Heavy-Equipment Maintenance Options: Outsource It or Do It Yourself?
Second in a two-part series: Part 1 (November/December) looked at dealer service agreements and extended warranties to help get the most for your money; Part 2 deals with advantages, tradeoffs, and best practices when doing your own maintenance.
Maintenance, done in-house—and done right—is immediate, cheap, and controllable. And if you can find conscientious mechanics to do this repetitive work day after day, it's your best maintenance option.
That's the summary opinion from contractors who've opted against relying on dealer service agreements and who—for now—prefer to do the work themselves.
The logic is hard to fault. After all, you own your machines, so who knows their quirks, histories, operators' driving habits, and field conditions better than you and your crews? Besides that, you and your people possess more mechanical know-how, at least collectively, than many of the quick-lube techs from the dealership. But the prime consideration, as always, is cost. Bob Taylor, equipment manager of McLeod Land Services in Sarasota, FL, echoes the view of many of his counterparts: "Outsourcing becomes too expensive. We find it's more economical not to buy service agreements" on older pieces. Taylor has been getting free service agreements on some recent new-equipment purchases. But once his machines reach a half-dozen or so years of age, the freebie servicing has expired. At this point it makes more sense to use his own shop mechanics and operators for servicing.
Moreover, certain basic tasks of maintenance, such as greasing, must be done virtually every day on busy machines; that fact alone argues forcefully that whoever is climbing into the cab also should be assigned at least some role as a front-line service technician. Taylor observes, "You can pay your own operator an hourly rate [in Florida, $10–$15] every day to grease the machine, maintain it, and keep it up." This amounts to only a fraction of the cost of servicing by a dealer, "who wants to charge you $300." Agreeing with him are several other fleet managers, including Ed Wilson, who oversees maintenance for as many as 500 earthmovers and assorted vehicles at Borderland Construction in Tucson, AZ. For cost reasons alone, Borderland does virtually no outsourcing of maintenance and never really considered doing so, he says, although the company occasionally gets service agreements on leased equipment.
Maintenance occurs daily, of course, and thus it's natural to consider doing it all in-house. Like the constant greasing chore, 90% or more of the servicing tasks are quite routine, consisting of scheduled oil changes, coolant checks, and hydraulics and undercarriage inspections to check assorted wear and tear. Not many dealers (which want to sell service agreements) will assert that the tasks themselves are technically challenging. Almost anyone can be given basic training to do them. What is critical and challenging is following through and in fact doing the maintenance. In truth, as several outsourcing advocates noted in Part 1 of this article, it's commonplace for harried, in-shop work schedulers or field supervisors to permit maintenance work to lapse. It's also easy to lose track of what's needed at various hourly intervals for multiple machines and keep up with all of the recommended special inspection chores—while also staying current on best practices and difficult-to-service bulletins. None of this will happen by itself but, rather, requires a sustained managerial effort.
Likewise, several do-it-yourselfers admit that it's sometimes hard to find the ideal people to perform all of the maintenance for a fleet. You need lube jockeys with the right mix of mechanical ability and experience, professionalism, and dedication; the ability to work independently; an eye for details; and a willingness to stay onboard with you doing basically repetitive work. Wilson observes, "Good help is critical. You need to find somebody who pays attention to what he's doing, who wants to do it and likes to do it [and] is involved with it, competent, and proud of his work. Get those combinations." He notes that given these standards, finding good lube mechanics is extremely difficult. "If you can find them, pay them—and keep them," he advises.
Just as critical to in-house maintenance success is your own strong management and commitment. In practical terms, this occasionally means you might need to delay the productive workday start-up time as much as an hour or so to service machines. You'll also need good scheduling and recordkeeping skills; some means of formal supervision of the work, along with a system of accountability; and an operational strategy that dovetails the maintenance tasks with other routines of the business. Lastly, you'll need to provide the mechanics with ongoing training. For this, you'll want to locate and use appropriate original equipment manufacturer (OEM) and dealer resources, such as tech and service bulletins.
The maintenance interface occurs in two prongs—first the operator, and second an assigned mechanic. Either, or both in combination, will work out for you if they're well trained and well coached. Specific strategies will vary according to your own choice of emphasis. Here's a look at how several contractors are succeeding with in-house maintenance that fully utilizes their staff members' abilities and extends equipment life.
Sending Out the Lube-Truck Fleet
Wilson provides servicing for the bulk of his large heavy-equipment fleet (purchased, incidentally, at auction) with a half-dozen lube trucks staffed with two-man crews. Each day at midafternoon, he sends them out to job sites as the workday is winding up; they return very late each night. Task assignments are organized from his own handwritten list of preventative maintenance (PM) instructions for certain vehicles; these are performed in the course of other scheduled fluid changes, minor repairs, and lubes. Wilson also records all of these events in a database for future reference and long-term tracking.
Fluid and filter changes tend to conform to the manual's specs, although Wilson likes to economize by purchasing "same-as" filters or parts that meet specs. He emphasizes that the important thing isn't where you get the parts, "but that you get them—and you do the work and you do it on time and do it properly—and that you're pretty expert about draining the fluids so you don't get contaminates in there when putting the filters back in, and that you make sure you don't miss anything."
Wilson swears by the importance and value of a good oil analysis program. "This is one of your biggest assets." Each day his mechanics draw as many as two or three dozen fluid samples from the oil, hydraulic, or coolant cavities of various machines, per the specified interval. Samples are marked carefully and sent to a Caterpillar dealer laboratory in Phoenix, AZ, for study. Results come back in two or three days (or sooner, if a condition is critical) and indicate the presence of specific contaminates, such as iron, aluminum, copper, dirt, and silicone, in parts per million. "Dirt and water in fluids are probably the two biggest factors that will eat you up," he says. Other specific indicators can warn of a part or system in trouble. Contaminate analysis is an extremely valuable diagnostic tool regardless of how you run the rest of your maintenance, states Wilson. If read with skill, "the reports are probably capable of forecasting 75 to 80% of any problems."
Operators and Mechanics in Combo
For maintenance of his 100-plus heavy equipment pieces, Taylor hired a man to provide mobile lube-truck–style service every day, and he keeps another mechanic in the yard for servicing the dump trucks and pickups. To keep track of what's needed on every vehicle, the mobile mechanic maintains a schedule and an index-card file of every machine's service history, purchase date, warranty expiration date, coolant- and oil-change schedule, greasing needs, and hourly meter reading. Along with these records and his toolbox, the lube mechanic also keeps copies of the equipment warranty compliance terms to make sure he's meeting them. Onboard, too, is a pressurized grease gun and an air-pressure hose, the latter for cleaning air filters. Taylor explains, "In my mind an air filter has to be maintained daily." The company does so by either blowing it clean or replacing it. "Filters are extremely important," he says. "People don't think too much about them, but they'll often [cost] you more damage than a bad oil filter [will]. Really fine sand on our projects can get inside an engine and will just eat the rings out and destroy the engine. You can miss an oil change by 200 to 300 hours and it's not going to hurt you as badly as that dirty air filter."
McLeod's solo lube mechanic doesn't labor alone. Says Taylor, "Every operator is responsible for some daily servicing of his own machine." In particular, he's required to grease his equipment rig before quitting at day's end. "In dirty, sandy, rough terrain, some buckets need grease twice a day," he adds. To ensure that greasing actually gets done, Taylor issued each driver a grease gun with bright-red grease. It's easily distinguishable from the lube-truck grease or from dirty, day-old grease. After the work shift ends and the greasing is done, Taylor can tour any job site to spot-check the freshly red-lubed joints to ensure that operators have done their job. "They can't lie to you and say, ‘I greased it,' when they really haven't," he relates. "Ruby-red grease has been a real lifesaver for the pins and bushings."
Each operator also must file a weekly maintenance report consisting of the little things that go wrong, such as a broken grease fitting; a machine low on hydraulic oil; a leaking hose; loose or broken glass in the cockpit; or a cracked headlight, taillight, or flasher. Early detection and repair of these minor problems often will prevent more costly problems from arising. Operators also must duplicate recordkeeping of the oil-change schedule and air-filter needs to provide a backup to the mobile mechanic's record.
Giving the operators current training on maintenance is another critical element, says Taylor. For this, operators attend refresher courses on equipment upkeep duties every three to four months; classes often are divided into two sessions—one on loaders and one on excavators. "You have to school them continuously," he says.
Doing it yourself might make sense not only for larger operations but for smaller ones too. Ken Porter's land-improvement firm in Norfolk, NE, doesn't outsource any of its maintenance—nor, in fact, does Porter use lube trucks or assign servicing to his shop mechanics. Rather, he relies on his operators and drivers (a combined total of about two dozen employees) to maintain the fleet of excavators, scrapers, graders, dozers, and dump trucks.
Again, as with everyone interviewed, Porter's primary concern is frequent greasing and knowing what to check and when based on personal familiarity with the equipment, its service manuals, and lube charts. "We just think it's better for the operators to be checking the equipment and servicing it," he explains. "They run it all day. They listen to it all day. It's better for them to do the servicing than to have a grease person do it—who may get tired of checking oil and looking at grease all day [and] who might start missing things." Porter's shop mechanics are still on call to assist the operator whenever needed.
One key to success is Porter's good fortune in having low turnover. One man will operate and maintain "his" piece of heavy equipment for months or even years—gaining considerable expertise on its quirks and nuances. "That's why this scenario works," Porter says. Being attuned to a vehicle allows the operator to look for chronic conditions and trouble areas, such as the frailties in the tracks on certain crawlers or hydraulic leaks—which, Porter points out, are prone to occur on certain dozers' final drives. "Those are things the guys know to check on often, for sure."
While working, operators also can keep an eye out for potential damage from belowground hazards, such as old fencing wire, which easily can gash a rubber seal or hose. More methodical inspections for leaks occur at every oil change or whenever a noise or a visual cue signals a problem. "We do know about these things, based on being in business a long, long time," Porter says. "Certain telltale signs show up. We know when we're getting close to a problem, and we'll go in and repair it." For example, recently a dozer reached 11,000 hours of service. An operator who personally had kept track of the hours knew from past experience that bearings begin to strain at this age interval, and he suggested opening the cases for a look. "We found a few bearings that were not really all that bad," Porter recalls, "but would have failed not too far down the road. So we replaced all those bearings and did anything else we could while we were in there."
Odd noises from the machine are common indicators of conditions that should be monitored, investigated, or fixed. "I guess we wait for the machine to tell us something is wrong," he says, regarding predictive maintenance. "We don't open covers and look in every time; I don't believe you can do that. The machine has to be warning you a little bit, and if it [doesn't] warn you, you're going to pay the price [when it breaks down], but there isn't much you can do. You can't tear it down all of the time."
Porter also points out (as do others) that maintenance requirements have changed dramatically over the years, and naturally this has caused him to alter his maintenance methods. One major development has been a trend to extend the intervals between oil changes. "It used to be we'd change oil at 150 hours," he recalls, but this has lengthened to 250, 350, or even 500 hours, depending on machine specs. Oil quality and machine design improvement have made this economizing possible. Grease points also have been reduced in number on newer models, making this part of the job easier too. Instead of daily greasing, some zerks now require attention only at long intervals similar to the 100-hour increments for oil changes. "That's been a big change," Porter observes. Another labor-saver to relieve the daily greasing chore has been the advent and improvement of self-greasing accessories now available on much equipment. Porter recently purchased a Komatsu 220 excavator with a grease bank and a Lincoln Industrial automatic lubricating system on the jackhammer. "When we bought it, we even thought of going to automatic greasing on the whole machine," Porter recalls. But he then noticed that recommended greasing intervals were being extended dramatically, in many cases to multiple-hundred-hour intervals. With a reduced greasing workload built in, he opted against paying for a fully self-greasing machine.
In-Shop Maintenance for a Small Rural Operation
Leo Reiken of Reiken Construction in Henderson, IA, runs maintenance as a two-man operation, assisted by his Caterpillar operator Mike Story. They service a half-dozen loaders and scrapers and a backhoe excavator. Story does most of the work, usually under Reiken's direction.
Greasing occurs at least every two days, time permitting. Occasionally pins can break or seize, Story admits, but rarely (if ever) has a major breakdown occurred in the field. "Keep it greased, and it wears a long time."
To play it safe, Story opts to change oil "a little below" the manual's recommended interval of, say, 100 hours. Fuel filters need more frequent replacement, at least in the winter due to moisture condensation freezing. Otherwise, he says, the service-manual schedules and parts catalogs on every machine have proven reliable guides.
Story also does his own light repair work and PM, sometimes with the help of the nearest Cat dealer, Ziegler Inc., which is 25 mi. away. "I'll pull our torque converter, for instance, and I'll take it to [Ziegler]," he says. The dealer will rebuild it and bring it back to him, and Story will reinstall it. For help in troubleshooting of repairs and assorted tech support, Story may call Ziegler on a hotline; such major components as transmissions or engines he leaves to the dealer. "They'll work with you," he says.
PMs and certain hard-to-reach oiling areas also require accessing undercarriages, particularly on loaders with weak final drives. The rollers weigh 100–200 lb., and removal poses a risk of injury. "The hardest part of repair and maintenance for me," he says, "is stressing your back all of the time bending over." Reiken purchased a forklift and hoist to help Story with this task and many others. "I always take extra time to make sure that we work safely," Story says.
Training and Tech Resources
Maintenance routines vary with each machine—and sometimes change for the same machine—based on updated service bulletins, revisions to the service manuals, redesigned replacement parts, or a given machine's evolving quirks. Also, unusual and shifting conditions (such as a very sandy site or extreme summer- or cold-weather conditions) require that you vary the manual's recommended servicing intervals. To verify whether or not a machine is suffering more-than-usual wear, take fluid samples and have your dealer analyze them—or simply talk it over with him.
In all of these cases and others, even the do-it-yourselfer must keep close ties with OEMs and dealers. For one thing, the majority of them now make this quite easy by providing Web sites with quick access to resources. Some even provide extensive online support. Several OEMs (particularly Caterpillar) have issued invaluable and handy publications to help you improve maintenance and operation. Finally, several OEMs offer formal training courses of varying lengths and levels of complexity for shop mechanics (geared for their own dealers) who'll be doing repairs. If your mechanics discover a particular deficiency in knowledge or a need to learn about some aspect of a system, such as electronic components or onboard diagnostics, you can probably sign them up for a class. Formal in-person instruction isn't needed for doing most routine maintenance, as this adequately is spelled out in the manual. Even if your maintenance is outsourced now, you might want to acquire these resources and even begin providing basic maintenance know-how to operators—if only so they'll better understand the machines' vulnerabilities and learn how to baby them or perhaps do some maintenance of their own down the road. On this note, an easy way to train your operators is to allow them to watch the factory-trained techs performing maintenance tasks while a machine is under a service contract. You never know when your current outsourcing strategy might need to be altered.
On a final note, consider ways of dovetailing heavy-equipment maintenance together with that of compact equipment and dump trucks. The latter two are, of course, just as important as your heavy machines, and do-it-yourself maintenance is usually preferable for them as well, notes Mike Jerred, national construction service manager for Gehl. Based on common maintenance mistakes Jerred has observed nationally, he offers several tips that are valuable advice for maintaining any piece of equipment. First, make sure you order the correct replacement part. Particularly for new hydraulic hoses, it's tempting for a mechanic to use a similar-looking hose that, in fact, has a different psi pressure rating—and thus might fail more readily if put in the wrong application. To ensure that you order and use the correct hoses, filters, and so on, consult the machine's parts manual (which you should obtain for every piece of equipment).
Second, replacement of air filters is preferred to merely cleaning them. "Look at the risk," Jerred says. "In cleaning an air filter improperly, you may put a hole in it." And you can cost yourself an engine. He notes that for the sake of saving a mere 10 bucks on a new filter, "you risk an engine failure that may cost thousands." Also, every time the mechanic removes the air filters for cleaning, he increases the risk of contaminates falling into the air intake.
Third, make sure that grease zerks aren't clogged or broken; otherwise, regreasing won't succeed. Mechanics and operators, hurrying to do their greasing, might overlook a damaged zerk or postpone replacing it. This results in underlubricating the joint—and rapid damage. Zerks should be inspected often and immediately replaced or unclogged as needed. "If you find a grease fitting that won't take grease, repair it; don't ignore it," he stresses.
Jerred sums it up: "Pay attention to all the small things and you won't experience a lot of downtime and big expenses."
Writer David Engle specializes in construction-related topics.