Spec'ing Trailers

Running your own trailer has the potential to increase your revenue and profitability, and is often the key to operating independently. Along the way will come such appealing benefits as the opportunity to personally maintain the unit with great care, thus minimizing downtime.

Determine your needs
The flatbed is the standard owner-operator trailer. But there is also the dropdeck. This type of trailer is of course designed to allow hauling a load that’s tall enough to cause clearance problems at underpasses. The lower deck also helps keep the center of gravity at a safer level when hauling high loads.

The sales ratio between flatbeds and dropdecks is 4-to-1 at Transcraft Corp. of Anna, Ill., according to David DePoincy, company president. Lowell Morgan, assistant to the chairman at Ravens Trailers of Kent, Ohio, says that even though flatbeds there still outsell dropdecks by a wide margin, “We see growth in dropdecks because there are readily available designs that can haul as much as 48,000 to 50,000 pounds. Using a dropdeck reduces deadheading when the user carries a lot of bulky loads.”

The problem is that the dropdeck “is not as versatile as a flatbed, and can be hard to load from the side when the trailer is down in a pit,” adds Morgan.

An ideal compromise, says Kelly Zecha, sales manager of Doonan Trailers of Great Bend, Kansas, is to use load stands on what is sometimes called a “stepdeck”-type dropdeck. This means a trailer with a flat deck that runs all the way to the rear once the drop has occurred, as opposed to the “double drop”-type trailer where there is a second drop just forward of the rear suspension. Load stands can allow users to carry a long load that’s not too high.

Transcraft offers a “load leveler system” that will also allow a load as long as the trailer to be carried on a dropdeck.

So, the key to picking among flatbeds and single and double dropdecks is to figure out what kinds of loads you’ll need to carry. This means starting out with a marketing plan based on past experience with both your primary shippers and sources of backhauls, and knowing just how much of each type of load you haul. An interesting observation comes from DePoincy, who says most of Transcraft’s fleet customers buy nothing but flatbeds. That suggests that the smart owner-operator may be able to find and operate in market niches relating to running a drop- or stepdeck and being able to haul specialized cargoes.

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You may even want to buy a van – Morgan has seen owner-operators who run them. But DePoincy says the more common solution is a side kit, possibly with a tarp system that “saves time and effort for drivers when their load requires protection from the elements.”

There are many variations of dropdecks like these made by Ravens.

Dimension decisions
Here again, marketing planning will help you. You need to have a very good idea of what roads you’ll be running on. Morgan observes, “There are so many states and localities that have limits.” Zecha points out, “Trailers that work in virtually all the states won’t go into California under its guidelines.” For these reasons, Morgan says a 48-foot x 102-inch size “is the best all-around choice,” and all agree that it’s their most popular size. If you know you are going to be shopping for loads of all kinds because your hauls aren’t dedicated to one or a few shippers, this is likely the way to go.

There are big advantages to running a smaller unit if you’re going to be hauling heavy loads like steel coils that gross out weight-wise in very little space. DePoincy tells us, “If you have a dedicated haul that does not require a 48-foot or 53-foot x 102-inch trailer, you can save money by hauling a 42-foot or 45-foot x 96-inch unit.”

CPM vs first cost
As in every other area of trucking, spending more at the outset sometimes carries with it advantages that can more than pay for themselves in the long run. There are three types of trailers in terms of the materials used in their construction: all-steel, all-aluminum and composite. The composite, of course, uses each of these two materials in the areas where the designers feel it can do the most work for the least cost and help yield the best compromise in terms of weight.

Ravens makes all-aluminum trailers, and provided a worksheet to illustrate the way long-term cost savings can reduce overall cost per mile with all-aluminum if you keep a trailer for, say, 10 years, and can consistently use the extra payload capacity. The sheet begins with a composite trailer costing $24,600 and an all-aluminum unit costing $29,600. The Ravens figures are based on: higher resale value; maintenance savings (much of it due to a reduced need for painting); fuel cost savings because of lower weight; and the opportunity to carry more payload. The Ravens figures crunch down to a savings of slightly over $4,000 per year during a timeframe of 10 years. Ohio owner-operator Earl Evans swears by his all-aluminum trailer not only because of these advantages, but because he feels its shiny, image-enhancing appearance and ability to fit heavier loads help him to get more business and gross more dollars.

This is the Transcraft Eagle flatbed composite trailer.

The two other manufacturers each make a strong case for the economic viability of the particular type of unit they manufacture. Transcraft says its Eagle composite design is so close to the weight of all-aluminum, it’s difficult to justify buying an all-aluminum unit. Doonan says its light all-steel units are so close to the weight of a composite, “most buyers opt to go with the all-steel unit.”

The issue of materials choice illustrates the need to look at long-term total cost per mile, not just at first cost. It shows how important it is to crunch all the numbers and consider all the variables.

Spec’ing the components
Morgan points out a disadvantage of buying as an owner-operator, compared with doing it as a large fleet. “It’s probably not smart to go in asking for a combination of specs the trailer builder does not offer as either the standard spec or a regular option. Don’t ask them to build something they’re not already comfortable with.”

Zecha says, “When an individual decides to purchase a trailer he needs to be upfront and honest with the manufacturer as to what this trailer is going to haul in terms of weight and load distribution so they can build a trailer that will serve the buyer for years after the purchase.” He agrees with Morgan that you should to some extent rely on the manufacturer in choosing components, but for a different reason. “The suspension that is going to be used is the one the trailer manufacturer feels is going to serve the buyer’s needs in the best way, unless a specific brand or design is requested by the purchaser.”

DePoincy touts extended-service brakes, which are standard on many Transcraft units. He says, “Consideration must be given to the type of load, the overall weight and its distribution, and the states in which the trailer will operate, due to the different bridge laws and restrictions. This will determine whether you need air ride or spring suspensions, a fixed closed tandem or a wide spread, a sliding suspension, tri-axle or even a liftable axle.” He also says air suspension usually brings a higher price and more buyer interest.

Interestingly, air suspension not only helps keep the driver comfortable and minimize cargo wear and tear, it greatly helps with cargo securement.

One of the advantages of spec’ing out your trailer is that you can balance the trailer brakes with those on the tractor or tractors in your fleet and make the brakes on your rig or rigs function as a system. Make sure to address issues like brake relay valve crack pressures for the various axles, and ABS compatibility.

The issue of choosing tie-down points is a complex one, and solving it is another exercise in strategic planning. Tell the manufacturer what you’re most likely to be hauling and where it will likely be placed on the trailer. Specify enough tie-down points for flexibility, but don’t add more than you’re likely to need, as doing so can unnecessarily increase weight.

Picking and spec’ing the right trailer for your operation is not a matter of walking around a lot and picking something based on appearances, but should be the culmination of a lengthy planning process. Do that planning right, and you’ll end up hauling lots of profitable loads safely and making money.

For more information, contact the following:

Doonan Trailer Corp.
Tel. (800) 734-0608

Great Dane
Tel. (912) 644-2100

Fontaine Truck Equipment Co.
Tel. (800) 824-3033

Jet Co.
Tel. (800) 332-3117

R/S Truck Bodies Co.
Tel. (330) 339-9710

Ravens Metal Products, Inc.
Tel. (330) 677-0680

Transcraft Corp.
Tel. (618) 833-5151

Utility Trailer Manufacturing Co.

Wabash National
Tel. (765) 771-5300

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