Exacting attention to specs pays off for vocational fleets.

The vocational tag is usually applied to trucking operations that run "work" trucks. However, the area under that umbrella term covers a lot of ground. Vocational fleets operate equipment as diverse as bottle trucks and cement mixers. One factor they all share in common -- and which distinguishes them from their general-freight brethren -- is the necessity of fielding vehicles capable of handling highly specific jobs.

That's not new. But the degree to which these fleets are now tailoring specs is. Driven by competitive forces -- and supported by the growing market sophistication of OEMs -- vocational truckers are less likely to settle for vehicles engineered for typical applications.

These fleet managers want their trucks put together in ways that will meet the demands of the specific job at hand. Following are profiles of four fleets that have lost their taste for plain vanilla. Not all their solutions are radical. But all their equipment choices reflect an understanding of the vocation they serve -- and a desire to stay on top of their game.

Weight Watchers Sand-and-gravel fleet slims down with ultralight lift-axle trucks.

Talk about going whole hog. When the managers of the Mays Landing Sand & Gravel Co. determined it was time for new trucks, they opted to switch from leasing to owning vehicles, set up a full-service shop, hire a maintenance staff, and adopt all-new specs for a segment of the fleet.

And they couldn't be happier. While the trucks are now spec'd out to match the fleet's specific application, vehicle ownership is allowing greater flexibility for equipment decisions.

The impetus for ownership came from Mays Landing's parent, Marlton, N.J.-based Vineland Group Inc., which is a division of Scancem USA Inc. of Blandon, N.J. Vineland also operates Mays Landing Transportation Co. and Vineland Transit Mix Concrete Co.

The upshot is that when Vineland acquired Mays Landing in 1978, it brought to bear its expertise in the field and pockets deep enough to invest in new equipment.

The previous leased fleet had consisted of all 1991 KW T450A tractors.

Ten less tractors were ordered when the lease ran out, making room for ten custom-spec'd lift-axle trucks. Mays Landing now runs a power fleet entirely made up of 1998 Kenworths.

There are over 30 power units, including dump-equipped tractors and trucks. Also on the roster are over 25 company-owned Fruehauf cement trailers.

"Instead of signing up for another lease," says David Hergert, Mays Landing general manager, "this year we purchased a new fleet. The company's perspective going in was that owning would be less expensive in the long run. By doing so, we gained the flexibility to change the fleet when we see fit -- as opposed to being constrained by lease obligations."

Hergert points out that Mays Landing is already thinking about running fewer tractors and more trucks. "It would be very difficult to convert vehicles early if we were under another lease," he explains. "We now have the option to trade while the vehicles still command high resale value."

Anticipating the move to vehicle ownership, a year and a half ago Mays Landing established a full-service truck and trailer shop outside Vineland, N.J. The fleet operation is supervised by manager Michael Brewer and theshop staff is headed by operations superintendent Mark Sergiacomi."We do KW an d Cat warranty work in house," Sergiacomi relates, "and also fabricate aluminum and steel for our trailers as needed. Very little work goes outside the shop."

According to Hergert, the switch from an outside provider to in-house maintenance was "not a question of service but of cost." He says leasing again would have cost Mays Landing more than its projected annual cost for maintaining the new fleet itself. Hergert notes that running their own shop means not being dependent on other firms to ensure minimum equipment downtime.

The most recent changes at Mays Landing reflect efforts to tailor the fleet as closely as possible to its operating area and job requirements -- while operating it at lower costs.

"In our market area," Brewer points out, "winter cold affects the use of tractor-trailers, which can allow cargo to freeze up. But using heated dump bodies on lift-axle trucks will extend our delivery season for sand and gravel. And the trucks can easily get into job sites that are difficult to negotiate with combination vehicles."

According to Brewer, lift-axle dumps are becoming a popular choice for sand-and-gravel haulers in South Jersey. "Some competitors," he notes, "prefer the versatility of tractors, since they can pull trailers dedicated to other markets. However, that's not an issue for us."

Indeed, that kind of flexibility comes at a cost. The lift-axle trucks provide a significant cost savings in bridge tolls alone vs. tractor hauling the same cargoes.

"Our typical route is to haul sand into Pennsylvania and bring crushed stone back to Jersey," says Hergert. "A six-axle combination pays an $18 bridge toll outbound from here. A cement truck, with one less axle, pays $15. But a triaxle with its lift axle down pays $12 and only $9 when it's up. That amounts to a 50% savings over our routing -- or $3,000 less per unit per year."

Yet there's more good news. "Our triaxles are rated 80,000 lb. in New Jersey and 73,280 lb. in Pennsylvania," he continues. "Both states give our tractor-trailers an 80,000-lb. GVWR. But the triaxle's tare weight is 22,500 lb. and a legal load is 57,500 lb. On the other hand, the combinations weigh in at 31,000 lb. and have just a 49,000-lb. legal load. The 8,500-lb. weight difference means our dump trucks deliver about a four-ton advantage."

The four- to five-ton payload gain equals a 10% increase in revenue at the same cost, Hergert explains. "Since a truck typically moves $10,000 a month in business, a thousand dollars moves directly to the bottom line."

This was not the result of buying trucks off a lot. "Our triaxles are significantly lighter than other setups," Hergert states. "And we know this because other vehicles cross our scales.

"These trucks were spec'd to be up to 2,500 lb. lighter than a typical triaxle," he continues. "Our dealer, Liberty Kenworth, developed the concept for us and worked up the specs."

One of the key features of the trucks is a single, wider frame design that cuts weight and adds flexibility to the chassis. Mays Landing skipped cab shields and spreader plates and opted for such weight-savers as all-aluminum wheels, hubs, and fuel tanks.

Instead of the Caterpillar C12 in the fleet's tractors, a C10 powers the triaxles, since it was judged "the least-heavy engine with the most horsepower available." The trucks are outfitted with R&S dump bodies, which Mays Landing customized with plates refabricated in-house. OE tires are supplied by Bridgestone and the fleet also uses Bandag retread.

Since entering service this May, the triaxles have recorded a 1 mpg gain over the tractor-trailers they replaced. "They're at 7 mpg now," notes Sergiacomi, "and that should improve further as more mileage accrues." He reports it's "too early to tell" about maintenance performance. Currently, the trucks have their Shell Rotella T oil changed and are thoroughly inspected every 15,000 miles.

"All the changes we've made," Hergert sums up, "have helped the company become more successful. Asa fleet operation, we've become completely self-contained. In short, we're very pleased with where we're at now."

Waste Not: Refuse hauler fires up on LNG. When conducted in residential areas, waste collection is a tough, "torquey" duty for trucks that must often run quietly and cleanly, too.

Like other centrally located truck fleets operating in designated air-quality non-attainment areas, refuse haulers must comply with federal and state fuel-related emission regs. And in many towns and cities, they must also contend with local codes aimed at reducing noise pollution.

Recognizing that the winds of change will only get stiffer, William H. Martin Inc., a USA Waste Services company, is participating in a liquefied natural-gas (LNG) pilot project with an eye to potential long-term gains.

According to Ben Woods, district manager for Washington, Pa.-based Martin, the municipal-waste contractor has committed to buying up to seven LNG-fueled trucks in the next 12 months and to operating them for a three-year evaluation period.

Impetus for the fleet project came from the American Trucking Associations Foundation, with funding from Martin/ USA Waste, the Gas Research Institute (GRI), the Pennsylvania and federal governments, Mack Trucks Inc., Pacific Gas & Electric, and the Columbia Gas Distribution Companies.

GRI and another consortium of companies had earlier supported Mack's development of its E7G 325-hp. natural-gas engine, which is available in the OEM's LE and MR model trucks.

Sponsors of the Martin test expect the results will demonstrate how LNG can fuel trucks as cost-effectively as diesel in waste service.

The group funded an on-site LNG fueling station, including a 13,000-gal. underground fuel-storage tank, built by Columbus, Ohio-based CVI. The organizers also hope the project will help regulators determine the environmental impact of such tanks.

Besides getting a leg up on the regulatory process, Martin/USA signed on for the project to evaluate a future energy source it is literally sitting on -- company-owned landfills.

"Part of our thinking involved the 150 or so landfills we operate in the U.S. and Canada," Woods explains. "The methane these produce could be cleaned and liquefied to fuel our trucks. That holds the potential to save us a lot of money in the long run."

More immediately, Martin can start the test with a degree of confidence, since it already runs an all-Mack fleet 96-vehicles strong. "The majority of our trash trucks are MR cab-over-engine models," notes Woods, "and we also run an LE waste truck and two LE recycling trucks."

The 96-vehicle Martin fleet serves communities in and around Pittsburgh, covering a five-county area in its home state and another three counties in neighboring Ohio.

The fleet has taken delivery of two LNG-fueled Mack MR trucks so far, one of which is already in daily service. Slated to arrive this month is a Mack LE, which will be assigned a residential route. Beyond that, Martin plans to take in four more E7G-powered MR models to complete its project commitment.

Mack's electronic spark-ignited engine, a variant of the OEM's familiar E7 diesel, was engineered for fuel economy and driveability performance in refuse service. The E7G features a closed-loop control system specific to natural-gas fuel.

As for compressed natural gas (CNG), perhaps the leading alternative fuel around the country, Woods reports the consortium reckoned that the onboard fuel capacity of LNG was higher -- "more comparable to diesel than LNG"-- on refuse routes.

Martin's LNG Macks carry a fuel tank on each side of the truck, with one holding 100 gal. and the other 50. "This setup ensures the trucks can travel from 120 to 150 miles a day without refueling," says Woods, "enough to complete our typical daily trash-collection route."

Woods points out two other advantages of natural-gas vehicles that also appealed to Martin. "These engines run more quietly, which makes them more customer-friendly in residential neighborhoods," he advises. "And natural-gas fumes are less noxious, which adds to the well-being of employees working off the back of the truck."

Drop Zone Bulk carrier cuts weight and height of tractor-tankers.

To gain an edge hauling for a prime shipper in a competitive market, Manfredi Motor Transit Co. has rolled out a pair of combination vehicles painstakingly engineered to leverage the most from a key service niche.

"Lightweight equipment was needed to better fill a specific need," says Richard Manfredi, president of the Newbury, Ohio-based carrier. "We wanted to lower our costs hauling corn syrup for one of our major customers, Cargill Inc."

"Liquid sweeteners -- primarily corn syrup -- account for 15% of our total volume," he continues. "But sweeteners are a commodity haul, so competition is fierce. And that puts payload at a premium."

Manfredi points out that with previous vehicles, normal payloads maxed out from 48,000 to 50,000 lb. "We wanted to raise that bar," he asserts. "Our two new tractor-trailers are doing just that -- giving us payloads bumping 55,000 lb."

The dietetic approach paid off. Combined tare weight of each unit is approximately 25,000 lb. when empty. According to Manfredi, that allows a 10% increase in payload while staying within the 80,000-lb.-GCW limit.

"This gives us a competitive and economic advantage," he states. "We can price a little higher for the same trip. Jacking up the payload also creates significant savings in shipping and receiving time for customers on both ends of the route.

"The savings we derived from the lightweight design also allowed us to incorporate more safety advances than on previous vehicles," Manfredi continues. Chief among these is a lower center of gravity gained by reducing tractor and trailer chassis height.

According to Freightliner, the center of gravity is now such that the truck can safely negotiate tighter curves than a standard-height truck at the same speed. The OEM also states that the design improves roll stability 14% over a standard tractor and tanker in bulk applications. "The enhanced rollover protection is an important factor," Manfredi stresses, "since safety is a paramount consideration here."

The highly spec'd tractor-trailers hit the road back in June, hauling high-fructose corn syrup from a Cargill plant in Dayton, Ohio, to food manufacturers in New York State.

"So far, results have been very good," Manfredi reports. "Operationally, we're saving 3 to 4 cents per mile over our previous units. That's thanks to the maintenance items and fuel economy spec'd into these trucks. They're running at 7 mpg compared to the 6.34 of the tractors they replaced. Using smaller tires should increase costs, but the overall savings are there -- including the positive impact these trucks have on safety and driver comfort."

Making up the dynamic duos are two Freightliner Century Class C112 tractors and a pair of Polar 5,500-gal. tank trailers. The syrup haulers were developed jointly by the two manufacturers. Manfredi began working with their engineers back in July '96. "We wound up designing a couple of tractors and trailers that will probably be the basic spec for our units in the future," Manfredi notes.

The low-profile C112s boast a tare weight of 15,020 lb. and the Polar tanks weigh in dry at just 10,170 lb. The tractors make use of the OEM's low-ride chassis option to allow a 40-in. fifth-wheel height -- 8 in. less than standard. Also featured are low-pro Michelin XZA Pilot 285 radials mounted on 19.5-in. aluminum Alcoa wheels. The option includes Freightliner's Airliner rear suspension, which helps save on chassis weight.

The Polar tank trailers boast an outer jacket of polished aluminum -- instead of standard stainless steel -- for a significant weight savings. Also helping drop poundage are aluminum wheels, low-pro tires, lighter axles, and a lighter pump system.

Other noteworthy tractor specs include Freightliner's optional electronic braking system, the maker's SPACE occupant-restraint system, and an Eaton/Vorad collision-warning system. Power is supplied by a 365-hp. version of the Detroit Diesel Series 55 engine. Although the C112s are in daycab service, Manfredi also opted for the full Century Class driver- ergonomics package.

Each unit has two drivers assigned to it, with each truck running 800 to 900 miles a day. "We have four drivers on this equipment," Manfredi points out, "yet each gets home every night. If we can offer that along with a good paycheck and a safe vehicle," he adds, "we feel we'll have happy drivers."

Cool Wheels: Meatpacker specs rolling coolers

Distribution operations whose drivers double as sales representatives require equipment specs as carefully thought out as any specialized application.

If not, downtime will cost the company and its salespersons revenue immediately. Unavailable goods -- especially foodstuffs -- don't ring up sales.

When drivers serve as a company's foot soldiers in the marketplace, it especially pays to fully address the human factor in equipment decisions. And since a driver-salesman is often more Willie Loman than Joe Trucker, their trucks should be spec'd to withstand varying degrees of driving skills.

Putting the best truck forward to satisfy all these needs is a tall order. The best way to fill it, says Jim Wilkinson, fleet manager for Medford Foods, is to "massage everything to your operation."

The Chester, Pa.-based firm distributes its line of deli meats, hot dogs, smoked hams, and other processed meats within a hundred-mile radius of its plant near Philadelphia. It fields a fleet of 30 Class 7 delivery trucks, piloted by 32 drivers and maintained by two mechanics.

"Our drivers are salesmen first," Wilkinson relates. "Their compensation consists of base pay plus commissions." Medford focuses on how its trucks can be sales vehicles. Not only does that entail avoiding breakdowns, but any factor as well that could slow a driver.

"Each truck is loaded Monday morning with that day's load, product specific to that route plus extra stock of popular items," Wilkinson explains. "For the rest of the week, loads are drawn up based on customer reorders."

Back in 1992, Medford moved to cabover Class 7 trucks to enhance maneuverability. Initially, the fleet ran Volvo FE42s. When that model was discontinued, it purchased GMC T-Series tilt cabs. The fleet's trucks average up to 30,000 miles and are currently on a seven-year trade cycle.

"We try to stick with U.S.-built products," Wilkinson relates, "for standardization of brake and chassis components and greater parts availability. The GMC has the same basic powertrain as our Volvos -- Cat's 3116 electronic engine and Allison's MD3060 transmission."

Besides equipping its trucks with automatics, Wilkinson has campaigned to improve another drivetrain spec affecting its drivers and mechanics. "We had tremendous problems from day one with factory clutches," he advises. "Drivers had real difficulty in city traffic getting in gear after a stop. It was also very hard to adjust the clutches.

"Two years ago, we switched to Spicer's Solo clutch," Wilkinson continues. "It stays in constant adjustment and a wear-indicating tab lets mechanics look and see if replacement is needed. Our drivers are also happy."

On the other hand, some specs weather the test of time. The Medford trucks are outfitted with 15- to 18-ft. two-compartment aluminum bodies. "We use Hackney's VariTemp cold-plate system to maintain temperatures in frozen and refrigerated compartments.

"We plug the units in eight to ten hours each night so a compressor will `freeze in' fluid inside three plates located at the front wall," he says. "These become giant ice cubes that protect the cargo for a 12-hour day -- with only fans running onboard. The plates also absorb heat pulled in when the doors are opened.

"Cold plates are an older technology that's making a comeback in operations like ours where trucks can be plugged in at night," Wilkinson adds. "It's a very efficient system -- but you have to have the application for it."