Sharpening the tool: Work truck specifications
Quality truck fleet vehicles that are efficient, cost-effective and perfect for the job are available for the asking. What surprises Robert Johnson, director of fleet operations for the National Truck Equipment Association, is how many fleet managers don’t know how to ask for the right thing.
“Most people have it backwards. They decide what they want, then they figure out how they can get it to do the job they have. What you need to do is first define the job requirements and then design the work equipment that will get it done.”
In Johnson’s experience, a boss will sometimes decide that, say, a 350 is the right truck for a job and send an employee to purchase one. Or someone will figure that since the department has been using 250s for years that another 250 is what’s needed — even though the 250s’ capacity and, likely, the job they’re doing, have both changed over the years. Another common pitfall common is sizing up what the competition is using and figuring the same vehicle will work for them without evaluating the differences in usage, terrain and other factors.
Piggyback orders can also save money when it comes to vehicle and equipment orders, and eliminate the hassle of developing one’s own specifications. But piggybacking can actually wind up costing money, said Johnson. A municipality might use the vehicle a little differently than the state bidder or, for example, its loader bucket might only reach 8 feet high — the same height as the sideboards in some work trucks.
Given that municipal funds for vehicle maintenance and new purchases have been performing disappearing acts since 2008, Johnson suggests that fleet managers do the up-front legwork to avoid operating underequipped later and to maximize the potential of new technology.
Alternately, you could pay $40,000 to $50,000 for a piece of equipment and spend the next 10 years struggling with the vehicle’s productivity. That happens in cities of all sizes, Johnson said.
Chicago, Ill., utilizes four researchers to determine what the best general specifications are for fire, light duty, green and work trucks and airport as well as snow removal trucks and to bid them out on a rotating schedule. Smaller municipalities may not have the staff to dedicate to such a task, however. Matthew Stewart, senior automotive equipment analyst for the city of Chicago, encourages those cities to use the trails blazed by others.
“There are a couple of places they can go. They can go to the vendors and get sample specs, although that’s not a great idea in my opinion. But they do have engineers who know the truck inside and out.
“They can try out a demo truck, or talk to someone who manages a larger fleet,” he added. “We get calls like that all the time, from people wanting to know what we’ve found that works. And if we don’t know, we ask. For instance, we don’t really know what to look for in a larger utility truck so we’ve been talking to people about that.”
Other sources of guidance include the National Automotive Parts Association, the NTEA and the U.S. Department of Energy Clean Cities partnership with local communities, detailed at www1.eere.energy.gov/cleancities/. All three offer direction and forums where fleet managers can connect.
Fleet Manager and Maintenance Specialist Gary Smith of Charleston, W.Va., first found a use for truck specifications shortly after taking over as the city’s fleet manager in 1975. At the time, the city was purchasing dump trucks from a local vendor who equipped them with steel beds.
“We use our dump trucks to carry road salt for snow removal and the salt was rusting the beds very quickly,” he remembers. The city remedied the situation by sandblasting and painting the beds to the tune of $36,000 annually, until Smith developed specifications for dump trucks with stainless steel beds and eliminated the need for sandblasting and painting, simultaneously saving the city a considerable annual expense.
Buying a truck with an engine too small to pull normal load weights is also a common mistake that leads quickly to high engine maintenance costs and early engine replacement. In general, developing good specifications not only reduces maintenance costs but also prolongs the life of the truck.
However, even Stewart has had to roll with the fact that the city’s vehicles aren’t always perfectly suited for a job.
“Our specs are written after consulting with the client departments and our regular personnel, of course, but because other departments may have occasional needs for trucks used heavily by one department, we have not had the ability to customize that build for them …. for example, somebody will get stuck with a 40-foot boom when a 35-foot would have worked just fine, or an insulated cab when a non-insulated would have been fine for what they’re doing,” he said.
The Windy City is working even more flexibility into its work truck specifications by
instituting a requirement that more options be available in its work truck contracts. The caveat? Doing so can reduce the pool of bidders.
A trustworthy builder or supplier can help a fleet manager write truck specs, or the NTEA offers on-site spec writing courses for a fee. At the organization’s work truck show in Indianapolis in March, Stewart took managers through a checklist for writing specifications for bodies and mounted equipment that includes:
- Start with the truck’s drivers and mechanics – Johnson recommends starting with equipment operators to find out what they like about their current truck as well as what capabilities would help them do their jobs better. Your fleet’s mechanics, on the other hand, can tell you what issues should be addressed in future specs in order to reduce the amount of vehicle downtime.
- Functional requirements and design limiters – Johnson warns specification writers not to forget the truck’s functional requirements and design limiters like maximum weight, size, height and length. For example, are the trucks parked in a parking garage? If so, maximum height, width and floor weight if you’re parked on an upper floor, need to be factored in.Contractual issues also might give a municipal spec writer reason to look lighter in a work truck. Union drivers are paid by the weight of the truck since they’re required to obtain a CDL license and additional insurance for the heavier ones. The drivers of heavy trucks that are involved in accidents also get more points tacked on to their record than does the driver of a light truck. Or, an important consideration might simply be that the truck needs to cross a bridge that has a weight limit.
- With a rough layout of weight and weight distribution you can design the appropriate chassis
- Decide if you’re purchasing the vehicle turnkey (shop and deliver) or multibid– Smith recommends that municipalities resort to writing their own specifications particularly if the vehicles being bid out will be used for multiple purposes like snow and leaf removal since they require specialized equipment. In those cases, developing specifications is the only way to go, he said. The process can also be a means of greening a fleet, like Chicago’s doing by instituting a requirement that more options, including hybrid motors, be available in its work truck contracts.The ability to develop work truck specifications is a skill that takes time to develop, however. Mistakes are inevitable. It wasn’t until after Smith ordered his first dump trucks with the stainless steel beds that he noticed the vehicles’ fuel tanks were also rusting out quickly. He changed the spec to include stainless steel fuel tanks.“I have made mistakes… but every fleet manager has. The first specifications I developed weren’t as good as the last ones. A good fleet manager will constantly update specifications,” he said.
BY JODI MAGALLANES
I have no idea what to look for in a larger utility truck either. So I’ll keep looking. But I think I need it to be able to hual a lot of weight.