Taking care of business

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Ability is what you‘re capable of doing. Motivation determines what you do. Attitude determines how well you do it.” -Lou Holtz, former head coach, University of Notre Dame football team.


Trucks are expensive - getting more so every year. While pollution reduction mandates imposed by the federal government are one of the prime reasons behind higher new equipment prices (the 2007 regulations alone added upwards of $10,000 to the base sticker of a Class 8 tractor) rising commodity costs for basic materials such as steel and aluminum are fueling further increases.


For example, back in July, Navistar International Corp. raised sticker prices on its models due to the DOUBLING of commodity prices in just six months - increases topping out at $1,600 per truck. Prices soared this year for commodities essential to truck manufacturing, such as crude oil, steel, aluminum, copper, and precious metals used in new emissions-compliant diesel engines, noted James Hebe, senior vice president of North American dealer operations for Navistar.


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“Since the beginning of 2008, steel has increased 100%, aluminum by 22%, platinum by 32% and copper by 23% - while crude oil prices jumped by more than 40%,” he said. Though oil has dropped since July‘s historic high of nearly $150 per barrel, manufacturers are still feeling the pinch.


“We are acutely aware of the financial constraints that many truck customers are currently facing and have been working diligently to absorb as much of these costs as possible,” said Hebe. “However, global commodity spikes are affecting all manufacturing and we finally, regretfully, must now share those additional costs with the customer.”


So what‘s a fleet or owner-operator to do? Especially if they are in the market for new equipment? One option that is getting more consideration these days is going with used trucks - one that has less of a downside than in years past, as many used trucks today are aerodynamically shaped and spec‘d for the best possible fuel economy. Also, a range of new deals are giving buyers across the trucking spectrum more acquisition options.


I talked to Richard Holmes about this phenomenon recently (and being the consummate truck salesman, he asked me to make sure I printed his phone number - 1-800- 827-7692 - in case any readers wanted additional information or sales assistance) and how used truck dealers are adapting to it.


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[Richard Holmes.]


Richard‘s company, Arrow Truck Sales Inc. (he works out of their Elizabeth, N.J., branch) is offering a “Zero Down” program on 2004, 2005 and 2006 Volvo VNL 670‘s with payments as low as $1,199 for the 2004‘s, $1,299 for the 2005‘s and $1,399 for the 2006‘s. Prices range from $43,950 for a 2004 model with 400,000-449,000 miles up to $61,950 for a 2006 model with 200,000-249,000 miles.


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To make these used Volvo VNL 670s more attractive to fleets - trucks available in white, red or black with Cummins ISX or Volvo VED12 engines, with 250,000 to 449,000 miles on them - Arrow is offering a “Fleet Owner Assistance Program” for a limited time, extending not only favorable low interest plan but also a standard 30-day free warranty, with extended warranties available thru Arrow‘s partner National Truck Protection for three years or 300,000 miles.


The critical thing about these used trucks, Richard told me, is that their average fuel consumption is 6.63 miles per gallon (mpg). “The fuel savings achieved by replacing older less fuel efficient trucks with these smooth riding, comfortable, fuel efficient used Volvos can easily provide for the funds to make the payments for these trucks with money to spare,” he said. “In general, they provide for much needed fuel price relief in the form of increased fuel efficiency.”


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There‘s another side to the used truck coin, however - something that applies to brand new trucks as well, actually. You must take care of the equipment properly in order to maximize the value you expect to get out of it. And when it comes to maintenance, there‘s just one guy you need to talk to: Darry Stuart, president of Wrenthem, Mass.-based DWS Fleet Management.


Past chairman of the Technology & Maintenance Council (TMC), Stuart‘s as old school as you can get. As a former fleet manager that‘s handled everything from refuse trucks to long-haul tractor-trailers over a nearly 40-year maintenance career, Stuart stresses that the key maintenance details remain pretty much the same for almost all commercial vehicles.


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“You use the same basic maintenance philosophy, altering it slightly depending on the needs of a particular application,” he‘s told me on many an occasion. “All trucks have batteries, tires, engines, and other components that need to be maintained. The use-pattern of a truck‘s particular application just dictates what components you look at first and how often.”


For that reason, he uses a rough “rule of thumb” list covering the critical components any fleet needs to keep on top of day in and day out from a maintenance perspective. I‘ve run his list before, but it‘s worth bringing it up again. In no particular order, his basic maintenance rules are:


Batteries: If the battery charge is low, the truck may not start and so doesn‘t even get out of the gate, he says. Stuart stresses that battery cables have to be disconnected and cleaned to make sure a full charge is getting through. Of particular concern: low voltage batteries, though they may get a truck started, put a lot more pressure on the truck‘s alternator, leading to a shorter life cycle.


Cooling systems: Truck engines today generate a lot of heat - so the cooling system has to be in top shape, for not only can corrosion over time lead to leaks in the cooling hoses, the high temperatures generated by the engine and other systems can evaporate any traces of coolant leaks, making a problem that much harder to find. So regular pressure testing of the cooling system is a must.


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Tires: This is probably one of the most expensive areas for truck maintenance, especially as tire damage from scuffing curbs or punctures from highway debris can increase tire costs in a hurry. Stuart says the key is to keep tires properly inflated and make sure the front axle is aligned properly to minimize abnormal tire wear. “I stress that you check the front axle “toe” at every PM, because it takes just 5 minutes to check,” he says. “If the toe is out of alignment, you have to fix it, because that is what wears tires out the most.”


U-bolts/fasteners: Stuart is fanatic about the need to re-torque chassis and axles u-bolts and fasteners at every PM because all the twisting and turning plus heavy loading and unloading refuse trucks endure forces a lot of vibration thru those connections every day. “They are holding your truck together so you have to watch them,” he says.


Oil and grease: Stuart is a big believer in buying the best engine oil and component grease available, simply because they can help add life to your equipment. “Front ends, clutch linkages, and especially u-joints need the best grease you can buy,” he says. “If you don‘t grease a u-joint regularly, it‘s going to blow out on you, and when that happens you have to tow the vehicle in - that‘s expensive. That‘s why paying attention the small details helps you avoid the big problems in the long run.”


It all basically boils down to taking care of business on the front and back end when you buy a truck - whether it‘s new or used rolling stock. For in this day and age, when even the sticker price on a used truck can run into the high five - if not six - figures, you can‘t afford to ignore the basics.

What's Trucks at Work?

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

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