Article

Box On Wheels No More

A number of factors are prompting fleet managers to take a closer look at trailer maintenance.

May 2006, TruckingInfo.com - Feature

by Deborah Lockridge, Senior Editor

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High fuel costs, a technician shortage, corrosion problems, new technology and more maintenance options are prompting fleets to take a closer look at trailer maintenance.

"You're starting to see more attention being paid to the trailer than in the past," says Chris Kelley, product manager for GE Trailer Fleet Services' Maintenance Management Service.

For example, just look at the increased interest in untethered trailer tracking. While it may not be the primary reason for investing in a tracking system, the fact remains, if you know where your trailers are, you can maintain them more efficiently.

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"If you've got a trailer on a preventive maintenance schedule, like every third month or even an annual inspection schedule, the big issue always comes to, at that date, where is it?" Kelley says. "That's where trailer tracking relates to maintenance. You can locate where that trailer is and guide its next route to the maintenance shop."

LOOKING AT LIFE CYCLES

As fleets gain a better understanding of maintenance costs with the help of computer software, they are putting more emphasis on life-cycle value than on the upfront cost of the trailer.

Trailer makers are offering, and trailer buyers are choosing, more features that offer longer life and less maintenance.

"Fleets are more apt to be very particular about their specs, and spec things that they know will give them extra trailer life and maybe have some other added benefits," says Charlie Wells, director of dump trailer products for East Manufacturing. "When you sift it all out, proper spec'ing of a trailer is 90 percent of the job of having easier maintenance."

Corrosion is one area trailer makers and buyers are focusing on, especially with state highway departments increasingly adopting damaging anti-icing chemicals. For instance, East has adopted an electrolysis corrosion control process that is applied to surfaces that are dissimilar, and the company uses sealed wire harnesses wherever possible.

Wells reports that spec'ing decisions that once may have been made to save weight are now done just as much for corrosion prevention. "I see a trend, like on our dump trailers, to go to aluminum frames – in some markets as much for corrosion as for weight savings. We've developed the Lite-Ride lightweight aluminum suspension hangar for air ride, but we find that people are buying it not so much for weight savings, it's more for corrosion. The front ends of suspension hangars get blasted with stone chips, so whatever paint coating is there, it chips it right off."

Tracey Maynor, vice president of branch operations for Great Dane, says he's seeing more fleets going with the standard undercoating options used by the trailer manufacturer. "At one time, a lot of guys had special colors on the undercarriage of their trailers," he says. "They're going more toward self-healing, tacky undercoatings to protect the undercarriage and landing gear area."

Lighting and electrical systems are a big issue from a corrosion standpoint as well as other maintenance costs.

"In the fleets I talk to, about a third of maintenance costs go back to electrical and lighting, and that's mostly labor," Maynor says. "Tracing down a wiring problem can be real labor-intensive, so every lighting problem you can prevent is dollars in your pocket." This means spec'ing sealed lighting systems and more LEDs, he says. "We're also seeing fleets of all sizes willing to use fewer lights and get closer to what is required as DOT minimum, because every light they add to the trailer is additional maintenance costs."

Oft-neglected refrigeration units are also getting lower-maintenance, longer-life options.

Carrier Transicold recently introduced its new Deltek hybrid diesel electric technology, initially available on the Vector 1800MT multi-temp unit introduced in February. Because there are fewer moving parts, Carrier estimates the unit will save 30 percent in maintenance costs, based on five years of experience with similar technology in Europe.

"Basically, it is a generator that fastens directly to the flywheel of the diesel engine," explains Dave Goodhew, field service engineering manager. "You do away with all your belts, your gear box, the fan shaft, the clutch; there's no shaft seal, no 12-volt alternator, no solenoid valves." In fact, the Vector's design eliminates two-thirds of the serviceable mechanical components found in conventional systems.

For instance, one of the most common problems with transport refrigeration units, Goodhew says, is the shaft seal. "We use a carbon seal that needs oil on it to make a seal," he says. "Whether it's ours or the competition, you always get some that leak. It's inevitable." With Deltek technology, there's no seal to worry about.

Carrier also offers its relatively new Advance microprocessor on the Vector unit, which features self-diagnostics along with precise refrigeration control and fuel optimization options.

"In this day and age, it's difficult to get technicians, so to have a piece of equipment that can tell you what's wrong with it is excellent," Goodhew says.

East's Wells points out that keeping the technician in mind while spec'ing is important to a long-life trailer. "If it's easier to maintain from a mechanic's point of view, it's more likely to get maintained," he says. "For instance, if a grease fitting is hard to get to, it tends to get overlooked or bypassed because it's a pain in the neck – and a nickel's worth of grease can really change the longevity of whatever component you're dealing with. [That's why] if a grease fitting is located in a tough area to reach, we may run a remote line out to an accessible area – like the grease fitting for the top hoist pin [on a dump trailer], where the mechanic would have to climb up on top to reach it."

The inside of the trailer is getting more attention, too, says Great Dane's Maynor. "We see lots of people going to composite-type interior linings in both refrigerated and dry vans," he says, such as Great Dane's PunctureGuard and ThermoGuard products. "They want the trailers to cosmetically look better, but the big thing is they're looking to reduce life cycle costs by reducing the frequency of damage on the inside of trailers."

Other options fleets may pay more for up front to reduce maintenance costs down the road include automatic chassis greasing systems for trailers; automatic tire inflation or monitoring systems; long-life brakes; and low-maintenance, sealed wheel-end packages.

GET SOMEONE ELSE TO DO IT

If you find it challenging to do the proper maintenance and repair on your trailers in-house – whether it's because of a technician shortage or logistical issues of getting the trailer back to the shop – you might want to consider outsourcing some or all of your trailer maintenance.

GE Trailer Fleet Services has moved beyond simply leasing trailers and maintaining those assets, to providing outsourced maintenance for customer-owned trailers, through 100 branches nationwide and 450 mobile maintenance trucks. It was the fastest-growing segment of the company's business last year.

Some customers may handle their own trailer maintenance, but need a hand when a trailer is out of their normal "footprint" of maintenance facilities, explains GE's Chris Kelley. At the other end of the scale are customers who completely outsource their maintenance, where GE takes over their shops and becomes a maintenance partner.

Outsourcing trailer maintenance, Kelley says, allows trucking companies to focus on their core business, whether it's delivering goods in a for-hire fleet or a non-trucking business in the case of many private fleets. GE's services also provide data analysis to help fleets keep costs down. And a nationwide network of facilities, he says, means you're not "trying to call someone in Mobile, Ala., and get three quotes for a brake job." Instead, consistent prices nationwide help fleets predict maintenance costs.

Refrigeration units are a prime area to look at outsourcing maintenance. Good truck and trailer technicians are hard enough to find; add the training and certification required to work on refrigeration units, and many fleets are turning over their reefer maintenance to someone else.

"The refrigeration unit tends to be the most neglected piece of equipment in a fleet," says Duane Felumlee, manager of service marketing for Thermo King. Yet, he says, "comparatively speaking, it is one of the most valuable pieces of equipment within the fleet. The product that is being guarded by the refrigeration unit in many cases is more valuable than the entire rig."

Both Carrier Transicold and Thermo King have a variety of options to help.

Thermo King offers maintenance solutions for both its own and competitive units through its Thermo King SVC subsidiary:

• The Silver program offers a consolidated billing program, so work done at any of 200 Thermo King locations in North America is handled with a single monthly or weekly consolidated statement.

• The Gold program is an extended warranty program, which can be purchased in a variety of configurations, such as with or without a deductible, covering the entire unit or just major components.

• The Platinum program is a full-service guaranteed maintenance program, where you pay a monthly fee per unit based on the estimated annual hours of operation. That fee covers scheduled maintenance and/or repair breakdown maintenance, depending on the option purchased, at any authorized Thermo King dealer.

Thermo King SVC can tailor these programs to meet the needs of a particular customer, Felumlee says.

Carrier Transicold offers its RoadCare program, which has several facets:

• MobileCare provides on-site service support at your facility.

• Extended Major Component Coverage is an extended warranty program that provides longterm coverage on key components, offering coast-to-coast protection from major component repairs at more than 200 dealers across North America. A variety of customizable coverage options is available. New coverage options include overtime and call-out coverage for emergency repairs, along with sensor and refrigerant leak options.

• Comprehensive Maintenance and Repair Agreements provide outsourcing at a fixed monthly rate, based on the size of your fleet and the extent of your coverage. Detailed service records are maintained for each Carrier system, by serial number.

If your business is more local or regional, you may want to look into a maintenance contract with a local service provider.

CRUNCHING THE DATA

Ever more sophisticated computer systems are allowing maintenance managers to really analyze their trailer maintenance costs, and use that information to lower those costs.

At GE Trailer Fleet Services, they're moving into what they call "total fleet management," where not only the trailer maintenance is outsourced, but also the analytics that go with it.

"We had one case where we found one site that was statistically seeing more ICC bumper damage," Kelley says. "We found out that the cause was a broken concrete slab in one specific bay. As the trailer went over that broken slab, it kept bending the ICC bumper. So that's an example of how we can use data to help fleets reduce their costs."

Jeff Ballew, GE's strategic marketing manager for private fleets and formerly MMS product manager, offers another example. "When we look at a customer's fleet, they may have a number of different assets – sometimes they've acquired another business and have very different types of trailers. That complicates their maintenance. As we analyze the data, we sometimes come away with a recommendation that a fleet should exit this group of trailers [because] it's costing them X amount of money, and replace them with a type that better meets their needs."

GE can not only crunch the numbers for its customers, but also can benchmark those numbers against its own 130,000-trailer fleet as well as against other customer fleets.

Similarly, one of the benefits of Thermo King SVC's services is the ability to generate reports for the customer. "We can provide reports that show what the operating cost per hour is by trailer number or unit number," Felumlee says. "We can also identify the top 10 volume parts or the top volume labor codes so they can see if they're having a trend of failures of some sort or a trend of abuse or neglect of some sort, such as running out of fuel. We're able to provide them a plethora of reports that allow them to do more sophisticated fleet management in relation to their refrigeration units. For most fleets, that's far above and beyond what most of their business systems have the capability to do for them today."

In addition, Thermo King offers fleet auditing services, where they go into a trucking company's facility and meticulously review and evaluate service and maintenance history records and offer an analysis of reefer maintenance costs and recommendations on how to reduce those costs.

You don't have to use an outside service, however, to track your trailer maintenance costs. There are maintenance software solutions available today ranging from cost-effective ASP-based Internet options all the way up to customized mainframe systems.

"In the last few years, fleets have become a lot more sophisticated," says Great Dane's Maynor. "I think the guys are a lot more educated than they were, and they're a lot more sophisticated in their approach to collecting data so they can analyze where their costs are." They're using that data, he says, to spec and maintain trailers so they will serve them longer and at a lower cost.

"With rising fuel costs and the rising costs of new equipment," says Thermo King's Felumlee, "to be able to save a penny a mile or a penny an hour in operating costs makes a huge impact to a fleet."

TRAILER MAINTENANCE TIPS

The key to maintaining a trailer for long life is regular inspections – preferably more frequent than the annual inspection required by the federal government – covering items such as wheel-ends, brakes, lighting, floors and tires. Even if a trailer is spec'd with a bevy of "maintenance-free" components, remember that "maintenance-free" does not mean "inspection-free."

When there's damage to a piece of equipment, repair it immediately. That's particularly important with a refrigerated trailer, where damage to a sidewall or floor can allow damaging moisture to penetrate the insulating foam. Proper maintenance of tires and suspensions, as well as proper alignment, can affect fuel economy in a big way, as well as tire life. Trailer tires that are underinflated by as little as 10 percent lose 16 percent of their usable life. If they are underinflated by 30 percent, they return less than half of their usable life.

With increasing complaints of corrosion due to new anti-icing chemicals being used on roads, cleaning trailers today is a maintenance issue rather than a cosmetic issue. Undercoatings need to be maintained, as well.

Refrigeration units need to be checked on a regular basis – don't wait until the recommended PM interval. Oil and belts need to be checked more frequently.

If a refrigerated trailer is idle for an extended period of time, perhaps waiting for repairs, you need to start up the refrigeration unit at least every two months, just for a minute, to replenish the oil on the shaft seal – otherwise it will dry out and cause a refrigerant leak.

Don't put off preventive maintenance. In the long run, it always pays off in lower total cost of ownership. Control when you do your maintenance to avoid roadside breakdowns when the trailer's got a hot load.

Don't forget the required federal inspections. You don't want your trailer stuck on the side of the road, unable to deliver the load, because you put off getting the inspection done.

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