Sept. 1 2007 12:00 AM

5_1.jpgAny military commander will tell you that next to the men and equipment, the most important element is the vehicles that make up the supply-line. These vehicles transport the crucial men and materiel.

If not properly maintained through service and regular checkups the supply-line is at risk. When it breaks down the men no longer receive what they need, and can no longer do their job and the battle may be in jeopardy.

Every day that you step into your truck to head to the office or the jobsite you're preparing for a battle. This job isn't easy, if it was, everyone would be doing it. Today you've got jobsites to visit, phone-calls to return, bills to pay, one of your foremen called in sick and that problematic customer on Elm Street won't quit calling you. Not to mention the eight crews you have to manage.

You're turning on Elm Street when your cell-phone rings. It's one of your foreman, He tells you that this particular crew along with all the equipment is stranded on the side of the road miles from the jobsite, steam is coming from underneath the hood of the truck.

If they don't get moving quickly you're going to have to call the customers and explain to them that you won't be able to do the job today. You're now risking several embarrassing phone calls and the possibility of losing the business altogether. What do you do? What could you have done to avoid this situation?

Your fleet is your supply line -- simple, routine maintenance will keep it from breaking down.

I'm not going to sit here and tell you that you need to maintain your trucks. You know that better than I do. Your trucks work in some of the worst conditions, the busiest time of year is always the hottest or the coldest. Dry, dusty weather and cold freezing temperatures add to the woes as dust clogs filters and engine parts and frost destroys hoses and gaskets. Equipment is taken off and put back on all day. These vehicles take a beating every day.

As beat up as they get, they're still trucks and that's what they're built for. You know there are a few things that you can do to prolong the life of your fleet and increase gas-mileage. And with gas prices soaring higher and higher you'll need to squeeze every last drop until it screams, and not having to buy new vehicles every few years is a big bonus too.


There are companies that you can contract out to manage your fleet service. "What's nice about having a service like this is the fact that they have detailed records for each and every vehicle," says Rich Angelo, Stay Green Inc., Santa Clarita, California, "They also have several different vendors that they work with which means that they have a handle on current prices. If someone comes back and says this vehicle needs brakes, the company can say 'wait a minute, you just replaced the brakes 10,000 miles ago' or 'your pricing is a bit above industry standards.' This third party company keeps everybody honest."

"It's worked out real well for us," Angelo continued. "They also track all of our expenses. They send a monthly report on each vehicle indicating how many miles it's driven and what the cost of operating that truck is every mile. They combine our gas expenses and they tell us exactly how much it costs per mile to operate that vehicle. That means that if you have a vehicle that is costing you 20 cents a mile to operate and the rest of your fleet is at 10 or 12 cents a mile --  you know you have a problem or the engine is going out."

"Then we take a good hard look and ask ourselves, 'Can we replace this truck for a new one that will only cost us 8 cents a mile to operate?' We can then eliminate a truck that is costing us too much to operate in gas and repairs and get one that is less expensive to operate. Without this kind of data -- which is being provided by an outside service -- we would be flying blind. We couldn't afford to keep track of all the expenses per vehicle."

In some cases it just may be more cost-effective to have another company keep track of all the records and service that goes along with each vehicle.

While some companies choose to out-source to a fleet-maintenance company, others choose to handle everything internally. Kujawa Enterprises Inc., in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, runs 85 vehicles in their fleet of which about 75 are in the field daily.

"We have a fleet manager and mechanic, who sets up a nightly program which we strictly adhere to," said Joe Kujawa, executive vice president of Kujawa Enterprises,

"We have a weekly schedule where certain trucks are brought in on certain days. We have a second shift mechanic that goes over all the vehicles and makes all the necessary repairs. We have five bays complete with hoists so we can do most of our work in-house."

Maintaining your fleet

Although I know you are aware of how to maintain your fleet of trucks, it's worth repeating again and again. So here goes:

6.jpgRegular Oil Changes -- simply put, oil changes are one of the most important things you can do to avoid bringing large sums of money to your mechanic later. There has been a lot of debate as to how often you should change it. Most manuals recommend between 3,000 and 10,000 miles. But before you trust the manual there are other factors that you should consider; the way it's driven, the age and condition of the engine, the external environment and highway driving versus stop and go driving. Most mechanics will recommend that you change your oil every 5,000 miles. But they also recommend that you change it more frequently if the following conditions exist; the climate is extremely hot or cold, the vehicle is often driven on dirt roads, the engine is old or burns oil, or if the truck is used to carry heavy loads i.e.: equipment and crew. I would think it's safe to say that you should go no more than 5,000 miles between each oil change, but try to do it more often.

Fluid Level Checks -- checking fluids and adding when necessary rather than waiting for the warning lights to come on or worse for the steam or smoke to start flowing from underneath the hood is a simple way to add longevity to your vehicle. Every fluid compartment in your engine has a level indicator either seen on the exterior or in some form of a dip-stick. These checks can be performed in just a few minutes by popping the hood and taking a peek. Your vehicle should be parked on a level surface and can be done during refueling. Make sure you mind the warning signs for each reservoir though; some require the engine to be warm while others can be extremely dangerous to check while the engine is warm or hot.

Rotating Your Tires -- this one seems simple. It is. Every 5,000 miles rotate your tires. Tires that are rotated regularly outlast tires that aren't by almost 10,000 miles. Your mechanic will make sure they are balanced properly and inflated to the proper PSI allowing your tires to wear more evenly. This provides safety on the road for your crew and equipment. It also adds life to your tires and improves gas mileage. When tires wear evenly there is less drag or friction. Now this won't make a huge difference in gas mileage, but when we're squeezing every drop, it all counts. Certain things are unavoidable like flat tires. You can have the best tires available, but if you run over a nail, you're going to get a flat.

Tune-Ups -- after speaking to my mechanic, he told me this is a word that is virtually non-existent today. Tune-ups by today's standards are far different from what they used to be. In the past cars had to be tinkered with (distributors, timing belts, sparkplugs, etc.). In today's world of computers and chips everything in a car is regulated. So a modern tune-up would include oil change, tire rotation, fluid level check and fill, transmission flush and fill, electrical diagnostics, hoses, plugs and a few various other checks that are performed. Every 20,000 miles get it into your neighborhood mechanic and let him give it a good once-over.

Crew Up-Keep -- oftentimes you're not able to be with your crew all day. You don't leave with them, you don't travel from site to site with them and you certainly aren't there when they're rushing back on a hot Friday after a long week.

The truth is you might not ever be inside your equipment truck when one of your employees is driving it. You might not have any idea how it's being treated away from the office -- or when it%'s not in your line of sight. Find a member of the crew that you are comfortable with and ask him/her to be in charge of the vehicle. When refueling, ask him to check under the hood. Make sure that no one disrespects it or that no trash is left behind. Ask him to make sure that no mishandling in general is going on with the truck. "The crew leader is in charge of the truck," says Angelo, "He or she is the one responsible for keeping it clean, making sure there is nothing left in the truck -- like trash or papers. Then it's incumbent upon the supervisor to make sure that the truck is being cared for. Angelo's company has a rigorous routine every week for each vehicle as far as making sure each vehicle is cleaned and washed. No exceptions. It's also an image thing for their company; they want their vehicles to look good in the field. If they notice scratches or if the trucks are being mistreated, they'll go and have a talk with the crew leader.

"Every morning the crew leader is responsible for checking the oil and fluid levels before they leave," said Kujawa, "Repairs and maintenance are scheduled as needed. The crew leader is also responsible for filling out a DOT (department of transportation) report and doing a walk-around to make sure the trucks are in good working condition."

Supplies -- a few things you can give your crew so they can help themselves in the event of a minor breakdown. Jumper cables always come in handy and I'm surprised at how often none can be found. A tire or pressure gauge should be used to check tire pressure every few fill-ups. A properly inflated spare -- ever have a flat and find that your spare is flat too? You can also store a few extra fuses in case one is blown and an extra quart of oil. By performing these simple tasks on a regular basis you can ensure better gas-mileage, longer-lasting tires and more importantly, trucks that will keep running year after year. "It's all preventative maintenance," says Angelo, "It's putting tires on before they're bald. It's changing things before they go bad. Like with oil changes, we get each vehicle in every 5,000 miles . . . period. Every truck has a sticker in the window indicating when the next oil change will be and every vehicle is changed when it should be. Each crew is responsible for alerting the account manager, who will then schedule the appointment to get it serviced."

This way your crews are always on time (not counting any unforeseen traffic incidents) and your customers are always happy keeping you in business year after year. If you were able to get 10 years out of your fleet as opposed to 5 or 7 years -- or if you had to buy one less truck every few years -- how much money would that save you?