Bye-Bye Blacktop

| April 07, 2005

One of the most difficult aspects of off-road driving is not knowing what’s up ahead.

Do you carry a chainsaw with you for those common everyday emergencies? Or, if there’s a tough grade ahead, do you simply wait for a bulldozer to come tow you up it, or let it hook on behind to slow your descent? Not much is the same when a driver leaves the highway and heads into woods, mountains or deserts.

What do you think would happen if you suddenly took a remote interstate exit ramp, rolled along an access road for a while, then turned down a dirt, clay, caliche, gravel, mud or white rock road?

“Pavement is a luxury,” says Tim Dodge, a long-time off-road and oilfield driver who is now operations manager for Link Energy’s “Bayou Region,” from Houston east to the Mississippi. “And we not only run off-road, we run off-road at night.”

Link Energy is one of the largest lease crude oil purchasers in North America and a major transporter and marketer of crude oil in the United States and Canada, buying crude oil from lease owners and transporting from the wellhead to the company’s pipeline, and truck transportation systems is the company’s core business.

“I started driving for the company 18 years ago,” says Dodge, based in Jennings, La. “It’s definitely different than driving over the road.”

One of those differences is how the truck handles the weather. A hard rain can impair vision and slick up the roads even for the guys driving on pavement. But imagine what it can do to the guys driving on dirt.

Rain is the biggest problem for all off-roaders, day in and day out, Dodge says. Driving on mud, he says, is very similar to what the OTR driver experiences when he is driving on ice.

“A dirt road, in fact most unsealed roads, can change really quickly when it rains,” he says. “On the highway, rain is a problem, but it’s usually a predictable problem. Off-road the road can actually disappear from view, shoulders can wash away and you can suddenly find yourself stuck in the middle of a road.

“Sometimes we know where we’re going, and we know the road has a good base and can stand up to rain. But if it’s a new driver, or we aren’t sure that the road was built with a good base, we just have to shut down and wait out the rain.”

In winter, Dodge says, the company regularly has to pull out trucks that have become stuck because of sudden weather changes or unexpected road problems.

“In the Rockies, some of our trucks get to remote locations and meet a dozer,” he says. “He pulls them up the mountain and after the tanker is loaded, the dozer gets behind and hooks to the tanker and eases him back down the mountain.”

Off-road drivers regularly run into the unexpected. “Someone might build a fairly good road into a new drilling site, but then may not keep it up over the years,” Dodge says. “Some of these drilling sites are pretty remote, and over time the roads that were used when the wells were built have all but disappeared. But we have to get in there. So you can find yourself on a road overgrown with trees where your truck is pushing aside branches.”

A driver might also find himself at an unexpected junction miles off the highway. “If the cell phone doesn’t work or there’s no one he can reach that knows the location he’s heading for, the driver has to choose,” Dodge says. “Guess wrong, and he can go miles and find the road just ends. But the road is only eight feet wide, so then he has no choice but to back his tanker all the way to the fork.”

And the road might not be the only danger. “He can be in some really remote country and you never know who, or what, you’re going to run into out there by yourself,” Dodge says. “You’re a lot of miles from the nearest help if you run into people who shouldn’t be there. And if you get stuck it can be a long way to walk out.”

Dodge says a common problem for off-road drivers in wooded areas is not being able to see what’s around the corner, while drivers in flat country like West Texas have to fight wind and dust.

Link Energy drivers go to wells (running in empty at about 29,000 pounds), fill their tanks (now they weigh out at 80,000 pounds) and take the oil to a pipeline or refinery. A road that felt a little spongy going in empty is a different proposition coming back full, and drivers have to constantly monitor the road and make their own judgment about whether they can travel it safely.

“We use cell phones and computers,” says Dodge, “but our drivers are in charge out there, and they can make decisions.”

They use sealed roads to get to access roads, but at least half of their miles are off road, says Chuck Kittrell, fleet maintenance supervisor for operations for Link Energy.

While a highway van driver is worried about bridge clearances above his rig, the off-roader looks for more clearance beneath it, either to clear obstacles or to keep as much mud out of the wheels and undercarriage as possible.

“We’ll use a heavier, wavier lug,” says Kittrell, ” something that will take a bigger bite out of mud, gravel, snow, pretty much anything we run into. On the highways you see less lug and more ribs because you are trying to minimize resistance, but we have to maximize traction.”

Steer axle tires on these off-road tanker tractors will only get 30-45,000 miles, says Kittrell.

Oilfield tankers are also commonly loaded with interlocking rear ends, controlled by a switch on the dash, and two drive axles. “We’ll special order them,” says Kittrell. “If a tractor starts slipping or sliding, you need to have a setup where it can help itself get straightened out on whatever surface you are on.”

The oilfield tractors will use the same gearing ratios as their OTR cousins, or possible use a little less ratio, says Kittrell, because they don’t need a high top speed. And the trucks are almost all manual shifts too. “With automatic, you can get stuck more easily,” he says.

The Link Energy fleet uses heavy-duty frames, with two frame rails, and severe-duty cabs that are built with more supports and cross members. The fleet also specs compensating fifth wheels, allowing the trailer to twist on narrow, uneven, washed-out or high-bermed back roads.

Oilfield trucks have to be able to handle another variable – a large amount of idle time. “We go out empty to a well and pump into the tank. The pump is driven by the PTO, which has a hydraulic pump mounted on it,” Kittrell says. “With all that idling, the amount of soot and contaminants in the oil can go up quickly. We rely on oil analysis to make sure we change when we need to. We change more often that the OTR guys.”

The trucks also require more repairs than OTR trucks. “It’s just a rougher environment. It can be especially hard on suspensions, brakes, springs and kingpins,” Kittrell says.

Automatic slack adjusters come in for heavy punishment and need constant greasing to stay operational. And when drivers stop, especially when they are waiting for their tanker to fill, they regularly inspect their rigs. “They look for problems,” Dodge says. “For example, it’s not uncommon for tires to grab a rock and throw it up, and it cuts into an air line.”
And it’s not just the trucks that take a beating – the drivers face their share of road wear, too.

“There are places out there where just a 15-mile ride off a sealed road can pretty much beat a driver out of the seat,” Kittrell says. “Even at lower speeds, the driver can take a pounding. You’ll also see injuries among off-road drivers that happen more than OTR. Drivers are getting in and out of their cabs a lot more, and they’re stepping down onto ground that is unpredictable a lot of the time; it may give way under them or be slippery or uneven. We see a lot of twisted knees, ankles and backs.”

And with stops to check roads and the work of hooking up pumps and monitoring the pumping (per regulation) by clambering up on to the tank, Link Energy drivers can climb in and out of their cabs 15 or 20 times on a normal day.

Link Energy drivers not only have to roll along rough roads, empty then fully loaded, they have to climb up on that tank to do their job.

To counter some of the harshness of the environment, companies like Link Energy spec their cabs with equipment that is not only driver friendly, but also helps the driver be as productive as he can. Wider, plusher seats with armrests are common, as are heated mirrors and electric windows. “These aren’t luxuries,” Kittrell says. ” We put them there for the driver’s comfort, health and safety.”

For Ricky Hicks, a veteran log hauler from Carrollton, Ala., his necessary in-cab equipment includes a chain saw.

“No two roads in the woods are the same,” he says. “And no one road is guaranteed to be the same every time you run it. You must know the ground you’re on, where you can go and where you can’t. You can’t guess.”

Hicks occasionally has to back his Pete up some relatively long distances to a loading point when road builders did not have enough room to build a turnaround at the loading site.
“Sand is the worst to drive on,” he says. “If the drive wheels start slipping in sand, I just shut down. If you let it run, it will suddenly catch and lock it up. If you spin on blacktop, you can handle it, and if the tires grip you’re fine. Not in sand.”

Shifting is also a different proposition in forests than it is out on the highway. Hicks says he will stay in low first almost all the time he is in the woods. “If you try and change, you can very easily get stuck. The roads are so soft, especially sandy roads, that as soon as you start to shift you lose way and the truck will stop. Then you’re left trying to get into a higher gear with no momentum. On the highway you can keep rolling through the shift.”

Hicks has learned to “read” soft forest roads. “You have to study them as you use them,” he says. “If it rains really heavy, sand will wash out into the ditches, and you can still see the edges. But on a gravel road the water fills the ditches, then overflows, and unless you know where you are, you have no idea where the edge is and the ditch starts.”

Logging is very rough on the truck because you have to dodge stumps, trees, banks, fence posts and washouts. You get dust in summer and rain in winter. Mud lodges itself into tires and into the wheels themselves, sometimes so thick and heavy it can unbalance a wheel. And mud also covers low stumps left behind by loggers. “Hit one of those you don’t see, and you can lose a tire,” Hicks says.

In mud Hicks prefers to let a big log skidder, the heavy equipment used to lift and load the logs onto his trailer, come down the trail and get him, pull him in and then pull him out again to hard ground after he’s loaded.

Of course, loading is no simple matter either. “I supervise my own loading,” Hicks says. “I don’t want too much up front on the trailer; it makes it harder to pull. A lot of loads you’ll see all the butt ends of the logs up front, but I like to vary them to even out the weight; it makes for a better-handling load, I think. I don’t want too much weight on the passenger side either, because that is the low side of the road and it can be hard to handle if the trailer leans when the road dips away.”

“Sometimes driving off road in these woods is a complicated thing,” says Hicks, “and you need a lot of skill and experience. Other times it’s just a matter of getting out with the power saw and cutting your way through.”

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