With the average cost of roadside repairs at its highest for the second consecutive quarter, keeping trucks up and running and reducing the frequency of repairs is more important than ever.
Between July and September 2020, the average fleet operated 34,629 miles between unscheduled roadside repairs, according to recent data from the American Trucking Associations’ Technology & Maintenance Council and FleetNet America’s Benchmarking Report. The report tracks roadside breakdowns of participating truckload, less-than-truckload and tank fleets.
Those numbers are in line with previous quarters of reporting – however, the average cost per mechanical repair was higher.
LTL fleets in particular experienced the highest cost per repair ($642). That makes sense considering LTL’s top five system repairs were the power plant and cranking system, both with the highest cost per repair ($734 and $545, respectively.)
The top-performing truckload fleets experience 54% fewer breakdowns than the average truckload fleets. And the top-performing LTL fleets experience 34% fewer breakdowns than the average LTL fleets in the study.
These figures indicate there are maintenance practices and uptime strategies used by the best-performing fleets that are not necessarily being used by the masses, says Jack Poster, TMC’s service manager of vehicle maintenance reporting standards. Poster is involved with the benchmarking report.
Understanding the frequency of roadside failures, and the major components and systems that lead to them, may help fleet maintenance managers identify opportunities to improve their operations, and ultimately increase uptime.
Following are four strategies to increase uptime, gleaned from the TMC data and conversations with maintenance managers for high-performing fleets.
1. Keep on top of preventive maintenance
The top five components/systems that lead to roadside breakdowns across all the fleets TMC tracks are:
- tires, tubes, liners and valves;
- lighting system; and
- exhaust system.
Participating fleets in the benchmarking study managed to improve the miles between lighting system repairs from every 356,211 miles in the third quarter of 2019 to every 898,513 miles in the third quarter of 2020, a 744% improvement. Meanwhile, participating fleets have struggled in the tire department. Fleets experienced a 20% increase in tire repairs in Q3 2020 compared with Q2 2019.
Fleets are most likely to realize a better return on maintenance time invested by focusing on these top five systems, Poster says.
“I always expect to see my preventive maintenance costs in my top three to top four expenses in any given month on trailers and trucks,” explains Jarit Cornelius, vice president of asset maintenance and compliance at Sharp Transport. “And that tells me the shops are doing a good job of scheduling the equipment in when it due.”
Sharp Transport is a 125-truck fleet based in Nashville, running Freightliner, International and Kenworth tractors, and 350 53-foot dry van trailers.
2. Give special attention to driver education
While premature component failures on trucks or trailers can certainly lead to roadside breakdowns, that’s not always the cause, explains Cornelius.
“99% of the things that happen over the road truly are preventable with good pre-trip and post-trip inspections.”
That’s why in addition to tracking component and system failures in his breakdown report, he also records the unit numbers and dates of each failure, which in turn can help connect the breakdowns to a certain driver.
Are there certain drivers in a fleet who are experiencing more roadside breakdowns than others? This could indicate that a driver needs more training on what to look for during pre- and post-trip inspections.
“You can tell anyone to do an inspection, but if they don’t know what they’re looking at, that’s not going to do you much good,” Cornelius says.
He adds: “I’ll make notes and I’ll catch those drivers when they come through, say for a preventive maintenance service or for a safety training,” he says. “I’ll touch base with them on what they’ve endured equipment-wise for the last three, six months, or a year. I’ll try to find out what I think their skill set is with the equipment.”
During new driver orientation, Cornelius says he also goes over the bells and whistles of the equipment they will be driving so they’re aware of the systems, from aerodynamics to the auxiliary power unit. This ensures that they’re comfortable with the equipment – and what to look for during an inspection – before they leave for their first dispatch.
From there on, Cornelius keeps tabs on all his drivers to ensure they have the support and education they need to keep their trucks safe and running.
3. Use fault monitoring capabilities
A big part of maximizing uptime is increasing maintenance efficiency. Using the full potential and power of telematics, engine fault monitoring and remote diagnostics can save fleets time and money.
At Averitt Express, a Tennessee-based freight provider, two maintenance employees monitor fault codes for nearly 5,000 units. The fault codes can indicate whether a failure will warrant either a tow or the need to direct a driver to a nearby shop or vendor.
Being able to directly schedule units at shops where they have the capability and parts to service a particular failure cuts down tremendously on downtime, says Doug Lloyd, director of maintenance at Averitt.
“Averitt has financially benefited from by running everything through our shop network, reducing labor and part costs,” he explains. Averitt has a fleet of about 4,600 trucks and 14,900 trailers in the less-than-truckload and truckload verticals, running Volvo, Freightliner and Tico yard tractors.
At Sharp, Cornelius says fault monitoring capabilities through the engine manufacturers has been beneficial to reducing roadside breakdowns. But the most important part is to manage the program and have a plan set in place for when those fault codes come in.
“That’s where it seems some people may struggle,” Cornelius says. “They either don’t know they have it, or they have it and they don’t manage it; they don’t have a program designed around it.”
He adds: “Nine times out of 10 the trucks are going to tell you what’s wrong with it before anything goes down. Downtime is inevitable, but you can severely reduce the amount of downtime if you put things in place from that point on.”
4. Don’t skip diesel aftertreatment systems
Twelve years ago, many in the industry were under the impression that they wouldn’t have to touch diesel aftermarket systems up to the 400,000- to 500,000-mile mark, says Bruce Stockton, director of maintenance for flatbed truckload carrier Paul Transportation. Now, he says, they’re seeing that the maintenance requires more frequency in preventive maintenance programs.
Stockton is also interim director of maintenance for Oklahoma-based Melton Truck Lines and serves as a maintenance consultant.
While most fleets were prepared to clean diesel particulate filters, he says, they weren’t prepared to clean all the other sensors that can be clogged up as the exhaust goes through the aftertreatment systems.
“We [as an industry] have suffered a lot of costs in learning about these aftertreatment systems,” he says. “All the sensors and little components that make up these systems, have been plagued with problems.”
Without proper attention, diesel aftertreatment systems can lead to not only a breakdown, but also to an expensive failure, from the time of the tow after the engine derates to the time a driver can drive out of the shop.
“It’s not uncommon that I see $6,000, $8,000 and $10,000 invoices for systems that have not been taken care of from a preventive maintenance standpoint throughout their life,” Stockton says. And that’s just the time it takes to get them going again and get them back on the road – it doesn’t even include engine parts, he says.
Whether taking advantage of technology to make inevitable roadside breakdowns less disruptive, or taking special care to educate drivers on inspections, every little bit helps.
This article first appeared in the May 2021 issue of Heavy Duty Trucking.