Choosing Sweeping Equipment
GPS for Your Sweepers: Is Now the Time?by Barbara Hudson
The industry has been abuzz about whether GPS systems are worth the investment or just another technological gimmick. We decided to interview manufacturers, as well as several contractors who have used various GPS systems, to help you make your own decision.
Doug Shipway, of California-based ArmorVac, has used GPS for the past seven years. He explained GPS systems are made up of two parts: the hardware consisting of a black box for each sweeper that receives the satellite signals and the software that interprets the signals. The hardware unit he uses, called CrossCheck, is made by Trimble and costs approximately $600 per unit (www.trimble.com).
"These units have the ability to go active or passive," Shipway explained. In passive mode, his GPS box collects the data and downloads it into the office computer at the end of a sweeping shift using a serial port on the side of the box via a cable. With newer technology equipment, this process may also be performed via wireless modem.
"We take a location sample every six seconds, so when it's replayed it looks like someone's actually taken a pen and pencil and drawn a line on a map. You can see every nook and cranny of where the sweeper has been." This is a big advantage over systems that only give you a "ping," or location spot, every five to 15 minutes.
CrossCheck can also be used for active GPS, which means it can locate a sweeper's movements in real time. "We can use a laptop computer and a cellular modem that dials into the sweeper's CrossCheck unit and downloads data that tells us our employee and sweeper's location."
Airtime cellular charges apply when using the modem for active GPS, but Shipway noted he could take advantage of free evening and weekend cell minutes, which are the usual times for activity in the parking lot sweeping industry.
The second part of the GPS system is the mapping software that interprets the signals from the satellite. Shipway uses software made by Manning NavComp, called RASTRAC. Besides tracking his sweepers, this software has an I/O port that allows add-ons such as a module that can detect transmission abuse. "If employees start to get sloppy and don't come to a complete stop when they shift the transmission, it flags an alert through the software to CrossCheck. We have two thresholds. If they shift the transmission at two miles per hour before they come to a complete stop, or seven miles an hour." The software could also be programmed to report when the broom is up or down or if the auxiliary engine is running or not; virtually any operation on the sweeper where a signal can be obtained. "It's only limited by your imagination." This add-on hardware module costs an additional $300, plus installation.
The time clock is another add-on feature ($200) that has proven useful. In fact, Shipway said it was the most useful add-on piece of equipment on his sweeper, more important than having GPS positioning. "Working with a local electronic craftsman in our area, Jim Heil, we designed the custom unit by cutting out a slot where we put four one-inch LEDs. When the time clock is punched, the LEDs reset themselves to zero, and they start counting up in one-minute intervals."
Employees are required to punch in when they start and finish each job as well as take lunch or breaks. This removes any doubt as to whether employees received mandatory breaks and helps verify how long it takes for account servicing to be completed.
When asked how he sells the GPS concept to his employees, Shipway said, "I've had property managers call and say that my employees didn't show up or didn't complete the whole parking lot. With this system, I can verify that the employees did their job, which improves their integrity. I think, overall, they don't have an issue with using GPS because it helps them, too."
There are definitely problems that surface with some types of GPS systems, however. East Coast Maintenance, in Rhode Island, is searching for a new system to replace the one they've used for the last few years. Currently with a company called @Road, they have found the cost of the active cellular hookup to be overly costly, especially since they rarely use the information in the middle of the night anyway.
Gidi Kloch, the company's Director of Operations, hopes to find a system that is more economical. He will be looking for a reliable system with versatile reporting options and add-ons that can track operational specifics in the machine itself, like lowering the broom or raising up the head. The final ingredient he will examine when looking for a new manufacturer is service response time. "
"If I call the company providing me the service, and they have a response time like 48 hours, it isn't worth anything. I need it now because I need the report now. When it comes to product support, I want access to a knowledgable person and good response time."
They have found their GPS reports to be invaluable as a sales tool for prospective customers. "We always sweep at night, and the owners are rarely there. When we show customers a full-blown GPS report, with an exact description of services, it helps sell the reliability of our services and of the system we use for tracking them. The product is not the GPS, the product is the sweeping, but the control is the GPS," he said.
Kloch suggested GPS reports could also be useful to any of their customers who are faced with a frivolous lawsuit charged by someone who said they slipped on something in the parking lot. The customer could use the GPS report to show exactly when the lot was last cleaned of debris.
As with most computer technologies, changes within the GPS industry are forcing consumers to upgrade. Both Verizon and AT&T changed their type of cellular network, and the older GPS systems won't work. Tony Lee, Director of Sales and Marketing for software producer Manning NavComp explained, "A year and a half ago, AT&T sold CDPD accounts, which was one form of sending data over a cellular network. CDPD is now officially gone at the end of this year with most carriers. Now they are pushing GPRS, which is a newer, higher speed cellular data format." People have to be careful that they buy hardware and software that is flexible and upgradeable enough to make these kinds of market shifts. "A lot of companies marry themselves to one type of box and build their software around that. Then if something changes, both the tracking company and the customers are stuck."
Kloch found that he was suddenly facing costly upgrades to go to the newer cell system. "We were looking at paying $300 to $400 for each truck," he said. "If we have to do that, anyway, then we're going to look around for whatever's the best match for us today."
Lee's RASTRAC software was able to help people make this switch seamlessly. They sell stand-alone solutions, where the customer buys everything outright, starting as low as $2,400, or they can provide more active tracking service for as low as $19.95 per vehicle per month, including the cellular time. With the tracking service solution over GPRS, there are no airtime overages, meaning no surprises on the bill at the end of the month. (For more details see their web site at (www.navcomp.com).
Like Kloch, Kelly Barker, at Michigan's MetroSweep, found one of the main problems to be the cost of cellular time using active GPS in real time. They had installed the GPS in 15 sweepers and realized that every time the system was pinging, or reporting on the location of the sweeper, it was ringing up a cellular charge. "At 25 cents a call, it didn't take long for us to run up some fairly high bills," she said. They tried changing the recapture rate, or the length of time in-between pings, but then there were holes in the information. "If there is more than a few minutes between location pings, the data we get, and that we could provide to a customer, doesn't reflect the kind of accuracy we need."
They also found problems with the raw data. "We were told the GPS would pinpoint the vehicle within 100 feet of the actual spot, but what happened was the data would show multiple random locations, based upon the direction the truck was heading in the parking lot. The GPS would report the closest address, which may not be in the parking lot at all. So trying to re-correlate the data to reflect what was actually happening proved labor intensive."
What they discovered was that their vendor wasn't keeping up with the technology. "We now have gone with a different vendor, Discrete Wireless. It is a clock system that costs about $400 a unit. We are running seven trucks with that information, and it is live. We can go on anytime and log in. We find the data far more useful [than the last system], although there have still been problems based upon what address the satellite picks up." This is a web-based system, rather than using a telephone, and they pay $100 per month for the actual monitoring of the trucks over the Internet. (It should be noted that all systems use the same satellite network, and the satellites just figure out the latitude and longitude of the signal. The software (and its map data technology) is responsible for the accuracy of the addressing.)
As explained by Wayne Johnson at Discrete Wireless, in Atlanta, (www.discretewireless.com) their type of application removes the need to buy software. "Most small and midsize companies don't necessarily have vast computer systems to support technology. What they do have is Internet access."
Thus, companies like Discrete Wireless can host the GPS signal, in essence being a server for the small business owner, helping them avoid software upgrade expenses.
Karl and Lori Stauty, owners of Virginia-based Commercial Power Sweeping, invested in a GPS system after one of their trucks was stolen and it took the police two days to find the vehicle. "It was very nerve wracking when you have that type of expense and equipment lost. Now we can go in here on the GPS, open up a folder and ping a truck and see exactly where it is and what direction it is moving in."
They also use the RASTRAC system, which they say has been very accurate, right down to the cross street and how fast the driver is moving.
"I think we put close to $10,000 into this system," Lori admitted, "but it is not hard to maintain. We put in all our own modules and antennas, which saved us a lot. We run it through a Verizon network, which costs around $120 a month for 10 trucks."
The trucks are monitored every six minutes. They can use the GPS reports for a more accurate reporting of the amount of time it takes to sweep various parking lots. This helps with bids and winning contracts because they don't have to guess about their costs.
This system has worked well for them not only because the units are easy to install, but also because they have good customer service. The response time is usually immediate. "They always call us back that same day within an hour or two."
Like others, the Stauty's found one of the big advantages of using GPS was being able to show property management customers irrefutable proof of the job they do sweeping their lots. Many disputes can be easily settled. "After looking at our GPS report, they know that we did the job. If there was a big party or something after we left, the mess wasn't our fault," Lori explained. "The data has also been given a lot of weight when we've used it to dispute the work habits of a former employee filing for unemployment benefits or unfair termination. Using the GPS data, we've won all our cases."
Jeff Buchanan, of Pavement America in Jacksonville, Florida, has also found GPS useful to settle problems. "Maybe there was a theft at the mall, or a car was hit in the parking lot. Our GPS report can verify whether our sweeper was in the vicinity when the incident occurred or not."
When they installed GPS in their sweepers, they were able to do away with the evening dispatcher because the GPS report gave them the detailed information they needed about the whereabouts of each of their sweepers.
"We saved payroll that way," he said," and we also saved payroll with the guys who had been spending extra time doing their own thing or taking extended breaks rather than what they were supposed to be doing. If we get a complaint on a property, we can check the GPS before the driver gets back and have him return and do it right.
"The GPS will also give us a printout of how the driver actually drove the sweeper through the parking lot, whether he used the kind of pattern that we train them to do or not. So we'll say, 'Did you do the routine?' and he'll say, 'Sure I did.'" We can pull out the GPS and say, 'You only spent 20 minutes here instead of 45, so how can you have done it properly?'"
They also use GPS to check on bids. If a customer calls and says someone made a lower bid and can do his lot in 30 minutes, they can look back on the GPS average times and see if they can afford to lower their price to keep the account.
They, too, have been caught in the need to upgrade; their current units won't work on the new technology. Asked if they plan to make any other changes when they upgrade, Buchanan mentioned he is thinking of adopting a new policy.
"I would like to have somebody check the GPS every morning. I think it makes sense to designate someone to examine the data so we can make improvements. I would like to be on top of that better."
Because most of his clients want to review the data after it comes in, not at the time it occurs, Colin Sutherland, Sales Director for Geotab, suggests that most contractors probably don't need an active system.
"In my opinion, most contractor fleets don't need to know where their vehicles are at any given time unless they plan to redeploy the vehicle during the shift." His company records second-by-second operational data but avoids the expense of a cellular modem by downloading the information using radio technology.
This is another wireless method that allows a manager to review what happened in the field. When the vehicle returns to its base, the data is downloaded automatically when the unit gets with 1000 feet of the download station. Geotab can provide a system for around $1,000 per vehicle with no additional monthly costs or annual fees.
Able Flores, solid waste supervisor for City of Visalia, CA, chose a passive GPS system made by Abbott (www.abbott.com) for their garbage truck fleet. "The GPS lets me know where all of my drivers are at all times," Flores said. "I can check how long they were at any of their stops, and I keep track of their lunch and other breaks with the system. We also get an alert if someone speeds or has the truck at their house. It's great to have the system in place in case we ever have an accident and need to show whether or not our drivers were speeding. We have a great crew, and I don't think any of our operators see the GPS system as a negative."
Geotab's Sutherland suggests a contractor may want to have active systems on some sweepers and less expensive passive systems on others. "You could have the lower cost units on your street sweepers that are working during the day. Then, if you feel that you want to track those who work in the middle of the night with an active system, you can go ahead and do that at a higher cost without doing your whole fleet."
There are also less expensive vehicle locator devices that ping to show where the vehicle is without giving a detailed route itinerary. This may fulfill your needs without a complete GPS system.
In summary, most of the contractors who are using GPS find them to be valuable tools for keeping track of employees, improving service and providing customers with information that helps secure contracts. On the down side, several decisions need to be made about hardware and software options.
The main problems included inaccurate satellite data, poor service, systems becoming obsolete and cell phone charges. Wireless Internet systems can eliminate this last expense, but it would be replaced by a monthly tracking charge. This is somewhat offset if you don't have to buy software.
As with all technological choices, you need to examine whether the benefits outweigh the costs and potential problems.
Barbara Hudson is a freelance writer who has contributed a number of other sweeping-related stories. She found the concept of GPS to be very space age and wishes she could 'ping' for her car keys!
This article is reprinted from American Sweeper magazine, Volume 9 Number 2, 2004.
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