The right route

Features - Technology

GPS tracking of landscaping trucks and equipment can help improve safety, reduce downtime and elevate transparency with employees and clients.

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March 8, 2021

Charles Nelson started his company, Stepping Stone Landscaping in Henrico, Va., five years ago. Two years later, he started utilizing GPS tracking technology. As a result, he has seen a reduction in manhours – and a level of employee accountability most landscape companies can only dream of.

The GPS tracking solution Nelson uses has broad functionality. He likes to focus on truck location and time tracking, along with a variety of vehicle performance data.

“The peace of mind and added efficiency have become invaluable to me.”Robert Ortiz, fleet manager at Clean Scapes

“One of the benefits I offer my employees is a cellphone with unlimited everything,” Nelson says. “When I was first thinking about how GPS could help us, I also started thinking about how big our company cellphone bill already was. So, I decided to go with a GPS solution from our cellphone provider. I just plug a little device into the diagnostic port under the dashboard on the truck. For another $10 a month, we added mobile hotspot.”

The setup allows Nelson to monitor GPS data to pinpoint the location of a truck at any given time. Additionally, because the device is plugged into the truck’s diagnostic port, Nelson is able to monitor things like unfastened seat belts, rapid acceleration, harsh braking and excessive speed. In fact, Nelson is set up to receive text alerts when a truck exceeds 50 mph.

“We generate weekly scores to see how our drivers are doing,” Nelson says. “So, it’s not only a safety thing, but also an accountability thing.”

Big impact on billable hours.

John Sanders, owner of 3G Landscapes & Lawn Care in Stillwater, Okla., began using GPS last year. His company had grown to three crews, making it harder for him to keep track of where everyone was throughout the day. When a customer complained that their crew never showed up, it was nearly impossible for Sanders to refute it.

“Now I can pull my GPS log and show the customer that we were there to perform a service,” Sanders says. “This is especially important when we’re delivering spraying services.”

The GPS solution Sanders uses is wired into the truck’s communication system. “Now I have access to all kinds of information right on my cellphone or computer in the office. Tracking billable hours is no longer just a guess,” he says.

Back over in Virginia, Stepping Stone Landscaping specializes in landscape maintenance. Efficient routing and tightly controlled downtime are big drivers of profitability. GPS has more than paid for itself in this area alone.

“The biggest thing is having the ability to track idle time,” Nelson says. “I’m more forgiving in the winter months, but there is just no need to sit there and let a truck run during the summer.”

Another manhour-related benefit relates to time clock punches. There is a GPS tracking component built into the management software Nelson uses, but having an additional tracking tool in a crew’s truck provides a valuable backup solution.

“My employees are great, but they are human,” Nelson says. “Sometimes they forget to clock in when they arrive to a property. When that happens, I can look at the GPS data and sort all of that out.”

Speaking of punching the clock, GPS can help in one more way. Without GPS tracking, employees might punch out for lunch when they arrive to the gas station or fast food place. In reality, they should be punching out when they begin driving there. Sanders says GPS data allows him to identify when those times are.

“Now I have access to all kinds of information right on my cellphone or computer in the office.”John Sanders, owner of 3G Landscapes & Lawn Care

Sanders also likes to keep track of a truck’s movements – especially if it travels beyond the company’s predefined 20-mile service radius. When a truck goes outside of that area, known as a geofence, Sanders gets an alert sent to his phone.

Routing was the primary reason Rich Stephens began using GPS two years ago. However, Stephens sought more than just a reduction in unbillable time. He also saw an opportunity to add value.

“Sometimes a client calls our office, wondering if one of our crews could swing by for an extra mowing or other service,” says Stephens, owner and president of Red Oak Landscape Contractors in Arnold, Mo. “If we have one nearby, we might be able to squeeze another property in. This type of thing happens quite a bit during snow removal season. GPS has helped us generate additional sales.”

Tracking equipment.

Robert Ortiz is the fleet manager for Clean Scapes’ Austin, Texas, operation. In addition to all of the company’s trucks, GPS tracking is also utilized on a variety of “heavy equipment.”

The tracking of equipment has become increasingly important as the Clean Scapes’ fleet has grown. To minimize downtime and ensure accurate job costing, it has become essential to understand where a given asset is and what it is doing.

“Now we don’t have to rely on word of mouth,” Ortiz says. “For instance, a crew leader might decide to move an excavator from one project to another. But the crew leader might forget to let us know. With the GPS system we are using, we know the exact location of that excavator at all times.

“This is especially helpful if we have a piece of equipment that breaks down,” Ortiz continues. “Sometimes it’s hard to describe the equipment’s location to a mobile mechanic or tow company. Now I just pull up a map on my phone, take a screenshot and send it along with any other notes I want to share.”

Tracking is another tool that builds trust.

Trust is an essential component to the successful implementation of GPS tracking. When presented the wrong way, employees may view it as oppressive oversight. When presented the right way, GPS tracking can be viewed as another tool in helping the company – and employees – achieve their goals.

“I’m pretty lucky in that many of my employees are in their early 20s,” Nelson says. “They understand that technology and location tracking are really part of life today. Plus, the respect is already there in our company. It’s kind of funny. Sometimes I’ll randomly get a text saying, ‘Charles, I just couldn’t hold it any longer and had to stop at this gas station to use the restroom.’ That’s OK, because what this is really about is accountability.”

The author is a freelance writer based in Wisconsin.