Should you do it yourself?

Max Kvidera | July 01, 2010

Performing basic maintenance on your truck might help you catch a problem before it leads to a costly breakdown


Independent operator Earl Evans takes truck maintenance and repairs seriously to keep his 2005 Kenworth W900L as close to condition: new as he can. He uses only new parts, does most of his own maintenance and greases with abandon.

“I like to grease every 2,500 miles,” he says. “Since 1974, I’ve never had to replace a part on a truck that has a grease fitting. It’s a simple, fundamental thing to grease, do fluid changes and keep an eye on your truck.”

Most owner-operators don’t handle as much of their own maintenance as Evans does. Yet staying on top of maintenance issues and deciding what tasks you can do for yourself will save you time and money and help prevent those unexpected breakdowns that can undermine your business financially.

Jim Hess, president of Midway Truck Service of Bethel, Pa., advises tackling maintenance with a checklist. He says a basic list could include air, fuel and oil filters, tires, brakes, belts, U joints, cooling system, lights and battery. An overlooked detail might include torquing the oil pan plug.

“An owner-operator could responsibly do a lot of that stuff himself and save money,” Hess says. “Most owner-operators should learn to do things such as replace lights and grease a chassis.”

Bill McClusky, maintenance management consultant at ATBS, says an owner-operator’s maintenance options are limited by today’s more complicated trucks, which contain numerous electronic control systems that, he adds, even some dealerships struggle to keep up with.

John E. Dolce, a fleet maintenance expert affiliated with Wendel Duchscherer, says two key factors in determining who does the maintenance are your tools and the space you have. The money you save from doing your own oil change or changing filters, for example, could cover the cost of a basic set of tools.

An owner-operator should focus on maintenance basics like checking tire pressure, inspecting brakes and performing pre-trip inspections, “ says McClusky. “A lot of [what an owner-operator can do] comes down to things that are required on DOT inspections.”

Many independents regularly change their oil, but even that requires planning and not a small amount of supplies, Dolce notes. Changing 40 quarts of oil requires a large container to catch the used oil. After that you need to find a shop or recycling center that will dispose of the oil.

Disposal is also a problem when changing coolant, McClusky says. When adding coolant, you’ve got to make sure you’re filling the reservoir with the same type of coolant. He recommends switching to extended life coolant.

Lubricating your chassis is easily done, although you’ll need a grease gun (about $15), a grease cartridge (about $5) and coveralls, Dolce says.

One of those jobs you might handle or turn over to a shop is changing transmission fluid. Dolce says you’ll need a pump to get the fluid back in through the side case of the transmission. Unless you’re willing to carry the pump in your truck, you’re better off taking it to a shop.

Owner-operators will save money changing lightbulbs and windshield wipers and fluid. On newer trucks that have LED lights, you’ll need a tool to change the light, Dolce says. To save more money, carry a headlight suited for your truck, bulbs and red and amber lenses.

If you’re changing out halogen lights, be careful not to touch the glass or the light won’t work, McClusky says. “I recommend drivers carry a can of electric contact cleaner and a tube of dielectric grease,” he says.

Another device to have to save money when changing lights is a wire splice kit. Says McClusky, “I saw where a place charged a driver $80 to change one light.”


Tools of the trade

To perform maintenance on the road, you’ll need to carry some basic tools.

Bill McClusky of ATBS recommends investing in a mechanic’s kit of pliers, screwdrivers, wrenches, electrical tape, dielectric grease, electrical contact cleaner, a tire depth tool and a tire pressure gauge. Also carry oil and fuel filters, a gel chemical for getting a frozen fuel line flowing, windshield wiper blades and arms, glad hand seals and gallon containers of diesel (store it outside the cab), oil and coolant.

To change oil and filters, you’ll use a spanner-type wrench to turn and loosen the filters, maintenance consultant John E. Dolce advises. If you encounter nuts, you’ll need a 0.5-inch drive socket and probably a long extension bar for leverage. Those same tools will help if you decide to change fan belts.

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