Taking Stock in Your Toolbox

How many times have you been stranded because a hose sprung a leak, a critical lamp went out, or a bolt got loose? Little problems can become a danger, or cause the alternator to stop charging or the water pump to stop pumping. A DOT inspection might leave you out of service even though a simple wrench or pair of pliers might have made it easy for you to make the truck legal again. A truckstop might have the new radiator you need, but no shop time to fix it. Why travel unprepared for such common problems?

Where to start
We asked Jim O’Hara, marketing manager of SK Hand Tool Corp., what a trucker would want to carry in his onboard, hand-carried toolbox. He came up with a number of suggestions designed to be “as universally applicable” as possible.

His first recommendation was some sort of complete bit driver set to drive screws and the like. SK has a 29-piece, ratcheting, T-handle bit driver set. The set includes a ratcheting T-handle bit driver and slotted, Phillips, and Pozidriv screwdriver bits, fractional-inch hex bits, Torx bits, and Robertson bits. Such a tool set would enable you to tighten (or remove and replace) many unusual little fasteners on the dash and other cab parts.

Next, O’Hara suggests a quality set of sockets with a 3/8-inch drive, something similar to the SK 47-piece 3/8-inch-drive socket SuperSet. It includes ratchet extensions and standard depth, deep fractional inch and metric sockets in a molded plastic storage case. Such tools let you quickly remove and install bolts all over the truck – handy if you have to install an alternator or radiator in a truckstop parking lot.

Adapters such as the SK socket spinner adapter and the 1/4-inch F-to-3/8-inch M increasing adapter would allow you to use the ratcheting T-handle with the sockets from the 3/8-inch-drive set to speed your work.

O’Hara’s third suggestion is a good set of combination wrenches – open on one end, and box on the other. The SK offering he recommends here is the 15-piece SuperKrome combination wrench set, which includes fractional combination wrenches from 1/4 to 1 inch. Such tools often get you in to work on bolts whose heads are in a spot where a socket and drive won’t quite fit.

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Next, he recommends something along the lines of the SK five-piece general maintenance pliers set. After all, you may very well need to twist or pull something on the truck that does not have a bolt head with flats.

Many truckers change their own oil and filters, at least occasionally. And replacing a fuel filter is often necessary if you get dirty fuel or even as a short-term solution in case of cold-weather fuel waxing. You might even get an oil filter that develops a leak and needs replacement. So, get a good strap-type oil filter wrench. SK makes one with a maximum diameter of 9 inches. Quality is important because if the geometry of the design isn’t right, the strap won’t grab the filter tightly enough to loosen it if it’s been put on snugly.

O’Hara also thinks you might periodically find use for a ball peen hammer and a pry bar.

A simpler way to equip yourself might be to substitute a master set that’s already marketed and packaged by a tool manufacturer. O’Hara’s company makes SK No. 86167, which provides the drives and sockets, metric and fractional-inch hex bit sockets, Torx bit sockets, combination wrenches and screwdrivers specified in the longer list above.

Heavy duty account managers at SPX Service Solutions also suggest safety goggles, gloves, electrical tape, and light bulbs that will fit many of the lamps inside the cab, and the marker lights outside on the tractor and trailer.

O’Hara suggests when moving up into a home-based toolbox that your first step be an air compressor and impact tools.

The Fluke 87 multimeter from SPX Service Solutions can test engine and ABS sensors, in addition to finding wiring shorts.

Graduating to measuring tools
The heavy duty account managers at SPX go on to recommend a handful of more exotic tools you can use to avoid trouble even when on the road.

A multimeter for finding electrical trouble can be a lifesaver. An offering from SPX Service Solutions is the J-39200 Fluke 87. This meter, like many, will detect shorts in the wiring by reading voltage and current flow in the harnesses or individual wires. It can even be used to do more exotic checks like testing engine and ABS sensors or measuring frequency, as would apply when checking for proper performance of a DC-to-AC converter. Its gauge can retain minimum and maximum readings.

For the less electrically sophisticated, a simple test light like the SPX J-34142-B can immediately tell the user whether or not there is voltage at a connection. This particular model features a 48-inch lead. Make sure the lead on the lamp you buy is long enough.

An engine coolant/battery tester can be helpful in making sure coolant is adequately protected against freezing/boiling, and in making sure individual battery cells are functional. It measures the specific gravity, or density, of the liquids being tested. The SPX offering is the J-23688 F (Fahrenheit) scale.

The company also offers an electronic pH (acidity) tester. This will immediately tell the user whether or not the SCAs are protecting the cooling system, and whether or not further testing for SCA level and addition of SCAs are required. This tool is designated the J-41660 electronic pH tester.

SPX also offers a diesel fuel quality tester, great for finding whether or not an obvious engine problem (like smoking or poor fuel economy) may actually be the result of bad diesel fuel. The unit tests for the API (American Petroleum Institute) index and could end up helping you pick the best places to stop for fuel, or proving you have purchased a contaminated or defectively refined batch of fuel.

SPX also touts its PT-7147 infrared thermometer. The unit gives a digital reading of the temperature of any part when you simply point it at the part and pull its trigger. It has an LCD readout, and is even equipped with a small laser sighting light to help you point it at the correct part in limited light.

Such a unit could help you find a weak engine cylinder: You’d simply idle the engine and point it at each of the exhaust manifold runners. A misfiring or under-fueled cylinder will have a cooler exhaust runner. Pointing it at each wheel and tire after a long drive could help you uncover low tires or unequal braking. All the brake drums should be at about the same temperature. The cooler brakes aren’t doing their job. Tires, too, should be at similar temperatures. The warmer tires are underinflated or, perhaps, combined with an underinflated or mismatched dual.

An engine coolant/battery tester can measure coolant effectiveness and test individual battery cells.

Choosing quality, cost-effective tools
Buying tools is one of the cases where you “get what you pay for,” at least when you get truly inferior-quality merchandise. O’Hara provides a few thoughts on spending enough to get a good return on your investment.

First, make sure what you buy offers a lifetime warranty. This, says O’Hara, “is a must in eliminating at least the very worst products the market has to offer. It’s not a panacea, though, as many lower-quality products do offer a lifetime warranty. The tool user must look again at the cost of choosing that tool, and constantly going to your dealer for warranty replacement of an inferior, but lifetime-guaranteed product. This does add to the total cost of the tool over its life.” Especially if the tool were to break while you were stranded on the road and you needed a road call only because of a busted socket wrench!

It’s also wise to remember that tools that do not fit snugly and are not sufficiently hardened are much more likely to round off fasteners, thus sometimes failing at the difficult task of getting a rusted fastener to move. Once a bolt’s head is rounded off, removal becomes many times more difficult.

O’Hara says you should also look for a non-sharp-corner hex design on sockets and box wrenches. This sort of “wrenching configuration eliminates the sharp corners of the hex,” according to O’Hara, and actually “increases the turning strength of the tool, and reduces the chances of damaging the fastener.” In cases where the fastener has been partly rounded off, he believes the feature is particularly effective.

He also recommends a bright chrome finish, a feature SK believes is important. Chrome protects the tool from corrosion, and the smoothness of such a finish makes it much easier to wipe clean.

SK impact tools have a coating of rust inhibitor. If tools aren’t chromed, is there corrosion protection of some other variety so they will last?

O’Hara recommends a smart move: Try out a pair of pliers to make sure that when closed in its tightest configuration the handles are still far enough apart that you can get a good grip. SK designers ensure a good grip in their designs. Do the screwdrivers you are trying out have a grip you can hang on to? SK uses a thin layer of molded plastic to make sure you can grab their tools and provide a bit of cushioning. Will you be able to use the tool easily for a long period without fatiguing your hands? And make sure you can grab the handle well enough to maximize your turning power.

The packaging the tool comes in isn’t just for display in the store. SK switched from plain metal boxes to molded plastic cases so toolkit items would be kept organized. Do the tools you are looking at come in a case that will keep them in order? Remember that just finding the right size tool can become a significant part of the job when you have to do it over and over.

Care of special service tools
The heavy-duty account managers at SPX Service Solutions provided some suggestions for preserving the value and performance of any special service tools you may purchase:

  1. Store special service tools in a clean, dry area off a concrete floor. Dampness can affect such tools by penetrating to inner parts in spite of their having black oxide or zinc plating on the outside.
  2. Keep special service tools separated from one another when carrying them in a vehicle cab or large toolbox, so they won’t bang against each other. The smartest thing to do is to simply store them in their original storage units. Keeping them in these storage containers in a shop will help you stay organized, which could save time in a difficult repair.
  3. Make sure to use tools only for the specific purpose they were designed for. Be careful, for example, to use electrical tools – such as a voltmeter – set on an appropriate scale for the voltage you are looking for.
  4. Never use a power tool for something normally handled with hand tools. Damage to both the tool and the vehicle or component often occurs because of this misjudgment.
  5. Clean black oxide or zinc-plated tools with a soft cloth and mineral spirits. Lube all moving parts with a light oil to prevent rust and any sort of binding.

So, make sure to choose tools carefully, spending enough to get something that will help you work, not hinder you. Be aware that quality tools last so much longer, so they more than pay for themselves. It’s one thing to get a good price on an item of known quality; another thing entirely to buy a cheap tool that won’t work without damaging a fastener or breaking. And make sure the tools you buy will be easy and comfortable to use.

For more information, contact the following:

Schrade Knives & Tools
Tel. (800) 2-SCHRADE

SK Hand Tool Corp.
Tel. (800) 822-5575

SPX Service Solutions
Tel. (800) 328-6657

Taylor Wings, Inc.
Tel. (800) 634-7757

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