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Entering the commercial collection business can seem, on the surface, a pretty simple process. With good density, this service should produce a revenue excess for public groups and a reasonable profit for private operations. It also usually is less labor-intensive than residential collection. But as with any endeavor that seems too easy to be true, myriad additional challenges, risks and liabilities are encountered in commercial collection, many of which new operators don’t anticipate until they face them.

Unlike residential collection, commercial collection involves accessing customers’ properties not just at the edges of rights of way, but often through the hearts of private properties. Accessing private property in this way exposes operators to liability for damage caused by collectors, often involving driver error that could result in harm to vehicles or buildings. However, the critical potential damage that is done over time to driving surfaces and container enclosures is usually missed in planning.

Years ago, the leading reason customers changed national vendors for front-end loader (FEL) service was asphalt damage. Construction techniques have improved greatly in the past 30 years, but the old adage that big trucks and asphalt don’t always mix is still true.

Commercial FELs, when fully loaded and traveling on wet or rainy days, can exceed 35 tons. That much weight, twisting in turns, sometimes exacerbated by having to make multiple maneuvers to service a container, will, over time, weaken some asphalt and cause a breakdown if the pavement is not properly installed and maintained. Additionally, in most commercial operations, the waste collection vehicle is not the only large truck on the property regularly, but it can be the most obvious.

Because of the numerous reasons asphalt can fail in addition to big truck travel—a poor base, thin coating, poor subterranean drainage, to name a few—every collection service agreement should have a clear, bold clause stating that the collector shall not be responsible for any asphalt damage. Common sense might occasionally override such a clause, as in the case of a catastrophic failure of a hydraulic or fueling system where large quantities of petroleum products leak on the pavement, destroying the integrity of the surrounding asphalt, but those incidents are few and far between. Hopefully, any pavement-related repairs should be part of the environmental clean-up plan.

Keeping the enclosure area safe

The most common liability commercial collectors face is damage to the containment structure and surrounding area. Most municipalities require dumpster enclosures for aesthetic reasons and to prevent trash and litter from waste containers from blowing around a property. Unfortunately, many of the people designing or enforcing standards have never tried to move a 33-foot-long, 13-foot-tall truck with 4-inch thick movable steel forks into position to slide said forks into a 6-inch-by-10-inch steel sleeve on a dark, rainy night at 2 a.m. without touching anything.

A safe dumpster enclosure begins on the ground with a solid pad where the dumpster will sit. A standard 8-yard FEL container traditionally is 6 feet by 6 feet with a height of approximately 7 feet. At least 2 feet of clearance is needed on both sides of the container, leaving the pad to be a minimum of 10 feet by 10 feet. If a masonry wall is planned as an enclosure, the pad should be increased by at least the thickness of the wall construction to leave an unobstructed 2 feet on each side of the container.

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A measured approach

The pad itself should be made of a minimum of 6 inches of concrete rated at 3,000 pounds per square inch or stronger and reinforced with half-inch rebar. The approach apron should follow the same construction standards and extend a minimum of 10 feet from the pad, with a drop of ¼ inch per foot for at least the first 5 feet. The pad should be designed so that the front wheels of the collection vehicle have a place to twist and turn into position while approaching, unloading and leaving the container area without ever touching asphalt.

If possible from a space and budgetary standpoint, a concrete apron that extends 35 feet to 40 feet from the dumpster pad should be installed to keep the full weight of the collection vehicle off the asphalt driveway for extended periods. This is especially helpful if the collection vehicle operator must open and close enclosure gates at customer locations.

While reinforced concrete is more expensive than asphalt, it is necessary to carry the weight of the collection vehicle, plus, in those rare cases when a truck has a catastrophic petroleum spill, concrete is less likely to break down and clean-up is much easier.

Once the pad is planned, careful attention must be given to the enclosure. Whether chain link fencing or masonry walls are planned, the enclosure should be at least 8 feet tall. Inside, the clearances on both sides remain critical. Preparing for container placement is equally critical at the back wall of the enclosure. Using the centerline of the back wall as a reference, a concrete steel bollard should be placed 2 feet from the back wall and two more should be placed approximately 2 feet to the right and left of the center bollard. These steel posts should be a minimum of 6 inches round and at least 7 feet long, with half the length below ground and half above.

The posts should be filled with concrete and painted bright safety yellow. They will give the operator a reference point for where the container should be placed and, in the event of unforeseen circumstances, will prevent it from being pushed into or through the back wall.

The front of the enclosure also is important. Many times, designers will build enclosures that are 10 feet wide and then narrow the approach by sinking bollards for attaching gates inside the wall. The minimum distance between any two objects, be it a wall or gate post, should be 10 feet. Posts for gates should be in front of the enclosure walls, not inside. If they are installed inside the walls, the width of the pad and enclosure should be extended to take the posts into consideration.

Gate posts could vary depending on the type of gate approved for use. Standard galvanized chain-link gates might not need bulky, heavy-duty concrete-filled bollards as might be necessary with steel-framed gates covered with wood. The gates and posts should be at least 8 feet tall to match the enclosure, with at least 4 feet underground in concrete, meaning the posts should start out with a length of at least 12 feet. Again, painting these posts a bright safety yellow is a good idea but could be prohibited by local ordinance or the customer’s desire.

Finally, each gate on the enclosure should have a steel drop-rod stop pin with a dedicated hole in either the concrete or asphalt that will positively hold the gate open, no matter its weight, during servicing. Consideration should be given to high wind conditions at some locations. A swinging gate is a hazard to itself, the equipment servicing the location and, most importantly, to the operator if he or she must exit the truck to facilitate service for any reason.

While all these suggestions are designed to protect the vendor from unwanted and unintended liabilities, it can sometimes be difficult to convince customers that they are best management practices when considering the up-front costs. The most prudent approach is to contact the local planning and zoning department to ascertain what the current regulations are concerning dumpster enclosures and to advocate for improvements as needed.

Joe Williams is principal of Common Sense Consulting of Franklin LCC based in Franklin, Tennessee. Contact him by email at joe.williams@cscfranklin.com