LEMONT — While the rest of the city's 600 garbage trucks chug and puff around Chicago daily, during the last six months, one truck — No. S10903 — has been quietly humming along South and West side alleys.
Chicago has the first — and currently only — electric garbage truck in North America, a quieter, cleaner and greener model that might not be as much of an urban alarm clock for residents.
"You don’t have the noise of that diesel engine," said Jim Castelaz, founder and CEO of Motiv Power Systems, the company that designed the truck. "You're not going to be woken up by an idling diesel engine sitting by your house once a week collecting trash."
North America's lone electric garbage truck patrols Chicago, and Kyla Gardner got to go for a ride:
Motiv won the bid in 2012 to design the truck for Chicago, and the $1.3 million price tag was paid for by a federal Energy Department grant.
Now that it's been designed, the more trucks that are ordered, the more that price will go down. By truck No. 10, the price is around $500,000, Castelaz said.
That's still more expensive than the $250,000 a gas truck costs, but the electric truck — which charges for eight hours overnight — is one-eighth the cost of a gas truck per mile when factoring in electricity and gas prices.
Those numbers aren't good enough just yet for the City of Chicago to start replacing its fleet, but that could change if more cities get on board.
"Between the private and the public waste haulers, we’re hoping we can get kind of a consortium together to start increasing the purchase quantities," said Kevin Campbell, manager of fleet services and automotive procurement for the City of Chicago.
In the meantime, the city continues to work out the kinks of the new technology.
"Right now, we’re really focusing on getting this one truck up and running," Campbell said. "So far, it has been working well."
The truck runs refuse and recycling routes out of the Streets and Sanitation lot at West 34th Street and Lawndale Avenue in Little Village, where it's housed with a Motiv "plug-and-play" charging station.
The truck used to be offline for days at a time as problems arose in operation, but now, glitches can be worked out within an afternoon, Campbell said.
Picking up 1.1 million tons of garbage per year is no small task for the city's fleet, and the electric truck is expected to keep up.
The Motiv vehicle must be able to handle the same workday of driving up to 60 miles, carrying a weight capacity of 9 tons and having compaction power of 1,000 pounds per cubic yard.
"It has a very hard use cycle," Castelaz said.
The truck was even built using the same light blue body as Chicago's diesel garbage trucks, just with modifications like the 10 batteries hidden along the back of its cab.
In accordance with union rules for sanitation workers, the truck also has to drive and operate the same way as Chicago's current fleet, Castelaz said.
Though the diesel and electric trucks operate the same, Castelaz and Campbell said they've both heard from sanitation workers who prefer the all-electric.
"We had one driver tell us that the truck changed his life," Castelaz said. "He said, for eight hours a day he's sitting 2 feet from an engine that's hot, smells bad and is shaking. With our truck, he has none of those things."
Said Campbell: "We’re not burning diesel fuel. There's no exhaust pipe, and it’s a totally clean energy source. They’re saying it's really nice having a much cleaner worker environment."
One electric truck running the same route as a regular truck saves 2,688 gallons of gas and offsets 23 tons of carbon dioxide per year, according to a statement from Motiv.
For residents, that means less pollution, but also a quieter morning collection.
The truck isn't completely silent — it emits a higher-pitched hum, and the hydraulic-powered trash compactor and bin lifts still make noise, as well as the air brakes that are standard to any commercial truck.
And of course, if you're throwing away clangy items, there's no way around the loud compaction.
The absence of an idling gas-powered engine makes a huge difference, though, Castelaz said.
"You can't hear it from as far away as you could a diesel engine, so inside your house, you probably won't hear it, but if you're right next to the truck, you'll know that it's coming," Castelaz said.
In the long-term future, the possibility of turning solar or wind energy into the electricity needed for the vehicles is an exciting prospect, Campbell said.
But for now, the next step for the nation's first all-electric truck will be testing it on the more highly congested Loop routes.
So Downtown residents, keep an ear out — or maybe just an eye — for garbage truck S10903.
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