Truth in numbers

| June 01, 2006

Knowing how to read instrument panels can increase safety and decrease breakdowns.

A big truck’s dashboard gauges can’t predict the NASCAR points winner or even the Apocalypse.

Still, professional truckers cannot safely and effectively do their jobs without the information their dashboard gauges show them.

“Your instrument panel gauges will give you a fundamental idea of what’s going on with your truck,” says owner-operator John Gray from Memphis, Tenn.

Understanding and applying gauge data is part of a professional driver’s job description, just like backing up or logging drive time. Without gauge data, you cannot safely operate the truck. At best, ignorance about gauges will stop the truck. Worse, it might destroy an engine, a drive train or the entire vehicle. Worst of all, if you choose to remain ignorant about gauge data, or if you just don’t read gauges, you might be a danger to yourself and others on the road.

But you’re a driver, not a mechanic. Why should you know the engine’s revolutions per minute or optimum coolant temperature? What do you care about engine oil pressure or if the needle on your primary air tank’s pressure gauge keeps rising and falling, even when you’re sitting still?

Some drivers feel this way. After all, they don’t own the trucks. This is a problem. As strong and rugged as big-truck diesels are, they can be ruined easily by drivers who don’t understand them, and too many drivers don’t.

As if to emphasize this, most original engine manufacturers now design their products to shut down automatically if they’re being run without sufficient coolant or oil. In other words, the OEMs anticipate that truck drivers will not bother themselves with the trivia from engine oil and temperature gauges.

The automatic shut-offs annoy drivers. But they can save the truck’s owner $20,000 for a new engine, and if drivers take better care of the engines, such baby-sitting devices would not be necessary.

“If a driver doesn’t understand the oil pressure gauge, he can lose the engine,” says D & R Trucking company driver Bill Lawrence from Martinsville, Va.

When an engine goes down, somebody has to pay a lot for it, and freight does not get delivered on time.

“Diesel engines are not like car engines,” says Lawrence, who has more than 40 years of experience. “A car engine’s compression is usually about nine or 10 to one. In a diesel, it’s more like about 250 to one.”

The higher compression drastically increases the need for adequate lubrication inside the engine. “Diesel fuel has additives in it that give it some lubricating ability,” Lawrence says. “But if you lose oil pressure, that engine will seize up quick.”

That’s why mechanics say that more than any other factor, an adequate flow of oil to the engine, or the lack of it, will determine the engine’s life and performance.

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