How Sweeping is Done 'Down Under'
. . .Where Costs are Sky-High.
by Mike Webber (with Ranger Kidwell-Ross)
When our editor, Ranger Kidwell-Ross, met Mike Webber, General Manager of Cleansweep, one of the largest sweeping companies in Australia, he asked if Mike would tell our readers about sweeping 'down under.' The result is a fascinating look at sweeping on the other side of the world. You'll find there are plenty of differences.
Cleansweep is located in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. Brisbane has a population of about 1.3 million, and Cleansweep is a large player in that market. One of the main differences between sweeping in Australia vs. in the US is the type of equipment used. Only about 10% to 15% of Australian street sweepers are mechanical brooms. By far the most popular of these are suction broom machines like the Johnston 600.
Brisbane is a big city, and very spread out. and therefore a lot of travel is involved. Most sweeping in parking areas -- what we call 'carparks' -- is done using ride-on mechanical sweepers. Contractors need to transport these units between jobsites, so in addition to fairly slow sweeping speeds and limited hopper capacity, a small truck and trailer is required -- along with all the inherent costs. Loading and unloading these units is a factor, too. I'd estimate it takes us 5 to 6 hours per night to load and unload, out of 50 to 60 sweeping hours.
Compared to America, sweeping in Australia is quite a bit more expensive. Four years ago a survey on sweeping was conducted among local authorities in Queensland. It concluded that some of the smaller municipalities cannot afford to sweep their streets. The purchase price and on-going operational and maintenance costs are beyond their resources. The average 5 cubic meter suction broom street sweeper costs approximately US$160,000. On top of this, as a contractor we have to pay an additional 22% sales tax, for which local authorities are exempted.
Sweepers available in Australia are either fully imported as a unit or the sweeper system is imported and locally mounted onto a specially modified cab/chassis. Thus shipping costs, import duty, local agent's markup, etc., increase the purchase price. Consequently, most of our equipment is purchased secondhand. We buy from government departments and local authorities, most of which change their equipment quite frequently to minimize escalating maintenance costs. These units are commonly sold at auction or by public tender. What we really need is access to new machinery at reasonable prices and a relaxing of the sales tax when the sweepers will be used for carrying out work for local authorities and government departments.
We are among the few sweeping contractors who have our own repair and maintenance shop. Although this is costly, it enables us to keep our used fleet performance competitive; in many cases ours outperform the newer units. We have a staff of 4 in the shop where we maintain our fleet of 26 units. We also rebuild machinery and resell to other contractors.
Over the last nine years we've proven successfully that
once a city starts using private contractors, it is rare that they go back
to in-house sweeping.
The current focus on environmental issues is causing local authorities to look at sweeping more efficiently. New legislation is also requiring them to become more competitive, through opening up the bidding process. They're starting to bid on their own projects, giving us a chance to quote as well. Over the past nine years, we have proven that once a city starts using private contractors, it's rare they go back to in-house sweeping.
Most municipalities and many private companies have a policy which requires them to accept the bid which is 'most beneficial to council.' This usually means the lowest dollar bid. In many cases, however, it takes a while for authorities to realize that some low bidders cannot maintain the required performance standards. It can be frustrating missing out on work to low bidders, but it is very important to get your costs right and performance levels right if you want to win more work. Reputation is extremely important when bids are close.
Coming back to environmental considerations, regenerative air sweeping has to be the way to go. With exhaust to atmosphere suction brooms and mechanical brooms, a lot of the finer, more toxic material is either staying on the street or being recycled back onto the street. This nasty stuff eventually finds its way into our rivers and waterways via runoff during wet weather, or in some cities via stormwater drains where their streets are still water flushed nightly. This is becoming a concern, and I predict that the future will see regenerative air coming to the forefront.
Another innovation I see as coming to the forefront more is the use of technology to track costs. Sweeping contractors generally quote on an hourly rate basis, relying on handwritten work dockets, etc., to monitor sweeping times. We wanted something far more sophisticated and, with the help of Computing Instruments Australia, we've achieved this. A computer system primarily designed to monitor long haul trucks has been successfully adapted to monitor sweeper performance. The onboard system not only monitors all engine vitals, it also logs time and distance, when brooms are down and up, etc., as well as driver and customer ID schedules and much more.
It can also be used to preset sweeping speed parameters, with an alarm for over speed as well as a record of events. Basically, all machinery activity is recorded to be downloaded once the sweeper returns to depot. These systems cost about US$3,200 per sweeper. This computer system allows us to sell our services based on a rate per kilometer swept. We can produce a more accurate bid and also itemize costs with dump times and fees and other bits and pieces figured in. Our experience is that customers really like to see this information.
With computer tracking, Brisbane City raised sweeping productivity
by more than 30%.
After two years of observing our operation reports, Brisbane City began to computer track their sweepers. They raised their sweeping productivity by in excess of 30% very quickly. It was a bit of a blow for us to lose our competitive edge, but that's business. It has served to raise the performance standards, and we don't have a problem with that.
Selling services to malls is very different from working with municipalities. Most of the larger shopping centers are owned by a few major companies, and most managers prefer one company to handle all the cleaning requirements. This often means one of the large national cleaning companies picks up the primary contract. Many of these companies have experienced the problems and expense of operating their own sweepers. We specialise in sweeping only, and it is these companies that we usually quote to.
We have been quite successful at this type of work. When we first started getting into this field, however, we quickly realised that ride-on sweepers were too slow for our needs. We opted for Schmidt SK150 compact sweepers. These are very maneuverable machines with a variable sweeping path from 1.3 to 2.7 meters. They are suction-type sweepers, with front-mounted swing-out brooms. These units are very effective, but also very expensive. Here, too, we have a need for something that will do the same job, but be more affordable.
At Cleansweep, we have a really good crew of operators and maintenance staff, without which it would be impossible to maintain our standards. We try to be very flexible with our staff. Our Operations Manager, John McDonald, is responsible for this area. Because alternative arrangements can always be made to accommodate people's personal needs, absenteeism is non-existent. It has to be this way, because we work such varied hours and shifts to satisfy our customers' requirements. Everyone in the company is capable of operating all machinery, should the need arise. In most cases an employee can get time off without losing any pay or holiday entitlements. It's a two way street and rarely, if ever, am I let down.
I know tipping fees are a big topic in America. In Australia there are still some authorities that don't charge, but they are disappearing rapidly. Brisbane City charges approximately US$44.00 per ton to tip at one of their refuse transfer stations. These stations seem very efficient and well run, but still are expensive. At most shopping centers we try to tip into the customer's own industrial bins wherever possible. After all, it is their rubbish, so the best solution for us is to use their bins.
With local authorities, of course, we are unable to do this. In some cases, however, special bins are available which a sweeper can reverse into and tip. These will usually hold 3 to 4 loads, but once again this is quite costly. The advantage of a high-dumping sweeper is being able to utilize a tip truck to meet up with and collect rubbish from each sweeper as required. Use of these enables us to minimize no-sweeping time, thus increasing the efficiency of each machine.
This article is reprinted from American Sweeper magazine, v5n1.