Dec. 16 2008 12:00 AM

When you think about it, buying a truck is a lot like shopping for a new suit. You have to look at the size of your company and determine what would make the best fit, and you have to have a certain image in mind. You want something that looks professional, but also catches the customer’s eye.

But those aren’t the only factors that suits and trucks have in common. It should go without saying that anyone purchasing a suit wants it to last. They need something that will hold up over time. Trucks are no different. If you’re making an investment in a new vehicle, shouldn’t that vehicle have the durability and weight capacity to last for several years? The answer is a resounding yes. Trucks are essential in the landscape industry, allowing crews to get their equipment from point A to point B in a timely fashion. Simply put, no landscape contractor could get by without them, which is why it’s so important to spend as long as it takes to ensure that you’ve walked out of the dealership with the best vehicle for your needs.

“There are so many factors that tend to be ignored when buying trucks,” says Ed Crawford, executive director of retail marketing at General Motors Isuzu Truck, Detroit, Michigan. “A lot of people make decisions about what they need today without anticipating their needs for the future. They don’t take into consideration that their business may grow, and as a result, a year down the line they might find themselves regretting that they didn’t opt for something with a little more capacity.”

The choices are many—you could go for the standard pickup model, or you could purchase a chassis cab. Depending on the amount of weight you expect to haul, you’ll purchase either a light-duty or a heavy-duty truck. In larger landscape companies, both pickups and chassis cabs are used. You’ll also want to look at things from an economical approach. Diesel engines can save you more fuel than gaspowered engines as they generate more power per engine rotation. And there are a number of innovations that have been made in recent years that are slowly yet surely becoming standard features for many car manufacturing companies.

What’s available

Chassis cabs are a tried-and-true option for landscape contractors who have to carry heavy loads on a regular basis. Chassis cabs can support platform beds up to 20 feet long—plenty of room for trees, boulders and heaps of dirt and debris. They’re ideal for tree maintenance and other heavy-duty jobs, able to enclose cab bodies, dump bodies, tow trucks, flat beds, etc. “The degree of customization chassis cabs allow can be astounding,” says Joe Veltri, director of product marketing for Dodge trucks. “You can attach a lift bucket if you’re trimming trees, which will let you get as high as you want to get for your trimming. You can design something that spreads salt in the rear and around the front. The possibilities go on and on.”

The nature of your company should always be taken into account when purchasing trucks. What are your business needs? Do you need a heavy-duty truck that’s capable of hauling and dumping debris, or just a moderately-sized pickup to transport crew members? Do you need a body that you can customize to store tools like shovels or leaf-blowers, or are you looking to move bigger equipment such as trenchers and skid-steers? 4.jpg

Indeed, pickup trucks are somewhat of a standard when it comes to transportation. They’re the most commonly seen vehicle in the green industry, available in a wide array of shapes and sizes, from light-duty to heavy-duty, from two-door to fourdoor. Pickups can be used to tow trailers, haul lawn equipment and get your employees to a jobsite. But there’s also a slew of new features available, and they’re becoming more and more numerous as technology continues to advance.

“We have more than 150 trucks, most of which are pickups,” says John Gachina, owner of Gachina Landscape Management Services, Menlo Park, California. “On the maintenance side of things, we’ll only use pickup trucks. They’re the best bet if you’re moving your crew members around, and they can also haul a lot of equipment, depending on what it is you’re driving.”

You should take time to plan what you need. “We start planning what we’ll buy for the next year as early as September,” says Gachina. “Our plan is based on two things: What our projections are for company growth, and what trucks we need to rotate out.”

We’ve seen a number of innovations in the world of trucks. Today, you can customize your pickup or your chassis cab to house a body of practically any shape or size. Companies like Isuzu are offering previously optional features such as Electronic Stability Systems (ESS) and Trailer Sway Control (TSC) as standard features for 2009. As more and more companies follow suit, the safer new trucks will be.

The Trailer Sway Control is such a feature. Say you’re towing a trailer along a freeway and you’re suddenly faced with a tight curve in the road. If your trailer starts to drift away from the center of the vehicle, the trailer-control sensor will detect the shift in balance and the anti-lock brakes will automatically realign the trailer with the truck. This minimizes the chance that your equipment will get knocked around and damaged, or that you’ll lose control of the vehicle and crash.

The Electronic Stability System acts in a similar manner. If the truck senses a difference between the direction of the vehicle and the direction the steering wheel is telling the vehicle to go, it will apply anti-lock brakes and throttle until the direction is corrected. ESS and TSC will often work together in slippery circumstances.

Another useful pickup innovation is variable displacement technology, which allows a truck to operate on half of its cylinders automatically under relatively light conditions, in order to reduce fuel consumption. This translates to fewer stops at the gas pump. However, if the driver wants to load his pickup to the maximum capacity, all of the cylinders will reactivate seamlessly.

Side airbags, hill-start assistance, cruise control and anti-lock brakes are all becoming common features for modern pickup trucks. Companies such as Dodge Chrysler are beginning to make such innovations standard for their new trucks. “We’ve added ESS and TSC to all of our pickups,” says Veltri. “In the past, they’ve been optional, but this will be the first year that they’ll be standard.”

One thing contractors should always be wary of is under-buying. The last thing they want to do is to purchase a truck that can’t handle the amount of equipment that needs to be moved day in and day out. Overloading your vehicle can cause massive strain and damage. “The less experienced contractor is going to underestimate his needs,” says Veltri. “He might under-spec a truck and say, ‘Yeah, I’ll normally haul this, this and this.’ What he forgets to tell the dealer is that sometimes he’s overloading the truck. If he ends up buying something with a lower weight capacity and the business expands into new areas, he’s going to regret that he didn’t look at a more heavy-duty vehicle to accommodate those needs.”

Establishing a friendly and longlasting relationship with your dealer is crucial. If a dealer considers you a loyal customer, he’ll be more likely to cut you deals. If he’s worked with you in the past, he’ll have a better understanding of your company’s needs and will be able to assist you in addressing them. “We’ve worked with the same dealer for 18 years,” says Gachina. “He already knows that we don’t want trucks that have all the bells and whistles. We want a standard truck. He understands that, and that’s what he brings us.”

Image and maintenance

A company truck isn’t just a means to transport crew members and equipment. It’s also a source of advertising. Companies will invest a lot of time and thought into the ads they put out. The same holds true for the image of your fleet. After all, your trucks are often the first side of your company customers will see. It makes sense then to displayas impressive an air as you can. Color schemes are a good way to start. If all of your trucks are the same color, customers will be quick to identify them as belonging to your company. They should also have the company logo painted onto the sides, along with contact information, to help draw potential customers in.

“We have a lot of pride in our company, so image is very important,” says Gachina. “All of our trucks are white with our logo. It’s an easy color to buy your vehicle in, and it’s easy for customers to spot. Plus, all of the vehicles match. It makes us look more professional.”

Trucks should always be kept clean and well maintained. No one wants to drive a dirty, busted jalopy around town. Crew members should drive a vehicle they can take pride in. “If you give your employees a poor-looking truck, they won’t care too much about it,” says Gachina. “Your customers won’t either. I get compliments all the time about how good our rigs look.”

Vehicle inspections should be required when it comes to your fleet. Tail lights, head lights, blinkers, wipers, wheels, engines—all should be inspected one or more times a week by a qualified mechanic. Many companies include auto mechanics on their staff to perform such tasks. Drivers should also be instructed to report any strange noises they hear and to check the oil regularly. In addition to increased safety awareness, the truck industry continues to grow greener. The 2010 Newer Emission Standards was recently passed making it illegal, after January 1, 2010, for trucks to operate on engines that burn a certain amount of diesel fuel. As a result, many truck companies are already converting their engines to meet those standards. “Within the last year, we’ve fitted our heavy-duty trucks with new engines so that they have by far the cleanest burning diesel engine on the market,” says Veltri. “We’re trying to keep Dodge ahead of the curve when it comes to going green.”

This move towards greener pastures has also led some to question whether or not hybrids will be integrated into heavy-duty truck technology. As it is, some companies use hybrid sedans or hybrid SUVs to transport crew members. Hybrid pickups would make things even more fuel efficient for landscape companies. Just imagine driving a large tow truck built with hybrid technology. The savings in fuel would be remarkable. Still, car experts say the truck industry has not yet come that far. “We’re currently evaluating hybrid technology at Isuzu, but we’re not ready to make any announcements,” says Crawford.

In the meantime, there’s plenty out there from which to choose, and more to come. “You have to say this about the industry,” says Paul Wolbert, vice president of U.S. Lawns, Orlando, Florida. “They’ve responded well to the landscape market. They’ve listened, they’ve paid attention to the extra features people were ordering and they’ve put those extras on there now and made them standard. I think the results are noticeable.”