It’s “go time” for trailer aerodynamics

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It’s just amazing how aerodynamic options are flourishing now for trailers.” –Sean Graham, president, Freight Wing

Had a chance to catch up with Sean Graham (below at right), the aforementioned president of aerodynamic device maker Freight Wing, at the 2011 Technology & Maintenance Council’s (TMC) annual meeting this week in Tampa, FL, to talk about the wholesale turnaround in how fleets view the topic of “trailer aerodynamics.”

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Graham got into the business of designing and building devices to improve the aerodynamics of dry van trailers back in 2004, believing – quietly rightly, as it turns out – that “smoothing” the airflow around those big boxy shapes would reduce overall fuel consumption for big rigs, thus saving fleets and owner-operators money.

Over the years, I’d bump into him and his product display tucked away in the back corner of any number of trade shows and conferences, set way out on the periphery, far from what are considered the “serious” products in the trucking business.

(At the Mid American Trucking Show one year, I found him bookended by folks peddling trucker BBQ sauces and toy truck models – not a glorious moment in history for trailer aerodynamics, to say the very least.)

Today, however, it’s a very different story. At TMC this year, three 53-foot trailers highlighting several different aerodynamic options were prominently displayed, with at least six (by my count) trailer side skirt makers touting their products from booths located front and center on the show floor.

No more shunting these folks off to forgotten corners at such shows, relegated to the “land of dubious offerings,” for trailer aerodynamic devices – from side skirts to underbody fairings and “trailer tails” – are now proven to save truckers money, verified in many cases via independent SAE/TMC J1321 fuel economy tests.

[Mesilla Valley Transportation, a longtime “trailer blazer” in trying to spec trucks and trailer for maximum fuel savings, continues to try and find ways to improve the aerodynamic “footprint” of the boxy 53-foot dry vans it hauls.]

“It’s really kind of amazing how the industry’s view of trailer aerodynamics has shifted,” Graham told me. “We’ve also got a lot more competitors out there now, as well. That just shows that the market for trailer aerodynamic devices is really strong – and it wouldn’t be so strong if these devices didn’t save fuel and thus money for fleets.”

In Graham’s view, side skirts still offer the “biggest bang for the buck” in terms of return on investment (ROI) calculations. Freight Wing’s SAE/TMC J1321 track tests conducted by Energotest in 2008 verified fuel economy savings of up to 7%; meaning a fleet would be able to pay off its investment in trainer side fairings after roughly 50,000 miles of operation.

[Here are some interesting side skirt models being offered by Laydon Composites, which side-stepped into the trailer skirt business from its primary focus on tractor roof fairings.]

Other trailer aerodynamic packages – such as “gap fairings” for the “nose” of the trailer – offer their own savings as well, but as with side skirts, maximizing “highway miles” is the key.

“We offer a ‘gap fairing’ but that only returns about 1% to 2% fuel economy improvements, mainly because tractors now offer roof fairings that significantly reduce the drag caused by the trailer’s nose,” Graham told me. “Gap fairings are really only ideal for ‘mid roof’ tractors that don’t have a roof fairings; that allows them to gain 5% in fuel economy. They also must be in high-mileage operations, around about 100,000 miles a year, to make get a good ROI.”

Freight Wing is now also preparing to do wind tunnel tests of side skirt models for flatbed trailers this summer, to quantify the savings from some initial prototypes it’s been working on. Graham hopes to do the same with side skirts it’s developed for tankers, too.

It’s all a heady change from the way things used to be in the trailer aerodynamics business. No longer an afterthought, these devices are proving themselves to be fuel and money savers for fleets larger and small – and at the end of the day, what’s not to like about products that do that?

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Trucks at Work: Sean Kilcarr comments on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry.

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