The pandemic of 2020-21 created another trend for tree care companies, Tony Nicoletti observes. At a time when schedules are full and supply-chain delays have slowed manufacturing, there’s been an increase in stolen equipment.
“One of the big issues that’s become more prevalent during the pandemic is the incidence of theft,” says Nicoletti, director of sales and business development at DPL Telematics, based in Los Altos, California. “So much is being stolen out there. Chippers can be stolen, trailers. Whatever’s out there is fair game. If (the equipment is) left overnight somewhere, that’s usually when it’s most susceptible. Things are stolen out of yards all the time. It just depends on what is being targeted. It can be the truck, it can be trailers, it can be the chippers. It can be whatever they’ve got. Theft is a big one.”
In Baltimore, he says, a man tried to sell a Bobcat for a vial of crack. In Texas, since the start of the pandemic, 30 Bobcats have been stolen and recovered, including four on the Fourth of July weekend.
While that’s bad for commercial tree care businesses, it’s another selling point for Nicoletti’s company and the telematics industry, as the GPS trackers that can be fit on tree care equipment are easily traced. And the devices can go on most equipment, from the truck to the chipper and even smaller equipment.
It’s a strong selling point, but as some television commercials like to say, that’s not all.
In the simplest terms, telematics uses technology to record, process and transmit information from company vehicles. It provides security – and insurance breaks – but also gives managers the chance to “see” work crews in action, recording the time on the job and behaviors on the road.
By analyzing some of those factors, companies are becoming more efficient and more effective. As the technology has developed, the telematics tool has become better and more popular among tree care company managers.
“Units are smaller, they give you more data, they’re more powerful and, of course, they cost a lot less than they did 20 years ago,” Nicoletti says. “It used to be the size of a bread box, it gave you a couple of pieces of data, it cost you $30 a month and the unit was $1,000. Now everything’s a third to 10% of that, in some cases. As that’s continued to evolve, we’ve seen more and more adoption, and it’s also allowed the product to differentiate into different segments.”
As an example, Nicolette points to the company’s battery-powered, compact GPS asset trackers, which come in three sizes – from the size of a brick to one that fits in your pocket – and use off-the-shelf batteries, that can be used to track just about any type of vehicle simply by placing it on the vehicle.
“If you need a quick and easy way to track almost anything, to know where it is, where it’s been, how fast it’s going and what route it took, that’s your universal option,” he says. “That’s the one we find has the greatest adoption across every industry, due to its versatile nature.”
The tracking devices aren’t the only thing that’s versatile about telematics. Companies can use them in several ways, and, with prices going down, there are multiple ways to begin using the systems.
Earlier this year, Research and Markets, which bills itself as the world’s largest market-research store, released a report projecting the telematics market will register a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 20.7% from 2021 to 2026. Some of that growth will continue to come from the tree care industry, which is already adopting the technology and benefiting in terms of safety, security, efficiency and effectiveness, according to Nicoletti and others interviewed for this article. With that in mind, some of those players in the telematics industry, all TCIA corporate member companies, talked about the benefits of telematics for the tree care industry.
A steady evolution
“The growing trend has been pretty steady in my opinion,” says Mike Triplett, manager of sales process at Columbus, Ohio-based ServicePro, maker of the ServSuite software. “Ours is built into our software, so there’s a lot of reduced data entry when you use an all-in-one software that has a GPS unit, as opposed to using a software and then an outside GPS. I don’t have numbers for you, but there’s a high percentage that are using some kind of fleet tracking.
“Obviously, one benefit is that lots of insurance companies give a premium discount for having that, for theft or other things, (because) you can track it in real time,” Triplett says. “An actual business benefit to it is from a dispatching perspective. If people do same-day services or if they do callbacks, they can see what truck is where and who’s available in the area. It will track production for the crews and show things such as idle time. With ours, you can set up driver-behavior alerts and have someone in the office or a manager be notified if there’s excessive idle time or heavy braking, speeding – things like that. All are common usages.”
In addition to the insurance benefits, the software can help the company owner or manager “work on the business” by using real data to become more efficient and, therefore, more productive.
“From talking to people, I think most people use it to improve productivity,” Triplett says, by tracking the time jobs are actually taking compared to their estimated times, idle time and general efficiencies. In one case, a manager highlighted excessive idle time on one crew chief’s Friday report and asked for a written report on the amount of idle time shown. The amount of idle time quickly went down.
The automatic-reporting feature of the software can lead to less paperwork for crew chiefs.
“It also helps with potential customer complaints,” Triplett says. “If someone says, ‘Hey, your crew left early’ – sometimes people say that – you can call up the GPS report and say, ‘No, they were
there from this time to that time.’”
While there could be pushback from employees, it’s not a major issue if it does come up, he says.
“It depends on the employee-employer relationship and how the employer presents it to his employees,” Triplett says. “Most folks I talk to aren’t telling their technicians or their crew leaders, ‘I’m doing this because I don’t trust you.’ They’re doing it to improve productivity and safety. Think about it, if you say, ‘This guy should be done with this job by two o’clock,’ and it’s three o’clock and you get a notification that they’ve been idle for an hour, did something happen on the job and they weren’t able to call in? Did someone get injured? Were they in an accident? So it’s a safety thing, and in that regard, it’s also to let them know that ‘our insurance company is going to give us a cost savings if the truck or equipment gets stolen.’
“I think it really depends on how they present it. Most people understand it’s for safety and productivity.”
Better living through maintenance
John Krizan is business development manager for Cincinnati, Ohio-based Clarke Power Services, Inc., which is planning to make inroads into the tree industry with a telematics approach focused on, but not limited to, vehicle and machine maintenance, health and longevity.
Krizan says his company, which provides repair and maintenance services for trucks and other commercial vehicles, was drawn to the technology by the realization that it could offer customers more value by “arming our customers with analytical, actionable data that helps to keep a vehicle/machine healthy, optimize its use and make it safer to work around.”
With that in mind, Clarke Power joined Geotab Telematics as a reseller and developed VAMS/VCP (Vehicare Automated Maintenance System), a powerful data-analytics application/program that provides the customer with a maintenance snapshot of their fleet, Krizan explains. The two systems work together.
“The Geotab Telematics device plugs into the vehicle or equipment and interacts with the ECM (Enterprise Content Management – the systemic collection and organization of information), or onboard brainbox. Any time there is an event when an onboard system exceeds or fails to measure up to a defined performance parameter, an occurrence or fault is recorded. Sometimes the fault amounts to nothing, other times it can be an indication that there is trouble brewing that may lead to a catastrophic failure.
“The data aims to take the guesswork out of the critical maintenance cycle,” Krizan says.
Seeing that data can provide a crystal-clear understanding of, and the value of, a data-driven approach to smarter maintenance, he says.
“Telematics works to augment and automate the process by feeding this application near real-time mileage and hours, which is typically how original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) derive OEM-recommended maintenance intervals to optimize performance and prolong equipment lifespan. Any time a fleet manager, or maintenance personnel, needs to know and better understand the precise status of their fleet, a quick glimpse at the dashboard portrays the status in an easy-to-read, color-coded picture.”
Like the other systems, it can be used in different ways. For instance, if a company wants to monitor operator behavior, the device will record if drivers are cornering too fast, braking excessively, jack-rabbit starting, operating without seat belts or idling the vehicle too much, which may contribute to wear-and-tear maintenance issues.
“The Geotab telematic device provides management with a scorecard rating system. If employees are operating the vehicle in a safe and ‘maintenance-friendly’ way, their score will be low and green on the group or individual score card,” Krizan says. “If, however, any of the management-prescribed parameters are ignored or violated, the telematic device simply reports the occurrence, time and location and date-stamps them.”
Like Triplett, Krizal doesn’t expect stiff resistance from tree crews fearing the technology is invasive.
“I have direct experience in the waste and mining industries, and in both cases, the initial upfitting of the system to the customer can be charged with a whole lot of skepticism,” he says. “I believe, however, that if management paints telematics as a critical ‘tool of the trade,’ to both dispel rumors and reveal true intent, the system that equips their vehicles and specialty equipment will be very well accepted.”
Focus on safety
In tree care and other industries, a greater focus in recent years has been on safety. That’s the mission of the Azuga Fleet and SafetyCam, which the company describes as a safety-driven telematics solution that is “affordable, simple to use and easy to install.”
“For tree care owners, poor driver behavior, inefficient vehicle operations and a lack of data is costly,” says Harry Watson, growth marketing manager of the Los Angeles, Calif.-based company. “The results are costly inefficiencies like fuel waste, driving citations and insurance complications.”
The system employs GPS vehicle tracking and safety cameras and tracks the fleet in real time, which increases operational efficiency using streamlined reporting features, according to Watson. He adds that having this info allows the company to reward good drivers with gift cards and other prizes, increasing the buy-in among employees.
The product has been available since 2012 and has seen growth in recent years, as more business owners look to connected solutions that make operations and reporting easier, according to Watson. Solution costs are decreasing, i.e., no cost for hardware and simple installation, and functionalities have expanded, he adds.
Watson says customers in tree care, landscaping and pest control give similar feedback. The tracking reduces fuel consumption by cutting idle time and correcting driver behavior. It increases productivity with asset tracking and hours-of-service reporting. It reduces overhead costs, creates accurate statements and reduces downtime with preventative-maintenance scheduling and vehicle-diagnostics
monitoring. Finally, the driver-
behavior monitoring, inspection logging and maintenance scheduling increase safety.
“Azuga joined TCIA because tree care professionals have a stronger safety-focused culture than most industries,” says Ananth Rani, company CEO. “They have a heightened standard for minimizing accidents, both on the job and behind the wheel. We also take a safety-first approach at Azuga, so it is a logical fit. Many of our tree care customers leverage our platform for driver gamification, safety, video telematics and fleet management.”
Nicoletti notes that the tool also could be used in another safety-related situation with a big community-relations component.
“We hear stories all the time about crews in their trucks driving, and someone calls the office and says, ‘Hey your truck was blowing through this neighborhood during school hours at this time, going way too fast,’ or this or that. Now, if you’re tracking the truck, you can say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry that happened. What was the truck number or (were there any) identifying marks, or what time was it?’ And now they can actually turn back the clock and say, ‘No, that truck was actually on the other side of the city. You must have us mistaken with someone else.’ So it’s a way to overturn or uphold any false claims.”
All of the telematics products have similarities as well as differences to match your company’s priorities. The Research and Markets report observed that the global telematics market is “moderately fragmented and consists of a significant number of players actively launching new solutions to maintain market relevance.”
This should bring continued innovation and more benefits. Already, there is a telematics use to curb teenage high-risk driving behaviors, and better fleet operational efficiency has brought better fuel efficiency and a reduced environmental impact.
What seems certain is that both the technology and the way telematics is used in tree care fleet management will continue to evolve, likely for the better, in several areas, from the safety of both employees and equipment to a healthier fleet and bottom line.