Do it yourself and save

Your cost: $10
Shop cost: $45-$85
Time: 3/4 hour

Greasing is simple and inexpensive. You can purchase a high-quality, lever-action grease gun, grease and wipes for less than $50. While air-powered guns make the job go faster, maintenance experts actually prefer the gentler job a hand-operated gun will do. Forcing grease into fittings too fast can overstress some grease seals.

Bill Litosky, service manager at Bergey’s Mack and Volvo in Franconia, Pa., recommends greasing at least once between engine oil and filter changes, as well as along with the oil change, if you are running an oil change interval of 25,000 to 30,000 miles.

Evans has found that frequent greasing means his Kenworth tractor “drives like it was new at 600,000 miles.” He says he has never replaced any chassis component that has a grease fitting. He jacks the truck up and greases everything as often as every 2,500 to 3,000 miles, especially when he’s been running on unusually rough roads.

Getting a tractor and trailer greased, combined with a check of fluid levels and tire pressures at a shop, costs $45 to $85, depending on the technician. Doing it yourself might allow you to grease more often and ultimately avert some repairs.

Changing oil
Your cost: $120
Shop cost: $190
Time: 1 Hour
You can save on labor and materials costs by changing your own engine oil and filters. The Overdrive Market Behavior Report shows more owner-operators purchase their engine oil at oil company distributors than anywhere else. You can buy oil in 55-gallon drums, which makes it at least 10 percent to15 percent cheaper per gallon than buying gallon containers.
You’ll need a hand-cranked pump to remove the oil from the drum ($50 to $75) and a 60-quart catch-pan to grab the used oil (less than $50). You can avoid paying for disposal if you have a shop – or know of one – that uses a motor oil-fired heater.

Replacing belts and hoses
Your cost: $150
Shop cost: $300-$340
Time: 2 hours
Replacing V-belts and hoses is a simple job that most owner-operators do themselves. You’ll need a good set of socket wrenches and, for belts with an automatic tensioner, a socket drive with a long handle. An adequate set can be purchased for $300 to $400.

Doing hoses requires a clean catch pan for coolant, and a basic set of screwdrivers and small sockets. You should also ideally have an inch-pound torque wrench, as proper tension on the attaching clamp is critical.

Getting several belts replaced at a shop will take from less than an hour to one and a half hours and cost $65 to $150 labor.

Changing fuel filters
Your cost: $15
Shop cost: $25-$30
Time: 1/2 hour
This doesn’t require many tools, but learning the proper technique is important. Jim Hess of Midway Truck Service has seen owner-operators run into trouble from not doing it right and have to call for road service. You’ll need a band clamp of appropriate diameter for fuel filters, a catch pan and a small container of clean fuel. The key is getting all the air out of the system by priming the filter housing to the brim with clean fuel.

Idle the truck briefly to fully prime the system, and then shut it off. Fill the new primary filter to the top with clean fuel, making sure to lube the gasket as the filter maker recommends. Remove the old primary filter and immediately install the new one.

Idle the truck until it runs smoothly, an indicator that all air has been expelled from the system, then shut it off. Repeat the entire process for the secondary filter.

Some large filter/separators with plexiglass housings allow you to drain the housing, replace the filter and then remove a cap at the top for full priming with fresh fuel prior to starting the truck.

Some engines, like later Cummins ISX models, include a priming pump. All you need to do is open a bleed port and run the pump until fresh fuel comes out. Consult your engine manual for instructions.

Cleaning connections and cables
Your cost: $10
Shop cost: $90
Time: 1 hour
Litosky says one simple task is cleaning connections and inspecting and replacing battery cables and ground straps. A dealer will charge $80 to $100 for about a one-hour job. Special battery terminal cleaners are inexpensive, and other connections can be cleaned with sandpaper or steel wool. The engine ECM has its own voltage supply, and checking that wiring staves off many problems. Make sure to disconnect battery connections prior to doing electrical work.

Inspecting cooling system
Your cost: $2.50
Shop cost: $20
Time: / hour
To check your system, buy test strips and measure antifreeze concentration and the level of anti-corrosion additives. Adding SCAs (Supplemental Coolant Additives) when necessary, or using extended life antifreeze, is low cost and will prevent expensive engine repairs such as redoing cylinder kits because of liner pitting from corrosion.

Don’t try this at home

Eager do-it-yourselfers should keep in mind the escalating complexity of the diesel engine and the truck itself. Jobs once simple may no longer be so. For example, some of the newest injectors must be programmed for the electronic control module to identify them. To replace an injector takes special electronic test equipment and training.

Even certain tasks that seem relatively simple, such as repacking wheel bearings, is best left for the most skillful technicians. Large fleets with extensive technician training often find problems because seals are not properly installed or bearings are not torqued exactly right. Unless you can sidestep the problem by running low-maintenance hubs, have the work done by a certified technician.

Another concern is liability when the quality of do-it-yourself maintenance becomes a factor in an accident. Jim Hess, president and general manager of Midway Truck Service, says, “I would not feel comfortable even telling an owner-operator how to set injectors and do brakes. Even such a simple task as measuring overall slack travel can evolve into a lawsuit.”
Alex Sykes, an owner of Cooper Kenworth, in Durham, N.C., says, “Each person must also remember that they assume not only repair responsibility, but additional third-party liability if they are working on their own truck.”

Owner-operator Earl Evans of Canfield, Ohio, has his own well-equipped shop where he does complicated work, such as setting valves and injectors on his Caterpillar diesel and replacing suspension bushings and kingpins. Yet, he draws the line at replacing the water pump on his ACERT engine.

“It looks to me like it would take six solid hours to do it, including removing the power steering pump,” he says. He purchased Caterpillar ESP extended service coverage instead, which paid for replacing a pump at 600,000 miles. He figures he saved himself about $400, based on an hourly labor charge of $100 and the fact that technicians are paid based on how fast a job can be done with prior experience.