Maintaining your equipment
Preventive maintenance can be expensive, but neglect is even more costly. Systematic PM saves you money in the long run by reducing the chances of equipment failure on the road and reducing time lost to repairs. It also helps reduce the severity of failures if they do occur. Some industry estimates say preventive maintenance can cut breakdown costs in half.
Nearly all owner-operators change their oil often enough. Also important is using quality oil and filters, as well as timely coolant servicing (including system flushing), because these practices will help keep an engine young longer. Using synthetic transmission and axle lubes and changing at required intervals also will help the life of those components. Using a self-adjusting clutch and driving with the proper technique will lower maintenance and repair costs by a significant percentage as well.
Don’t neglect other practices less familiar than changing oil. For example, adjusting the overheads after break-in and then at the required infrequent intervals saves fuel, reduces oil sooting and wear, and is likely to prolong the life of both valves and injectors.
Replacing injectors before combustion gets too dirty also will prolong life. Using quality fuel filters will, in turn, prolong injector life. Various long-life antifreeze options, such as extended life coolants and coolant filters that add supplemental coolant additives on a controlled basis, should be considered even though the initial cost may be higher.
A simple plan that doesn’t require technical skill and special equipment will include tires, engine oil, wipers, lights, filters, coolant and belts/hoses. A more technical PM will include brakes, drive axles, wheel seals, transmission, batteries, exhaust, driveline, suspension, steering, clutch and engine.
AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION
Become familiar with every inch of your truck and know which components can fail and under what circumstances. You don’t have to be a mechanic, but you should be familiar with a truck’s mechanical operation and how systems interact. Manufacturers offer schooling, normally available for free or at a nominal cost, and they typically recommend a standard PM schedule for every model. The Technology & Maintenance Council of the American Trucking Associations also provides PM guidelines for tractors and trailers. Follow these schedules diligently and you’ll head off a lot of trouble.
Daily inspections, required by the U.S. Department of Transportation, can help identify problems before they become emergency situations. A leaking differential, for example, should be repaired before the loss of lubricant causes component failure. Early warning signs found by engine or driveline component oil analysis can alert you to serious problems before costly troubles occur. If you have a truck with more than 300,000 miles, consider running a dynamometer test once a year.
Always look for common problems: seal leaks, loose bolts, chafed wires and hoses, improper adjustments and worn, broken or missing parts. If you cannot recognize these problems, have a qualified technician inspect your rig every six months. An alternative is having lubrication service done at a dealer or truck stop where experienced technicians will look for problems as they work.
BEGIN AT THE DEALER
The best time to start a regular PM program is when you’re buying your truck. If the dealer doesn’t volunteer detailed information on maintenance, ask for it. A good dealer is happy to give advice about oil changes, lube and filter replacement, and other maintenance. Take advantage of your leverage before you buy to get all the information you can. Manufacturers’ websites often offer detailed information, too.
Separate warranties often are written on the engine, transmission and other components because they are supplied by different entities. Find out the duration of the warranties and what it will take to maintain their validity. You might want to consider extended warranties, where available.
Dealer service manuals and driver manuals usually are provided by manufacturers. Locate them, along with a dealer directory, to ensure the best service for your truck.
KEEP GOOD RECORDS
Only with complete and accurate records can you track the work done on your truck and prove that required work has been done. Recording every shop visit on paper and creating a calendar of scheduled visits will pay off.
You can write everything in a notebook – date, location and work done – or log it in your computer, as long as you back up your records. You also should keep a schedule of future work to be done. This schedule will help you avoid overlooking something vital.
Keep receipts on repairs. Keep old parts in case of a warranty dispute. When you use the truck service report, note all warrantable purchases and repairs, and include a record of your out-of-pocket expenses, such as cab fares, meals and motel stays related to time lost due to repairs. Otherwise, you won’t be able to file warranty claims properly, and your profits will suffer.
Good maintenance records can help you determine average miles per gallon, expenses on a per-mile basis, and other key benchmarks that can be helpful in cutting costs. Accurate maintenance and repair records not only give you good data on your rig, they can help you spec your next truck.
TIME TO TRADE
Maintenance costs typically rise more dramatically in the third and fourth years, often dropping in the fifth year. However, the cumulative cost of maintenance – your average cost per year since you took ownership – and your cost per mile still increase each year. Actual costs will vary according to your operation because the stresses on the vehicle vary a great deal.
No matter how rigorous your PM efforts are, your rig eventually will wear out. The time will come when you’ll spend more on maintenance than you would for a new truck. How will you know when that time comes? Your maintenance records will tell you.
Create a maintenance budget and track your maintenance expenses. When they rise to a point that seems excessive, check with your business services provider, who can help you determine how much your fuel, oil and maintenance costs have increased due to the age of the truck. Your insurance agent can help determine how an equipment upgrade will affect your premiums.
Your financing source can discuss various options for the purchase of a new truck, and your accountant can explain potential depreciation benefits that would accompany a new purchase.
No magic formula tells you for certain when to upgrade. Industry experts say you should consider replacement when your fuel mileage drops 2 mpg or more in spite of conservation efforts, or if truck technology develops to the point that a new truck would get an additional 2 mpg. Another indication to trade is when your total maintenance costs reach 15 percent of your gross revenue.
As a rule of thumb, consider a new purchase when the principal, interest, maintenance and operating costs of an old vehicle are higher than the comparable costs attached to a new vehicle. The estimated resale value of the old vehicle, coupled with any manufacturer’s incentive on a new vehicle, may offset the higher cost of a new vehicle’s principal and interest. At this point a trade makes sense.
A good business services provider can help you figure when to sell by comparing the savings of buying versus not buying. ATBS, for example, helps determine whether a client should consider a trade-in by drafting two budgets to compare savings. Consult the calculator at www.attrucktax.com.
WAYS TO SAVE MONEY ON MAINTENANCE
When asked why they’ve done a poor job of preventive maintenance, too many owner-operators say they were trying to save money. But there are many ways to save money on maintenance without skimping and courting disaster. Here are some of them.
STAY ON SCHEDULE. Plan your maintenance schedule as thoroughly as you plan this week’s haul, and stick to it just as strictly. Using a calendar, a notebook, or a software program that will send you e-mail reminders, plot oil changes, major inspections and tune-ups. This especially is helpful for keeping track of stuff in the PM manuals that wouldn’t naturally occur to you, such as adjusting overheads. If your schedule says it’s time for a tune-up, don’t put it off until that mythical eighth day of the week, Oneday. Losing a day to a scheduled service is better than losing 10 days to an unscheduled breakdown.
SHOP AROUND. Only 15 percent of owner-operators cite price as their primary factor in deciding where to buy their oil, according to Overdrive research. They give more weight to convenience, but sometimes the cost of convenience can be expensive. For oil and other products and services, do some price comparisons – especially if you haven’t done so in years – and make sure you couldn’t get a much better deal just by varying your routine a few miles. Also look into the benefits of buying as part of a group, via a fleet, a membership organization or a truck stop or warehouse chain.
EXTEND INTERVALS. Whereas owner-operators traditionally changed their oil every 12,000 miles, today’s premium oils in today’s trucks can go twice that long between changes. To be safe, check your engine maker’s guidelines, increase your intervals gradually and use regular oil analysis to confirm that things are still OK. The trouble is worth it. Extending intervals only 10 percent will save you one oil change a year. Keep in mind, though, that fuel consumption, gross vehicle weight, idle time, dust levels and whether you drive city or highway all affect change intervals, as does the quality of the oil you’re using. In general, the cheaper the oil, the more changes and the more downtime. Try extended-life coolants, too.
PLAN AHEAD FOR EMERGENCIES. A front tire with a nail in it, multiple lights out because of a short circuit, or a suddenly failed brake lining might put even the most maintenance-savvy owner-operator out of commission – or out of service, if a DOT inspector finds the problem first. Many of the industry’s top truck and engine manufacturers have created 24/7 help centers accessible via a toll-free number. These centers quickly can put you in touch with the nearest service outlet. They often allow you – or require you – to establish a credit account in advance, which saves a lot of time in an emergency.
But they offer many other benefits, too. They often prequalify their service outlets and negotiate good prices; they can often hear a description of the problem and help you solve it yourself, or at least help the service outlet repair the problem. Many will keep you informed of the outlet’s progress so you will better be able to inform your customers about when a delayed load will be delivered. Some enable you to monitor progress on a website.
Independent breakdown services offer similar assistance, two of the largest being Fleetnet America (www.fleetnetamerica.com) and the Truck Repair Network (www.helprig.com).
Many owner-operators also invest in an annual copy of the National Truck & Trailer Services Breakdown Directory, which can be ordered through www.nttsbreakdown.com.