Maintaining Control

A cost-effective maintenance strategy is a must for smaller haulers.

Jamie Roberts will tell you bluntly that the refuse industry "eats up" trucks on a daily basis. Relentless stop-and-go operation — followed by trips to landfills littered with all sorts of debris — can knock a vehicle out of commission in the blink of an eye.

Yet Roberts, maintenance manager for Stafford Transport, which operates out of Mableton, Ga., and Jacksonville, Fla., doesn't have any leeway when it comes to vehicle downtime. Stafford's fleet is just large enough to cover all of its routes and no more. There are no "spare trucks" he can slide into operation if one of his primary vehicles goes down.

On top of that, he doesn't operate a "uniform" fleet, either, meaning Stafford runs a mix of different makes and models: heavy-duty daycab Kenworth T800s, Sterling LT9500s and Mack CH613 tractors, along with aluminum tipping trailers and dump trailers.

Trying to coordinate the necessary parts for all this equipment through three different dealerships, while also managing his own on-site parts inventory, ate up a lot of time and money Roberts could ill afford. Yet he also couldn't risk any vehicle downtime. Therefore, Roberts contracted with TRP Aftermarket Parts, a division of Bellevue, Wash.-based Paccar Corp., and two local Paccar dealerships to handle Stafford's parts inventory.

"We rely on both local dealers to have the parts we need on hand, or we get them from one of TRP's distribution centers," Roberts says. "Basically, now we get our parts faster and cheaper, with less work on my part. And in the refuse business, that's an enormous advantage."

What to Leave In, What to Leave Out

Stafford's decision to outsource part of its maintenance operations is but one example of how smaller refuse companies are trying to control costs while maintaining top-notch service levels. Darry Stuart, president of DWS Fleet Management Services, a Wrentham, Mass.-based consulting firm, emphasizes that there's no single tried-and-true formula for smaller refuse fleets when it comes to handling their maintenance needs.

"You have to pick and choose what gets outsourced, and that's different for every fleet," says Stuart, a 40-year truck maintenance veteran who spent five years of his career with the former Browning Ferris Industries. "In general, you're going to send out components that take a lot of time to repair, that you don't have the expertise to handle, and items covered by warranty — with the caveat that you establish with the outside shop a time when you are going to get it back."

Another reason a smaller hauler may outsource some maintenance is that the fleet is aging, and, consequently, the hauler is shifting from a preventive maintenance program to a repair program, according to John Dolce, senior consultant with the Chatham, N.J.-based Chatham Consulting Inc. "This requires upgraded mechanic skills, and should the staff not be so skilled, there would be a need to outsource these activities," Dolce explains.

Dolce adds that, if maintenance is to remain in-house, fleet managers will need to provide the training necessary to upgrade work skills since the hours of labor will increase as vehicles age. "In some cases, outsourcing vehicle maintenance allows fleet managers to maintain efficiencies and concentrate on the activities they know how to do best," he says.

Breaking It Down

Dan Arcy, technical marketing manager for Houston-based Shell, says that small fleets need to break their maintenance operation down in segments in order to develop a cohesive strategy to improve overall service and keep costs in line.

The first segment revolves around products, he explains. For example, a fleet's maintenance department should use engine oils and coolants that dovetail with the operational nature of the fleet. They should also thoroughly understand the properties of the lubricants they use as well, Arcy adds.

"Engine coolants are one area often overlooked by fleets, for instance," he explains. "Most OEMs now factory-fill with extended life engine coolants — ones that do not require the addition of [supplemental coolant additives] over time. That's an example of how a product can require a shift in maintenance procedures."

The next segment concerns shop activities, arcy says. fleet managers should ask, "are there more efficient ways of getting the same work done, through the use of new procedures, or new tools?" finally, behind-the-scenes efforts, such as oil analysis programs, can help make maintenance more proactive than reactive.

"There's expense on the front end for setting up an oil analysis program," Arcy says. "But if you discover just one truck with engine coolant in the oil or a high concentration of metals indicating premature wear, it could likely pay for the entire program in terms of preventing a major breakdown and repair expense." As small fleets usually keep their trucks longer than large fleets, having an "internal view" of how a vehicle is holding up can help save on maintenance expenses over the truck's lifespan.

Training Help

Perhaps one of the biggest headaches small fleets face is how to pay for technician training — a necessity now that trucks across the board are becoming more complex pieces of equipment, mainly due to new emission control systems. Take the University of Colorado's fleet, for example, which includes several trash trucks among its 600 vehicles. Bryan Flansburg, director of the university's transportation services, says he leans on the manufacturers that supply his vehicles for training help for his technicians.

"We request more training help from them because these are not the same trucks we've been working on, even compared to five years ago," Flansburg says, pointing in particular to the selective catalytic reduction systems that help trucks comply with the federal 2010 emission standards. "It's also more than just the training. It's about finding new technicians as well, as now they must be computer experts as well."

Extended Life

Smaller private and public fleets are coping with the cost of new emission control technology by trying to extend the life cycles of their trucks.

"Most public fleets like mine maintain our own shops and [staff of] technicians," says Dick Weston, fleet manager for Thurston County, Wash., as well as president of the Public Fleet Managers Association. "But all the new systems being added [to our trucks] drives up our costs."

For example, the machines required to clean the diesel particulate filters that are now on every new diesel-powered truck are pricey, costing upwards of $10,000 apiece. To effectively pay off that investment, Weston says, fleets must extend their truck ownership period. "We've extended the life cycle on our trucks by five years as a result, going from 10 to 15 years total," he explains. "But keeping a vehicle longer means more maintenance will be required. That's a problem when you have a finite budget."

Consequently, says Chatham's Dolce, smaller refuse fleets should keep the following things in mind as they review their maintenance operations:

  • To analyze their options efficiently, fleet managers need to know their costs. With this information, they can solicit pricing from outside vendors and compare costs accurately to their own.

  • Proper recording of vehicle repairs is essential. Historical data of repairs is important for projecting costs and scheduling repairs.

  • If repair work is outsourced, all work to be done must have an estimate of labor and parts that is accurate and reflects any discount agreed on for parts.

  • Both external and internal repairs must be completed in set times to minimize downtime.

  • Any external repairs need to carry a warranty to ensure quality. Warranty reclaimed by outsourced maintenance providers should be identified, tracked and credited to the fleet's account.

  • Fleet managers should compare original proposals to actual costs. Especially important is trend analysis, which can be used to consistently monitor symptoms that lead to early identification of problems and corrective actions.

Sean Kilcarr is senior editor of Fleet Owner, a sister publication of Waste Age.

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