Janesville using new vacuum truck for leaf collection

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Jake Magee
Monday, November 6, 2017

JANESVILLE—If you see a truck that looks like the vacuum cleaner from "Teletubbies" rolling down your street this week, don't panic; it's only the city's newest technology for collecting loose leaves.

City officials call it a leaf vacuum truck, and it's exactly what it sounds like.

The city this summer bought a used trash truck and had a contractor retrofit it with an industrial vacuum to suck up leaf piles. It cost about $100,000, which is half of what it would have cost new, said Cullen Slapak, parks director.

For the next few years, the city will integrate the trucks into leaf collection to test their capabilities. The city owns one but allocated funds in the 2018 budget to buy another. The city plans to buy one vacuum truck each year for the next four or five years, depending on their usefulness, Slapak said.

So far, the truck is proving useful, he said.

The city's traditional method for collecting loose leaves requires three workers. One drives a trash truck. A second operates a pan at the back of the truck. A third uses a skidloader with a brush to push leaf piles onto the pan, which is then lifted into the truck, Slapak said.

Leaf vacuum trucks require only one operator who drives and operates the movable vacuum nozzle, he said.

Vacuum trucks also clean as they go. They suck up debris normally left behind after traditional leaf collection, eliminating the need for a street sweeper to come in after, he said.

"It does a nicer job of cleanup. It's basically cleaning everything out of the curb line, the street," Slapak said. "There won't be as much residue with the vacuum truck."

It can't suck up anything, though. The vacuum truck has trouble picking up sticks, potted plants, pumpkins and other things that sometimes end up in leaf piles. If vacuum trucks become the norm, the city will have to make sure leaf piles contain only leaves, Slapak said.

It's uncertain how many leaves the vacuum truck can pick up before filling, but it's probably not as much as the traditional method. Leaves are chopped as they go through the vacuum, but with the traditional method, a hydraulic system crushes and packs the leaves, saving space, Slapak said.

Still, the vacuum truck is useful in tighter spaces where using the traditional method would be a challenge, such as Oak Hill Cemetery. It also can pick up leaves not on the street. The traditional method tear up terraces and lawns, Slapak said.

The state Department of Natural Resources and the city want to avoid leaves going into storm drains, which inevitably happens when residents push leaves onto the street and it rains. Vacuum trucks allow leaves to be collected from terraces, reducing the risk of leaves ending up in storm drains, Slapak said.

The city will use both types of leaf-collecting vehicles when collection starts Monday. The city has already used it for a few days to tidy things up leading into leaf collection, Slapak said.

"(We're) still trying to get a feel for what it can do and how fast it can go and that kind of stuff," he said. "I've been impressed with what it can do so far."

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