Newbies: Could you survive events like these?

Updated Apr 6, 2012

I learned today about clutches on reefers. Learned when ours was replaced.

Diane and I woke up this morning in a retail area in Sacramento near the reefer (refrigerating unit) dealer we called on today. It turned out that the diagnosis of a bad alternator was incorrect. After they put a new one on, the same “ALT AUX” code was received in the truck cab.

This code was first received when we ran the reefer while we were at our Florida house in January and February. As with the truck, we ran the reefer every now and then to keep it fresh and limber while it sat for two months. Our intention was to get the reefer fixed once we got back on the road in early March. But we were running strong out of the gate and no good opportunity developed to get the reefer fixed.

When we were in Reno last week, I had time to look at the reefer. All the connections were good but I cleaned them anyway. The alternator belt was in place and in good shape. Calls to two reefer dealers confirmed what I then thought. Alternator failures on older reefers are common. The alternator has probably failed.

After a bit of online research and calling around, we found an alternator shop in Reno that had the replacement part but they were charging a much higher price than a Carrier dealer would. I decided to not do the job myself since the cost would be about the same to buy the part from Carrier and pay the labor rate to have it installed. If it turned out not to be a bad alternator, the bad diagnosis would be on them, not me.

That turned out to be good thinking because when the new alternator was put on by this shop, the same fault code was received. A more senior person was called in to look at our reefer.

While he had earlier agreed with the failed alternator theory, he next did something neither I nor the younger mechanic had done. He watched the reefer run while the fault code was being generated. All three of us saw the same thing at the same time. While the reefer ran, the belts stopped moving, then started, then stopped and started again. The clutch was not properly engaging. This created an intermittent condition where the reefer was able to maintain temp but the ALT AUX code would be received. The culprit was the clutch, not the alternator.

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They offered to put the old alternator back on at no charge but I told them to leave the new one in place. Since alternator failures are common on older reefers, and since this is a critical component, it seemed like a good preventative maintenance idea to replace it before it failed, not after.

Diane and I were glad we went to this shop instead of the one in Fontana. The Fontana shop had no alternator in stock. On this Friday, this shop had both an alternator and a clutch in stock. They spent about five hours working on the reefer but only charged us for three. The clutch cost $500 but I did not worry about price gouging. Their alternator price was in line with what other Carrier Transicold dealers charged and lower than the Reno alternator store would have charged. Based on that, I assumed I was paying a fair price for the clutch too. Total repair bill today: $900 and change.

• Attention expediter wannabees: let’s take a moment to review the last several days. You need to see this. Seasoned expediters tell aspiring expediters all the time to have cash reserves before entering the business. They say that because it is important. Indeed, it can be the difference between success and failure in this business.

We took an extended vacation this year, spending all of January and February and the first week of March at our Florida vacation house. It was not all play and no work. Some very good and productive use was made of the time but not with the truck. One short run was done while we were there but, essentially, no money was made with the truck.

That is on us. It’s not Landstar’s fault. It’s not the industry’s or economy’s fault. It is our fault because we chose to stay out of service and off the road.

We ran very well when we came back on the road until we landed in Reno a week ago Wednesday. That too can be considered our fault since we knew Reno was a slow freight area but we took that load anyway.

A week ago Friday, we deadheaded to Los Angeles at our own expense to better position ourselves for freight. That seemed to be the right decision when we got dispatched on Monday morning, but that load canceled. It was rescheduled for Tuesday and canceled again.

We got dispatched on a very good load on Wednesday but it does not pick up until Monday. It requires a long deadhead to the pick up for which we will be paid, but no advance money will be payable until the freight is on the truck. In addition to paying for food and fuel to get us to the pick up, a $900+ reefer repair was necessary.

While we choose to limit our income by taking a long vacation, too many other expediters choose to limit themselves by living hand-to-mouth in this business. Either they don’t make the money in the first place, or they fail to manage well the money they do make.

Then when a dry spell with additional repair expenses comes along like the one Diane and I are on now, expediters without financial reserves find themselves in a real pickle. They end up turning down excellent paying runs that pick up later because they need cash now and taking a cheap run today puts money in their hands. Or they borrow money from friends or reluctant relatives. Or they beg their fleet owners or carriers for advances against future earnings. Or they wash out of the business.

This has not been a stellar financial period for Diane and me but we are fine. We are fine because when we make money with the truck we manage it well. We are fine because we do not live hand-to-mouth in this business. We are fine because we have financial reserves.

Another challenge many expediters have is passing time. What do you do when you have an extended period like this when the freight becomes scarce or uncooperative (canceled loads), and you have nothing but time on your hands? The answer varies from person to person.

It may be quite different for you than it is for Diane and me. We have a wonderfully comfortable truck (big sleeper with all the creature comforts). We have also developed productive and/or enjoyable ways to pass the time when we are sitting. Some people would start climbing the walls if they sat for a week. We’d be fine.