Sept. 16 2013 08:44 AM

It's a safe bet that he wasn't singing about your truck fleet ...but he could have been. Trucks have become so much more sophisticated under the hood that they bear only a passing with stricter government emissions mandates, high-pressure engine and braking systems, is it any wonder that today's fleets are more complicated to manage?

Electronic technology is also adding complexity to trucks, just as it’s adding to our lives. “The tires, the steering, the air cleaners, the spark plugs are the same,” says Preston Leyshon, equipment manager and safety officer for Chapel Valley Landscape Company in Woodbine, Maryland. “But now the vehicles contain complex computer systems. Open the guts of any truck built after 1987, and you’ll find them.”

Leyshon is responsible for 148 vehicles in four different locations. Having worked in this capacity for 26 years, he has seen firsthand how trucks have changed. “For example,” he says, “when the control module for the cruise control or turn signal messes up, you can’t go anywhere because the computer won’t let the engine run. You’re down on the side of the road until the problem can be fixed.”

“You’ll still need mechanics to check tires, brake rotors and shoes, but almost everything else you do to maintain your vehicles requires a computer,” said Leyshon. “You now have to have scanners.” Essentially, a scanner is another computer that talks to the computer chip inside your truck and tells it what’s wrong and where.

Chuck Wyvill oversees 96 trucks and cars as shop manager for McHale Landscape Design, Inc., in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. “Ninety percent of the time, we use computers to do diagnostic checks,” he says. Wyvill feels that the ability to do diagnostics onsite is a requirement for any shop today. “Guys are using laptops to solve mechanical problems. With all the new handheld equipment that’s available, all of this can be done in the field.”

Todd Bloom, president and CEO of Mitsubishi Fuso Truck of America, Inc., in Logan Township, New Jersey, sums it up best. “All of this technology is wonderful and environmentally friendly, but it makes maintaining your fleet very different,” he says. “You’re simply not going to be able to do it the way you used to.”

Properly maintaining your fleet has always been important. But now, in this new environment, it’s even more essential that you develop some best practices that will ensure that your fleet stays up and running, in the short term and in the future. You want to safeguard your fleet’s longevity, and avoid the word that strikes fear into every contractor’s heart: downtime. “If a truck is down, it’s not making you any money, and somebody isn’t happy,” said Wyvill. “Downtime can kill a company.”

Here’s how just one down day can seriously impact your company. A day’s work requires one of your trucks to make eight stops with a full crew. That truck goes down. Now that crew is sitting on the side of the road, and the clients don’t get serviced. You’ve lost revenue, and possibly customers. If you’ve lost a customer, that compounds the situation, because you’re out future revenue as well. Now, add to that the cost of fixing that truck and you begin to see the snowball effect.

But all this can be avoided. “You have to ask yourself what needs to be done on a daily basis to keep your fleet up and running,” says Bloom.

Maintenance is an everyday thing

Create a daily maintenance checklist for every vehicle in your fleet.

Before a truck leaves the yard for the day, all vehicle functions should be checked, and all repairs documented. These daily checks are essential because, overnight, tires can lose air, fluids can leak, batteries can go dead and lights can burn out.

During the time we were interviewing Wyvill, one of his trucks returned from the field with a coolant leak. “This just goes to show you what can happen when you don’t do the morning daily maintenance,” he said. “Your employees can’t just jump in the trucks in the morning and drive off.”

Leyshon agrees. His drivers are required to complete daily pre-trip checklists. Before they head out, they must first check off that oil and fluids are at proper levels, tires are properly inflated, lights and turn signals are working, and the wiper blades and exhaust systems are in good shape. At day’s end, there’s a post-trip report to fill out, going over the same points.

Another believer in daily reports is David Katz, president of Elite Landscaping Inc., in Poughkeepsie, New York. “Not everyone drives the same truck every day, so it’s imperative that the guys check them before they go out,” he says. He points out that just by checking lights every day, a driver avoids being stopped and ticketed when a cop notices that the lights aren’t working.

Of course, you’re already doing daily reports like this if you own dual-wheel trucks. The government requires them, plus another report at the end of the year or every 25,000 miles. But even if you don’t own such vehicles, it’s a good idea to get in the habit of doing daily preand post-reports for each truck.

“With the daily checks, one of the most important is the oil check,” says Bloom. “Whether you’re running a gas- or diesel-powered vehicle, oil keeps these high-pressure engines working at peak efficiency.” An oil check only takes a couple of minutes and could save your company thousands of dollars.

“In a diesel engine, it’s not a matter of just coating the parts,” says Bloom. “You actually need to bathe the entire engine, all of its components, in the proper amount of oil,” he says. Without that coating, the diesel system will freeze or shut down.

Need another reason for doing vigilant daily maintenance and the paperwork that goes with it? How about the fact that many truck manufacturers will decline to do warranty repairs when a truck hasn’t been maintained? “We have a life history on each truck,” says Leyshon. “If warranty work is ever needed, we have the documentation.”

Chapel Valley Landscape has never had problems with the manufacturers any time there’s been a warranty issue with their vehicles, due to the accurate records kept by their mechanics. So don’t neglect the paper trail. It’s just as vital as the physical repairs you’ll do on your fleet.

Daily maintenance is also a safety issue. You may still suffer some accidents, but why not cut down on the possible causes of them by performing daily checks? Ignoring daily maintenance puts you and your employees at risk. Keeping your fleet in good working order, and keeping records of how you’ve done it, will help your company stay safe.

Interval service

In addition to daily checks, it’s essential that you also schedule service at regular intervals. Usually, this is required in order to maintain your warranty. You can use the service intervals in the owner’s manual, or do them even more frequently.

Leyshon routinely services his big trucks every 4,000 miles; his light pickup trucks and cars every 5,000. “We look at the drive train, the tires and the brakes, and change the oil.” Wyvill says, “We change the oil at 5,000, 10,000, 15,000 and 20,000 miles.” He likes using mileage intervals that are easy to remember. This way, he knows no vehicle will be overlooked.

Another good practice is to institute an annual preventive maintenance program. Leyshon describes what this could be. “The wheels would come off, the bearings are checked, the tie-rods, the spindles, and the steerage linkage are all inspected. It’s a much more in-depth service,” he says.

“You have to become disciplined in keeping up the schedule for each vehicle and not going beyond the manufacturer’s recommended service intervals,” says Bloom. When doing interval service, time between services is not as important as mileage accrued.

Major repairs

Lastly, from time to time, vehicles in your fleet will require large repairs or service jobs. There are two schools of thought about this. Some argue that the sophistication of today’s vehicles demands that these repairs should be done only by an authorized dealer of that particular make. Others feel that this is too expensive, and prefer to do the work in-house or go to a local trusted mechanic.

To give you an example, a typical hour of maintenance in a dealership to change the oil and filters is approximately $120 to $130 per hour, where your local mechanic might do it for $40 to $60. Now imagine the cost of a large repair.

As a fleet operator, you’re going to have to multiply the cost by the number of vehicles you have in your fleet.

Costing it out initially, most of us would say, why waste the money? This is the way Leyshon and Wyvill feel. McHale Landscape Design does 90 percent of its repairs in-house, and Wyvill employs four mechanics, including one small-engine mechanic.

“We own trucks by the same manufacturer, so over time you learn the truck and what needs to be done. If there’s something we can’t do or fix, then we’ll send it to the dealer,” Wyvill says. Katz also has an in-house mechanic. He saves costs by employing someone who can fix vehicles and operate in the field when there are no repairs to be done.

But Bloom says there are inherent risks in using the local guy. If you don’t have a good working relationship with him and he doesn’t work on your type of vehicles with regularity, you might be saving money in the short term but costing the company in the long run.

“No matter what dealership you go to, they are going to do more than simply change the oil. They’re going to be able to plug your trucks into a diagnostic check specific to your truck’s make and model,” said Bloom. Using this tool, the dealership will know exactly how each truck has operated, what might be wrong with it and what could potentially be wrong with the vehicle in the next cycle.

“They are also going to recommend and make the right decision on how to fix a problem, because a diagnostic does not lie,” adds Bloom. So it might be worth taking it to the dealership and spending the money.

When you get to that level of expenditure for one truck, not to mention numerous vehicles, you can’t afford to make an unwise decision about maintenance. If you are going to use a local mechanic, it might be in your best interest to make sure that he has been trained by the manufacturer to maintain and fix your type of vehicles.

As we’ve seen, there are two major factors to consider when owning and maintaining a fleet. One is truck reliability—the ability of each truck to turn the key and have it start every single day. The second is durability—how long that truck will last.

With proper maintenance, you’re able to ensure reliability, but just as importantly, you’re prolonging the life of your vehicles. This will give you a higher residual value at the time you decide to sell it or replace it by trading it in.

Bloom says, “The reality is that vehicles today cost vastly more than what you used to pay.” He goes on to say that where you used to be able to buy a truck for $25,000 to $30,000, today, the same truck costs upwards of $50,000 to $60,000. Based on cost alone, it behooves you to properly maintain these expensive investments.

It would be practically impossible to find a landscape company that doesn’t owe its existence and survival to the reliability of its fleet. Although outward appearances of trucks today might not look all that different from those of years ago, under the hood, it’s another story. Maintaining these technologically superior vehicles takes diligence and care. It pays off in the end.