Super sleepers

| December 12, 2008

The Ringelstetters’ kitchenette includes a large refrigerator/freezer, regular and convection microwaves, a two-burner electric stove, a double integrated sink
and a widescreen television.

Larry and Pat McCann of Graff, Mo., rely on their 110-inch sleeper as they haul supplies for the U.S. Army.

Stopping anywhere to eat or sleep away from the truck can be difficult because they must maintain a constant watch on their load.

The McCanns cook full meals in their kitchenette. A combination shower/porta-potty takes care of hygiene. Final touches in the $40,000 sleeper include a generator, a flat-screen TV and a laptop with wireless Internet capability.

“People think this is a luxury for a truck, but it is a necessity for us,” Pat McMann says, showing off the Indiana Custom Trucks-built sleeper on the back of a 1999 Peterbilt, leased to Landstar.

The McCanns are not alone in their dependence on a tricked-out sleeper. More buyers are getting features that used to be rare or, not too many years ago, unavailable in a sleeper.

In addition to the basics of bed, cabinets, closet and table, sleepers have many add-ons, especially in team operations. A flat-screen TV with satellite hookup, DVD player and surround sound is common. It’s not unusual to find sleepers with showers, toilets, kitchenettes and microwaves. In larger sleepers, you might even find single-unit washer-dryers, says Elwin Eash, one of ICT’s founders. In light of growing anti-idling laws and rising fuel costs, generators and auxiliary heaters have become more cost-efficient; gen-sets are especially useful for the sleeper packed with electric appliances.

Eash says sleepers are not built to be exotic. “Some of the options might seem that way, but they really do save the trucker money if used properly,” he says.

Given the 14-hour work provision of the current hours-of-service, downtime is more costly than ever. So when a driver visits a truck stop to shower, eat and do his laundry, he’s not only spending money, he’s losing time on the road and efficiency. Having a sleeper with a full range of appliances, especially in team situations, can reduce truck stop time.

Until sleepers came on the market in the 1970s, truckers had to squeeze into a small compartment just behind their seat to snooze. The first sleepers were smaller than 60 inches. Their popularity grew in the 1980s as the array of options increased – first a wider bed, then a small refrigerator, then kitchen and bathroom accessories.

“In the early 1980s, the first showers appeared. We all giggled about that,” says Rod Lantz of sleeper maker American Reliance Industries Co. “We thought, ‘What would you do with a shower in a truck?’ Nowadays you would have to be nuts if you did not put a shower in your sleeper.”

ICT’s sleepers range from 96 inches to roughly 230 inches – nearly 19 feet in length. The former cost in the $30,000 range, while the 200-inch models surpass $100,000. American Reliance’s sleepers range from 97 inches to 144 inches, the former starting at just under $30,000. Prices from competitors, including Double Eagle Industries, are similar. Custom designs cost more than pre-built models.

Buyers’ preferences vary by application, interests – even geography. Larry Miller’s AA Truck Sleeper Inc., based in Fort Worth, Texas, for example, offers a heated floor. “A guy up in North Dakota called me and said he loved that heated floor,” Miller says.

Miller’s company also builds “doghouses” for the back of a cab or sleeper. The small compartment, normally 48 inches deep, is used to store such items as a motorcycle or ATV.

Mirrors on the ceilings of ICT sleepers are new, but they’re not solely for decorative purposes. The unit – which comes in various designs – is used to spread the flow of air as it is blown out of the top-mounted AC unit, thus making the sleeper feel more homelike and cutting the noise level.

Lantz says he and his competitors keep a constant watch on each other’s products. The facilities of ICT, American and Double Eagle – all industry leaders – are within a few miles of each other in Indiana.

Lantz says, “If you don’t look up and see what’s out there and what’s new and available, you’ll be left in the dust.”


19 FEET OF COMFORT
And don’t forget the his and hers televisions

It’s often said that a trucker’s cab is his home. That’s true for team drivers Craig and Lisa Ringelstetter.

The couple recently purchased a custom-designed sleeper – at a whopping 230 inches – from Indiana Custom Trucks. Of the $275,000 they spent on their new 2006 Kenworth W900L, $155,000 of that was for the sleeper. Save for three or so weeks a year, the Wisconsin couple lives in the three-room sleeper.

They haul military weapons and ammunition, equipment for NASA and civil defense materials. Because they haul sensitive loads, the Ringelstetters can’t leave the truck unattended, so onboard accessories are a must. Features include a full-size shower, full bathroom, sofa bed, fold-down bed, kitchen with countertop stove, microwave and convection microwave, and washer/dryer unit.

The Ringelstetters based their design on luxury RVs. Since the sleeper’s completion last fall, the couple has been adjusting to a barrage of comments, questions and requests for tours via the CB and at fuel stations. Craig says it can take him more than an hour to fill his Kenworth because of discussions with the curious.

“They don’t mean any harm, but at some point you got to tell people you can’t let them in,” he says.

The 48-foot reefer brings the total length of the vehicle to 84 feet. Even with the extra weight of the 19-foot sleeper, the Ringelstetters’ rig gets 6.3 miles per gallon.

ICT’s Bonnie Amaden says the Ringelstetters’ sleeper is the largest her company, and to her knowledge any other American firm, has built.

The greatest payoff of the new sleeper, the Ringelstetters say, is the inclusion of a wide-screen television in the rear of the sleeper and a separate TV and satellite line in the kitchenette.

“We’re not fighting over television channels anymore,” Craig says.


DO IT YOURSELF SLEEPER
Whether a sleeper is factory-installed or custom designed, many truckers use the basic unit as a jumping-off point to endless creativity.

GIBSONS: A TASTE OF LITTLE ITALY
Walk into Don and Yvonne Gibson’s Freightliner M2 Business Class 112 FedEx truck, and you want to apologize for interrupting dinner. That is, until you realize those plates of spaghetti next to the wine glasses are fake.

To a 96-inch sleeper built by Fort Worth, Texas-based AA Truck Sleeper Inc., Yvonne added hand-sewn curtains, a tablecloth and various knickknacks, including figurines of chefs. Don installed the wood floors.

Two intimate lights that shine onto the table give the flair of an Italian bistro. “See, romance!” says Yvonne as she turns them on.

But when everything is in truck show mode, it’s the plate of spaghetti that draws the eye. The dish is made entirely of yellow rubber bands, a mixture of reddish paint and other items, and brown-painted Styrofoam balls standing in for meatballs – an alternative to prepared fake food, which is quite costly, Yvonne notes.

The theme is so charming that it distracts military personnel who search the truck when the Biloxi, Miss., residents make deliveries to bases. “Sometimes I have trouble getting them off the truck,” Yvonne says.

BRINKERS: DUNGEONS AND TRUCKERS
The floor mat by the driver’s side of Robert and Shelly Brinker’s truck says “Enter the Dragon’s Lair.” More than 10,000 people have taken the offer, leading the couple to twice replace the steps on the 2000 Freightliner Classic, Dragon On, which Robert uses to haul lumber and metal.

The exterior is decorated with dragons and knights, and the interior builds on the fantasy theme. Ceramic tiles cover the floor of the cab. The sides are airbrushed to resemble ancient stone walls. Other touches – including the human-sized toy skeleton atop the bedding – were bought by the Brinkers.

To achieve this look, the factory-installed sleeper was disassembled and painted inside and out to the tune of $40,000. The 70-inch sleeper’s additional amenities include a fridge, microwave and TV.

PERRYS: HOME ON THE ROAD
John Wesley Perry of Eagle Lake, Texas, hauls construction materials and equipment in his 1994 Peterbilt, nicknamed The Other Woman. Peek inside his 63-inch, factory-installed cab and you can tell his over-the-road trips are taken in comfort.

Perry’s wife, Joe, with the help of friends, installed a faux fireplace complete with mantel, fancy curtains and bedding, and a small chandelier. The sleeper’s decor, based on a home Joe’s parents once lived in, is finished out with family photos on the faux mantelpiece.

Joe says working on the truck has been a yearlong process that’s not yet finished – she wants to next add a working waterfall. “I figure if he’s going to be with her 24/7 he might as well treat her right, make her look pretty,” Joe says of the truck.

QUICKS: PATRIOTISM IN THEIR BLOOD
Tom and Maryann Quick’s truck is a salute to American patriotism inside and out. On the exterior, patriotic and Christian images and phrases adorn the 2000 Kenworth W900.

The sleeper’s tribute to the Sept. 11 victims includes a miniature light display of the World Trade Center.

Maryann added some 1,300 chrome buttons to the interior, creating an aura of a nighttime sky with shining stars. The Quicks say they spent $50,000 decorating inside and out.

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