Extended Stay

| July 01, 2009

For the first time in 35 years, Earl Evans won’t be buying a new truck when the warranties expire on his current rig. The owner-operator from Canfield, Ohio, will keep his 2005 Kenworth W900L at least two more years.

Mercer owner-operator Leonard “Lenny” Bower is in a similar position. After 28 years and seven new trucks in total, he’s staying with his ’03 Western Star LowMax, which has passed 590,000 miles.

Independent operators of all stripes appear to be holding on to their vehicles longer as weak freight volume and rates, slumping used truck prices and uncertainty about the cost and performance of coming 2010 engine technology make it difficult to plan too far ahead and wise to think twice about trading.

If you need to stick with your truck longer, cast a more careful eye on maintenance and driving practices that will pay off in more miles and lower operating costs. Adopt the mindset that says spending on preventive maintenance is wiser than getting stuck on the side of the road with an expensive repair that could have been avoided.

“I really don’t think it’s profitable to purchase new because the value of used trucks has dropped too much and hasn’t kept up with the escalating cost of the new ones,” says Bower, of Lewisberry, Pa. “My strategy is to keep this truck for at least another four years.”
That is a startling admission from an operator who once replaced a Western Star after only two years, when it hit 500,000 miles while team-driving with his wife.

Evans, who has his own authority but is leased to Landstar Ranger, is similarly dismayed: He was able to sell his 2000 Kenworth W900L for $70,000 four years ago. Now he says he would be lucky to get $50,000 for his meticulously maintained ’05 – if he could find a buyer. Used truck prices have fallen 25 percent to 30 percent in the past year, according to Terry Williams, managing editor of The Truck Blue Book.

“Owner-operator traffic is up maybe 30 percent over a year ago,” says Todd Claus, service adviser at Inland Kenworth in Phoenix. “We’re seeing more owners come through with a transmission leak or other problems and decide to take it down for a week at a qualified repair facility and get everything fixed so they know they’re good to go for the next six months.”

Claus says many owner-operators are focusing on the lifespan of components and the timing of fluid exchanges and coolant flushes. “We’re seeing these guys being a little more proactive about keeping their trucks on the road.”

In the past, if you owned a truck with the odometer running 700,000 to 900,000 miles and were looking at an expensive repair, you might have considered a new truck. It’s different now. “We’ve seen a couple of jobs recently where it’s been $30,000 for engine work and driveline work, so the owners can go out again,” Claus says.

Truck manufacturers and engine makers have made it easier to keep vehicles by building higher quality products. It’s not uncommon for a truck to pass the million-mile threshold without undergoing major service work. “I had a customer come in with a 2000 or 2001 Pete 379 with 937,000 miles on it, and he had never been inside the engine or replaced the clutch,” Claus recalls. “It had a damaged cylinder head, so we did a completed overhaul, put in a new clutch and he was out the door.”

An owner-operator for only three and a half years, Southwestern produce hauler Jorge Heredia asks for advice from Claus and other, more experienced truckers on maintenance. He recently had his first oil analysis done and has reduced his oil intervals to 30,000 miles from 50,000.

Jim Hess, president of Midway Truck Service of Bethel, Pa., says it’s important to tackle maintenance with a checklist. He says such a list could include air, fuel and oil filters, tires, brakes, belts, U joints, cooling system, lights and battery, just for starters. A list might include such details as torquing the oil pan plug.

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