Regular Check-Ups Prevent Costly Fixes

Preventative Maintenance Programs Help Fleets Improve Reliability, Avoid Breakdowns

By Mindy Long, Contributing Writer

This story appears in the September/October 2009 issue of Equipment & Maintenance Update, a supplement to the Sept. 7 print edition of Transport Topics. View the story as it appeared online here.  
Ken Eggen at Tango Transport in Shreveport, La., knows that one size doesn’t fit all.
 
That is why he has separate preventative maintenance checklists for each of the three engine models his fleet runs. He goes a step further and sits down with his shop managers quarterly to pick through those checklists and make adjustments.
 
“Over a period of time, a truck changes,” said Eggen, Tango’s vice president of fleet maintenance. “You build a little bit of data and you learn that the Cummins engine needs different things checked at different times than a Caterpillar engine.”
 
Just like routine check ups at the doctor can prevent a visit to the emergency room, planned maintenance helps fleets avoid breakdowns and prolongs the life of a unit. During preventative maintenance, technicians aim to fix things before they’re broken. They check belts, filters and fluid levels, change oil and conduct predictable repairs, among other things, to keep small problems from becoming big ones, saving fleets thousands of dollars of future maintenance costs in the process.
 
“If you catch one belt when it is cracking and change it during the PM versus having it break while going down the road, you’ve already saved yourself several hundred dollars,” said Mike Hasinec, vice president of maintenance systems and support at Penske Truck Leasing in Reading, Pa. Penske’s 5,000 technicians provide PM for 13,000 customers on more than 200,000 pieces of equipment. Of those, 30% are third-party customers.
 
To make the most of scheduled maintenance, fleets are customizing their PM checklists and using chemical analysis to help identify components before they fail. They are also investing in technicians and their tools to ensure greater compliance. When implemented properly, PM improves vehicle performance and prevents more costly repairs.
 
Top-notch preventative maintenance programs factor in the types, ages and applications of trucks, consider regional differences and dig deep into owners’ manuals to tailor PM checklists. American Trucking Associations’ Technology & Maintenance Council provides standard PM checklists, but fleets often use industry yardsticks simply as a starting point.
 
“You can’t just have a standard PM sheet. It has to change with your equipment,” said Carl Tapp, vice president of maintenance at P.A.M. Transport in Tontitown, Ark.
 
Years ago, Tapp was overseeing maintenance on trucks that pulled up to a hopper so 40,000 pounds of product could be dumped into the trailer at once. Springs took on a greater importance, and Tapp made sure they were checked more often and more carefully than called for in the manual.
 
Some items on PM checklists, such as steering, brakes and tires, are universal. A close look at what a truck is carrying and where it is going helps shape the remaining items on the list.
 
For example, trucks that venture off road are harder on suspension systems, tires and air filters that get clogged with dust. Trucks with frequent stops and starts should have their brakes checked more frequently. Fleets in cold climates may need to check batteries, auxiliary power units and cold starting agents more often in the winter than their counterparts in the South.
 
Tapp has drivers who run from southern Texas to points in the north. The temperature extremes mean he has to maintain air conditioners year round, unlike northern fleets that would tune up units in May and June. Regional differences go beyond temperature.
 
“I live in the Rocky Mountain area. Here brakes wear out and are often overlooked, especially by those who
aren’t from an area with mountains,” said Chad Enyeart, diesel and advanced diesel department coordinator at WyoTech, a tech school in Laramie, Wyo.
 
When shaping a PM list, Tapp takes time to review owners’ manuals and has changed his PM procedures as a result. After reading deep into a manual on 2007 Cummins engines, Tapp learned about a filter that needs to be changed at 120,000 miles. He has technicians change it at 118,000 miles.
 
Charles Arsenault, president of Arsenault Associates, which sells Dossier fleet maintenance software, said new equipment comes with service recommendations, and manufacturers can help owners of used equipment develop a plan.
 
To help predict a truck’s needs, more fleets are adding engine oil analysis to their PM plans.
“The beauty of it is that they can tell what components are starting to fail just by the metals in the oil,” said John Dixon, a professor in the Truck Coach & Truck Trailer programs at Centennial College in Toronto and author of “Modern Diesel Technology: Preventive Maintenance and Inspection.”
 
The analysis reveals any wear metals, coolant and fuel in the oil. All of Sapp Bros. Travel Centers’ seven service centers conduct oil analysis on site, and it is included in two of their three service packages. It runs $15 if purchased a la carte.
 
“It can show you what you can’t see without doing an engine tear down,” said Chris Parker, shop coordinator for Omaha, Neb.-based Sapp Bros. Customers may access oil analyses online, read results in layman’s terms and chart trends.
 
Dixon also suggests fleets conduct coolant analysis that often can be done with a simple PH test strip. “Not testing the chemical composition of the coolant itself can have huge and very costly problems,” he said.
While the goal of any PM program is to prevent breakdowns between services, failures still occur. Smart fleets analyze those failures, identify the trends and alter checklists accordingly.
 
There are thousands of items on a truck that could be checked, but many in the industry suggest a checklist that can fit on the front and back of an 8.5 × 11 sheet of paper. That allows fleets to find the happy medium between checking the most important items and pulling a truck off the road for the least amount of time necessary.
 
“A nemesis for most fleet managers is getting the equipment stopped when it needs to have the PM done,” said Oren Summer, president of FleetNet America. “That is an age-old battle and it will always be.” FleetNet America’s TMcare program provides scheduled maintenance for about 4,000 vehicles.
 
Software provider TMW Systems is hoping to ease that battle with new technology that combines Global Positioning System data, dispatch information and PM needs to maximize drivers’ time. The software will be available late next year.
 
No matter what the plan is, getting it on paper and then utilizing an automated system to print out a PM diagnostic sheet specific to each piece of equipment helps fleets stay organized.
 
Dossier’s software provides daily reminders and updates on how many vehicles are due for maintenance.
Tapp relies on TMW Systems’ TMT Fleet Maintenance software, which stores PM checklists, tracks units, handles warranty information and manages inventory. When equipment comes into the shop, technicians print PM diagnostic sheets specific to each truck and go through it line by line.
 
To get the best results, Tapp requires much more than a yes or no answer.
 
“If you ask, ‘Did you check the tire?’ and the guy says, ‘Yes,’ you don’t know if he checked it or not. But, if you have tire pressure and tread depth, you can’t lie about that every time.” Techs enter the information in a centralized location.
 
Dave Walters, who is the technical sales manager for TMW Systems, told Equipment & Maintenance Update that fleets should enter information into the system quickly.
 
“Without timely updates, it is not uncommon for trucks to get another PM before it is necessary,” he said.
Dixon stressed that technicians, drivers and fleet managers need to be onboard with the PM programs maintenance managers create.
 
To bolster employee support and improve performance, Enyeart of WyoTech recommends fleets provide in-house, off-site or online training at least once a year.
 
Penske has designed an in-house PM curriculum, and technicians receive more than 40 hours of training annually.
 
As part of Tango Transport’s training, technicians review manuals that serve as companions to PM checklists. Each chapter in the manual directly relates to an item on the checklist.
 
“If a guy doesn’t know what it means to check the alternator for output, he can go to the manual and check that,” Eggen said.
 
In addition to routine training, the proper tools can increase a technician’s productivity. Penske relies on specific jacks, certain tools for fuel filters and the right oil change machines. Coupling the appropriate tools with the right processes can save significant amounts of time.
 
“We changed our PM process a number of years ago to literally change the number of times a technician walks around the vehicle,” Hasinec said. Those changes shaved six-tenths of an hour off PM inspections.
 
Pinning down exactly how much fleets spend on PM — and save as a result — can be tricky since different types of equipment have different maintenance parameters. However, Dixon estimates fleets spend between $1,800 and $2,300 on PM per truck annually.
 
Although fleets didn’t disclose exact numbers, Tango Transport’s Eggen said he aims to spend 70% of his maintenance budget on preventative measures, while Penske typically spends 15% to 17% of all maintenance dollars on PM.
 
No matter how much fleets spend, they all view the expense as an investment that reduces downtime and saves money.
 
“We believe preventative maintenance is our number one opportunity to manage our costs effectively,” Eggen said.
 
Dixon adds that there are intangible benefits, too. “We have so much signage on trucks these days, when people see breakdowns they notice your logo on the side of the road, they start thinking about their own trucking needs and who can meet those needs,” he said.