By JOHN HOWELL So, maybe your recycling cart didn't get emptied on the same day your trash was picked up this week. Don't be surprised if it happens again or even becomes a recurring event, as the Department of Public Works struggles to keep an aging
So, maybe your recycling cart didn’t get emptied on the same day your trash was picked up this week.
Don’t be surprised if it happens again or even becomes a recurring event, as the Department of Public Works struggles to keep an aging fleet of 15 trucks operable.
On Monday, a third of the fleet – five trucks – was down. Compounding the problem, temperatures pushed into the 90s. Cabs to the trucks are not air-conditioned, meaning drivers were working in conditions of 100 degrees or more.
The age of the fleet speaks for itself.
Two trucks are vintage 2010s with almost 140,000 stop-and-go miles on them. The rest of the fleet is made up of three 2013, four 2014, four 2016 and two 2018 trucks. The 2018 trucks were used vehicles brought by the city about 18 months ago.
Breakdowns have become commonplace, requiring drivers to complete other than their own routes and requiring more and more repairs frequently to the hydraulics system that operates the arm that lifts and dumps trash and recycling carts.
This is not the first instance this year where collections have been extended because of equipment failures. Monday’s delayed collections may not smooth out until Friday.
Eric Earls, director of public works, is prepared to let recycling wait but not the garbage.
“We can’t leave the trash out there over night,” he said, “especially in the summer.”
Under the lease/purchase program initiated in the budget starting July 1, the DPW is scheduled to get three new trucks. The trucks can be used for either trash or recycling collections. Ideally, Earls said, the city should have 15 trucks, seven to be used for trash and recycling pickups with one as a spare to cover breakdowns and/or rotation for scheduled maintenance.
Adding trucks is not simply a matter of picking the best deal off a lot. Trucks are built to order and take 18 to 24 months to deliver. Earls put the cost at about $330,000.
New trucks could have a component of green energy to them. Earls said the department recently test-drove a truck that uses electric motors in place of hydraulics to lift and dump carts. The system is independent of the diesel-powered truck, using a rechargeable battery pack. The cost is comparable to hydraulic-trucks, but electric engines that are comparably easy to replace could reduce down time, Earls said.
As the electric motors can overheat, Mayor Frank Picozzi didn’t see those trucks as a viable option even though their delivery could be faster. Earls hasn’t ruled out the electric alternative. He said Tuesday he wants to talk to municipalities using the vehicles. He is also confident the vendor is working on ways to address the heating problem.
Regardless, going forward it looks like Warwick is faced with making do with what it has.
Completing pickups on a route, as Earls explained, is not just a matter of extending a driver’s hours. In instances where one driver has to cover for another whose truck has broken down, the truck has to have the capacity to make the collections. This can hinge on the time of day.
The state landfill, operated by Rhode Island Resource Recovery, closes at 3 p.m. Barring breakdowns and a weather event such as a storm, trucks will have completed routes and offloaded by 3 p.m. If they can’t make the cutoff at the landfill, they return to the city yard and make the run to the landfill the first thing the following day. In such cases, they’re making double daily hauls to the landfill.
Earls notes that the last leg for a trash truck is often its most difficult. In order to disgorge their load, trucks have to climb the landfill, often with a 30-minute wait.
Earls is complementary of Mayor Picozzi and the City Council for implementing a lease/purchase program projected to cost $6 million in FY22. The plan implements an ongoing system of updating vehicles in the police, fire and other city departments as well as DPW so as to avoid the current situation where breakdowns affect increasingly more vehicles and taxpayers would be faced with the cost of replacing many vehicles in a single year. Furthermore, without an ongoing replacement program, a fleet ages out at the same time pushing the problem ahead.
In order to maintain the city’s four rescue companies, the Fire Department has had to rely on its mutual aid agreements to borrow rescues from other departments, which explains why Warwick residents are seeking North Kingstown, Coventry, West Warwick, Cranston and even Woonsocket rescues on Warwick runs. Those rescues are operated by Warwick EMTs and temporarily housed at Warwick stations.
Earls did not have the impact the aging fleet has had on overtime costs both for drivers and mechanics. Currently, the DPW is down two mechanics, only further compounding the situation.
But he’s sure of one thing.
“It’s not an easy life being a trash truck.”