read or write and I’ve encountered issues were somebody might be dyslexic or not speak English,” Engle notes. “You have to be able to develop a way of communicating and hands-on is understood. I like to go back four to six weeks later and sit down and review the first training session, because by then they’ve had enough time to get some hands-on experience and it gives them a better perspective.”
Engle spoke about automated arms and their control systems, but another aspect to be considered is the high number of parts that compose these time and labor saving devices, according to Marcel Basque, director of Labrieplus parts and service in Quebec. “Absolutely, there are a lot of moving parts, and obviously the maintenance is the key to the success of these products,” says Basque. “We emphasize in our training that the maintenance has to be done on a regular basis depending on which system is on the truck, and we put a lot of importance on keeping these components in good condition so they’ll have a long life span.”
In February 2011, Labrie won an order to build the first CNG powered waste and recycling vehicles for use in the Province of Quebec. Along with the automated arms, Quebec’s maintenance team will get their first experience with CNG fueling systems, so getting the province ready is critical. Basque explains that the training starts with theory and ends with a strong dose of reality. “There is always a portion of the classroom and the sit-down section for theory training,” he says, “but once the guys have gone through this there is a hands-on portion where they’ve work on the products themselves.” Basque makes an effort to personalize the training so it applies to the customer’s purchase. To that end the students eventually leave the classroom for an encounter with a Labrie truck that’s been doctored with repair and maintenance issues. “The guys work to resolve those issues and we make sure that they understand and put into practice everything we discussed.”
Labrie’s vehicles rely on PLCs and sophisticated electronics, but Basque believes these are benefits for companies like Waste Pro. For example, Labrie uses onboard computers across its platform of products, and it allows the company’s engineers and product support staff to troubleshoot at a distance. “What used to take hours or days to be resolved can now be done in minutes and hours because we are able to connect the truck by a remote system to our onboard computer,” explains Basque. “Our technicians in Québec and Oshkosh, Wisconsin can link up to the trucks and see what’s going on as far as all the electrical systems that we’ve installed. Ten years ago we actually had to get inside the truck and search around for wires and take readings with multimeters, but now you don’t have to do that anymore. The computer tells you what’s working and what’s not.”
Labrie relies on its dealer network as the first point of contact for customers, but Basque notes that this doesn’t mean the company doesn’t want to talk to the customers and end-users. In fact, feedback from end users is important, says Basque, so although dealers are on the front lines, if something can’t get resolved at their level, Labrie contributes its support to get the job done.
Customer feedback is also a major factor in training for Johnny Moses, manager of ESG Product Training, at Heil Environmental in Chattanooga, TN. “I’m amazed at the performance of some of these maintenance people and the feedback and the questions they bring to us when we offer training,” says Moses. “I learn something every time I go into the field and talk our customers, because when you think about it, we are building the collection vehicles and they are operating them, so they know more about how the truck is used than anyone else. These drivers are operating them and these mechanics are underneath them every day, and it’s very important to listen to what they have to say because they’ll give us pointers on things we might not have thought of.”
One thing that Moses hears, and sees, is that the training is changing drastically because the mechanics are getting into more and more situations with equipment that doesn’t necessarily involve just turning a wrench. Whereas troubleshooting used to be simply going out and making repairs on equipment that could be identified as broken, maintenance personnel are growing more and more dependent upon diagnosing electrical components. “We are seeing the development of a skilled labor force when we talk about the guy working on these trucks and sometimes it’s a tough transition,” says Moses.
Nonetheless, Moses believes that such a transition is a welcome challenge for the mechanics he encounters, especially when it comes to diagnosing and repairing PLC problems. “We spend hundreds of field hours doing training, and a lot of it revolves around the PLC. You start to see people understand in general how a PLC works and then they want to know specifically how our particular unit functions. We’re seeing that transition more and more, and the guys who have been maintaining vehicles the longest understand that this is what they have to learn to stay on the job, so they are taking it on.”
Many of those hundreds of hours in the field take place within a unique environment, the Heil Mobile Training Centers. Heil has two semi-truck trailers that enable Moses and his staff to make training a convenient experience for maintenance crews.
Says Moses, “We just had a huge customer startup with over 100 units, and we sent our training trailer directly to the customer’s location, then brought all the operators and mechanics through the trailer to learn about the operation of the units, as well as maintenance and service procedures. It’s great to have something self-contained and mobile.” Moreover, local training may mean the difference between getting some training, and getting none.
Moses notes that he sees many situations where budget constraints have caused maintenance shops to run lean on manpower to the point where they can’t afford to lose a worker for even a day of offsite training. “To compensate for that problem, we will send a service representative or trainer out to a customer location and try to accomplish as much as possible onsite at their facility,” says Moses.
Ultimately, the philosophy of accomplishing as much as possible would seem to describe the role of the trainers and the trainees alike in today’s refuse vehicle market. As we’ve seen with cities such as Denver and private companies such as Waste Pro, the challenges of technology and tight budgets continue to create a growing need for maximum performance from staff and from equipment. Effective training has proved itself as a valuable resource in answering those challenges and keeping trucks rolling during these tough times.