For once, progress is behind us – in the trailers we pull. From LED lights and air-ride suspensions, to high-strength walls and underframes, manufacturers have come up with advancements that make vans and reefers longer-lasting and more economical over the long run.
There are also good ideas for flatbeds and dump trailers that have been fashioned from aluminum and steel. Let's look at just a few of them.
There was a time when fleet managers who wanted lightweight vans chose between inside-post and outside-post walls, and debated the advantages and disadvantages of each at industry meetings. Both had their disciples.
Inside-post walls – also called sheet-and-post – needed plywood liners between the metal vertical posts to protect the fragile aluminum sheeting, but featured smooth exterior walls that were easy to letter.
Outside-post walls didn't need the heavy, damage-prone plywood, but instead used metal scuff plates. They were tricky to letter and the posts caused wind drag, which cost fuel. But LTL fleets that used them figured the fuel loss was more than offset by savings from eliminating the plywood. FRP walls were an alternative, but were heavy and harder to repair than sheet metal.
Then Wabash National developed its DuraPlate composite walls for vans. These walls have foam cores sandwiched by steel sheeting. More recent DuraPlate HD walls have aluminum sheeting for lighter weight. Panels are riveted together without traditional posts, and are smooth inside and out. Inside widths approaching 101 inches maximize loading for pallets, and walls can absorb a surprising amount of shock and abuse from rough forklift loading.
Wabash brags that most major fleets now use DuraPlate trailers, and many thousands are out there. Plate trailers now make up more than half the van market and their popularity is increasing, according to Vanguard National. So Vanguard is entering that segment of the market this summer with its VXP plate trailer. It will have a price advantage because the walls and other components are produced in China.
While plywood liners are still used in budget-priced sheet-and-post vans, various manufacturers over the years have devised liners of composite plastics that stand up better to battering. Great Dane, for example, highlights its PunctureGuard product as an optional liner and scuffband for reefers and vans. It's a sandwich of glass fibers and woven polypropylene that's thin, lightweight and hard to penetrate.
Some operators want sharp-looking equipment, and what better puts a gleam in folks' eyes than polished walls and doors on reefer trailers? Shiny stainless steel doors were one way to grab attention, but glare from headlights at night almost blind motorists and other truckers coming up from behind. Some years ago, Utility Trailer solved that problem with a quilted surface for doors. They still shine, but light is diffused and non-bothersome.
Stainless steel's other advantage is resistance to corrosion, but the material is heavy. So now Utility offers Alcoa's Translite aluminum skins on its 3000R reefers. A clear coating on the skin protects it from road chemicals, so it resists yellowing and corrosion. Joining it with other components needed on a reefer trailer does not result in electrolysis that occurs when aluminum touches ferrous metals. Thus good looks, longevity and light weight are available to image-conscious truckers.
Tests and customer testimonials claim that add-on aerodynamic products for trailers can provide substantial fuel savings, even if few fleet managers bother with them, as we noted in March HDT. But what about built-in aerodynamics? After all, round-nose vans disappeared nearly a half a century ago when operators chose interior cube over streamlining.
Since smooth sides save a bit of fuel on vans, as operators found out 30 and 40 years ago, they should do the same on other types of trailers. East Manufacturing, known for its dump trailers, realized this, and several years ago introduced its Genesis smooth-sided products. Compared to still-common outside- braced end-dumps, the Genesis design saves 5 to 10 percent on fuel, East claims. That adds one-quarter to one-half mpg in many operations.
Genesis sides are double-walled, so they don't show dings that appear when rock and rubble bang about inside the body, the company says. The patented design, which actually uses a series of 2-inch-thick aluminum extrusions, provides vertical ribs 3 inches apart, compared to 24- inch centers on a typical side-post design. Thus the Genesis side is eight times stiffer. It's also easier to clean, and its smooth surface offers opportunities for snazzy lettering and graphics.
What about the underside of trailers? Don't the I-beam crossmembers grab at the wind, creating drag? Yes, they do, one owner-operator told us. He said he converted his tractor from 24.5-inch wheels and tires to easier- rolling 22.5s, but kept the 24.5s on the trailer. The flatbed trailer's rear was a little higher than its nose, which shielded the forward portion of its underside from the slipstream. When he got around to putting 22.5s on the trailer's tandem, the o-o noticed his fuel economy dropping a bit. That, he figures, is because the entire underside was again exposed to the slipstream, causing more drag.
Meanwhile, engineers at East were also thinking about crossmember drag, and they recently incorporated rounded crossmembers on some of their flatbed models. The patented tubular crossmembers let air slip by easily, which reduces drag. East makes no fuel-economy percentage claims, but the logic is there. The company does say that the multi-wall tubes are stronger than I- or C-channel crossmembers.
Before any truck rolls down a public highway, its weight has to be computed. For certain commodities, such as fruits and vegetables, you've got to know the exact weight because that's how you're paid, and the produce house's per pallet estimate often isn't good enough. So your driver proceeds to the nearest certified scale and weighs the rig. If it's legal, by axle and total gross, fine. If not, it's back to the dock, where some of the cargo has to come off.
There's a good chance that the scale is 5 or 10 or 25 miles away, and weighing alone will take 30 to 60 minutes. That's lost time and miles if the scale is not in the direction the load needs to go. A return to the dock for off-loading (preceded by some more waiting in line, of course) will add another hour or two.
On the other hand, if the rig weighs a couple of thousand pounds under maximum legal gross, revenue is down by that much. And the driver, whether he's hired or owns the truck, usually earns nothing until he's done with the whole process and gets on the road. Meanwhile, his legal on-duty time is being frittered away.
One way to avoid this is by plumbing a pressure gauge into the tractor's air-ride suspension. A reading of 40 to 42 psi might indicate 34,000 pounds on the tandem. From that, an experienced driver can guesstimate poundage on the steer axle and the trailer's tandem, and that might be close enough. But by the subtitle above, you know that there's a better way, and a far better way than traveling to a certified scale. That's an onboard scale.
Scales have long been available for tractors, mostly because they've had air-ride rear suspensions since the 1980s. On-board scales sense pressure in the air bags and convert that into a readout in pounds. With air suspensions now on the majority of van and reefer trailers, scales are being installed on them, too. Data from the trailer is displayed in various ways. One uses a handheld remote with a display screen, which the driver or loader can consult as the cargo goes aboard the trailer.
Air Weigh and TruckWeight, two companies that make onboard scales, have amassed many testimonials from happy users, ranging from haulers of heavy machinery to carriers of bricks, blocks and aggregate. Customers say that they avoid expensive fines for being overweight, and maximize revenue and productivity because they can load to the legal limit.
A wireless trailer scale costs about $1,500, which should be made up quickly in saved time and increased income. Nothing's entirely free of maintenance, but fiddling with a scale on your own schedule beats the uncertainties and expense of guesswork loading.
Speaking of maintenance, how do you like sending trucks and trailers to a body shop to have their undersides sandblasted, scraped, primered and repainted after a few years of being ravaged by modern road salts? That's one good reason to live and run only in the Sunbelt. However, if you happen to have customers up North, or if you live and work there, then you know that rust never sleeps and you have to deal with it.
Last fall we ran a story about a fleet in upstate New York that hauls and sprays liquid calcium chloride to suppress dust on dirt roads and construction sites. CaCl2, as chemists call it, is one of the more aggressive anti-icing road salts. So we could say that it bites the trucks that haul it, and the company periodically sends its vehicles to a body shop for refinishing.
But instead of regular automotive paint, the tanks and chassis are coated with bedliner compound. This is the thick, rugged paint that protects beds of pickup trucks from rough stuff that owners sometimes throw in. It turns out the product also shields chassis and body surfaces from salts, and it lasts at least three times longer than regular paint. That's one thing any truck owner can do after damage is done.
However, prevention is an even better idea for new vehicles. Some suppliers and trailer builders are now treating certain parts with special compounds. The Holland Group, for instance, offers Black Armour as a treatment option for its landing gear and trailer suspensions. This process uses a compound that bonds with steel surfaces to form a protective skin. It resists rust creeping that can happen over time from scratches or chips, and if impacted the compound compresses to remain intact. Holland says its liftgate division in Canada has successfully used a previous generation formula of the substance for over six years
Another liftgate manufacturer, Waltco, powdercoats its products to better resist chemical sprays that tend to cloud at the rear of trailers and trucks. Vanguard National Trailer galvanizes the steel landing gear, door headers, upper coupler components and other parts on its vans. Any upcharge for these features should more than pay for themselves through longer life and more uptime.
As Star Trek's Mr. Spock would say, "Live long and prosper."