Sales of flatbed trailers have revived along with the rest of the heavy truck business.
We talked with three who were among the buyers this year. The specs address concerns such as weight, corrosion control, long life, customer needs, and concern about the new CSA enforcement program from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
All three fleets are also buying new trucks. They note that exhaust-emissions control equipment has bulked up new tractors by 1,100 or more pounds, so it's fortunate that trailers can be lightened up more readily.
Melton Truck Lines, Tulsa, Okla., bought 200 new steel-and-aluminum "combo" flats earlier this year, all 53 by 102s, and will probably acquire more in 2012, reports Jeff Robinson, senior vice president, maintenance. Suppliers were Great Dane and Utility, who are "kind of the leaders in the trailer industry. That's good for us because if they do need to get serviced on the road, they have dealers out there who can take care of it," and resale values are good.
"We went to 53-footers a few years ago," he says. "We found there was a niche market for lighter cargos, like air conditioning units," which require the extra deck length compared to the usual 48-footer. "And that's working well for us." Also, they are trying to get 10 or 11 years service life, and well-designed combo trailers will do that.
"Weight is very important to us," Robinson says. An empty Melton flatbed will scale at 10,000 to 10,500 pounds which, with a properly spec'd tractor, allows a 48,000-pound payload. Specs include 10-foot, 1-inch spread axles riding on Hendrickson Intraax air suspensions. The new 53s weigh the same as older 48s, largely thanks to aluminum crossmembers under their floors.
Aluminum stands up well to corrosion. Melton specifies urethane paint for the trailers' steel parts, and those are repainted right after any repairs are made, he said. So "we don't fight that corrosion problem" that is otherwise a common complaint by fleets, even though Melton runs 48 states and its rigs do see aggressive road salts.
Aiming for 18 years
Maverick Transportation, North Little Rock, Ark., also bought 200 new flatbeds this year as it upsizes its fleet. The recession-induced contraction in 2008-09 shrank the fleet from 1,700 trailers to 1,100. All but six of the new flats are Reitnouer MaxMisers, which is becoming the fleet's standard flat, says Mike Jeffress, vice president of maintenance.
It considers weight even more important than Melton does, so its 1,250 flatbeds are mostly aluminum. A 48-footer weighs 8,960 pounds and can haul a 50,000-pound payload. Steel, building materials and glass are the usual cargoes.
The other six new flats are Fontaine Revolutions without crossmembers. "We had four prototypes, and had pretty good luck with them," he says. The Revolutions each have several crossmembers to which glass racks can be bolted.
Rusting of steel parts is a problem for Maverick, he says. "Corrosion problems come in year seven and eight - suspension hangers and fifth wheel plates, due to magnesium chloride" road salt, he says. They replace them with galvanized parts, and new trailers come with these galvanized. Calcium chloride still attacks the galvan's pickling process, but they should last another two or three years.
"We aim for 18 years of life. It used to be 10 years, but we've decided now that by replacing the suspension hangers and fifth wheel plates, we can get another eight years out of them. Some manufacturers are going to aluminum hangers. But I'm not entirely comfortable with that. There's a lot of interplay between hangers and the steel springs, and there has to be something between the two" to prevent electrolysis-induced corrosion.
The company went to disc brakes, Bendix Spicer ABD22Xs, in 2007, primarily to eliminate out-of-adjustment problems with drum brakes that affect DOT writeups and CSA scores.
"With disc brakes, you don't have to worry about stroke length because they're self-adjusting," Jeffress says. "There's still a caliper stroke measurement, but usually when an inspection officer sees discs he doesn't bother with them, he goes to look at something else, because he doesn't know what to look for" on the discs.
Air disc brakes weigh 50 to 60 pounds more per axle than standard drums, but 80 pounds less than with wide drums, he points out. He notes that 90% of DOT citations are for non-working lights and brakes out of adjustment, and Maverick wants to avoid a bad CSA ranking.
"We still have a lot of 48 by 96(-inch) wides, and there's a customer push to 102 wides," he says. "So instead of refurbishing some of the older ones, I'm replacing them with the new 102s. We'll replace the last of the 96 wides next year. Our oldest Reitnouers are '99s; we haven't sold any of them yet, so don't know their resale value. Resale market looks more to who owned the trailers and how they maintained them than the brand name, I think."
South Shore Transportation, Sandusky, Ohio, is among the customers for Maverick's used equipment, says Kevin Tomlinson, director of maintenance. "We're not buying anything new right now. We bought 50 used Easts from Mike, good clean trailers. They have P.S.I's (tire-pressure monitoring systems), but are otherwise the same as we were used to. We've bought new from East.
"We're switching to 48 footers from 45s. Some of those are '90s and even '89s. We prefer 102s, but used trailers are usually available only as 96s. We haul mostly building materials, like lumber and shingles, where you don't need 102s," he says.
"Business has picked up, which is unusual for this time of year. Most of the building supplies are going to Home Depot, Lowes, places like that, but some go for new construction. We had a lot of hail damage up here this spring, so that's where a lot of the shingles are going."
Like Jeffress, Tomlinson is concerned about CSA and the repercussions of a bad ranking. "We went through electrical lights and wiring ahead of CSA, and that worked out pretty well. We're trying to keep the automatic part of slack adjusters working, keep that process working the way it's supposed to be."
Read more on trailers each week from Senior Editor Tom Berg in his Trailer Talk blog.
From the October 2011 issue of HDT.