Service Trucks Help Keep Your Fleet in Production
The larger the machine, the greater the need to keep it working and maximize its productive life. Prompt fleet maintenance and repair strategies help ensure that the contractor stays on the right side of the profit margin tracks. A component in this is the company’s service truck.
“Service trucks play an important role in our operation,” declares Jay Prybil, shop superintendent for Las Vegas Paving. “We use a [Caterpillar equipment] dealer in town as our ‘safety valve,’ but with projects 600 miles away in Sacramento; 200 miles to Hurricane, Utah; and 120 miles to Death Valley, our service trucks are essential. All but two of our 16 site mechanic trucks carry cranes, and another 10 trucks, the majority with 54,000 GVW [gross vehicle weight], can lube, oil, and fuel at the same time. If any mechanic finds a problem and needs a special part, he contacts the shop and we immediately get it out there.”
He cites the time an axle on a 379 Peterbilt snapped. “It took 20 minutes for the parts runner to get a new one to the field, but the mechanic had it running in another 15 minutes. It doesn’t take long to make a field repair—if you’re prepared for it.”
Las Vegas Paving also is an underground contractor with a concrete division, so it’s prepared to handle all dirt and grading, sewer work, and water lines. The company’s fleet includes pavers, dozers, scrapers, drilling machines, forklifts, mixing trucks, and dump trucks. Prybil says, “We have a whole gamut of pieces of equipment. If it has to do with construction, we’ve got it.”
That’s why Las Vegas Paving’s service trucks tend to carry a vast amount of parts. “We stock each service truck with essential parts that normally wear out on pieces of equipment. When we need a specialty item out in the field, such as that driveshaft, that’s when the parts runner goes to work. If a piece of equipment is not running, it’s not making any money. We try to get it back to work ASAP.”
Sizing for the Need
The universal comment from various service truck manufacturers is the need to be sure that the service truck is large enough to handle the job. “Some are trying to take care of 2 million dollars’ worth of equipment out of a pickup truck, and they can’t do it nowadays,” comments Jack Harriman, national accounts manager for Feterl Manufacturing Corp. in Salem, SD. He notes that adding on a lube trailer can help boost field service because the trailer frees up deck space on the smaller vehicle so the field mechanic will have more room in which to work.
“A trailer is one way smaller operations can keep the cost of field repairs down. But 95% of our customers buy a crane to go with their service truck, and the same amount buy an air compressor. A lot are turning to the 40-cfm rotary screw air compressor because it doesn’t need a tank. It provides instant air and can service all the vehicles in the fleet, including major changes such as radiators, final drives, and tracks.”
Add to this improved features such as hydraulic outriggers and contractors are better able to make field repairs requiring a crane. “With our crane it takes just two to three hours of practice for the mechanic to be ready to reach out 22 feet from the centerline.”
Service trucks of various brands are designed to last. Harriman says, “A customer bought three of them 16 years ago, and every six years has put a new truck under the service body, and they’re still going.” He credits the 10-gauge steel for the longevity, as well as the customer’s care in keeping the bodies in tiptop shape so rust isn’t a problem.
Pennsylvania Contractor Speaks Out
Although Brubacher Excavating Inc. does a majority of its work within a 100-mile radius of Bowmansville, PA, Rich Deeds, fleet manager, credits the company’s service trucks with maximizing its more than 200 pieces’ productivity and longevity. “Of our 10 service trucks, seven are for general repair, one is for heavy welding, one is dedicated to preventive maintenance, and one is dedicated to diagnostic and A/C repairs.”
Plus, this company makes sure the service trucks themselves get the same treatment. Brubacher still has an ’88 model in its fleet of IMT (Iowa Mold Tooling Co. Inc.) service trucks. “That was our first ‘heavy’ service truck, which set a precedent for all of our trucks, and we put a lot of features on it, including eight fluid tanks with filtering, air compressor, torch, crane, welder [with mig attachment], generator, high-voltage lighting, hose press, and pressure washer. It still runs well and we’re using it in our aggregate department where it cares for eight machines. That type of work is high-maintenance, but when the mechanic isn’t making a repair he’s operating one of the machines.”
Deeds reports plans are to keep that original service vehicle for several more years. “A well-equipped service truck costs $160,000, so you’ve got to keep them for a lot of years.” Brubacher’s trucks range from 17,500 to 33,000 GVW, with cranes from 6,000- to 10,000-foot-pound lifting capacity. He adds, “We do a large amount of field repairs, but when the going really gets dirty we bring it back to the shop where we have a more controlled environment.”
Whether in the field or in the shop, the need is for reliable mechanics. “We look for somebody that’s ambitious, that doesn’t mind getting dirty, and can improvise when need be. That helps avoid shutting down the site just for one critical machine needing a particular repair. We want mechanics who can troubleshoot quickly, who can determine whether we’re going to need to bring the piece of equipment back to the shop or whether it can be resurrected there in the field.”
He recalls a time last summer when a service truck mechanic with an 8,000-foot-pound IMT crane pulled the engine and transmission, as a single unit, out of a Cat 627E scraper on a project two hours northeast of headquarters. “In three hours he had it ready to load. Just two days later it was returned to the field and reinstalled totally rebuilt.”
So how does Brubacher Excavating keep a good mechanic? “Keep them working all year-round, pay them fairly, and give them good equipment to work with. We’re fortunate to have Reading Equipment only 3 miles up the road from us.”
A Supplier’s Response
With $50 million in annual sales, Reading Equipment & Distribution Inc. is a major player in the Mid-Atlantic region. (In fact, Nanaimo, BC–based Vehicle Mounted Air Compressors, known as VMAC and which specializes in truck-mounted air compressors, recognized the firm as its top dealer in North America for 2004.) Kris Ziegler, senior sales manager for Reading, reports the trend in mobile service vehicles is the addition of lubrication accessories to most service vehicles, with medium-duty and full-sized service trucks doing more onsite work throughout the region.
“Available payload is one of the most important specifications of a service truck. We always advise our customers to buy the heaviest GVWR [gross vehicle weight rating] that they can afford for the weight class they need to be in.”
Dealers report more users want a turnkey package and such add-on accessories as welder/generator units and emergency lighting. Rollout toolbox packages have also become popular, as most customers desire a “ready to roll” service truck when they take delivery. “Contractors aren’t going to Sears to buy their toolboxes and accessories anymore. They want more options than ever before, and they want them installed by the equipment up-fitter so they don’t need to worry about completing their truck after they receive a new unit. With a turnkey vehicle all you need is a mechanic with a valid driver’s license and he’s ready to go to work.”
Ziegler reports that service truck life ranges typically from five to 10 years. “Those who buy vehicles outright tend to run them into the ground. That’s why we’re big on teaching them [preventive] maintenance on their service equipment. One thing that eats me is a when a careless operator is very, very hard on the unit he drives. I’ve found that operators who have their names on the chassis door often take better care of the unit because of the feeling of ‘ownership.’”
This Dealer Offers Contractors Field Services
When it comes to the number of service trucks, the largest operator we spoke with was Alban Tractor Co. Inc. in Baltimore, MD. Bob Marano, vice president of service, reports this Caterpillar dealership has 110 service trucks, with customers ranging in size from needing just one piece of Cat equipment to more than 200 pieces. “We have 985 customer support agreements. They range from preventive maintenance to total maintenance and repair. We get our mechanics in several different ways, including students out of local vo-techs, and those from regular high schools with mechanical backgrounds that we train in our own regional training center, which has two full-time instructors. Along with our own technicians, we train for other Caterpillar dealers in the area.”
Alban Tractor Co. has been in business since 1927. It has 700 employees with nine full-service facilities and a Remanufacturing Center, which includes large-machine and hydraulic ships. Employee care plays an important role in keeping good people. A Christmas party, summer events, and cookouts at different local sites, along with first-class facilities, help employees know they’re important. “We had 1,100 people, including parents and children, at the last Christmas party. We held it at Raven Stadium here in Baltimore and had tours, Santa Claus, kids’ games, a nice buffet for adults, and a menu specifically for the kids.” Twenty percent of Alban’s employees have more than 20 years with the company.
Doing More With Lighter Components
As field service vehicles take on more tools, the challenge remains to lighten the service body without compromising structural integrity, safety, or performance. “You have to take weight off somewhere in order to carry the compressor, welder, crane, and other elements,” says Tim Worman, commercial vehicle product manager for IMT in Garner, IA. Worman knows what it takes to build service bodies that combine functionality and reliability because of the 17 years he has been with IMT, 14 of which were spent designing field service vehicles.
“Engineering techniques for structural design, such as finite element analysis and strain gauge stress analysis, allow manufacturers to lighten the components while maintaining structural integrity,” Worman says. “We are continually finding new ways to lighten our vehicles in order to remain an industry leader. We provide the lightest bodies on the market, which means contractors are able to increase their payloads and add options and parts.”
One option is an air compressor. “It used to be that a compressor with 35 cfm at 100 psi would do the job,” Worman says. “We’re now seeing requests for compressors with 65 to 70 cfm at 150 to 175 psi.” Larger compressors increase the overall unit weight. Because IMT supplies the service body, crane, and air compressor as an integrated package, Worman says they are able to control and maintain the lowest unit weight possible.
Contractors are also demanding longer, taller bodies with more storage space to carry parts, electronics, and even computers for onsite diagnostics. It’s also no surprise they are requiring larger cranes in order to lift the larger equipment and machine parts. Overall, Worman says contractors are expecting to equip their field service vehicles with larger service bodies, cranes, and compressors, while staying at about the same unit weight.
When it comes to maintaining your field service vehicle, Worman says a life cycle cost analysis can help take a lot of guesswork out of the service vehicle’s lifetime cost. “The software program allows the end user to plug in data related to usage and analyze long-term effects, whether they’re dealing with high-usage/low-cost or low-usage/high-cost components,” he says. “It helps them analyze how their units are being used, when it’s time to put a piece out to pasture, or whether it’s economical to make a major repair.”
In addition, the analysis helps contractors select a field service vehicle size that matches their service needs. A mismatch results in either inefficiencies or wasted money. This usually happens because contractors make the mistake of selecting a vehicle that fits their budget rather than their service needs. “They may realize that they need a 60,000-foot-pound crane with an equivalent body and chassis, but their budget only allows for 38,000 foot-pounds,” Worman says. “The danger is, if they go with the less expensive unit, they may be stuck with a truck that can’t withstand rigorous day-after-day job conditions.”
Worman advises contractors to consider future growth when selecting necessary lifting capacity, crane reach, air requirements, storage capacity, and other features or options. Looking down the road can help contractors get the best possible performance out of their service trucks. “When you have to make a sudden replacement, it may be a good time to review what the unit is used for and decide if it is time to upgrade the unit’s capabilities, rather than merely replacing the worn-out truck,” he says.
Knowing the equipment regulations in your state is also important before buying a field service vehicle, Worman says. For example, the State of California Occupational Safety and Health Administration has adopted a crane operator certification requirement effective June 1, 2005, for cranes that have a reach of 25 feet or more and a maximum capacity of 15,000 pounds. “Understanding and following these regulations can protect you from costly fines and potential downtime.”
Freeing the Compressor
When deck space is a concern with a standard air compressor, VMAC has a solution: Hide it under the hood. Mike Pettigrew, senior marketing analyst, reports that VMAC’s Underhood VR70 rotary screw air compressor is totally concealed, which protects it from vandalism, theft, weather, and accidents. “It gives the driver a clear view while getting to the site, and frees up valuable payload space. The additional room allows for more equipment or tools on the job site. It is powerful enough to replace a tow-behind but is priced to replace a deck-mount or under-deck.” The VR70 maintains 70 cfm and up to 175 psi while its big brother, the VR140, maintains 150 cfm and up to 175 psi.
“The biggest hassles with tow-behinds are extra insurance costs, maintenance of an additional engine, extra axles and hookups making it more difficult to get to the job site, and the fact that if an excavator and an air compressor are required on the job site, two trucks and two drivers are needed. Smaller companies that rely on light-duty pickups or medium-duty trucks can take advantage of the technology. The Underhood VR70 is ready to go in just eight seconds from startup. The mechanic or construction worker simply turns the control box on in the cab and gets to work.”
Maximizing Equipment Uptime
Bloomsdale Excavating Co. in Bloomsdale, MO, strives to keep equipment working 92% to 95% of the time. “We have 150 pieces of earthmoving equipment, and we handle projects in Missouri and the surrounding states,” reports Steven Fallert, equipment manager. “A majority of our activity is within 200 miles, but we’ll do projects 450 air miles away.
“With a better uptime rating you’re making money, and you’re keeping the customer happy because there are fewer delays from equipment breakdown. Our service techs also pay attention to equipment condition, such as wear on cutting edges of teeth. If a transmission is not working right, it could be the line harness or a broken switch or transmission slip, and the mechanic then can service the problem ASAP. If he doesn’t have the part, he can order it immediately and have the new part on the job by the next morning.”
Fallert reports that at 4:30 p.m. the day before the interview a mechanic discovered a final drive oil leak on a Cat 973 track-type loader. “He was able to order the parts and have it moving by noon. That piece was 50 miles from home base, and one is very lucky if he can get a service shop out by the next day. Without our own service truck it would have taken two full days. Instead we lost just a half-day of actual work.”
This repair took one of the company’s six Service Truck International vehicles. This one was mounted on a Kenworth T300 body and equipped with a 10,000-foot-pound crane. “Basically, he drove up to the job, turned the air compressor on, took the track apart, unbolted the transmission, and set it on the ground. The crane held the part while he disassembled it. Every piece was too heavy to lift by hand so he had to use the crane both for disassembling and reassembling.”
Looking back on his 26 years with the company, Fallert recalls when Bloomsdale Excavating had a 1-ton utility truck with no crane and no air, and a 2-ton truck with a 6,000-foot-pound all-electric crane and an air compressor. “With a 10,000-foot-pound crane we can take all the components out of a Cat 637 rear end or disassemble a D9R dozer right on the site.”
While waste oil can be a problem, Bloomsdale Excavating’s service trucks carry waste oil tanks as close to 65-gallon capacity as possible. That oil is trucked to their maintenance facility where it’s stored in a 4,000-gallon tank and used for heating the 75- by 150-foot building. “Our winter electric bill is maybe $20 a month to run the electric motors and water pump,” Fallert concludes.
Improvements and a Brighter Future
“Service trucks is a growing market,” says Walt Van Laren, sales manager of Service Trucks International in Sioux Center, IA. “What we see today are more options. Mechanics want rollout drawers, bolt bins, and lube equipment. They like to have a complete stock of replacement parts at headquarters and then take specific items to the field. This means fewer trips back home to get parts.” Cranes have become a more standard item, instead of relying on a handy backhoe to aid in any necessary parts lifting.
PHOTO: LIFT OFF
Van Laren counsels users to analyze their needs, when considering crane capacities, to keep 6 feet from the body of the service truck as a minimum lifting ability. Again, it’s a matter of what level of field repairs a particular company wants to make. “A decade ago 16 to 18 feet was as far as service cranes would go. Now we can extend out 30 feet. Our Eagle Pro service bodies are manufactured with galvaneal steel for longer life and improved appearance.”
He explains that while pickup trucks once dominated the field service department, few large contractors can get the service they need with a smaller vehicle. “Besides, with a decent body you can save 30% to 50% by replacing the chassis and keeping the body—providing the body still has the options you need in your operation.”
Ed Taylor, president of Lift Off Systems Inc. in Redding, CA, comments, “Large vehicles aren’t always as mobile as you need.” This is why his firm has developed a means for adding another 1,500-pound capacity to a standard pickup, flatbed, or utility truck. “It extends behind the truck 10 feet and can unload a trailer without disconnecting it from the truck. Or if you have a welding project, you can unload the welder and all your tanks, and switch over to an empty tank so you can make a run for water.”
The same device allows contractors to utilize a lighter-weight vehicle that’s ideal when parts running makes sense. “Too often a service truck with a utility bed may have everything crammed on the truck and not be unloaded in six months. This system sits on top of the bed like a lumber rack, and essentially gives the operator a second-story bed. It can be used to help lift and install items, such as hydrants, in or out of a repair site where the problem may not involve a vehicle.”
Gary Hibma, national sales manager for Maintainer Corp. of Iowa Inc. in Sheldon, IA, says, “We’re seeing more hydraulically driven compressors than gas-operated ones. People don’t want to wait for air. More and more service trucks are getting welder-generators as a standard item, with 250-amp welders and 10,000-watt generators that can handle lighting at the same time.”
The cost of subbed-out field repairs has become more of an issue, which is another factor that Hibma sees causing contractors to purchase larger and better-equipped service vehicles. “When equipment goes down, the contractor is not making any money. He needs to get that piece up quickly, especially with larger fleets working more isolated sites.”
Hibma adds that Maintainer customer reaction to changes and improvements in the company’s line of service trucks has been positive. New for the company is a crane line series that handles 6,000 to 14,000 foot-pounds. “These hydraulically extend to 24 feet and are designed to work in rugged terrain and tight places.” As with other successful manufacturers, Maintainer’s goal is to give the customer what he wants—what will work best.
Keith Formanek, inside sales manager for Stellar Industries of Garner, IA, says, “As our company grows, we often find end users and dealers asking for new models with different features and specially designed options. Besides larger cranes, we’ve increased the speed of the winch over our competition.” The field mechanic can more quickly attach his crane to the object that needs to be controlled or moved, and then handle it remotely.
“With radio remote he can stand wherever he needs to hook up. He’s not tied down by the power cord. Should a crane get into a power line, the operator is safe.” Formanek reports Stellar has been installing radio remote control on its cranes since 1999 when the company initiated its mechanic truck business. “We came right out of the gate offering radio remote control. That—combined with all-hydraulic reach extensions, hexagonal boom design, and quicker winch speeds—has helped set us apart from the competition.”
Ditto for Stellar’s halogen lights, which can be mounted to the service truck and rotated as needed. “We also offer telescoping lights, all of which make night service and repair a lot easier.”
So, when you combine a knowledgeable mechanic with a service truck capable of carrying the needed parts and equipment for making field repairs, along with manufacturers ready to further improve existing performance standards, field repairs at greater levels make more sense than ever before. This combination makes a given project even more profitable because downtime is reduced, and that makes the greatest sense of all.
Author's Bio: Journalist Joseph Lynn Tilton specializes in land and building issues.