Spec’ing dry van trailers
Know what you really need
By Mike Beaudin
Fleet managers spec’ing dry van trailers should keep in mind the slogan from the old oil filter TV commercial: “You can pay me now or pay me later.”
A few years ago, when budget-stretched fleets were struggling to stay afloat after the recession, the spec’ing process often came down to simply buying the trailer with the lowest sticker price. But those decisions were often short-sighted. Capital savings were often chewed up in higher maintenance and operating costs as well as service inefficiencies. Today, fleet managers are spec’ing trailers with a different outlook.
“Coming out of the recession, people started looking at not just my cost today, but my cost over the life of the vehicle,” says Neil Christensen, director of sales for Wabash Canada. “An extra thousand dollars up front isn’t much when you start looking at maintenance costs over seven years. People are going to be able to run these trailers for 10 to 15 years. Fleet managers now understand the total cost of ownership – it’s not just the purchase price. They’re asking what were my maintenance cost and my operating cost? How much useful life did I get out of the unit, and what was its value at the end?”
These days, fleets are faced with a dizzying number of choices and options including lightweight materials, aerodynamic components and self-inflating tires. The spec’ing process is a balancing act with no one-size-fits-all solution. Every fleet has specific needs and there are pros and cons to every component. A lighter trailer may reduce fuel costs and increase payload, but may drive higher maintenance costs because the lighter materials won’t stand up to the rigours of loading and unloading.
OEM representatives say the key to getting the most ‘bang for your buck’ when spec’ing a new dry van trailer is to complete an exhaustive analysis of every aspect of your fleet’s operation. The analysis should extend beyond the trailer’s components, the goods hauled, and the type of highway miles logged; much of the research should focus on operating procedures like docking, loading and unloading, and even the type of forklift being used.
“They need to determine how abusive the application is,” says Christensen. “How will they be loading and unloading and how many cycles per week are they loading and unloading? I’ve been doing this for 26 years and I’m amazed at how many times I go into these private fleets and start asking questions and they answer, ‘We’ve always always done it that way.’ I ask why and they don’t really know.”
Drivers, mechanics, and forklift operators should be included in the analysis; they can offer valuable insights into common problems. The results will help a fleet spec a custom van tailored to their needs. The analysis may also reveal loading solutions to prevent damage rather than adding expensive trailer components.
“You need to train your forklift drivers not to drive through the side of the trailer,” says Mark Roush, vice president of engineering at Vanguard Trailer National Corporation. “If you take care of it, a good trailer will last you 10 years. The biggest mistake I see fleets make is spec’ing the wrong floor. The floor is rated for what they are loading, but it’s only tested for so many cycles. It could be tested for 3,000 or 4,000 cycles, but depending on how many times a forklift goes in and out a day, the cycles could be used up in a year and half. They should get a floor that is rated higher.”
Technology and changing environmental regulations are also driving trailer specs and prices. North-south fleets must be equipped with aerodynamic side skirts and low-rolling resistance tires to comply with the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Smartway regulations and the California Air Resources Board (CARB). “We’ve seen a 50% growth in fleets using aerodynamics on their trailers,” says Roush. “That trend is going to continue growing with more stringent rules for greenhouse gas emissions.” Although there are still some who doubt the effectiveness of side skirts to reduce fuel consumption, Roush says recent tests conducted by Vanguard at an approved Smartway testing track in Canada showed savings of 4 to 5%.
Other components to consider when spec’ing a trailer:
Disc or Drum Brakes
Although there is still much discussion whether to spec disc or drum brakes, Canadian fleets are opting mostly for disc brakes because they’re best suited to high-mileage fleets. However, drums on average are about $4,000 cheaper. “There is a return on investment for disc brakes if you’re doing north of 150,000 miles a year,” says Christensen. “Disc brakes have other advantages as well. There are no push rods or slack adjusters so the brakes can’t be out of adjustment.”
The push to reduce trailer weight to reduce fuel consumption and increase payload is constant, largely achieved by swapping in aluminum components wherever possible, says Roush. There are wide-based tires with aluminum wheels, aluminum brake drums, high-strength steel materials for couplers and approach lights, thinner panels, aluminum cross members, aluminum floors, aluminum landing gears, and even aluminum licence plate holders. But lighter is also more expensive and less durable in some applications. Christensen advises private fleets, which often aren’t chasing more pounds, to weigh their fuel savings against the higher purchase price to see if there is an ROI.
Tire inflation systems
Tire-inflation systems are also hotly debated components although the EPA has proposed making them mandatory starting in 2018. A tire-inflation system can automatically inflate or deflate tires to a preset pressure level. The benefits include fuel savings, increased tire life, and fewer roadside breakdowns. “I’m skeptical about tire-inflation systems,” says Christensen. “All of a sudden, you have another electronic device that has to be maintained. You spend $1,100 on the system. How much is that going to save you on tire wear over the life of the vehicle, minus the costs to maintain that system?” Tire tread designs should also be on the spec list. Shallow tread designs are great for high milers but deeper treads are better for local-delivery trailers that go through a lot of scrubbing and scraping.
Fleets are spec’g GPS tracking systems; galvanized components to reduce corrosion; 110-inch rollup doors to increase security; and automatic dump trailers and levelers to improve docking.
To summarize, before spec’ing new dry van trailers on the market, take a long hard look at your operation and its true needs in the area of dry van trailers. Then, consider the above advice from the experts.