5 more things members of the general public don’t know about truckers

| October 29, 2013

Find the previous entry in this occasional series here.

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The cost of purchasing, licensing and maintaining a commercial vehicle is a considerable investment, one that you hope can be offset in a positive manner by the revenue said vehicle generates. There’s a misconception in the general public that truck drivers make tons of money. It’s easy to see the advertisements for pay of $1.49 a mile and assume if someone is driving 12,000 miles a month, they’re cleaning up. We all know there’s a decent living to be made, but mileage at those rates isn’t always there and the costs of operating out here are astronomical. Here are five more things to share with your non-trucking friends that may surprise them and help them understand that, while a lot of money can be generated by a truck, the cost of keeping one on the road demands it.

The truck
The largest and most obvious cost — beyond fuel — is the truck itself. A quick browse through the papers has rigs advertised from $7,000 to $218,000. A decent, mid-range, used truck with a sleeper and mileage under 500K should run $50K-$80K, which gives you a monthly payment approximately the same as the guy driving a new Cadillac like an idiot in the lane beside you. That’s all fine and well if you have a down payment and credit, but there’s a growing number of people who don’t have the credit to finance a truck, who become involved in lease-purchase plans offered through their company.

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(This article isn’t about lease-purchase plans, and the following example is used because it’s the only one I’ve ever seen actual paper documents on.)

A lease-purchase through one of the larger fleets for a two-year-old, mid-range truck with 180,000 miles on it runs the operator $525.00 a week. There’s usually an additional $1,500 for down payment, rolled in with taxes, tags and fees for Qualcomm and EZ Pass, taken out in weekly increments of around $150. That’s $675 (or 453 miles at 1.49/mile) a week, before fuel or maintenance, to operate.

Absolutely doable, but here’s the kicker.

You’re leased to the company and still dependent upon them to get you the miles you need to make these payments. In some arrangements, fleets might have little incentive to make sure you succeed in a lease, because walk-aways can be re-leased and another $1,500 down payment collected, on the same truck.

A lot of leases will include a balloon payment at the end in the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars, so even if you make every payment, you still have to come up with a chunk of money at the end of the lease. Also, if you’re leasing because you don’t have good credit, the lease may not be improving your credit score, as many won’t be reported to the credit agencies.

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Maintenance
Preventive maintenance is the most cost-effective form of upkeep. Keeping the engine oil clean and full is the most basic preventive measure you can take with any motor, diesel or otherwise. There are different schools of thought on commercial engine oil-change practices and policies, and it really depends on the individual owner or fleet as to how often it’s done. Some change the oil based on number of engine hours and some based on mileage. Either way, over the road drivers usually do some sort of preventive maintenance about every four to six weeks. The cost of an oil change for a commercial vehicle ranges from $239 to $289 at the major truck stop chains. The majority of the commercial diesel motors on the road today hold between 7 to 11 gallons (28-44 quarts) of engine oil, and have up to three filters.

Tires
There are ten tires on a tractor. Eight on the back called “drive tires” and two on the front called “steer tires.” A complete set of tier one, name brand drive tires can cost anywhere from $4,500 to $8,000. Putting top-of-the-line, virgin rubber on the road can cost more than $10,000. Again, there are different schools of thought on tires, some say running recaps is more cost effective, but even an entire set of recaps can cost $5,000. (A recap is exactly what it sounds like, an old tire casing that has been recapped with new tread rubber.)

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And whether or not you’re running recaps, tires wear according to what they’re hauling and where they’re hauling it. Unlike the FMCSA, tire companies have realized they can’t make all-encompassing statements about truckers, so with some exceptions they’ve generally avoided all-encompassing warranties. 

Fuel
Petroleum fuel starts off as crude oil that’s naturally found in the Earth. When crude oil is processed at refineries, it can be separated into several different kinds of fuels, including gasoline, jet fuel, kerosene and, of course, diesel. Diesel fuel is heavier and oilier than gasoline. It evaporates much more slowly — its boiling point is actually higher than the boiling point of water. It takes less refining to create diesel fuel, which is why it used to be cheaper than gasoline.

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Since 2004, however, demand for diesel has risen and the price has been driven higher than gasoline. As of the writing of this article, diesel is advertised at anywhere from $3.68/gal to $4.26/gal. Price fluctuates with geographic location, but doesn’t seem to be lower in places closer to refineries. Some tractors can take on up to two hundred gallons of fuel at a time. At $4.26 a gallon, that’s $826 to fill the tanks, and at an average of 7 miles to the gallon, it would mean a cost of 61 cents per mile for fuel alone. How great is $1.49/mile sounding now? 

Wendy Parker writes the George & Wendy Show blog, appearing several times a week on OverdriveOnline.com, dispatched from her ridealong position in the truck with her owner-operator husband, George.

Wendy Parker writes the George & Wendy Show blog, appearing several times a week on OverdriveOnline.com, dispatched from her ridealong position in the truck with her owner-operator husband, George.

Food 
Truck stop food has two things in common: it’s usually not good for you and it’s expensive. On the average, meal deals from the top three national fast food chains represented at truck stops are priced 15 percent higher than the same stores when they sit independently. At the Love’s in Batesville, Miss., a McDonald’s No. 4 value meal starts at $5.20 – which is a medium price, because small isn’t an option. You have to choose medium or large. At the McDonald’s three miles up the street, still in Batesville but free-standing and bereft of truck parking, a No. 4 starts at $4.65, and that’s a small, because small is an option here.

While it’s easy to automatically hate McDonald’s for charging more because they can, a quick phone call to both locations revealed a possible explanation. It could well down to whom the franchise is leasing from, and what they’re being charged to operate in that location. Apparently, the property is at a premium at Love’s, and to compensate for that, McDonald’s has to charge more to make up the difference. When I called Love’s to ask them why storefront lease prices were so high in Batesville, I was referred to corporate, where all dreams go to die, and was never able to actually pin a solid answer down. I did get someone to finally agree it probably had to do with the amount of foot traffic generated by the drivers who had no choice but to eat where they fuel.

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