Sitting Pretty

Craig Gehring adjusts a seat at the Mid-America Trucking Show.

Minnesota trucker Craig Gehring has driven in a number of truck seats in his 18 years on the road. But the 6-foot, 2-inch, 260-pound trucker says while seats are getting better, he still has trouble finding one to fit his frame.

“I really need a seat that’s fully adjustable,” says Gehring, while searching at the Mid-America Trucking Show in March. “I’m a big guy, and not a lot will fit me comfortably.”

Gehring, a company driver for JLP Transport, in Horicon, Wis., says even though he has a sore lower back and tightness in his shoulders at the end of a day of driving, he’s never given much thought to seat shopping. In fact, when he recently spec’d a new Western Star for his company, he didn’t even know what kind of seat was coming in it.

Seat makers say that attitude is fairly typical – truckers and fleets seldom spend much time on seats, although owner-operators are more likely to splurge for features that can drive the cost of a $300 seat to more than $1,000, or a $1,000 seat to more than $2,000.

Truckers should pay more attention to their seats, whether they’re in the process of buying a new or used truck or considering a seat upgrade, say seat makers. A quality seat can make a big difference to your health and your level of fatigue at the end of the day. The right seat can prevent injuries and downtime and make work easier.

“The seat is a driver’s only direct contact with the truck other than the steering wheel,” says Jeff Walters, truck product and fleet sales manager for National Seating. “Usually the seat becomes the second or third most complained-about item if it’s not comfortable.”

There’s less to complain about these days because seats are more comfortable and durable than they were 10 years ago. What has changed is dramatic:

  • Support systems with up to seven adjustable air bladders in the cushions.
  • Form-fitted metal and composite seat and back pans.
  • Cushions that adjust in length and angle.
  • Denser foam that can keep form longer.
  • Adjustable suspensions that reduce bottoming and topping out.
  • Dozens of options ranging from heated cushions to electronic memory controls.
  • Options for larger width sizes.

Not only are seats available in much larger sizes, but they offer a wider range of adjustment to accommodate between 95 percent and 98 percent of the driver population. “Now you’re trying to fit the 4-foot, 10-inch, 90-pound female driver and the big bubba, who could be 6 feet 10 inches and weigh 400 pounds,” Walters says.

Getting what you pay for
Another driver shopping for a seat at the Mid-America Show, T.P. Diak, wanted a perfect fit for his dump truck. “With all the off-road driving I do, a good seat is important,” says Diak, an owner-operator from Osgoode, Ontario.

The full-sized driver bought an Isringhausen seat because it fit his frame. The seat he bought, a 6800 Premium LX, costs nearly $700, but offers a variety of adjustments and creature comforts. While $700 may seem like a lot of money for a truck seat – typical entry models start at $300 – a full-featured seat can cost more than $2,000.

What drives an owner-operator to spend that much, says Comfort Ride’s Renee Johnson, is comfort, style and durability. Comfort Ride is one of the smaller seat manufacturers, but it’s widely known for its features, premium prices and remote control. A Stallion MF 9500 can run more than $2,000 when equipped with three-shock suspension system, leather, massage and heat. Johnson says the company has been doing brisk business as the economy has picked up, despite the cost of the luxury seats.

“Our owner-operator customers are very businesslike,” Johnson says. “They understand the business aspect – a seat is an investment in their health and their ability to work.”

Johnson says another benefit of the extra expense is that the more expensive seats generally last longer. Where a cheap seat may last only four years, Comfort Ride has customers who have used their seats for as long as a decade, installing the same seat in three or four different trucks. An expensive seat – if it lasts – will pay for itself over time, Johnson says.

“A seat used to be a necessary evil, but today, even trucking companies are much more in tune with creature comforts in cabs,” says Eric Sauey, president of Seats Inc. “As driver retention has become a big issue again, keeping drivers comfortable has become important. Even fleets are buying more expensive seats.”

Some owner-operators are spending more, too, finding that the price is worth it when you consider the science and research put into modern seat design, says Bostrom Seating’s Holly Armstrong. “There are a lot more electronic options, optional massage and self-leveling systems that drive up the price,” Armstrong says. “But the options add to comfort and health.”

Indeed, where basic seats offer a simple mechanical adjustment to support the back, better seats offer multiple air chambers that support the kidneys and the upper and lower lumbar. Seat pressure points can be changed throughout the day on some models, which keeps drivers fresher, says National Seating’s Walters.

“We’ve got a new device that gives you a 45-second cycle in which an additional bag inflates and deflates in the lumbar,” Walters says. “It’s a passive back massage. Sitting is not a natural position. Lots of problems occur after you’ve been sitting for a while. Only 25 percent of your torso muscles are supporting you. By pushing the spine into different configurations, it forces the muscles to share the work.”

That in turn allows for many more hours of driving without suffering fatigue, numbness or muscle pain, Walters says. Other features, like active massage and heat, also help back, leg and shoulder muscles cope with long workdays.

Fine tuning
Generally, the more money a driver spends on a seat, the finer the adjustments in functions like recline and tilt, Isringhausen’s Fisher says. An inexpensive seat will feature gearing for adjusting the recline in a seat. “Each tooth will allow you to move 2.3 degrees,” Fisher says. But the company offers a screw drive that allows a driver to adjust the seat back in half-degree increments for the perfect fit.

Manufacturers also have improved suspension systems to smooth out big potholes while keeping drivers from bottoming or topping out on washboard roads. Wider suspensions are available for bigger drivers to ease sway and lean as the truck takes curves and corners. Likewise, wider suspensions are better for truckers who drive on and off road.

Shock absorbers also offer more fine tuning, allowing the suspension to be stiffened or loosened, depending on the road conditions. The Lord Company produces a shock absorber that allows a driver to change the viscosity of the fluid in the absorber, allowing for a wide range of adjustments. Instead of using conventional hydraulic fluid, the Lord system has metal suspended in a specific kind of fluid. When electricity is applied, the fluid becomes stiffer, Seats Inc.’s Sauey says.

The more robust a suspension, the longer a seat will last and the more comfort drivers will enjoy, Comfort Ride’s Johnson says. The company’s standard suspension offers three shock absorbers – two in the back and one in the front – for stability.

“It’s set up in a tripod to eliminate side-to-side sway,” Johnson says. “It allows the seat to adjust better to everything you’re experiencing in the road.” The suspension, which will support up to 1,000 pounds, is one reason the company’s seats are so expensive. But the seat cushions also feature coiled springs, like quality furniture, where most truck seats – even expensive ones – are typically foam over plywood or metal. Johnson says the springs distribute weight more evenly over the entire cushion, relieving pressure points on the tailbone.

Other seat makers feature molded steel seat pans and backs that help the foam fit to the body more ergonomically. “We’re looking at foams that mold to the body,” says Bostrom’s Armstrong. That approach creates seats that offer more comfort and relieve pressure over time.

Seat makers say choice of covering material depends on personal taste. “We offer four times as many options as we had 10 years ago,” says Walters with National Seating. “There’s cloth and vinyl, leathers, velours, knitted fabrics, waterproof fabrics, fabrics with treatments, breathing fabrics. This is a very personal issue. Some people can’t get comfortable with anything but leather. Others will say they slip around on leather and want velour.”

As for fabric covering, today’s durable coatings and circular weaves mean the average cushion can go more miles and resist stains and wear. The cost of fabric is also a big factor; leather can add hundreds in cost and be more difficult to care for. “But some people swear by it, while others swear at it,” Walters says.

Trucker Gehring prefers cloth because he’s in and out of the truck a lot, dealing with sugary bulk products like cream. Cloth is easier to steam clean, he says, and leather can get hot when he’s delivering down South. “I’d be afraid of ruining the leather,” Gehring says.

Spec’ing it out
Added features can increase the cost significantly, and seat makers have a hard time selling expensive seats to all but the savviest owner-operators.

“They will spend thousands of dollars on chrome, but won’t spend $300 for a seat,” says Ron Mock, director of commercial sales and marketing for Sears Seating. “Physical well-being ought to come first.”

Fisher says an owner-operator should spend as much time spec’ing a seat as he would the rest of the truck. “You’re going to be in it 14 hours a day,” he says.

Seats Inc.’s Sauey compares the process of picking a seat to trying on shoes. “Go to a truck show and sit in as many as you can,” he says. “But even then, you need to talk to truck drivers.”

After visiting six seat manufacturers at Mid-America, Gehring had a good idea of what would work in his truck. He didn’t like one seat that had a headrest slightly tilted forward, and couldn’t justify the price for some of the fancier seats that he tried. Other seats had inconvenient controls or difficult adjustments. But the process got him thinking about seats more than ever.

“I have no idea what seat’s coming in my new truck,” he says. “But I’m going to find out when I get it, and if I don’t like it, I’m going to replace it if I can.”


PLENTY OF CUSH FOR THE SUPER-SIZED TUSH
While adjustability and creature comforts like massage have become standard or at least offered as popular options, the biggest change in seats in the past 10 years is size. Seat cushions that were once 18 inches wide have swollen to 20, 22 and 24 inches. Seat makers sell fewer 18-inch cushions because their customers – like their fellow Americans – have gotten bigger.

Changes to cab design have given seat makers room to grow, too. “Ten years ago, the standard was 18 inches wide,” says Jeff Walters of National Seating. “Those were the days of the old cabovers with the big dog houses between the seats. Eighteen inches was about all you could get in the truck.”

Seat makers say the typical order includes a cushion of at least 21 inches. Some drivers opt for 22-inch cushions, the maximum allowed by most cab designs. Others squeeze in 24-inch cushions, the largest made for trucks.

“American drivers are much bigger,” says Rich Fisher of German-based Isringhausen.


Bostrom Wide Ride

$700 to 800

Swivel, Motion Master dampening system, 9.5-inch fore and aft adjustment, two-chamber air lumbar, dual or single heavy duty dampers.


Comfort Ride Stallion MF 9500

$900 to $2,100

Pillow high back; mechanical lumbar support; vinyl, plush or leather fabric; pedestal skirting, adjustable armrests, three-chamber lumbar, vibrating massage and heat.


Isringhausen 6800 Premium LX

$685

Adjustable shock absorber, adjustable armrests, extendable seat cushion, seven inches of seat travel, upper and lower air lumbar support, and fore and aft travel isolator.


National Seating Standard Plus Series

$385 to $400

Contoured cushions, 7-inch fore and aft slide, front cushion adjustment, 6 to 23-degree recline, power air lumbar, rear cushion adjustment.


Sears Seats 70 Premium Comfort

$700

Ultraleather upholstery, ComfortZone support structure system, independent three-position seat extension and tilt, air lumbar height adjustable, high-back seat.


Seats Inc. Heritage Silver

$375 to $500

Standard 20-inch cushion, two-way lumbar, 15 degree reclining backrest, four-position cushion, available in vinyl, upgraded velour and Tuff-Tex.

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