As fleets large and small race to improve the fuel efficiency of their trailers and make them regulatory compliant by using fairings, side skirts, and other aerodynamic systems, worry is steadily rising over the durability and potential repair costs posed by such devices.

Chuck Cole, manager of technical sales and product training for Utility Trailer Manufacturing Co., told Fleet Owner that the still-unknown long-term costs associated with annual maintenance for trailer aerodynamic devices is a growing concern within the trucking community.

“Side skirts are located ‘in harm’s way’ and are subject to impact damage and will have some maintenance cost which is still not 100% known. Indeed, at present, there are some 42 different side skirt models listed on the [Environmental Protection Agency] SmartWay-verified web page alone,” he explained.

“Some of these are probably more durable than others, with some ‘torture-tested’ tested to withstand severe impacts. With others, who knows? That’s why the buyer needs to know he has a reputable manufacturer and that the device has been structurally tested to insure safe operation,” Cole said.

“Trailers operate in an abusive environment, and trailer aerodynamic device makers need to take that into consideration,” added Jamie Scarcelli, vp/gm at Wabash Composites, a division of Wabash National Corp. “We have had a lot of new companies jump into this space without fully understanding that key requirement.”

That’s why Marty Fletcher, executive director of customer service and product development for trailer aerodynamic device maker Aerofficient, believes the “evolution” of such products will focus more intensely on durability and maintenance factors in the near-term.

“When systems were first being deployed, initial price was the most important factor,” he told Fleet Owner. “But now, the evolution is moving to total cost of ownership, which is reliant upon durability and reliability.” 

In Fletcher’s eyes, an inexpensive trailer aero system becomes very expensive when it must be repaired or replaced repeatedly, as there is no reimbursement for down time or labor incurred. 

He added that his decades-long truckload operation experience with U.S. Xpress Enterprises testing trailer aerodynamic products demonstrated that, so far, they are challenged by the extreme work environments in which such equipment must perform.

“Temperature extremes are causing warping and eventual cracking or de-lamination,” he explained. “Ground contact – most commonly in drop-down docks – is causing breakage while support struts are failing due to fatigue. Thus the design evolution must be to strengthen [trailer] fairings.”

That’s a viewed shared by Mitch Greenberg, president of trailer aero device maker SmartTruck.

“The design evolution should take us to more integrated designs where concepts are better incorporated into the initial design of the trailer,” he told Fleet Owner. “Keeping components inside the footprint of the trailer will grow more important, so the systems are not subject to damage, as well as minimizing installation times.”