BRADENTON -- If Bradenton residents have noticed garbage pickups have been running later than usual, it's not for a lack of trying.
The city's solid waste department has been inundated with mechanical issues relating to the 2010 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's tightening of regulations for emission controls on diesel engines. Manufacturers were left to their own accord to come up with a solution and the Diesel Exhaust Fluid system was created. The DEF sends pollutants into the liquid rather than straight out of the exhaust. But like a lot of new technology, "What works good in the lab doesn't always work good in the field," said Claude Tankersley, public works director. "With new technology, it's not going to be perfect and it has been causing our trucks to break down more frequently."
The DEF system is designed to shut down operation of the vehicle if pollutants exceed federal regulations. In September, the German auto maker Volkswagen was caught by the EPA cheating after it implemented software that overrode the shut down system. The city doesn't use Volkswagen, but the DEF system is the same. The transition has affected diesel equipment manufactured since 2011. Prior to the Volkswagen scandal, solid waste was already battling the technology deficiencies.
Jaufees Peoples, fleet maintenance division superintendent, said there have been days that 10 of the solid waste's 35 trucks have been down at one time.
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"Under normal maintenance conditions, we can turn a truck out in less than a day," said Peoples. "The DEF problems take a month if we can figure it out and sometimes months if we have to ship the truck to the manufacturer and sometimes longer because they were having a hard time figuring out how to fix it. It wasn't a quick fix."
The primary issues are with the 2011-2013 models. Tankersley said the technology is improving and his newer trucks are having fewer issues. While solid waste has been scrambling to keep up service, the reason for the problem only became clear about eight months ago.
"We have 17,000 customers that get picked up three times a week," said Tankersley. "That's 51,000 times a week we have contact with our customers. On average, if everything goes smooth, we average 20 complaints in that time period. But we started to notice that the complaints were doubling so we had to figure out why we were not meeting demands."
The problem soon became clear, but there was no quick solution. Solid waste personnel were working overtime and using yard waste trucks to pick up garbage. Tankersley said the city's various manufacturers have been "great and responsive to our needs. It's not their fault. We will be sending our 2011-2013 models to them to be retrofitted with 2015 DEF technology and the new technology is pretty solid."
Of solid waste's 35 vehicles, 19 are newer than 2011. Solid waste purchases three new vehicles a budget cycle to replace older trucks. To ensure the city can maintain quality service levels, Tankersley is taking further action to update the needs of the fleet. He will approach officials in the near future to request the purchase of six new vehicles instead of three and suspend next year's purchases.
"Everybody is having problems with the DEF," he said. "Waste Management had the same issues, but they have a big enough fleet and enough mechanics on staff to get through it. We run lean here because we are a public entity so we don't have the extra trucks or the mechanics to face this kind of challenge."
Tankersley said he also will hire two new diesel mechanics. One of the mechanics will replace a retiring position in solid waste and the second will be hired by eliminating two unfilled positions in the department.
"None of these adjustments will cost taxpayers any more money, but it will ensure we maintain quality service," he said. "We work really hard to be efficient."
Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter@urbanmark2014.