At first blush, the task of fleet management sounds like it should have nothing to do with landscape contracting. Laymen who hear the term no doubt think about managing frigates, cruisers and battleships, not a well-maintained yard of rolling stock. Yet, to get our employees and the tools they need from point A to point B, we have trucks and trailers in as wide a variety as any admiral’s command.
How we move our equipment around is a central problem which we all have to contend with from day one. We’re all familiar with the challenges of scheduling our crews efficiently, and how much we rely on vehicles that can carry exactly what our work requires.
We load trucks, and hitch up trailers to get our gear to where we need it, but how do we choose the truck or trailer that’s right for the job? These are major purchases for any landscape company, and you need to make the call that best fits your business. To make that call a little easier, let’s look at the different options, and what is best suited for each one.
To begin with, let’s talk about trucks. Whether you carry all your equipment in them, or you use them to tow your trailers, you’d have a hard time doing business without them. We could probably write a whole magazine just about trucks, but for simplicity’s sake, I’m just going to give a brief overview of the options.
Most common are pickups, and for good reason. They have a high power-to-weight ratio, are long lasting, and can be retrofitted with a fenced bed or dump body for added functionality. Last but not least, they’re so commonly used in all kinds of industries that there are a wide range of sizes and powers to fit every use and budget.
Pickups aren’t the only trucks out there, though. A stake truck or a box truck each offers increased cargo room and hauling capacity, with an open bed or an enclosed bed, respectively. They come in cab-over-engine (COE) models, which offer better visibility and a tighter turning radius than a conventional truck.
Although it seems like there’s a truck out there to fit every need, many of us buy other vehicles to get the job done. Trailers give us the extra hauling capacity we need, without the added cost and maintenance that comes with an engine.
The first consideration when buying a trailer is to decide what exactly you’re going to use it for. If a crew only does maintenance, an enclosed trailer puts a roof over your expensive pieces of power equipment, protecting them from the elements. As an added bonus, the out-of-sight/out-of-mind effect adds a layer of protection from thieves.
An open trailer provides more freedom of movement, making it easier, and thus faster, to get equipment on and off. However, it’s important to keep in mind that open trailers and the open road can prove to be a dangerous combination if equipment isn’t locked in place.
“I got a call once from a crew where the wheelbarrow on their open trailer hadn’t been secured properly,” said Chris Gorrell, director of operations at InvoGreen Lawn Maintenance in St. Louis, Missouri. “They were driving on the highway when it flew off and got lodged under the car behind them. Thankfully, nobody was injured.”
That’s why Gorrell’s ideal open trailer setup includes 4-foot siding on the walls, so that if a tool comes free, it’s dropping to the trailer bed and not the asphalt.
Of course, for landscape installations, we move more than just mowers and blowers. We might need to transport heavy earth-moving equipment, or a ton of stone for a hardscaping job. For the former, a trailer with low clearance—like an equipment trailer or a lowboy—makes it easier to load and unload skid steers and the like. As for the latter, a dump trailer is usually strong enough and big enough to hold whatever volume of mulch, stone or yard waste you need, and can tilt to unload material quickly.
Trailer type is one part of the equation, but trailer size is just as important. Too large a truck or trailer cuts into your gas mileage, and makes driving more awkward than it has to be.
However, if it’s too small, that may force your crew to take multiple trips. On each back and forth, you’re paying for gas and labor as well as adding mileage to the vehicle, and if the extra trip is unexpected, your careful scheduling gets blown away.
More costly still is if you simply can’t transport the material you need. Gorrell’s company started out with a pickup truck and a 4-foot by 8-foot trailer, and as soon as it branched out from maintenance, it had to adapt. “When we got into hardscaping, we couldn’t really put a ton of stone on there, because the trailer only held a little over 700 pounds,” he said. “We’d get a few pieces of stone, but the rest had to be delivered, which was a huge cost.”
Still, the most expensive problem of all is when a truck or trailer breaks down. The repairs might cost you thousands, but you lose a lot more from the week or two of downtime. In the meantime, you’re delaying jobs and missing out on new work, and what do you do with the crew that doesn’t have a vehicle? That’s why maintaining your vehicles can actually save you money.
Derek Doughty is the operations manager for Doctor Lawn Landscape Management in Great Falls, Montana, and he does all the scheduled maintenance that the manufacturers recommend. “We go by the mileage and service dates, and if I can’t fix it myself, I farm it out to the best diesel mechanic in town,” he said.
Maintaining a truck isn’t much different than maintaining an automobile. The manufacturers publish a wealth of material about how and when to maintain their vehicles. Trailers, lacking an engine, are a lot simpler.
“There are certain things that wear on trailers, like the bearings on the axles,” said Gorrell. “You should always check the brakes and the wiring. The wiring’s huge on trailers, because if the lights aren’t working, then the brakes probably aren’t working either.”
Functional brakes simply aren’t optional, which brings us to another important element of managing trucks and trailers: safety. Even our smallest vehicles can be dangerous if handled recklessly, so with our large vehicles, careful driving is of paramount importance.
Gorrell designates a safety officer, whose job it is to train crews on the proper way to do things. “The person we have now came from another company, where that was his sole job,” he said. “As we grow, safety training is really important, because it reduces our risks and keeps our costs lower.”
Accidents will happen, and it’s only to be expected that a crew member who’s never driven a trailer before will be more likely to jackknife or sideswipe until he gets his bearings. Mostly, it’s a matter of on-the-job training, but there are a couple of ways you can ease into the learning process.
Doughty’s taken the precaution of only allowing crew leaders and foremen at the wheels of their trucks. “Every now and then, one gets jackknifed, but it’s cut our number of accidents way down,” he said. “We’re a high-volume commercial landscape company, and we don’t live in a perfect world, so we take steps to reduce accidents.”
Another step he takes is to hire a local welding shop to extend their trailer tongues to better fit under their COE trucks. “I’ll weld something on myself if it’s to hold stuff together, but if someone’s safety is involved I won’t touch it,” Doughty said.
Just recently, they had a trailer tongue—which had been welded by someone else years ago—snap off right in the yard. “Our guy takes that trailer a hundred miles, from Missoula to Kalispell, so I’m just glad it broke in the yard, and not on the highway.”
Keeping a truck and trailer together is vital to prevent accidents, but it’s also important to keep a trailer’s contents from shifting during transit. You may be relying on your zero-turn mower’s parking brake to get that job done, but just in case, a tie-down isn’t a bad idea.
“You need to secure your equipment according to the DOT standards in your state,” said Jennifer Hafendorfer, who does sales and marketing for Jungle Jim’s Accessory Products in Louisville, Kentucky. “Usually, it’s two secure points of contact, so that if your trailer flips, your lawn mower will stay attached to it.”
Keeping your equipment locked down can help deter theft as well. Thieves look for vulnerable targets, and a string trimmer or backpack blower sitting unattended in a truck or trailer is a tempting prospect.
Even a simple padlock and cable arrangement can be enough to keep your tools from disappearing.
While you’re considering locking stuff down, it’s worth it to remember that the vehicles themselves are also vulnerable to theft. They’re more audacious targets, because we usually brand our trucks and trailers, but it’s a small step from grand theft auto to grand theft trailer.
One fairly simple measure is to buy a lock that goes on the hitch, preventing the trailer from being hitched right to a getaway vehicle. That won’t help, of course, if they decide to steal your truck, too, which is why Gorrell makes sure all of his have GPS units and remote ‘kill’ switches.
“We can tell where anything is located, but we can also shut any vehicle off remotely,” he said. “So if somebody steals one of our vehicles, we can just shut it down and tell the police where to find it.” GPS is also useful for more day-to-day fleet management, because you can track your trucks and make sure they are keeping on schedule.
With so many add-ons and options abounding, some companies are even turning to third-party services that offer to customize trucks to a contractor’s specifications. It’s a more expensive option than the standard vehicle, but if it makes your operations significantly more efficient, that’s money well spent.
That’s ultimately what buying a truck or trailer is all about, spending money to expand the capabilities of your crews. It’s a classic example of the old business adage that you’ve got to spend money to make money. Our work puts a lot of rubber on the road, and how thoughtful we are about our vehicle choices can make a huge difference to our professional lives.
Buying a truck or trailer might just be the biggest equipment purchase, with the largest ramifications, that you make all year. Whether you’re looking to add a new service, thinking about how to make each crew more self-sufficient, or just trying to get more life out of the same fleet, there’s a lot to consider. So mull it over well. Trailers may follow trucks, but neither of them are afterthoughts.