Dec. 1 2006 12:00 AM

Trucks are an integral part of the green industry. They transport the workers, haul the equipment, and tow the trailers that are absolutely essential to get every job done. When you buy a truck, you’re buying a business on wheels, a whole package of unique features, parts, and configurations. So when you’re ready to buy, choose the best options available to maximize both the truck’s performance and your workers’ productivity.

For example, the right engine can get you to a jobsite faster and increase your fuel economy, while the wrong engine can leave your truck feeling sluggish and fuel-guzzling. The right body can give you enough room to transport all of your people and equipment at once, while having the wrong body may force you to take additional vehicles in order to transport it all. The right options can make it easier to load and unload equipment and materials, shaving a few precious minutes off of a crew’s total time on site.

Saving a few minutes here and there might not seem very critical, but they can add up quickly. By the end of the day, your crews might be half an hour or even an hour ahead of schedule. That’s an hour in which to accomplish even more in the day, and that’s why buying the right truck is so important.

If you’re in the market for a truck in 2007, you’ll need to make yourself familiar with what’s out there. Knowing exactly what’s available will be essential in helping you buy the right truck, a vehicle that contains the perfect set of power and features for you and your company.

While every model year brings a host of new innovations to the world of trucks, 2007 may hold even more changes than in years past. Some manufacturers are introducing models that keep track of their own maintenance, and some trucks even turn off half of their cylinders during light load situations to conserve fuel. Additionally, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has instituted new restrictions, effective January 1st, regarding diesel truck emissions, vastly changing trucks’ exhaust systems.

Photo courtesy: General Motors

A good dealer will help you sort through all of your options to spec the right truck. He’ll ask questions like how many miles you put on a truck in a year, what type of equipment and material you plan on hauling, etc. “If there’s one thing that manufacturers can all agree on,” says Todd Bloom, vice president of marketing for General Motors Isuzu Truck, Detroit, Michigan, “it’s that the biggest mistake a landscape contractor can make when buying a truck is not buying the right vehicle for his application.”

“We’ve thought about how customers use the truck in a business environment and made refinements based on that,” explains JoAnn Bartlett, assistant marketing manager for Ford’s Superduty pick-up. Cabs are getting bigger almost across the board to comfortably transport more crew members, and some trucks are more of a “portable office” than a mere mode of transportation, containing space in the console area for drivers to store folders, papers, or even a laptop computer.

Feature face-off: trucks go bed-to-bed
Pick-ups are probably the truck seen most commonly in the green industry, from petite but powerful quarter-tons up to four doors and crew cabs that can weigh in excess of three tons. Cara-Tera Landscape and Statuary, Kirkwood, Missouri, presents a typical example. “We have three half-ton pick-ups that are the backbone of our fleet. Two are used to take material out to jobsites, and the third one often tows a trailer for equipment,” says Matt Stock, shop manager.

Larger companies have even more pick-ups in their fleet. “We have about 30 trucks,” says Benjamin Rettmann, fleet maintenance manager for La Rosa Landscape Company, Inc., of Cedarburg, Wisconsin. “The pick-ups are all equipped with cruise control and V-8 engines for towing.”

Rettmann makes a good point about the V-8s. Power is often a chief concern when a landscape contractor is looking to buy a pick-up. “You want to be able to haul trailers,” says Steve Moore, Rustic Creek Landscaping, Phoenix, Arizona. “You want to have enough torque to hold and pull the weight of your equipment and materials.”

Photo courtesy: Super Lawn Trucks

Most manufacturers have several engine options. While you don’t want to purchase a more powerful engine than what you need, it’s equally undesirable to under-purchase. Overloading a truck puts unnecessary strain on the engine and other components, increasing wear-and-tear and requiring more maintenance. Habitually overloading a truck can cause it to break down sooner.

A useful engine feature that’s coming into wider availability is variable displacement technology. An engine equipped with this system will automatically operate on half of its cylinders under light load conditions. This reduces fuel consumption and saves you money at the pump. However, if you want to load your truck to its limit or go uphill, all of the cylinders are reactivated, automatically. The switch is so seamless that it’s undetectable to the driver or his passengers.

Many pick-ups have incorporated features intended to make the truck easier to use in a working environment. For example, some pick-ups come with tailgate assist, which reduces the effort required to close the gate. A few also have a tailgate step that stows inside the tailgate itself. When unfolded, the step makes it much easier to climb in and out of the bed. A grab handle even folds out for extra support. This can make loading and unloading a breeze.

Snow removal is becoming an increasingly significant part of many landscape contractors’ businesses. Stock says, “All of our pick-ups are used for snow plowing and salt spreading in the winter season.” La Rosa has the same idea—“We have snow plows on all of our pick-ups,” says Rettman.

To make work on slick winter roads safer, some trucks now come with an electronic stability control system. This system enhances driver control and helps maintain directional stability under all conditions. If the truck senses a discernable difference between what the driver asks of the vehicle through the steering wheel and the vehicle’s actual path, this system will apply selective braking and throttle input to get the truck back to where the driver intended it to go.

Although countless pick-ups are used by landscape contractors, a myriad of other trucks are used as well. Cara-Tera uses several dump trucks that weigh in at one or two tons each; La Rosa has a Class Seven dump truck, meaning it has a gross vehicle weight of 13 to 16 tons. Both say their larger vehicles are used to collect leaves, or haul materials like rock and mulch.

The manufacturers of these larger trucks have taken a hard look at the way they’re used by landscape contractors. Several offer bodies that have been specifically designed to meet the needs of the landscape contractor, whether it’s for hauling leaves or equipment. The more they understand our industry, the more useful innovations they can create.

For example, a handful of trucks now come standard with a “driver information display.” This display, located in the center of the instrument cluster, provides the driver with information about fuel economy, maintenance intervals, and engine diagnostics. Seeing how your engine is performing or when you need to go back in for maintenance is as easy as a glance at the dashboard. The system comes set with a few factory defaults for oil changes and other routine procedures, but also allows the operator to set additional maintenance intervals.

An engine protection system is available on some 2007 commercial truck models. This system includes a device that monitors oil pressure and coolant temperature; if oil pressure drops or coolant temperature rises to a dangerous level, an audible alarm sounds and a warning light illuminates, indicating the out-of-range parameter so that it can be corrected immediately.

When buying a commercial truck, you’ll have the option of buying a cabover (also called cab forward) or conventional cab design. A cabover is a truck with a flat nose—instead of the engine being out in front, under a hood, as seen with a conventional cab, the engine is tucked away beneath the cab itself. The driver is seated on top of the front axel and the engine.

The benefits of a cabover include increased maneuverability and visibility. “We have two cabovers,” Rettmann says. “They’re a better design if you want to get in and out of tight places.” You can see exactly where the nose of the vehicle is, and if there are any obstacles in its path.

Although they are not yet widespread in the U.S., more and more contractors are discovering their benefits. “We’ve seen a real growth in cabovers the last few years,” says Bloom.

Another cab option is the crew cab. “All of our trucks have crew cabs,” Moore says. “That was high on our list of priorities when we were looking to buy them.” Crew cabs are offered in both pick-ups and commercial vehicles. Most trucks have had the size of their cabs increased, making them wider and higher; many also offer four-door models for even more space.

The new diesel
Rettmann says that La Rosa is gradually converting its entire fleet to run on diesel fuel. This isn’t uncommon among landscape contractors, many of whom use diesel-powered trucks and equipment.

Photo courtesy: International

Diesel generates more power from every rotation of the engine than a gasoline engine generates. The result is that less fuel is used, saving you money because you don’t have to fill up as often.

If you frequently travel unloaded, and need acceleration in tight traffic, a gas engine is a perfect choice. If you want to be able to load your truck to its rated limits or pull a trailer, diesel is best—hauling heavy loads and pulling trailers is what diesel engines are designed for.

They’re also built to be more durable than gas engines. Since diesel engines rely on compression instead of spark plugs to burn fuel, the engine components have to be built tougher. They have to be able to withstand higher compression and cylinder pressures than components of a gasoline engine are subjected to.

Their heavy-duty parts allow diesel engines to last for up to twice as long as those in a gasoline engine, and run for up to 300,000 miles without needing major maintenance. “Diesel engines are close to bullet-proof,” says Bloom.

Despite these numerous advantages, diesel is considered a “dirty” fuel. We’ve all seen large diesel trucks lumbering down the highway, spewing sooty, black exhaust into the air. Not only does diesel exhaust look bad and smell worse, it’s not healthy to breathe. However, the EPA designed its new restrictions to cut a truck’s particulate matter emissions by 90% and nitrogen oxide emissions by 50%.

These restrictions will have a significant impact on every industry that relies on diesel trucks. First and foremost, the price of every diesel truck is going to go up dramatically. Depending on the configuration of the truck, you can expect a price increase of $2,500 to $5,000, or more.

Truck manufacturers can’t make diesel burn cleaner; instead, they have to design various kinds of filters to collect the particulate matter from the exhaust before it’s released into the air. The cost of developing and incorporating all of this technology into each truck is what’s directly causing the hike in price.

Bloom estimates that trucks with conventional diesel engines will still be available for the first few months or so of the new year. Remember, the new regulations apply only to trucks built after January 1; trucks built before 2007 that remain on the lot don’t have to follow the emissions restrictions.

After those models are sold off, you’ll have no choice but to pay the few thousand dollars extra for a truck that produces cleaner exhaust. This will mean that you’ll have some different kinds of maintenance to contend with than what you may be used to.

While truck prices might be rising in the new year, manufacturers have created a wealth of features to make sure you’ll be getting your money’s worth. The availability of cutting edge options combined with a healthy economy are working together to make 2007 a great time to get truckin.’