We pick six accessories that offer a great return on investment.
You’ve got a chrome hood ornament, stainless steel Texas bumper and loud air horns that play a custom tune. These are amenities you’ve worked hard for, and they make you feel good when motorists and other truckers notice your shiny truck. They also may pay back handsomely at resale, but what equipment do you have that’s paying you back right now?
“Good owner-operators are always looking for a way to make their lives easier, whether by adding electronic on-board scales, oil bypass filters or central greasing points,” says veteran trucker David Wadsworth of Lolo, Mont. “Equipment that offers safety, ease and return on investment drives a lot of owner-operators.”
With that sentiment in mind, Overdrive chose six equipment add-ons not typically spec’d by new truck owners that have a proven return on investment.
AUXILIARY POWER UNITS
Until quite recently, the price of an auxiliary power unit or genset was cost-prohibitive for many owner-operators who might otherwise have benefited from the devices, which provide power and alternative climate systems. But a funny thing happened on the way to $3 diesel: The time to recoup the cost of even the most expensive APU shortened dramatically. Now, a modestly priced $5,000 APU, or even a more pricey $10,000 version, can pay back within a few years.
Dozens of APU manufacturers have popped up in recent years, and truck OEMs now offer factory installation of some units. APUs are now available from companies such as Thermo King, Carrier Transicold, Kohler and Centramatic as well as traditional APU manufacturers such as Pony Pack, Bergstrom and TruckGen.
Idling alternatives range from simple fuel-fired heaters used by northern truckers in the winter to complex generator sets that power sleeper-mounted climate systems and 110-watt appliances.
Mike Krick of Medford, Ore., kept his idling costs down for many years by using a sleeping bag in the winter or sleeping on top of a load to stay cool. “I finally got tired of living like that,” Krick says. When he bought his new truck two years ago, the first thing he added was a Willis APU.
APUs pay back in three ways: they add comfort and convenience, they curtail idling and they reduce maintenance. But the return on investment largely depends on the price of diesel and the amount of idling you would do without the unit. Krick’s ROI period is longer because his idle time is shorter than the average trucker. Still, Krick expects to pay back his APU within 30 months or around 280,000 miles.
“I’m an owner-operator, so when I make a business investment, that’s what it has to be,” Krick says. “After you pay it off, it’s money in your pocket.”
At more than $10,000, the Willis APU is at the high end of idling-alternative devices, but it has some advantages over simple fuel-fired heaters, battery-powered APUs and most gensets. For example, the device has its own air compressor that connects to a truck’s air system. On at least one occasion, Krick has been able to limp to the next town because his APU’s air compressor kept his air brakes online. “If you have a call-out charge, that’s $500,” Krick says.
Auxiliary Power Dynamics
Double Eagle Industries (Gen-Pac)
Energy & Engine Technology Corp.
Rig Master Power
Taylor Made Environmental
For many years, whenever independent Jeff Barnes picked up a load of steel in Los Angeles, he drove up to 20 miles out of his way to find a commercial scale. If he was lucky, his load was just right, and he could start for his base in Rochester, Wash. But more often than not, Barnes was light, leaving revenue behind, or heavy, so that he had to return to the shipper to adjust his load.
“There’s such a variance on the paper weight of steel,” Barnes says. “There’s all that time wasted, there’s the out-of-route miles, and it costs $8 every time we weigh.” Frustrated by the expense, Barnes equipped his three trucks and trailers with onboard electronic scales and hasn’t been to a commercial scale since. Nor has he paid an overweight ticket, which can run as high as $500 in Washington state.
Barnes spent about $1,200 per truck to buy an AirWeigh system that enables him to monitor his load on a dash-mounted display inside his cab. Other systems, such as TruckWeight’s tractor-trailer scale, allow a driver to measure axle weights with a handheld device.
There’s little question that the systems pay back drivers who gross out before they max out. “If you scale out two loads a week, that’s $16,” Barnes says. “That’s $900 a year, not counting fuel and time. If you’re a local driver, you pull a lot more than two loads a week, and it pays back a lot faster.”
Pacific Northwest Technologies
Right Weigh Load Scales
AERODYNAMIC TRAILER FAIRINGS
For many die-hard owner-operators, buying an aerodynamic truck is a letdown; they didn’t get in the business to drive something with frilly curves. Aerodynamics is a proven commodity, though. At 65 mph, aero trucks are 15 percent more fuel efficient than their squared counterparts, according to government and engineering studies.
A trucker can do a lot to boost aerodynamics even if his truck’s characteristics are more likely to push wind than cut through it. For flat-topped rigs hauling van trailers, a simple roof fairing can save 5 to 10 percent in fuel. Cab extenders that reduce the distance between the van and the back of the truck can save as much as 4 percent, chassis fairings 2 percent and underhood air cleaners 2 percent, according to a Kenworth study on aerodynamics.
A number of factors affect that ROI, however. For truckers who don’t reach highway speeds, these improvements have less impact on fuel efficiency. For flatbed haulers, roof fairings are little help on loads that are shorter than the height of the roof. But for most applications, aerodynamic fairings help – and pay back quickly when diesel prices are high.
Add-on fairings are available from truck OEMs and other vendors, but experts say to look for full fairings that push air around and over a trailer front.
For truckers who already have aerodynamic rigs, gains can still be made, especially with refrigerated or dry van trailers. The right add-ons can add as much as 6 percent to fuel efficiency.
“Owner-operators put a great deal of mileage on their trucks, so it’s a good fit,” says Sean Graham, president of Freight Wing, which manufacturers trailer fairings.
There are two major trailer add-ons. Gap fairings, which channel air around the flat front of a van, are made by several companies, including Freight Wing and Nose Cone. Belly fairings, or trailer skirts, prevent wind from hitting the tandem axle of a trailer. Gap fairings improve fuel efficiency by about 2 percent, while belly fairings help flow air under the truck and improve fuel efficiency by 4 percent.
Other trailer fittings, notably boat tails that affix to the back of the trailer, show promise but aren’t practical for drivers who open their doors regularly.
To outfit a trailer with belly and gap fairings from Freight Wing, a driver will spend about $2,400, but Graham says the average owner-operator will see payback in well under a year. For owner-operators with more than five trucks, U.S. Department of Energy grants are available to reduce the cost.
The average owner-operator changes his oil every 14,000 miles, according to the 2006 Overdrive Owner-Operator Behavior Report, even though oil and today’s engines are rated for much longer intervals. Some owner-operators are even more cautious, changing their oil at the 10,000-mile mark.
“The oils and engines have changed since I first started driving,” says David Wadsworth, a Montana owner-operator who has driven for more than 30 years. “But owner-operators still change their oil based on old maintenance ideas.”
For years, engine OEMs and aftermarket suppliers have added on bypass filters that extend oil changes much further by removing impurities. Bypass filters are typically installed behind an engine’s standard full-flow oil filter, siphoning off a portion of the oil flow, filtering it and returning it to the sump. Generally they allow owners to extend drain intervals by tens of thousands of miles and remain in warranty.
Wadsworth bought a Spinner II centrifuge bypass filter for his last truck. He credits that investment with extending the life of his engine to 1.5 million miles without an overhaul. When the engine finally went, he removed the filter and installed it on his new truck, a 2002 International 9400.
On his old truck, he usually changed his oil between 10,000 and 12,000 miles because the engine produced a lot of soot. “The oil was really gritty, and I had a real big suspicion that that grit would cause a lot of problems, like having sand in your engine.”
He sampled his oil before adding the bypass filter to get a baseline. When he changed his oil at 10,000 miles, he sampled it again, and this time there was no soot, just a heavy paste similar to shoe polish on the Spinner II’s thin paper filter. Eventually, he extended his intervals to 18,000 miles, saving nearly $800 a year on oil changes. His bypass filter paid for itself within a year and is still saving money.
Oil Purification Systems
Perfect Filtration Systems
GPS NAVIGATION SYSTEMS
The average owner-operator drives as much as 8 percent of his miles out of route, says Todd Amen, president of American Truck Business Services. “With fuel at $2.50, this can cost $3,000 to $5,000 per year. Some do it intentionally to see girlfriends, family or whatever, but plenty do it unknowingly.”
For the unknowing, GPS-equipped navigation systems can be the tool of choice. While many owner-operators swear by the dog-eared creases of their trusty atlas, truckers such as David Tucker of Cleveland say they are tired of losing time. He started investing in GPS devices after he became lost in Chicago and could not get back to the freeway.
“It was a four-hour ordeal,” says Tucker, who drives for an owner-operator leased to FedEx Custom Critical. “I ended up trying to back up four blocks to get around a mismarked aqueduct.”
Tucker now navigates his trips with the laptop-friendly CoPilot USB GPS receiver and truck routing software. The laptop plugs into a roof-mounted flat-screen monitor.
“There are a lot of advantages to this system,” Tucker says. “The fatigue, the anxiety