FROM HAULING TO LANDFILL OPERATIONS, many waste management businesses are wasting time and money because they don't know where their equipment is or where it is supposed to be.

Ridiculous, you say? Think about this: Houston-based Waste Management Inc. (WM) currently is working on a global positioning system (GPS) project that will attach a precise latitude and longitude to each of its millions of trash containers. Once completed, the initiative may improve the productivity of collection operations by as much as 15 percent.

“We are redesigning our service routes to reduce route overlaps and redundancies,” says Alex Popov, director of fleet services and logistics for the company.

Just as important, GPS is boosting productivity in landfill operations. Using the most basic systems, landfill managers are managing to cut compaction costs for labor, fuel, and machine wear and tear in half.

If you don't pinpoint the exact locations of your many operations, efficiency and profits could suffer. That's why some waste mangers are turning to GPS systems to show them the money.

How GPS Works

Global positioning begins in space, where 24 orbiting satellites (and two to four spares) calculate precise latitude and longitude for any point on earth. Three satellites triangulate each other and establish their own precise locations in space at any given time. Two of the satellites then triangulate with a point on earth. The point could be a waste vehicle equipped with a global positioning unit and antenna, for example. Because the two satellites know their own location, they can figure out where a vehicle is. This information can improve the way a waste business manages its fleets and earthmoving equipment.

Where Is Your Fleet?

An incident last winter was the last straw for Ciro Viento, operations manager for Automated Waste Disposal Inc. (AWD), a large regional commercial waste hauler in Danbury, Conn. “One of our salespeople was driving his company car home every day, parking, picking up his personal pickup truck, and going out to plough snow,” Viento says. “I've been interested in GPS since seeing a demonstration at WasteExpo a year ago. This incident prompted senior management to approve purchasing a system.”

In April, Viento installed @Road GPS units in 120 AWD vehicles, including the company's sales and collection fleets. The vehicles now carry an Internet location manager (ILM) and antenna. The system triangulates with GPS satellites, which identify the ILM vehicle locations. The ILM then reports the location over a cellular telephone network to a server in the GPS manufacturer's facility. AWD managers access the server with Web browsers.

“The information we get includes where the vehicles are, how fast they are traveling, what direction they are traveling and where they have been,” Viento says. “The system will also put up a map showing where the vehicles are.”

The system enables AWD managers to track vehicles along their routes, to re-route vehicles efficiently to handle calls, and to recognize and deal with drivers who stray from rules or routes. In the few months since the installation, Viento is encouraged. “Prior to installing the system, our monthly overtime was in the range of 250 to 300 hours for our front loader routes,” he says. “The system has cut that in half.”

While some hauling companies have been reluctant to supervise their workforce this way, AWD managers have become believers. “We understand that the drivers are the first line of our business,” Viento says. “But we're providing them with a good work environment, giving them brand new trucks and assigning them a route. We expect them to get the work done in a reasonable amount of time.”

Where Are Your Containers?

While tracking vehicles can improve productivity, GPS has more to offer. The next step is geo-coding the locations of containers and incorporating that data into route management software.

Take WM's commercial collection operations as an example. Like most commercial haulers, WM has always stored the billing addresses of its customers in a database. Route management software uses those addresses to optimize routing.

The problem is that a billing address is different from a precise trash container location. A shopping mall address usually houses many containers, for instance. Without knowing exactly where the containers are, it is impossible to get maximum efficiency from a routing program.

WM's commercial operation deals with 5 million containers every week. By mapping precise latitude and longitude for each container, the company estimates that it could increase route-handling efficiency. So WM purchased GeoManager, a GPS and communications system to geo-code all of its containers. The system uses Nextel phones equipped with a GPS mapping feature. With a tap of a button on the phone handset, the phone tags the exact GPS location of the container and sends it to a routing database to better optimize routes.

During 2003, the company assembled teams of 100 to 150 people in each of its 12 regional U.S. markets and gave every team member a special phone to geo-code all of its commercial containers. The data were imported into a routing system called WasteRoute. The result has been a dramatic increase in commercial collection efficiency. WM is on track to increase efficiency by 15 percent, according to the GPS manufacturer's estimates. Routing changes are providing part of the gain. The rest will be gleaned from improved management capabilities based on automated route sheets.

As part of the overall upgrade, WM drivers will have a card printed with barcodes. Under each barcode, a caption translates the barcode for the driver: service completed, car blocked container, gate locked and so on. Before leaving each pickup location, the driver scans the barcode that describes what happened. The data, as well as a time, date and location stamp generated by the GPS system, flow across a cellular telephone system to a server at the regional office for use by the dispatcher and customer service representatives. By the time the driver returns to the office after completing his or her route, a log has been completed saying, for example, that this driver was assigned to pick up 70 trailers; that 62 were picked up; three were blocked; and in five cases, the driver encountered locked gates.

In addition, the customer service personnel can use the information to respond to customers who call about missed pickups. When a customer calls, the customer-service representative can check the system, and respond with a host of facts: The pickup was scheduled for 11 a.m., the driver arrived at 11:03, but the gate was locked, for instance.

Without the GPS verification, a waste hauler sometimes would pay for the cost of sending a driver back to make a pickup that was originally missed because of a locked gate. But GPS data help to explain to customers exactly what happened, and customers can be billed for their errors.

The report also analyzes the route followed by the driver. Was it the assigned route or did the driver deviate? This provides an opportunity to improve driver performance and enable managers to recognize top performers.

Streamlining Landfill Operations

While GPS routing has sparked broad interest among waste haulers, the value in landfill operations remains less known. However, in a landfill, GPS technology can match equipment operations at the site's working face to engineering drawings, which can insure compliance and reduce penalties. In addition, GPS can preserve airspace, while cutting the cost of cover materials, labor and equipment.

A typical installation includes an on-board computer and GPS unit for cabs, a wireless link from the on-board computer to an office computer, and a GPS base station and antenna on the site. In large landfills, repeaters may also be necessary to facilitate communications among all the devices.

The GPS unit in the equipment communicates with satellites to compute a location. Similar to GPS systems used in collection vehicles, the unit can calculate locations to within five or 10 feet. As landfill managers often require accuracy within a few centimeters, a GPS base station provides extra precision.

Because the base station antenna is in a known fixed position, it can communicate with satellites and calculate its position precisely — despite errors that might be created by poor atmospheric conditions. The base station then communicates with the on-board units and corrects the five- to 10-foot errors in their readings. The result yields not only a precise latitude and longitude for the compactor or grader, but also a precise elevation above sea level.

Engineering drawings of the landfill cell and the lift then are uploaded to onboard computers in the compactors and graders. The GPS system computes where the machinery is on the face of the landfill as drawn in the plans, enabling operators to work with greater precision. The landfill engineer also can monitor the operations from an office computer.

At the Sprint Fort Bend County Landfill near Houston, GPS has proven its value for compacting. At the end of January 2004, Kyle Cain, the general manager, installed a $150,000 Caterpillar computer-aided earthmoving system (CAES) on a new $800,000 compactor. The compactor operator uses the screen of the system to guide compacting work. As the compactor moves back and forth across the current lift, the computer screen follows, painting itself different colors with each pass. When the screen turns blue, compacting is complete.

“We used to run the compactor for two shifts per day, with two operators,” says Dan Harris, engineering and compliance manager. “With the new system, we need one operator for one shift. So we're saving labor, fuel, and wear and tear on the compactor.”

Cain expects the savings to recoup the cost of the GPS system in less than a year. Additionally, he looks forward to extending the landfill's life by honing final elevations to one-tenth of a foot instead of the six-inch tolerances considered optimal in the past. “Huge savings will come through airspace preservation related to the use of less cover dirt. The system is expensive, but a no-brainer when it comes to return on investment,” he says.

The Salt River Landfill near Scottsdale, Ariz., also has put a GPS system to use. With airspace estimated to last through 2015, Salt River management has been looking for ways to extend the landfill's life. So it conducted a test comparing the facility's existing compaction methods with the GPS capabilities.

“The [GPS] system produced a 12 percent to 14 percent increase in compaction,” says Rich Allen, site engineer. “If we increase compaction by 12 percent, we can extend the life of the landfill by about one month every eight months or so. Over eight years, you will gain a year. That's pretty significant.”

There's still another benefit, Allen says. Since the GPS computers inside the compactors and dozers carry engineering drawings for the current cell, GPS eliminates the need for periodic surveys followed by cutting and filling. Equipment operators can simply follow the engineering plan on the computer screen in the cab, he says.

Whether a company manages waste collections or a landfill or both, today's GPS technology is putting operations on the map to reduce costs, improve productivity and boost profitability.

Michael Fickes is Waste Age's business editor based in Cockeysville, Md.