FLEET OWNER has begun a series of profiles that "popcorns" the trends and issues specific to various vocational niches. This month we look at what's happening in the liquid bulk hauling business.

Liquid bulk haulers: Winning the "weighting" game

Spec'ing lightweight components is only part of the success formula for today's liquid bulk haulers.

We started our weight reduction program back in the early 1990s," recalls Bob Flesher, design/fleet maintenance manager for AGA Gas Inc., Independence, Ohio. "Then there was a lot of debate about how to achieve the optimum set of specs, but we put together a formula that works well for us. It's not enough to focus only on the lightest-weight components. You have to consider durability, performance, residual value, and operating cost. Most importantly, you have to be able to deliver the weight savings as additional payload. If you can't, you shouldn't do it."

Flesher's comments are echoed by other managers around the country. Today more than ever, the bulk fleets winning the "weighting" game are led by savvy strategists who know when to spec low and when to hold.

Transporting cryogenics AGA Gas is a private carrier marketing industrial gases and welding equipment. Their tankers deliver cryogenic nitrogen, oxygen, and argon throughout the Midwest and Northeast, with a total fleet of about 320 tractors and trucks and 187 trailers. According to Flesher, their Freightliner tractors have lost approximately 2,400 lb. since the 1990 weight-loss effort began. "If you go back to the early 1990s, our tractors weighed about 17,500 lb. fully outfitted," he notes. "Today, our FLD 112 conventionals weigh in at about 15,100 lb.

"Much of the weight came off with the switch from 14-liter engines to 10-liter," Flesher explains. "Now we're ordering CAT C-10s at 335 hp. with 1,800 rpm. Our new RT 12709H, 9-speed Fuller transmissions are also 47 lb. lighter than the older versions.

"We've been running on Alcoa aluminum wheels for a long time," he continues, "although back in the early 1980s, we actually had spoke wheels. Wide-base single tires for tractors are a newer addition. The wheels and tires, along with changes to the suspensions (now we spec 12,000-lb. taperleaf suspensions for the front and 40,000-lb. Airliner Extra Duty suspensions for the rear) helped us to take 623 lb. off the tractors," Flesher says. "We also went from four batteries to three 12-volt Delcos without any electrical problems.

"We do not spec lightweight in all cases, though," Flesher notes. "You always have to keep durability in mind, and there are always trade-offs to consider: reduced weight, vehicle uptime, safety, and reduced maintenance costs, for example.

"It is important to do it right if you spec light," he continues. "In the case of the wide-base single tires, for instance, we also specified the standard 771/2-in.-wide-base axle for good stability. A 711/2-in. axle is the non-wide base, but some fleets spec that with wide-base single tires, so they can put tandems back on the tractor at a later date, if they choose.

"Stability is extremely critical to a tanker application, however, so we made the weight and cost commitment and went with 771/2-in. axles. By the way, last year and this year, we sold the first group of our old tractors with wide-base single tires and we didn't suffer any devaluation because of the wide-base design," Flesher adds.

AGA's tankers are also a challenge because of the unique properties of the cryogenic cargo they haul. "Cryogenic tankers can be described as a thermos bottle," Flesher explains. "They have an outer and an inner vessel like a thermos. Both the inner and outer vessels are made of aluminum on our nitrogen and argon units. In the case of our liquid oxygen tankers, the inner vessel is stainless steel and the outer vessel is carbon steel. All the tankers have anti-sloshing baffles.

"Our oxygen tankers weigh about 15,500 lb. empty," he continues, "while our nitrogen units weigh in at 14,200 lb. The argon tankers are the lightest at 13,100 lb. The nitrogen trailers can actually haul a little more payload because liquid nitrogen weighs less than liquid oxygen or liquid argon."

The company did jettison 756 to 1,400 lb. from every tanker with aluminum wheels, wide-base single tires, and major changes to the subframe. An additional 810 lb. were trimmed by spec'ing super insulation in place of Perlite/fiberglass insulation. Finally, the tankers shed another 354 lb. by deleting the landing gear.

"We took the landing gear entirely off our trailers," Flesher explains. "Instead, we built a portable landing gear that the shop technicians slide under the trailers when they have to be uncoupled from the tractor for maintenance or repair. It is a slight inconvenience to disconnect the tractor from the tanker, but 354 lb. is a significant weight loss, not to mention the cost savings from the equipment deletion. And it was something we could do without degrading safety or performance in any way, so it made sense."

Spec'ing for light weight is a continuous process, according to Flesher, not something you can do once and forget. "You have to always be on the lookout for new opportunities and be willing to try new things," he offers. "It's kind of like being on a diet yourself. Those first pounds are easy, but you have to work a lot harder to lose the last few and the cost of doing it goes up relative to the return. Sometimes, you even have to add weight to realize other benefits, such as extended service intervals or enhanced safety."

Hauling petroleum After a period of steady weight loss, Vidmar Transportation Co., operating as Petroleum Transport of Illinois, is doing just that -- adding back a few pounds for improvements in durability, performance, and driver comfort. "Our tankers have actually put on 200 to 400 lb. in recent years, largely due to DOT regulations that resulted in thicker and heavier trailer shell walls," observes Jerry Bottorff, vice president of the company and director of operations. "We're also adding a few elective pounds to the trailers and the tractors for other reasons. Sure we're sorry to see the extra weight, but we understand and value the benefits that come with it."

By the end of the year, Petroleum Transport will have 19 new Volvo VN Series conventionals and 11 Kenworth T800s along with about 38 trailers (including 9 new Heils) hauling petroleum through Illinois and to neighboring states. Like AGA, the fleet began its serious weight-loss efforts in 1990.

Working with Heil Co. and Kenworth Truck Co., Petroleum Transport pushed payload up to 56,000 lb., which is 10-15% more than most carriers in the business -- a real competitive advantage, according to Bottorff. "The big weight savings came from switching to aluminum wheels and hubs, going to a single aluminum fuel tank, reducing the number of batteries from four to two, spec'ing a fixed instead of a sliding fifth wheel, and putting wide-based single tires under both the T800s and trailers," he recalls. "Aluminum air tanks, an aluminum rear end housing, aluminum support risers on the fifth wheel and composite truck springs helped us shed a few more tractor pounds."

Just as in tractors, most of the big weight savings in trailers has been realized from the use of aluminum components. "Since 1990, our Heil units have had aluminum subframes, wheels, hubs, and drums," he explains. "We also switched to composite springs and wide-base single tires. Trailer specs have remained fairly constant since the 1990 weight-loss program, except for the addition of ABS and some safety and ease-of-use specs, such as a cargo lamp on a 360-degree swivel to make it easier for drivers to see what they're doing."

Weight gains have been as thoughtfully considered as weight reductions at Petroleum Transport, with a critical eye on safety, performance, driver satisfaction, and overall costs. "Back in about 1995, for example, we went from the Cummins L10 engine to the Cummins M11-330E," Bottorff says. "We paid for that additional power and durability with a 104-lb. weight penalty, but it was worth it.

"Today, we're adding Eaton's AutoSelect transmissions to all our new trucks," he continues. "We can do it for just 22 lb. That's less tare weight, but it's worth a lot more than 22 lb. to us over time in terms of reduced driver fatigue and enhanced safety. We're also adding the new Meritor Easy-Steer sealed front axle. We're doing it for maintenance reasons; the 11-lb. weight savings is a bonus.

"The big boom in lightweight components and technology that we saw beginning in the early 1980s seems to have reached a plateau," observes Bottorff. "Weight savings will probably be in smaller increments now that the major gains have been realized. Because of this factor, as well as overall improvements in durability and lifecycle costs, we're extending our equipment turn cycle from 36 months to four years. You still have to be constantly looking for improvements though, large or small. You have to compare and analyze as you go ahead," he adds.

Moving bulk food "Liquid bulk haulers constantly have to look for new opportunities to save weight," agrees Donna Weinrich, president of Weinrich Truck Line Inc., Hinton, Iowa, "and we're no exception to that rule. Because we haul only food-grade, edible products, however, other factors often have to take precedence over payload capacity."

Imagine a tanker full of chocolate, honey, butter, cream, or cooking oil and you begin to appreciate the concerns unique to the bulk food hauling business. "There are trade-offs in this kind of operation," says Weinrich. "For example, even though it is heavier, we had to go to totally stainless steel trailers. Even our frame rails are stainless."

The reason? "We wash our trailers so much and so thoroughly in our own certified, food-grade, tank washing system that steel tanks and components just rusted," she explains. "We were having to repaint too often. Today we do spec aluminum wheels and hubs to take weight out of the trailers, but the tankers are remaining stainless for durability reasons."

Weinrich's tanker and dry van operation includes 75 tankers, mostly from ST&E in Cottage Grove, Wis., and 25 to 30 tractors, all Freightliners and Volvos. While the dry vans haul nationwide, the tanker operation is more regional, according to Weinrich, serving an area about 500-600 miles around the home base.

"Most of our bulk customers ship 46,000 to 47,000 lb. per load," she notes. "Since 48,000 lb. is about our maximum load, we are not usually constrained by weight capacity. We also have a minimum bulk load charge of 45,000 lb. In our operation, vehicle weight savings have to be considered against the general business backdrop. If we can't realize a good return on an investment in lightweight specs, or if they will create new maintenance or durability problems, then it just doesn't make sense to do it, even if the lower weights look good on paper."

Who do you trust? Whether hauling food, petroleum, or cryogenics, liquid bulk haulers like Weinrich, Petroleum Transport, and AGA look to their dealers, trade organizations, and industry colleagues to help them keep an eye on emerging technologies and new opportunities. "Our truck dealers and our tanker sales representatives are a good resource when it comes to fine-tuning specs," says Weinrich.

"The Maintenance Council is by far our best source of good information," says Bob Flesher. "It's like having a whole team of talented experts at your fingertips. We stay very involved. I've served as TMC chairman in the past and I'm currently chairing the S12 Study Group. After all, it's the fleet people who depend upon their equipment every day who really know what works."

"We consider our truck and tanker dealers to be business partners," offers Jerry Bottorff, "and we treat them as such. We try to keep them as informed and involved in our operation as possible, so that they can work right along with us to continually improve our productivity and efficiency. That's what this business is all about."