The modern refuse truck operator has it pretty easy today compared to his peers of yesteryear. Gone are the days of the “Vic Tanney” bodies and the driver lugging around 55 gallon drums on their backs. For haulers and drivers who collected trash for the majority of their lives, they were lucky if they could continue to stand up straight by the time they were 50 and their bodies weren’t completely broken. In 1968, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the injury rate among refuse collectors was higher than the rate for coal miners, police officer, firefighter or loggers. A report put out between 1969 to 1971 showed that nationally there were 98.8 disabling accidents per million man hours worked in refuse collection. Those numbers are staggering when compared with the next closest industry, police departments, which had 48.15 accidents per million man hours. A fact not surprising considering the nature of the job. Workers were required to jump on and off the truck continually, handle hundreds of containers, many of which were overweight and easy to drop.
An average worker could lift up to 6 tons a day and walk up to 11 miles in all type of weather, which led to multiple injuries and massive insurance claims to the hauler (if they offered insurance) and time away from work. This is why, even today, refuse collection is listed in the Top 10 most dangerous jobs in America. Why do you think so many of the articles in this publication and those like it are filled with safety related items? It’s a major concern and issue even with the advanced technology modern refuse trucks are built upon.
Now there has always been a drive in the industry from the truck manufacturers to deliver the highest compaction body to maximize on-route time over the competition yet they all required one key ingredient before the early 1980s: manual loading. Commercial collection already saw vast improvements in safety, productivity and cleanliness with the introduction of the Front End Loaders (the industry’s first automated truck) in the 1950s. Unfortunately, residential drivers wouldn’t start seeing some relief for another few decades. Let’s explore this history more in-depth.
The City that Birthed a Revolution
Scottsdale, Arizona, a town northeast of Phoenix, incorporated in 1954 with a population of 2,032. After having a major annexation in 1961 that more than doubled its population, the city took over refuse collection from private contractors in March 1964. From 1960 to 1970, the city population increased from 10,026 to 67,823. The new Refuse Division was put under the direction of Marc Stragier, the director of Public Works. Looking at all the available systems at the time, Scottsdale chose to use the recently developed “Refuse Train” system used in many parts of the country. Even though the Train method was an improvement over the use of rear loaders, it still carried all the negative attributes of manual collection. Scottsdale also experienced a high personnel turnover rate due to the 110+ degree working conditions during summer months.
In 1965, the City Manager, Assistant City manager and three Department Heads formed a brainstorming club apart from the city to develop and promote new ideas. They called themselves Government Innovators and among some of the ideas to emerge was the concept of mechanized refuse collection. After searching for a body manufacturer to partner and develop the idea with, Marc found George Morrison, owner of Western Body and Hoist in Los Angeles. After some convincing and motivation, the creative juices in George’s head started to flow and a few months later, George and his lead engineer Otto Ganter met with Marc to show him a concept idea called the “Barrel Snatcher” based off their Wesco-Jet Front Loader platform.
Taking the idea and drawing to Bill Donaldson, Scottsdale City Manager for final approval, the City applied for a Federal grant to develop a mechanized residential refuse collection system. After the initial application was sent back, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare sent a representative down to help edit and draft a second application. The new application proposed a two-phase demonstration: Phase 1—to determine if the concept was practical using city provided containers and if successful; Phase 2—build the sophisticated Barrel Snatcher truck to prove mechanized collection was economical and cost effective. The second draft was approved and awarded in February 1969 with the grant period lasting from March 1969 to June 1972.
Phase 1: Godzilla
Now faced with building a proof of concept truck, it was decided to use a 1964 International Lodal Front Loader not in active service as the test bed. Marc designed the mechanical grabber assembly to attach to the front of the arms and after $2,000 in repairs were made to the truck to make it useable, construction and modifications began. The mechanic in charge of creating the grabber assembly, Chuck Kalinowski, remembers constructing the mechanism, “I didn’t know that Marc was in the shop one day and I was working on the slide, trying to figure out what he wanted there for the arm to grab the container. So I tried two or three different things, you know, just things we had around the place here. I said ‘Aw, for crying out loud, they want you to build something but they won’t give you the material, they want you to build a darned monster… a Godzilla!’ Marc was standing right behind me and from that time on, that’s what it was called.”
After some trial and error, Godzilla was finally ready to go on route in August 1969. The first container it picked up slipped through the grabber and fell into the hopper. Next, the brakes locked up and truck couldn’t be moved. After modifications and repairs, the truck operated for the next six months proving the concept of mechanized collection was sound.
An often overlooked aspect of creating and later adopting a mechanized collection system is the container cost associated with it. For the city, to order a “set” of containers and collection trucks ran about $40,000 (pre-additional modification) for equipment and about $120,000 the containers in 1970 dollars. Scottsdale had many alley routes and after a survey, they decided to use container sizes of 80, 160 and 300 gallons for collection service. The size of the container the customer received was determined by the number of days picked up, either once or twice, and the number of houses per container: one, two or four. It broke down to each household receiving at least 160 gallons of refuse capacity per week. County Plastics was initially awarded the contract for 350 containers in each of the three sizes. After the Phase 1 trials were complete, it was determined that the 80 and 300 gallon containers were the most effective. 300 gallons were used on alley streets while the 80-gallon shined the best for street-side collection. Godzilla and later Son of Godzilla was the most successful in the alleys with the 300 gallon, but too slow and bulky for the 80 gallon service.
Phase 2: Son of Godzilla
Western Body and Hoist’s Barrel Snatcher was a modified version of their Wesco-Jet Front Loader. The Wesco Jet was a 35yd full pack body that evenly distributed the weight over two axles with four super single tires and a specialized cab designed and engineered jointly by Reo Motors and Western. Complete with an Allison automatic transmission and a narrow, air conditioned telephone booth cab, the Barrel Snatcher weighed in empty at 22,500 lbs. and had a GVWR of 36,500 on the two axles. With three years of engineering going into its design, the Barrel Snatcher featured an 8-foot boom, which could extend out to 12 feet to grab the 300 gallon containers. Cycle time from pick up to set down was only 20 seconds.
Modifications and improvements were required after the first unit went online in October 1970. A joystick was added later to help improve operator control as the boom had a tendency to knock down fences in the alleys due to the uncontrollability of the rotary motor that swung it. The frame at the base of the boom was beefed up due to frequent cracking due to weight, in addition to a heavier duty rotary motor that swung the heavy boom. The extension cylinder was moved to the outside of the boom to reduce the six hour repair time needed to get at it when it was mounted inside. The city sent these lists of improvements to Western to be implemented on the second truck they ordered.
Due to the national popularity of the Phase 1 Godzilla truck, the Barrel Snatcher was affectionately called the “Son of Godzilla”, which only served to fuel local and national interest in what Scottsdale was trying to do. The city invested a lot of time and effort to sell the new concept to the public and they constantly fielded requests from foreign dignitaries, state and city governments to come and personally view the trucks in action and on route.
During the construction of the second Barrel Snatcher, George Morrison’s partner and co-owner was killed in an accident. In order to provide and take care of his partner’s widow, George decided to sell the company to Maxon Industries in December 1970. After study, Maxon expressed no desire to continue development, sales or orders for Barrel Snatcher concept with the City, although they did agree to honor the original contract for two additional trucks. The City received many postponements and delay’s from Maxon and finally threatened to sue for breach of contract. None of the improvements recommended by the city were implemented in the second truck when it was delivered in May 1971. The mechanics were well versed in the necessary improvements and changes needed to be made and when the second truck started going on route, the original Godzilla that was built to last six months of the concept phase was finally retired after two years on route.
The Concept Fully Realized
After Phase 2 was complete and the third and final Barrel Snatcher was delivered from Maxon in 1973 (two years after it had been ordered), the city continued to improve upon the arm design and even modified three city owned Wesco-Jet Front Loaders to Barrel Snatcher configuration in-house to expand their growing mechanized routes. However, they realized a more permanent solution was needed when it came time to start replacing their aging fleet. Marc Straiger continued to work on designs for an improved automated arm that could be fit to different side load bodies and was not specific to the now discontinued Maxon Wesco-Jet. He designed a prototype to be tested on one of the city’s experimental truck beds and it later came to be known as the “Rapid Rail” arm. It consisted of a grabber assembly with rollers on the rear which allowed it to slide up and down the rail that curved at the top to invert and empty the container.
The city eventually ended up abandoning the project, yet a few companies had taken the idea for Marc’s “Rapid Rail” and developed it into an effective system by 1978. Government Innovators (now a fully realized company), Arizona Special Projects and Ebeling Manufacturing Corp (EMCO) all offered a version of this arm to the public. EMCO was the first company to offer market ready automated packages with their arm design based on Straiger’s “Rapid Rail” for commercial side load dumpsters. However, their arm could be easily modified with “Rapid Rail” grippers for cart collection. Maxon, who had no interest in pursuing further Barrel Snatcher product development with the city after their purchase of Western, finally saw the future in automation and offered their integrated Eagle cab and body truck with an arm copy of the Rapid Rail by 1980.
When it came time for the city to start replacing their worn out fleet of Barrel Snatchers in 1978, they turned to International Harvester chassis with Norcal Waste Equipment 24yd bodies fitted with a modified EMCO lift arm. Each truck cost the city $58,000, which was a bargain compared to the last Barrel Snatcher that cost a low estimate of $63,230. What many people don’t know is that Norcal in Oakland, CA was started after the sale of Western by Otto Ganter, the lead engineer and designer of the Barrel Snatcher.
The Numbers Don’t Lie
In 1980, the city did a comparison to see if the mechanized trucks lived up to their original idea and potential. The numbers were quite staggering and especially in an unforgiving climate like Southern Arizona, well worth the effort and money spent. According to the records and findings from the city: in 1968, 34 men were employed to collect 17,800 homes twice a week. By 1980, 13 residential routes were needed to collect 24,000 homes twice weekly with 13 drivers. The city estimated that if the train method was still being used in 1980, 18 pickup trucks, 72 trailers, seven front loaders and more than 60 men would be required. The injury rate was also reduced from 36 preventable injuries a year average using the train system to only 1 in 1980.
Production rates also increased per man. In 1968, the average was 95 tons per man compared to 212 tons by 1980. They also showed a drastic reduction in employee turnover from 91 percent in 1986 to one employee who left and transferred to another department within the city. While some of the costs of running more advanced trucks were passed on to the residents in terms of monthly collection cost, the state of their streets, alleys and roadways was greatly improved over manual collection, which often left trash and debris in its wake. Their aggressive advertisement and citizen buyoff of the program went a long way to mitigate the town’s outcry over the increase in cost.
Slow to Catch On
Throughout the 1980s, body manufacturers continued to develop and improve the automated arm. For the average hauler, however, it was a gigantic investment in new fleets and carts—one that they were hesitant to make. Municipalities were some of the early adopters to automation due to the fact that they could justify the initial investment by projecting the savings over long term. Automated technology didn’t really take hold nationwide until the 1990s when the technology and arms were more proven and reliable. Even today, the arm design on an ASL is the most competitive feature builders continue to refine and market. Some builders have multiple arm or gripper designs available for customers to choose from, each with their own unique use and application. Also, many haulers tend to stick to one design because it’s a system they adopted early on and know and trust. I can say with absolute confidence that there is no “best arm and gripper” on the market. Each has their strengths in different conditions (alley, confined space, parked cars) and some perform better than others. The Automated Side Loader is still the new kid on the block compared to the rest of the refuse truck styles and there hasn’t been an “industry” standard design established yet. But next time you see one on the road or hop in one to run your route, think about the blood, sweat and cursing a special group of men invested to make your lives a little bit easier and a whole lot safer.
Zachary Geroux is a videographer, photographer, historian and owner of Refuse Truck Photography, which focuses on media and marketing for the Waste Industry. He lives in Western Washington with his wife and newborn son who will soon fall in love with garbage trucks. Currently, he works full time for the Air Force and is focused on growing his business. He has been driving garbage trucks off and on for the past 10 years and considers it the best job he’s ever had. He can be reached at (541) 301-1507, via e-mail at Zachary@refusetruckphotography.com or visit www.refusetruckphotography.com.
*Special thanks to the City of Scottsdale for sending me years and years ago their self-published booklet “Revolutionizing an Industry.” Without this amazing documentation of strife and effort to create and field this system, this article and the knowledge contained within might have been lost forever to the coming generations.
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