Energy to burn

| December 12, 2008

Robert Jordan, Overdrive’s 2006 Trucker of the Year, takes pride in his idle-free 1997 Mack CH600 and his 1843 home in Juneau, Wis., built of locally made Watertown brick.

While other truckers chat on the CB, owner-operator Robert Jordan listens to
educational books on tape. While others are bellying up to the all-you-can-eat buffet, Jordan carefully watches his diet and rides his bike for an hour each day. Rather than
bemoan the price of fuel in recent years, Jordan took matters into his own hands, equipping his rig with a reefer-driven climate-control system and enough insulation to ward off the coldest Wisconsin winters.

For Jordan, doing things his own way has paid off. His inventions have won awards, his safe driving has earned annual honors, and his income has enabled his family to live in a historic home and his children to attend private schools. He’s taken “Lucky” as his handle, but Jordan’s success is well earned – including being named Overdrive’s 2006 Trucker of the Year.

Now leased to Caine Transfer of Lowell, Wis., Jordan launched his trucking career in 1986 when he took a part-time job delivering newspapers in a straight truck to supplement his restaurant manager’s income. When a job opened up a year later running team to Florida in a tractor-trailer, Jordan jumped at the chance, even though he’d never driven a big rig before.

“I loved it,” he says. “It was a job where I controlled my own future. I didn’t have to worry about employees coming to work. I was judged on what I did, not on what other people did.”

Jordan also found he enjoyed the time in the truck by himself, especially the chance to listen to books on tape. “It was like going to school all over again,” he says. “Many times I was disappointed when I reached my destination because I hadn’t finished my book yet.”

Jordan also had the chance to discover an aptitude for all things mechanical and electrical. “While I drive, my mind is always going,” he says. He started concentrating on engine idling, a practice he considers highly wasteful. He did research, asking other truckers why they idled. Most told him shutting off the truck and restarting it strained the engine and battery. Unconvinced, Jordan started shutting off his truck, with no apparent ill effects. “I asked myself: ‘Could it be that they’ve all got it wrong?’”

Jordan began focusing on the valid reason for idling: comfort. As his home base is in Juneau, Wis., heat was his first priority. “I knew the engine was warm because I could still see the warmth coming off it even after it had been shut off,” he says. This led him to capture that heat by running a pump from the engine to the cab and threading a thermostat into the engine’s manifold. He has applied for a patent for this system.

With a dependable source of heat, Jordan turned his attention to cooling. One summer day as he was pulling his reefer, he hit on the idea of harnessing the reefer’s energy to charge a battery and using an inverter to turn that power into electricity for air conditioning or heat. “Works real slick,” he says of his ReeferLink system, which will be awarded a patent this year. He’s also developed a small diesel generator for use by truckers who don’t pull reefers.

Jordan’s focus on climate control stems from a pet peeve: lack of insulation on trucks. He says the energy needed to keep an uninsulated truck warm can cost more than heating an entire house. Jordan has added a 2-inch layer of polystyrene foam to insulate the cab and bunk on his 1997 Mack CH 600. Between the insulation and Jordan’s inventions, his truck is virtually idle-free.

Although Jordan’s inventions have won three gold medals at the Minnesota Inventor Congress, they haven’t earned him much money – yet. But they have saved him plenty. He estimates not idling saves him 7/10ths of a gallon of fuel per mile, which adds up to about $6,000 per year. When Jordan became an owner-operator in 1993, only 20 percent of his revenue went toward fuel. Today, that figure would be doubled if not for a fuel surcharge he receives from Caine Transfer. For every nickel that diesel rises over $1.30, he gets 1 cent per mile. That surcharge, he says, helps him get to his break-even point, which is when fuel eats up only 28 percent of his revenue.

Maintaining his speed at 60 mph helps Jordan average 6.7 miles per gallon. “I actually did it because I wanted to be able to relax when I drove,” he says. “I found books on tape much more enjoyable when I didn’t have to worry about changing lanes. It’s the best thing for my pocketbook and my mental stability.”

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