You could hardly call it planned obsolescence, but what's a fleet to do with a worn-out tank trailer with a perfectly good barrel? Rebuild the thing, of course. Refurbishing gives owners the benefit of the latest lighting, brake, and suspension innovations on a virtually new chassis for about half the cost of a whole new tank trailer – and you don't have to pay the federal excise tax.
A stainless steel tank barrel, the type used in chemical and food-grade transport, can easily outlast its chassis, because stainless steel is almost impervious to the metal-munching impact of corrosion, especially in the Northeast where road de-icing chemicals have become extremely aggressive. Barring any severe damage or structural deficiency, such tank barrels can be removed from an aging chassis and dropped onto a new one for an additional 10-15 years of service.
The same can be done with aluminum petroleum tank bodies, but they may not last quite as long as stainless steel bodies.
"Tank barrels are usually good for 20-30 years, but the chassis rot out in 10-15 years due to the corrosive materials they are using on the road these days," says Brian Noppert, president of St John Truck & Trailer Service in Muskegon, Michigan. "We fabricate new stainless steel frames and install new running gear, such as axles, suspensions, landing gear, brakes, etc., and basically double the equipment's expected life."
St John Truck & Trailer Service has been rebuilding and repairing tank trailers since the early 1990s, but that's just part of what the company does. It's a full-service truck and trailer repair facility doing engine work, driveline work, brakes, suspensions – pretty well everything except tires. St John also does annual and five-year inspections along with highly specialized welding work. It has an "R" stamp from the National Board of Boiler and Pressure Vessel Inspectors, which allows the company to work on most types of tank trailers, including petroleum and liquified propane tanks.
The company also sells new tanks. St John inked a deal in 2018 to sell tanks built by Advance Engineered Products Group of Drummondville, Quebec. Noppert says the deal was a good fit because of Advance's experience building multi-axle, high gross weight equipment for the Canadian market. In one collaboration, St John and Advance came up with a "weight-saving design where customers can scale 13,400 gallons of fuel oil on six axles whereas everyone is used to about 12,100 gallons," he says.
St John employs about 40 people at two locations; the 32,000-square-foot main shop in Muskegon, and a smaller 8,100-square-foot welding and fabrication shop called Exit 16 Fleet Repair in Coopersville. It also has a wash bay for external truck cleaning and a steam rack for cleaning and degassing the petroleum tanks.
"The company started in 1946 as a corner gas station and automotive repair shop owned by Ivan St. John, before he grew it into a heavy truck repair business," Noppert says. "We are located right between three major gasoline terminals, so there are lots of tanks and tank trucks operating in the area. It's a pretty natural fit for us to be servicing that industry."
Noppert says the biggest part of St Johns' repair and refurbishing business is aluminum tanks in the petroleum hauling sector. In Michigan, the typical petroleum tank is a 13,400 gallon, six-axle tank usually plated for 130,000 pounds gross weight.
Rebuild and refurbish
Major refurbishing operation at 10-15 years are pretty typical for many tank fleets, but it's more common for smaller operations. Noppert says larger companies might be more inclined to sell off older equipment and keep the fleet up to date whereas smaller companies will keep a tank in service as long as they can.
"They will typically do one frame rehab or refurb, sometimes two, but usually after the second refurb the tank barrel is up to 30 years old," he says. "At that point, it's usually sold as a water hauler or for fertilizer and could see another 10 years of work in non-spec service."
St. John usually builds new stainless steel subframes for the tanks along with new stainless cabinets, fenders, discharge plumbing, and all the running gear. They do most of this work in advance of actually pulling the trailer off the road so the downtime for the customer is kept to a minimum. When the subframe is ready, they lift the barrel off the old chassis and drop it onto the new one.
Durability and low maintenance are tops of the customer's specs, Noppert says. "Sealed hub assemblies are popular with customers now. The ones we install from SAF Holland come with a five-year wheel-end warranty. And they are asking for disc brakes and air suspensions too."
The suspension of choice is SAF Holland's CBX 2530, which is a 25,000-pound suspension at highway speed, but it's good for 30,0000 pounds at lower speeds. "It has to be a pretty robust suspension to take the extra stress when the trucks are cornering and maneuvering with three of the six axles raised. That means you have the full loaded weight on just half the number of axles. The 2530 has extra-heavy hangers." he says.
A full refurb usually includes new wiring and lighting, which tend to suffer greatly from the ravages of corrosion, time, and poor repair techniques. Noppert says most customers opt for a new harness with the latest connector and sealed junction boxes. Fenders and cabinets are usually replaced with new parts, while the discharge plumbing is usually inspected and repaired if necessary and replaced only as needed.
"When you have a 10- or 15-year-old-truck, the suspensions and braking systems are outdated and pretty well worn out," says Noppert. "A full refurbishment is a good way to renew an asset, which basically doubles its life expectancy."