psst... Can We Talk About Trucks?

By Mary Elizabeth Williams-Villano

Pickup trucks are to the landscape business as limousines are to rock stars. In fact, it’s hard to picture a landscape contractor without one. They’re used to haul mowers, irrigation and construction equipment, and crews. They’re mobile offices, dining rooms, and advertising mediums. Whether a company owns just one or an entire fleet of them, they are the workhorses we rely upon every day.

That’s the practical side of things. And let’s be honest here. We love our trucks, don’t we?

Like the cowboy’s affection for his horse, the landscape contractor’s love affair with the pickup doesn’t seem to be changing. Although some landscape companies are turning to larger vehicles, pickup trucks are still the vehicles of choice for most landscape maintenance, irrigation and design/build applications.

When contractors choose to add bigger vehicles to their fleets, there are several reasons; crew comfort is one. Bigger trucks can seat more people with more space between them. Another reason would be efficiency. A bigger truck can transport more than one crew, and more than one job’s worth of equipment. And we can’t forget about safety. Bigger trucks with greater visibility and no trailer to back up are safer.

So, just what kind of truckin’ is going on out there, anyway?

“Most of our trucks are the larger ones, the medium-duty to the heavy-duty trucks, 16,000 gross vehicle weight (GVW) and up,” said Josh Kane, owner and president of Kane Landscapes, a full-service landscape company in Potomac Falls, Virginia. “Pickup trucks can’t haul as much. A good portion of the new ones we’re getting are all with extended cabs or crew cabs. With them, we can haul five to six people, as opposed to two or three.” Kane says his company also uses a lot of specialized trucks for smaller two- to three-person crews. Those trucks are designed to either be able to hold more tools or be able to be unloaded quickly and easily.

“We’re starting to go to larger trucks,” said Alex Fransen, landscape development manager for Steele Blades Lawn and Landscaping in Louisville, Kentucky. “We’ll probably be buying some of the bigger Isuzu models and cabovers. The choice will depend on what types of crews will be using them, whether they’re mowing or landscape crews.”

Joe Markell, president of Sunrise Landscape and Design in Sterling, Virginia, hasn’t completely gone to bigger trucks. “We’ve stayed with smaller crews for efficiency, but that’s not the case for everything. We do have one of the cabovers that seats six. We use that six-passenger [cabover] for snow removal, not so much for maintenance.”

“On the maintenance side, our primary piece is still a truck and a trailer,” said Howard Mees, vice president of operations and equipment for Calabasas, California-based ValleyCrest Companies. “An F-250 with a trailer behind it, whether it be a 14-footer up to a 20footer, depending on the market we’re in, is still a lot less expensive to operate than a cabover.”

However, ValleyCrest also uses cabovers. The company owns approximately 70 to 80 of them across their various branches. “They’re used in Atlanta and in Philadelphia, in areas where the streets are really tight, where it’s just not practical to use a truck and trailer,” said Mees. “Cabovers are easier to turn.”

On the construction side, Valley- Crest has gone to some even bigger vehicles. “We have the luxury in most of our locations of having a semi tractor-trailer rig that moves everything,” said Mees. “We can put skip-loaders, a trencher, a skid-steer on one trailer and do it all in a single move, as opposed to having to have three trucks do the same thing.”

Mees explained that a driver can go to jobsite number one, drop off the first piece of equipment, and pick up another that needs to go back to the yard. Then he moves on to jobsite number two, number three and so on. The driver then returns to the yard with a truck full of equipment in need of service. “We eliminate a lot of extra vehicles doing it this way.”

You’d think that the added fuel cost of running a semi would offset any savings. Not so, says Mees. “We’ve found that maximizing the economies of a single-move rather than a triple-move just made more sense. The operating costs are actually less.”

And more importantly, it’s actually safer, Mees added, “because the driver is a skilled operator-driver and he also knows how to operate all of those pieces of equipment.” He noted that even though ValleyCrest has a lot of seasoned employees, a lot of them are not used to pulling a trailer with a piece of equipment behind it.

Glenn Jacobsen, founder and president of Jacobsen Landscape Design and Construction in Midland Park, New Jersey (he’s also incoming president of PLANET), admits that new drivers at his company find backing up trucks with trailers “a challenge, and that cabovers do avoid that problem.”

There’s another consideration for the New Jersey-based company. “Three or four months out of the year, [cabovers] are going to sit, or you’re just going to do minor work with them,” said Jacobsen. “They’re for non-northern climates. We look for four-wheel-drive trucks that work year-’round.” With simple attachments, Jacobsen’s pickups turn into snowplows and salters. Snow work is why he sticks with the traditional models. Most of his fleet consists of medium-duty Ford F-350s, F-550s and F-750s, ranging from 14,000 to 20,000 GVW to some bigger trucks in the 33,000 to 35,000 GVW range.

Brand loyal?

Many contractors like to keep all their trucks in the same brand family, especially when they do their own maintenance in-house, as Sunrise Landscape and Design does. This can create a problem, however, when the brand you’ve been loyal to for years stops making the type of trucks you need.

Then you’re stuck with a stockpile of expensive parts that won’t fit your new vehicles.

This is exactly what happened to Sunrise when General Motors stopped making medium-duty trucks. (A medium-duty truck is between 14,000 to 26,000 GVW.)

“After that, I bought what GM medium-duty trucks I could find,” said Markell. “I’ve been a GM guy my whole life, and I really don’t like mixing parts.”

Markell then turned to Ford, who still makes trucks in the medium-duty class. He bought one to meet some of his company’s needs, but the incompatible parts problem “did cause some issues.” He’s also purchased some Isuzus, and is happy with the trucks and their performance, although “tracking down parts is not fun.”

Fransen says the next vehicle they’ll buy will probably be “one of the bigger cabovers, in the 14,000 to 15,000-ton GVW range.” Kane said his company is also going that way. “We have to switch over some of our trucks.”

“Ninety-five percent of our fleet is one brand,” said Jacobsen. “I’m big on keeping consistency for parts and mechanics.” He notes, too, that having a good relationship with a dealer—in his case, more than one—makes things a lot easier. “I don’t like to lock in one guy. We have a lot of vehicles, so I believe in spreading the wealth a bit, a little healthy competition.” He says that buying so many trucks “gives me some buyers’ clout.”

There’s another consideration for keeping a fleet in the same family. “I’m big on having consistency in the look of vehicles,” Jacobsen said. He feels that “the way the trucks look, the lettering, the logos, whether they’re clean, all of that’s critically important. Your truck is your trademark in this business.” So he takes good care of his rolling billboards, noting that sometimes they look better than they are mechanically. “When we track our business leads, one of the biggest comments we get is ‘I saw your trucks.’ You wouldn’t believe how many people say that.”

Keeping truck maintenance completely in-house sometimes isn’t always feasible, even for a company as big as ValleyCrest, so much of their maintenance is outsourced to dealers near their branches. “We’ve worked out relationships with them,” says Mees. “That helps us get in and out quickly, so we’re not sitting around waiting for our trucks to be fixed.”

He adds, “Doing everything in-house wasn’t cost-effective for us, especially with changing technology. Trucks are becoming very sophisticated, with all of the electronics that they have in them now. Better to saddle up with someone and have them do it for us, because they have all the test equipment that can read the engine codes.”

Kane employs a truck mechanic who does a lot of his routine maintenance, but still has his vehicles completely overhauled and inspected twice a year by a heavy fleet shop, just for peace of mind. “That way, if something really goes wrong, they can’t say, ‘Hey, your mechanic did it.’”

Diesel not so cheap anymore

It used to be that diesel was the obvious fuel-economy choice. Not anymore. “Diesel went up and stayed up above gasoline,” said Kane. “It’s not the inexpensive fuel it used to be.”

“A number of contractors acknowledged that higher prices for diesel fuel changed the analysis” for further purchase of diesel-powered trucks for their maintenance crews,” says Vice President Nick De- Pasquale at Gothic Grounds Management, a multi-state commercial landscape maintenance company based in Valencia, California.

The majority of the trucks purchased are gasoline-powered, said one contractor; however, their construction division still utilizes diesel trucks.

Choice of vehicle can come down to higher fuel costs versus the need for more power. “That factors into what we buy, because it depends on what we need the engine to do,” says Kane. “If it’s going to be pulling a trailer, we don’t want gas because (the engine) heats up too much.”

Diesel engines produce more torque at a lower RPM, so they’re not working as hard. This is one reason why they tend to last longer than gasoline engines. But gasoline engines tend to have much quicker acceleration. As Kane points out, diesel engines are “kind of the slow and steady guys that win the race.”

Diesel trucks are usually more expensive, too. “Diesel engines are such a huge upfront cost, with all the emission controls that are on them now,” says Kane. “They’re $7,000 to $12,000 more right off the bat for mid-range trucks.”

He says a lot of the buying decision comes down to what’s available at the time and what dealer incentives are in place. “We run two divisions. The landscape division uses diesel trucks just because they need the extra torque. A lot of our maintenance division’s trucks are gas, because they’re never going to haul heavy trailers behind them and they don’t put on as many miles, and they’re much less expensive vehicles to buy.”

“We live in a northern climate,” says Markell. “So we need to have trucks that are versatile, that can do snow removal in addition to handling all of our regular business during the landscape season. They have to be heavy enough to carry the weight and be able to handle snowplows.”

About 90 percent of Markell’s fleet is diesel, “which is good and bad,” he says, because new tougher emissions standards have upped the price of diesel trucks about $5,000 in his area.

Biodiesel and propane?

“While I was going to Western Kentucky University, I was using a soy-based biodiesel in my personal truck,” said Fransen. “You could buy it from a couple of agricultural supply places down there. But I had some problems with it. In cold weather it will gel up on you if you don’t have a heater in your tank. You have an inoperable vehicle until it gets warm outside.” Even if the fuel was available in volume in Louisville, it’s only slightly cheaper than gas, according to Fransen.

DePasquale also ruled out biodiesel. “We didn’t see it as a viable option, as supply was limited in the areas in which we operate,” he said. As for propane, “It was cheaper than gas. However, we were concerned about the risk of storing it at our yard, as well as the limited filling stations in our market. The supplier was also hesitant to lock in the price for propane for the period of time we requested, and we were concerned that it could quickly increase.” Still, Gothic has plans to purchase a few propane-powered test vehicles in the future.

Markell hasn’t considered switching to propane. For one thing, it’s not easy to find in his area. “I’m not sure how that would work (finding propane stations) when we’re tooling around the state. Not that I’m opposed to it, though. I think if it was more readily available, it might be a different story. But I’m not comfortable having my guys fill up propane tanks.” It’s a safety concern for him, and he admits that “pressurized gas makes me a little nervous.”

What does the future hold? Certainly there will be more experimentation with alternative fuels on the part of truck manufacturers. It remains to be seen if flex-fuel, biodiesel, propane or battery/gasoline hybrids gain any real market share. Overall, when it comes to trucks, the most overriding concern of all the contractors contacted for this story, besides safety, is power.

Trucks, whether pickups, cabovers or some other type of vehicle, have to be up to the jobs assigned them. Just behind that is versatility. A truck for all seasons, one that works in snow and in sunshine, is vital. Fuel economy is important too, but not at the expense of power.

The variety of vehicles landscape companies use will continue to evolve as contractors’ businesses grow and their needs change. But so far, it looks as though pickup trucks, particularly in the medium-size range, are going to continue to be the backbone of the green industry for some time to come.