Rolling, rolling, rolling

Dan Lubberts of Ontario says the unpainted white top of his Quick Draw roll tarp lets in enough light to work inside. His system opens manually by a crank at the corner where he’s standing.

Roll tarps aren’t cheap, but they can pay for themselves by saving time and money for
operations with open trailers and frequent stops.

In addition to greatly reducing the time spent protecting your load and uncovering it for unloading, roll tarps also may save you downtime and other costs from repairing or replacing a torn tarp. Tarps “damage easily, and owner-operators can’t afford the time to stop and fix them,” says Dave Steinhardt, president of D.S. Sewing.

“Traditional tarping is dirty and messy, time-consuming, and you’re exposed to the weather,” says Jim Payne, president of Quick Draw Tarp Systems of Windsor, Ontario, which makes a roll-tarp system. “The tarp is stiff, cumbersome and heavy, and the job can be dangerous. With one of our systems, you get loaded and go.”

Another advantage: “Many customers don’t want their precious, high-end cargoes, like injection-molding equipment with integral electronic components, coming in contact with a tarp that may be dirty and moisture-laden,” Payne says. Such equipment normally is long and must be side loaded, making it ideal for an enclosed flatbed.

“With a roll tarp, you can stay on the ground while you open and close the system,” says Ron Eggers, operations manager at Aero Industries’ branch in Omaha, Neb. “In addition to time saved, a benefit is that you don’t have somebody climbing to the top of the trailer. There’s nowhere to step or walk around a grain or dump trailer as you tarp a load, it’s just a wall, so falls are common. Also, when a wind comes up, and a driver is trying to tarp a flatbed load, the force has been known to just shove him right off the trailer.”

Manual tarping can take 20 or 30 minutes, says Les Neilly, operations manager at Neilly Canvas of Pittsburgh. “If you have relatively short runs and have been getting five to eight loads a day, you might end up being able to get in 10 loads a day with a roll tarp,” Neilly says.

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Eggers adds that regular tarping “is hard on the shoulders and hard on the back.” Consequently, using a roll tarp reduces physical stress for the operator over time.

More time can be saved by using a system powered by an electric motor, operated simply by flicking a switch in the cab. “You don’t even have to go to the back of the trailer,” Eggers says. “The driver can be running the tarp over the load as he pulls out of the field, the plant or the job site. And he can be untarping the trailer as he pulls in to unload.”

Also, when heat from a load is expanding the cover, the driver can use an electric system to snug the cover from the driver’s seat instead of stopping and doing it manually.

Roll tarp systems, which have been around since the mid-1960s, come in two major types, Eggers says. The standard is designed for a straight dump truck or any open-top trailer that carries bulk loads, including grain trailers and moving floor trailers. The tarp rolls across the trailer’s top edges, or from front to back, and is supported by the tops of the trailer’s sides when it’s covering the load.

The type used for flatbeds is called a Conestoga system, though the Conestoga brand belongs to Aero. It’s named after the pioneer wagons that had a canvas cover supported by wooden bows that held it above the load. Modern Conestoga bows are mounted on wheels to roll along tracks mounted on either side of the trailer bed.

Another advantage of Conestoga systems is that you can put a graphic on the tarp to advertise your business or present a positive image for your customers.

Roll tarps seem to be used more often in the Midwest, says Steinhardt, whose company supplies tarps to roll tarp manufacturers. A number of less-than-truckload haulers use them, he says, since they are efficient on multiple stops. The time savings add up if you can save five to 10 minutes or more on either end of each stop.

Neilly says his company’s roll tarp is designed so the tarp is easily locked in place. As with many systems, the tarp is permanently mounted to the driver’s side of the trailer. A latch plate runs along the top of the trailer.

The handle that moves the tarp over the load can be locked in brackets to keep the pipe carrying the tarp tight against the latch plate that holds it in place. That way, Neilly says, “You don’t need to secure the tarp with straps and ratchets.”

Neilly’s roll tarps have bows underneath, even though the tarp rests on the sides of the trailer, too. The ends of the bows slide down 6 inches into brackets installed on the trailer’s inside walls. The bows can be removed if you’re loading heavy rocks that might damage them or if you’re using a chute to load grain from one end of the trailer to the other.

Conestoga systems are expensive because they require elaborate tracking to ensure easy movement of the bows and smooth, reliable operation. Quick Draw’s tracking, for example, “is designed so there are no wheels in grooves,” Payne says. “A nylon support wheel rides on top of the track, with a guide wheel underneath. The support wheel tends to ride over any debris.”

Aero Industries’ new Conestoga 2 features a steel wheel running in a stainless-steel track insert and bows designed to absorb road shock and prolong the life of the tarp.

Conestoga systems have a mechanical or electrical mechanism that enables you to put enough tension on the tarp to minimize wind damage.

The systems weigh as much as 1,700 pounds, which reduces payload. Yet, Payne says, customers are willing to accept that for gains in “time savings and cleanliness.”

Those factors, as well as the reduced cost of maintaining the tarp itself and the relief from physical strain and possible injury, can make a roll tarp system a savvy business decision, especially for operations with frequent loading and unloading. Even if you’re an expert at manual tarping, the improvement in your quality of work life might be worth the expense.

Roll tarps’ payback
The return on investment time for a roll tarp system varies considerably, based on frequency of loading and other factors particular to any operation.

Jim Payne of Quick Draw Tarp Systems did a sample time-savings study using figures from his customers. He figured a 200-mile run, equipped with his company’s Conestoga-style system and carrying average loads. “Many drivers got a load and a half more per week,” he says. “That means you get your money back in six and a half months, on average.”

The system in Payne’s study costs $15,000. At Aero Industries, Ron Eggers says the Conestoga systems cost $13,000 to $14,000. These prices include installation, but don’t count on a do-it-yourself job to cut costs. Aero’s systems, for example, are complicated enough that installation is done only at its company branches, rather than at dealers.

Simple roll tarps for open-top trailers are a different matter. Eggers estimates an Aero roll tarp for open-tops at about $1,000, or $2,000 if electrically driven. Les Neilly of Neilly Canvas pegs the cost at $1,200 to $2,200 for open trailers 34 feet to 42 feet long – typical lengths for his customers, whose loads generally hit the maximum gross weight. The simple roll tarp’s weight is generally 225 pounds to 250 pounds for shorter trailers and 300 pounds for longer ones, Neilly says.

If you’re handy mechanically, doing your own installation of a simple roll tarp could save you about $400, Eggers estimates. Neilly figures the installation cost for his company’s designs at $175 to $250 for smaller units and $300 for longer ones.

Gone with the wind
One of two big problems with regular tarping is that the process of securement is highly prone to creating a tear.

“The tarp has 70- to 110-pound tension strength, but only 5-pound strength when it comes to cutting resistance,” says Dave Steinhardt of DS Sewing. “Once cut, fabric will not stop ripping. A tiny rip becomes 3 inches long, and wind will open it right up.”

And that’s the other big problem.

“You drive at the speed of a hurricane,” Steinhardt says. He’s not exaggerating – sustained wind of 74 mph does, indeed, qualify as hurricane force. “If not properly secured, your tarp will flap at the front. It can be destroyed in 10 minutes.”

The advantages of a roll tarp include minimizing the chance of rips and exposure to aerodynamic forces.

Front-to-back roll tarp systems mount the front of the tarp to roll down over the front of the trailer so it can’t catch the wind. Side-to-side systems typically have an air shield at the front of the trailer to prevent the tarp from getting caught by the wind and flapping around.

Another advantages of a side-to-side roll tarp is its coverage. “The pipe pulls along the entire edge so the tarp is secured over the entire length of the trailer,” Steinhardt says.

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