If I had a hammer…

| December 12, 2008

Having the right tools on the road and a little mechanical know-how can add up to big savings.

Good maintenance skills can save money on repairs and service calls when you’re on the road, not to mention what you save by reducing down time. Of course, mechanical knowledge doesn’t go far without the tools to put it into practice.”Some guys can pull a rear end out of a truck or change a clutch, but they need more tools than you can shake a stick at,” says owner-operator James McClean of Acworth, Ga.

Owner-operator Richard Adams of Burgaw, N.C., falls in that category. “I carry as many tools as any mechanic has,” he says.

Adams and McClean have more than 50 years of combined experience in trucking. Both own Peterbilt 379s and do their own repairs whenever possible. The more work you can do yourself, the more money you save on the road. In fact, one-truck owner-operators surveyed by Overdrive estimate they save more then $4,000 annually by performing their own repairs and other maintenance.

“Some truck stops charge you double what you’d pay for the labor and parts in your local truck repair shop,” McClean says. “Even for the most basic repairs, they’re going to take four hours.”

Most owner-operators make at least some of their own repairs as a routine part of the job.

“Successful owner-operators know how to control costs,” says owner-operator Joe Rajkovacz of Edgar, Wis. “You’re going to break down sometime, and the best way to control those costs is to make your own repairs.”

The more tools you have at hand, the greater the savings. Here are 10 of the most basic to have on the road.

McClean recommends a complete SET OF SOCKETS AND BOX/OPEN-END (OR COMBINATION) HAND WRENCHES. The three most widely used combination wrenches are 7/16-, 9/16- and 11/16-inch. You can use these tools to tighten or loosen slack adjusters that, left unrepaired, could cause maladjusted brakes and an out-of-service violation, as well as create a safety hazard.

“If your brakes cam over, and you don’t have a wrench to back them off, then you’re stuck on the side of the road,” Rajkovacz says.

A faulty air compressor governor also can stop a truck, but a $20 replacement part and one wrench can save hundreds of dollars in road service and repair fees. It’s not unusual to need both metric and American wrenches for the same truck. A quality set of eight combination wrenches costs about $35.

Two standard ADJUSTABLE CRESCENT WRENCHES – one 6-inch and one 10 or 12 inches – also are must-haves. These tools will have many uses, so be sure they are high quality. A rig’s nuts and bolts, especially on some trailers, can go untouched for years and may be frozen tight. A low-quality wrench won’t hold the size at which it’s set and will quickly smooth the edges of a nut or bolt.

If you need to loosen a nut or bolt that’s been smoothed round, VISE GRIPS will come in handy. Vise grips have countless uses, such as temporarily clamping a CB antenna onto a rear-view mirror bracket or holding a part in place while it’s bolted down. Get 6- and 8-inch grips.

A HACKSAW with spare blades is also widely useful for both routine and improvised repairs. It’s designed for metal, but as a cutting tool it will work on anything: fiberglass, wood and even rubber. With its hard-steel blade and small teeth, a properly used hacksaw will leave a clean, precise edge. Carry a hacksaw, some 1/4-inch tubing and spare hose clamps to make temporary hose repairs that will get you to the nearest repair shop.

A FUEL-FILTER WRENCH is another essential. “You can go into a truck stop and spend $75 or $100 for a fuel filter change,” Rajkovacz says. With fuel-filter wrench in hand, that cost is reduced to the price of the filters and an hour of your time. Be sure to get the exact wrench that fits your truck’s filter.

Every toolbox needs a HAMMER. It has dozens of uses on a big truck: knocking frozen brake shoes loose, thumping tires, loosening stuck slider pins on trailer tandems. A machinist’s or ball-peen hammer is ideal because it’s designed to hit hard, metal surfaces, but a carpenter’s hammer with a good, sturdy handle is just as handy. The claw can be used to remove nails from trailer floors.

A 30-inch, heavy-duty CROWBAR OR PRY BAR will solve many problems. Use it to pull balky fifth wheel and tandem slider releases, to knock frozen brake shoes free with a good poke or, as a lever, to bend metal. Besides its intended purpose, there’s something reassuring about carrying a crowbar during a drop-and-hook on a dark, deserted lot.

Without SCREWDRIVERS, it’s not a toolbox. Be sure to have a flathead, a Phillips and a star-tip on hand. Size matters: A hard-to-reach screw would require a long-shank screwdriver, while a jeweler’s kit is best for tiny screws on eyeglass frames and small electronic equipment. Besides turning screws, screwdrivers get used to chisel, pry, chip, scrape and puncture, so the extra cost of a quality brand is worth it. Screwdrivers with large grips coated in soft rubber are easier to use.

DUCT TAPE has countless uses. For example, “If some guy puts a forklift arm through your trailer, after you’re done cursing him you still have to patch the hole,” Rajkovacz says. “Duct tape is good on a temporary basis.” Use it with care, as it leaves a sticky residue and might take paint with it when removed. Electrical tape is not as adhesively strong, but it’s easier to use and remove. A knife makes taping easier and neater.

FLASHLIGHTS are multi-purpose tools. A large light that will stand hands-free is vital for night repairs. A small pocket flashlight is great for peering into small areas and for finding items in a dark cab. Overhead lights ruin night vision and usually are too dim, creating shadows that make finding dropped items more difficult. Flashlights with bright beams and fresh batteries are potential lifesavers at nighttime accident scenes.


TEN MORE TOOLS FOR THE ROAD
Here are 10 additional tools that are easy to use and can save you money:
TOWING CHAINS. A towing company might charge $500 to pull a truck free of snow, sand or mud – after taking hours to arrive. You might avoid that with 20 feet of 20,000-pound towing chain, another helpful trucker and a few minutes’ work.

SPRAY LUBRICANT. WD-40 or similar products can loosen rusted nuts and bolts, lubricate door and trailer hinges and keep wire connections corrosion-free. Keep a piece of duct tape on the can so you don’t lose the plastic straw used for pinpoint application.

WIRE AND METAL SNIPS. Handy for snipping loose ends off plastic ties and hose clamps.

ELECTRICAL CURRENT TESTER. Tells you whether an outage problem is a bad bulb, a bad wire, a bad main connection or a blown fuse. It costs only $10 or $15.

C-CLAMPS. Invaluable for holding things in place until permanent repairs can be made, and also for bending small pieces of heavy-gauge metal to just the right angle.

AIR-PRESSURE GAUGE. Use a reliable gauge to check tire pressure daily. Most irregular tire wear is caused by improper inflation.

AWL. Makes a handy hole puncher and is useful for concentrating big-muscle pressure on tiny areas.

PLIERS. Good for a variety of repairs, from replacing snaps in sleeper curtains to crimping wire connectors.

TORQUE WRENCH. Over- or under-tightening engine nuts and bolts can cause more damage than the original problem. You’ll pay $40 at the very low end, or $100 and up for high quality.

JUMPER CABLES are seldom used but occasionally crucial. Get a heavy-duty set at least 20 feet long. Remember: Black to negative terminals, red to positive, and don’t let two different-colored clamps touch during use.

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