When you're carrying hazardous industrial, medical and specialty compressed gases like Airgas NCN (Northern California and Nevada region) does, safety cannot be stressed enough. Dale Harris, fleet manager for Airgas NCN, says good maintenance is key to keeping his company's trucks in service and operating safely.

“Our trucks are highly visible on roads across northern California and Nevada. It's important for them to be properly inspected and maintained so they are fit and safe to drive,” Harris comments.

Two years ago, Airgas NCN got involved in a pilot project with Zonar Systems, a supplier of electronic inspection software. Five trucks from Airgas's Redding, CA, facility and five from its Turlock, CA, branch were selected for the trial.

“We initially were interested in the Zonar software as a tool to help ensure our drivers were doing their pre-trip inspections and doing them thoroughly. In doing so we would be able to pinpoint vehicles needing service and schedule them for repairs right away, avoiding costly breakdowns on the road and out-of-service violations at the scales.”

Over the ensuing two years, Harris notes, “Zonar Systems added GPS capabilities and web-based software applications that expanded the software's capabilities while also lowering the cost. This made it feasible for us to have the system installed early in 2007 on our entire fleet of 150 trucks.”

The Zonar EVIR (Electronic Vehicle Inspection Report) takes advantage of wireless communication technology, using a hand-held computer and RFID tags that are placed at critical inspection “zones” around a truck and trailer.

Data captured by drivers during inspections using the Zonar hand-held devices is automatically uploaded to computers at Airgas's various locations, where branch managers can review it and decide on an appropriate course of action. Harris says Airgas has one mechanic on staff at the Sacramento, CA, headquarters location, but all other vehicle repairs needing immediate attention are done by outside vendors.

“Since we began using the Zonar system” Harris states, “we've seen great improvements in compliance by our drivers. The system eliminates paperwork and speeds vehicle repairs by getting information on defects to managers more quickly.”

According to Harris, the biggest customers for Airgas NCN are the major refineries in the San Francisco Bay area and biomedical companies, the former of which “we supply with things like analytical gases for emissions testing and EPA Protocol Gas mixtures, the latter with products like carbon dioxide and liquid nitrogen.”

The Airgas NCN fleet, Harris reports, is comprised mostly of Freightliner Class 8 models, including 20, FL-112 transfer trucks with palletized trailers that are used for deliveries to Airgas branch stores from the company's Sacramento and San Jose, CA, compressed gas manufacturing plants.

“All our equipment is specially designed to carry gas cylinders, which are tall and slender, making them hard to transport. That's why we need trailers with very sturdy sidewalls and strapping devices to hold them in place,” he explains.

Spread out among the 50 Airgas NCN branches are 80 two- and three-axle Freightliner M-2 bobtails between 33,000- and 54,000-lb. GVW, and with 16- to 24-ft. flatbeds. These, Harris points out, are used for making retail deliveries. In addition, there are approximately 30 to 40 small tractor-trailers with 24- to 28-ft beds that can be configured either for palletized loads or roll-on cylinder beds. These are primarily used for customers such as refineries, which have large delivery requirements.

Airgas NCN covers northern California from Bakersfield to the Oregon border and east from San Francisco to Elko, NV. It is part of Airgas, Inc., which is divided into 19 regions across North America.