It’s been a snowy winter so far in the Midwest. On Saturday we got a half-inch of sleet, then about 8 inches of blowing snow that night and into Sunday morning, and my Troy-Built snow blower and I got a good workout. For streets and highways, snow means salt and that often means trucks with stainless steel bodies to carry and spread it.
Since my wife and I moved to central Ohio 13 years ago I’ve noticed that the dump beds on a lot of municipal plow trucks are stainless steel, and learned that the Ohio Department of Transportation originated them in this region. “Munis” with the financial wherewithal to do so have followed the trend because while it costs 25 to 30 percent more to buy than mild steel, stainless steel resists salt-induced corrosion much better. And it’s less expensive to buy than aluminum in an application that doesn’t require light weight.
That price premium includes the savings that come from not having to paint stainless steel, according to Adam Ryan, director of marketing at Henderson Equipment, a major supplier of snow removal products based in Manchester, Iowa. Depending on size and equipment that’s spec’d, a stainless truck body can cost from about $40,000 to $85,000, but can be reused on a second truck chassis and maybe more, he said.
ODOT is now standard on stainless for its plow trucks, and fleet managers in large cities like Columbus and Chicago see the advantages and have gone that way. Yet not everyone’s doing it, “Small towns don’t have the budgets to buy them, so they stay with regular steel,” he explained. Market share for stainless steel truck bodies “is a little north of 50%... That’s about 10% higher than 10 years ago,” indicating that money’s still tight.
One small muni that did find the dough to pop for stainless is Bennington Township, in Morrow County, northeast of Columbus. It just bought a new Freightliner M2 106 with a Henderson stainless body, a 10-footer with a hydraulically driven salt spreader. The truck got its first real workout in that snow last weekend, and driver Brad Young said “it’s like driving a Cadillac.”
The new Freightliner with its 350-horse Detroit DD8 and Allison automatic transmission replaces a ’99 International 4900 with a much less powerful DT466 and a manual 5-speed. Young said he didn’t mind driving the manual, which has advantages in slippery conditions, “but I’ll get used to this,” he said of the Allison.
That International came with a regular steel box painted red like the cab and hood. It got regular washings so looks like a late model truck. There is some surface rust on the steel body where paint has flaked off, but otherwise it has held up well. With only about 25 miles of roads to plow and patch over the years, the truck has accumulated only 27,000 miles. He expects it to fetch good money when it’s auctioned off on a website specializing in used government equipment.
Young mixes “ice grits” in with the salt, and the small pebbles add traction immediately while the regular sodium chloride crystals melt ice and snow. I remember Department of Public Works trucks in Milwaukee, my old hometown, spreading sand with salt, and it helped. Actually, I’d prefer sand or ice grits only – no salt -- to avoid rust on my cars, but no one asked me for guidance. Did they ask you?
As for trailers, stainless steel is common for chemical tankers and for parts of vans and reefers, especially rear door frames which get a lot of salt spray. Out on the road you can spot them a mile away because they always have a clean look and none of the brown rust that builds up on older trailers whose door frames are made of mild steel. There are still some reefers with stainless steel sides that gleam like the sun. But they weigh a lot, and that’s why aluminum asides are mostly used.
Like aluminum, stainless steel is not immune to corrosion; it just takes longer to break down. Ryan at Henderson explained that poor weld quality will cause welded joints to begin corroding first. Henderson is careful in its welding, he said, and it’s a good idea read up on welding methods and ask any supplier how he does his.