Tools of the trade

This torque stick converts a little elbow grease into 475 lb.-ft. pressure.

A mainstay of many owner-operator small fleets is do-it-yourself maintenance to save dollars spent on contracted shop labor. But how do you decide what tools are needed?
As with any business task, the answer requires planning for maximum bottom-line benefit. Pick the kind of work you want to do, are capable of doing, and can save money by doing.

Oil and lube changes
Keith Harring of K.L. Harring Transportation of Bethel, Pa., owns more than 30 tractors, but he started as a two-truck owner-operator. He suggests changing your own oil and doing your own greasing as a first step. You’ll save the labor a truck stop or dealer will charge, at least $70 per hour. And as Harring learned early on, you can save by buying oil in bulk, generally in 55-gallon drums.

To do oil changes, you’ll need:

  • A set of large socket wrenches to remove the drain plug. If you plan to change transmission and axle lubes, get a variety of large sockets so you’ll be able to remove and install the smaller drain plugs that go into transmissions and axles.
  • A substantial drain pan that holds about 60 quarts. Some prefer wheeled pans for easier handling of the drained oil.
  • 15- to 20-quart pans for draining transmissions and axles.
  • 5-gallon pans for changing fuel and coolant filters.
  • Filter band wrenches of the correct diameter to handle your engines’ filters, whether full-flow or combination full-flow and bypass filters. Also get smaller bands for fuel and coolant filters.
  • A pump with a rotating crank for the oil drum, and a smaller bucket pump for transmission and axle lubes.
  • A heavy-duty grease gun for the many standard zerk fittings on a truck. You can start with a standard hand-held unit, but get a substantial one. It needs to take cartridges big enough to grease, without reloading, the driveshaft crosses, steering linkage parts and spring and suspension bushings.

Air compressors
Just as compressed air powers many systems on your truck, it can power any number of tools in a shop. Buying an air compressor and a workbench about 6 feet long will get you to the next level of do-it-yourself maintenance.

For example, you can use an air compressor to pump used oil from a sealable drain pan into a storage tank. An air compressor also can power a greasing system that will allow you to buy grease in bulk.

When Harring was running two trucks, he used an air compressor with a 5-hp motor, rated at about 16 cubic feet per minute, with a 60- to 80-gallon storage tank.

Tires and wheels
After oil and grease, tires were Harring’s next step into the do-it-yourself world. Tire-changing tools needn’t stay in the shop. If you carry them with you and mount a spare on your trailer, you can change a tire on the road to save the cost of a service call. Service calls start at $81.50 at the Wingfoot Tire Center in Levittown, Pa. The price increases with the cost of parts and the time required to finish the task – and that’s during what other industries call “business hours.” A few of those per year add up to serious money.

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Another area of savings is tire repair. While plugging a tire just long enough to get home is OK, once a tire is punctured, it must be removed from the wheel and have its inner liner sealed. Otherwise, moisture from the inflation air seeps into the cords, rusts them, and eventually destroys the casing, causing a blowout. Any responsible owner, therefore, is faced with periodically paying a tire shop to remove a wheel, get the tire off the rim, patch it, and then put everything back together. That easily can cost $31.50 a pop.

Doing these jobs, as well as tire rotation, can save money and downtime. You can do them with the right equipment:

  • To raise the truck, you need a hydraulic floor jack with a capacity of about 10 tons. These cost $2,700 and up, or less at used equipment sales. With proper maintenance they last for several years. Keep in mind, too, that getting the truck into the air enables you not only to work on tires, but also to replace brake linings and suspension springs, fix studs and even do exacting wheel bearing work.
  • Since jacks are for raising equipment, not suspending it while you work, you’ll also need a set of four 10,000- to 12,000-lb. axle stands. These are cheaper than jacks and quite capable of supporting a tractor or trailer safely, as long as they rest on a solid, level floor.
  • Air-powered impact tools are essential for getting lug nuts to loosen and tighten. You’ll need an impact gun with a torque output in the range of 500 lb.-ft. Such tools enable you to replace corroded exhaust system parts, as well.
  • For quick lugnut torquing, you’ll need torque sticks, which work with an impact gun to quickly turn a nut to the correct torque. Purchase the right ones after checking the torque rating of your wheel’s lugs.
  • You’ll need a torque wrench designed for about 500 lb.-ft. with a handle long enough to apply that kind of torque in final tightening. With a 4-foot handle, for example, a little less than 120 lb. of pull will produce 475 lb.-ft. of torque, a common rating for wheel nuts.
  • Heavy truck tires stand up to rugged use on the road but can be surprisingly susceptible to damage during demounting and mounting. You need not purchase an expensive truck-stop-quality tire changer, but you will need a set of tools that enables you to pry gently on tire beads to work them off and on tubeless wheel rims. The business ends are shaped like spoons and spread the force over a wide area so the bead won’t be damaged.
  • Once on the wheel, the beads need to be forced outward so they will seal against the rim. Use a special bead seater that consists of a small tank and valve. Once the tank has been pumped up with an air compressor, and the unit’s snout fitted between the bead and rim, you just open the valve, and the tire pops onto the rim. Contrary to parking lot wisdom, a mere blast of compressed air from a hose won’t do the job, and the old trick of spraying ether into the tire, then igniting it to get the tire to pop onto the rim, should be avoided; it can be even more destructive and dangerous than allowing cords to rust.
  • You’ll also need bead lubricant and a complete patch kit that includes patches, adhesives and instructions.

General repairs
Torque wrenches rated at 75 lb.-ft. and 250 lb.-ft. allow you to replace a host of other parts, including alternators, belts, hoses, power steering and fuel pumps, thermostats, water pumps, turbochargers – even cylinder head gaskets. In each case, correctly tightening the mounting bolts will ensure they’re neither too loose nor too tight, which can damage the bolt or the mount when you do final assembly.

When replacing parts that seal with gaskets, such as water pumps and turbos, the only way to guarantee leak-free installation is to measure the twisting force of attaching bolts with a torque wrench, then torquing in several stages in the proper sequence.

Useful as they are, torque wrenches can’t do everything. To do general repairs, you’ll also need these tools:

  • For belt adjustment, the smart choice is a belt tension gauge. Just as a tire-pressure gauge beats banging on a tire, a precise measurement is the best way to know whether belt tension is correct.
  • You’ll need open-end wrenches and sockets in both metric and English measurements, since modern trucks include both U.S. and international components. To get the full range of sockets you’ll want for basic work, you need 5⁄16-, 3⁄8- and 1/2-inch drives. Heavier chassis work moves you up to a 7⁄8-in. drive.
  • For about $90 to $115, you can add an air ratchet wrench, enabling the air compressor to do much of the repetitive motion for you. That means big savings in time and fatigue.
  • Several pairs of pliers, including needlenose and vise grips, will come in handy, as well as a variety of screwdrivers for replacing both incandescent and LED lighting.
  • A basic electrical tester, such as a multimeter or digital voltmeter, can measure both voltage and current flow and help locate the source of electrical trouble. You’ll be able to solve many electrical problems – some as simple as replacing a bad wire – that stump those who lack the tool.

If you’re a reasonably skilled mechanic willing to invest in more exotic tools, handling your own diesel engine tune-ups can save a good deal of money. At Penn Detroit Diesel Allison, for example, labor costs around $100 an hour, and a Series 60 tune-up – which requires torquing the injector hold-downs and adjusting the overheads – costs about $500.

Many small-fleet owner-operators set their own overheads (valves and injectors). While this is a complex job, it’s not beyond a careful and intelligent person’s capabilities, especially when the engine lacks an engine brake – if you have the right tools:

  • One of the most critical parts of setting the overheads is getting the engine to a number of different positions, and this takes a powerful rotating tool. To turn the engine over, you’ll need a very large socket wrench with a long handle.
  • A factory manual, bought with the truck or downloaded online, is essential to knowing the proper sequence of engine positions and valve and injector adjustments.
  • Feeler gauges of appropriate sizes measure the clearance between rockers and valve stems or bridges. These also allow you to set the engine brake clearances once the overheads have been set up.
  • Small torque wrenches properly tighten bolts and nuts.
  • If adjusting some types of Cummins injectors, you’ll need small torque wrenches to make sure the injector plunger seats properly in the cup in the bottom of the injector body. With other types of injectors, you’ll need a special injector height setting tool.

A job well done
Beside saving money, many small-fleet owner-operators enjoy a tremendous satisfaction and sense of security in doing their own work – or in hiring their own mechanic to handle such chores. The majority of technicians who work in truck stops, dealer-ships and independent garages are highly skilled and take their work seriously. Yet doing maintenance and repairs in-house, to your exact specifications, eliminates any nagging doubt that something might have been missed, some corners cut. As generations of parents have advised, “If you want something done right

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