LaDonna Salo’s wood-trimmed sleeper features a wine bottle theme. Soft colors and all the amenities of a house make Salo’s life on the road more comfortable.
When LaDonna Salo bought her Peterbilt 379 in 1996, it was a pretty basic 1992 United Van Lines truck – right down to its painted white wheels. “There were no lights and no chrome,” the owner-operator from Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., says. The sleeper wasn’t much to write home about either. It was a small, factory sleeper with only basic amenities.
Three years later – after she had paid off the Pete – Salo plunked down $50,000 to stretch the frame and install a new 120-inch sleeper from Double Eagle. It’s custom designed with all the amenities of home: a shower, couch, built-in microwave and convection oven, hardwood floors and custom touches that Salo picked out herself. And the best part about it – every penny she spent was deductible.
Today, truck makers offer optional amenities on factory trucks unheard of 10 years ago – sinks, special fabrics, brushed aluminum dashes, special-edition logos, sleeper configuration options, choices of style in instrument clusters and premium seats. You can order a Kenworth W900 with an 86-inch sleeper or a Western Star 4900 EX with a Stratosphere Sleeper tricked out with many of the premium features, like cabinet doors, that are standard on aftermarket sleepers.
For many owner-operators, stock sleepers and cabs – even with today’s choices – don’t offer the custom touches they desire to turn their office on the road into a home away from home. Some are looking for the extra space they can’t find in a 70-inch factory sleeper; others want kitchens, toilets and showers; and many are looking to add their own personality to fleet-spec’ed tractors that often look more like gray-clad cells than comfy bedrooms.
“That color gray – I hated the color,” says owner-operator Russ Brown, who recently refurbished the interior of a Freightliner Classic he bought from Swift Transportation last year. The color probably worked fine for Swift, which buys tractors by the thousands. But for the Oklahoma City trucker, the stock sleeper just wasn’t up to his specs. There were no cabinet doors to keep clothes and other items from falling out, and the cabinet designed for the television wouldn’t allow anything larger than a 9-inch screen. So Brown and his wife Debbie decided on a custom theme, stripped the sleeper down to its skeleton and got to work.
The result – after a lot of elbow grease, $6,000 and some help from friends – is a Harley-Davidson-themed sleeper with black vinyl trimmings, hardwood floors, cabinet doors and homey touches that get the Browns a lot of attention on the road and make Russ smile at the end of a long day.
“I like all the personal little knickknacks like the cute little Harley-Davidson motorcycle models and the Harley-Davidson oil cans we have set up on the back shelf,” he says. Embroidered patches on the black leather seats and Harley brake valve covers tie the driver area and sleeper area together.
All the detail also ties Russ’ past to his present. The inspiration for the truck, which is just as impressively themed on the outside, comes from his family’s passion for Harleys. “My Dad was a Harley driver in the 1950s,” Russ says. “I have a Fatboy that I love to ride, but I have to drive. This truck is a perfect combination of both.”
Interior inspirations come from many places, says Mike Baxley, general manager of ICT, one of the leading manufacturers of custom sleepers. But most truckers who customize their sleeper or cab are looking for creature comforts.
“The first thing they want is a shower,” Baxley says. Next on the list is storage. Modern sleepers come with plenty of cubby holes and beneath-the-bunk space, but truckers who are on the road a lot want more places to put food, clothing and other necessities. Some OEMs offer cabinet doors and places to strap a larger TV down, but today’s custom sleeper manufacturers are offering flat-screen televisions that take up less space, yet feature larger screens.
Some truckers want sofas or recliners and a place to relax. Factory tractors come with quality mattresses and some with configurable tables and bunks, but few offer a sofa option. Owner-operators also mark kitchens and toilets high on their list. “They want to eat meals at a table,” Baxley says. “They also want to be able to put down their bunk and be comfortable.”
Other top choices for cab and sleeper customization include top-flight sound systems with surround audio and satellite radio, built-in DVD players and video game consoles and in-motion satellite television for passengers or partners to watch.
“The in-motion satellite systems cost several thousand dollars, but they’re worth it if anyone rides with you,” Baxley says.
Mark Woodworth, vice president and sales manager for Double Eagle Sleepers, says owner-operators also want a generator on board to power all the appliances without idling. “With the price of fuel and wear and tear of the engine, a generator is essential,” Woodworth says. “We’ve been installing them for 22 years.”
Wanting all those features is one thing. Paying for them is entirely another. While many owner-operators will spec a custom sleeper on a new truck from the factory, adding $50,000 or $60,000 to the overall price of a truck produces a higher truck payment than many can afford. That’s one of the reasons buyers of custom sleepers tend to be older and haul loads that pay more than 90 cents a mile. Typically, their wives are also involved in the business and plan to be driving the truck, too, creating opportunities for team operations.
For drivers who don’t have lucrative hauls or a team driver to help make the truck more profitable, there are other options. Salo bought a used truck and paid it off before buying a custom sleeper. She was able to write off the investment on taxes. “When I paid my truck off, I needed to do something tax-wise,” she says. “This was my Johnny Cash truck – I got it ‘One Piece at a Time.'”
Double Eagle’s Woodworth says truckers who buy a custom sleeper this way may have a little trouble finding financing because banks tend to want the truck to have more value than the sleeper. “It’s just easier to get money from a lending institute to finance a sleeper with a new truck,” Woodworth says. “How much is the truck worth at end of pay off? Now you’re going to finance a $60,000 sleeper, and the cost of sleeper exceeds the value of the truck.”
Customers who buy a custom sleeper for an older truck tend to finance “very little of it, paying cash instead,” Woodworth says.
But financing is out there. “New truck buyers frequently roll their sleeper payments into their truck payment,” says ICT’s Mike Baxley. “They might use Trans Advantage, Flying J’s Transportation Alliance Bank or Paccar Finance. They understand the value of the sleeper. A guy will put it on a new truck, and then the sleeper will outlive the truck. They’ll put it on the next one they buy. There’s inherent value in the sleeper.”
Custom sleeper manufacturers help their clients find financing and make decisions about size and design. But it helps, they say, to have a good idea of what you want out of a custom sleeper before you start the process. Eight months before Salo decided to buy a sleeper, she went to the Double Eagle factory in Shipshewana, Ind. “I looked around their factory and then drew up what I wanted to scale.”
Before Salo even went to the factory, she spent a lot of time looking at what else was available, including going into other custom sleepers.
Before making the final decision, she also shopped around, faxing her sleeper design and specifications to other manufacturers. In the end, she stuck with Double Eagle. Her sleeper is stunning with oak cabinetry and hardwood floors. It also has a refrigerator, freezer, microwave-convection oven, 42-inch shower, coffee maker, satellite TV, sofa, overhead bed and day and night blinds. In 1999, it cost $45,000 for the sleeper and the generator she had installed and another $5,000 to stretch the frame.
But the decision to spend the money was easy. While comfort was a consideration, security overrode financial concerns. “A lot of it was security,” Salo says. “Being a woman on the road isn’t easy, and having a bathroom and shower means I don’t have to walk across the lot at night. I feel safer.”
She also says she eats healthier because she can make her own food. “It’s not necessarily cheaper, but it is better,” Salo says.
Like Salo, Donald and Susan Pardue financed their second custom sleeper, a 120-inch they ran on a Peterbilt 377 – after they paid off their truck. Their most recent custom sleeper, a 150-inch made by American Reliance Industries, they bought when they bought their new Pete 379 in 2002. The Pardues, who haul military freight for Landstar, say once they switched to a bigger sleeper they couldn’t imagine going back.
“You just have so much more space with a custom sleeper,” says Susan, who searched eBay for much of the antique car memorabilia that goes along with their truck’s “Bad to the Bone” theme. “You don’t feel claustrophobic. You don’t have to go inside and take a shower. You can brush your teeth and make your coffee without ever leaving the truck.”
Avoiding truckstop showers and preparing meals in the sleeper are the two conveniences truckers who own a custom sleeper praise most, says Mark Woodworth. “Time spent in a truckstop is very expensive,” he says. “Even if you get a free shower, you have to wait for a while for the shower to come open. In that time, you might make a few purchases you wouldn’t otherwise make. You can make better use of that time. With a shower in the sleeper, truckers spend more time doing what they want to do rather that sitting and waiting.”
Susan Pardue says she likes having control over the cleanliness of the shower, too.
While Salo and the Pardues went with a custom-built sleeper, the Browns decided to customize their factory sleeper. There are a number of reasons truckers choose to customize a factory sleeper. First, it’s cheaper. Second, OEMs are now manufacturing bigger sleepers above 80 inches. In the case of Russ Brown, the extra space isn’t all that necessary because he typically drives alone.
ICT’s Mike Baxley says his company performs factory conversions all the time. Typically, truckers are looking for a better arrangement of space and a larger bunk. Some ask for simple things like replacing a factory shelf across the back of the sleeper with cabinets. “We also gut the entire interior and take out everything but the walls themselves,” Baxley says. “Then we install electronics, TVs, generators. Flat-screen TVs are now standard. But the truck still looks the same from the outside.”
Still, that doesn’t mean drivers don’t dream about bigger and better space. “It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately,” says Russ Brown. “I’m thinking about stretching the frame and getting the sleeper stretched. I’ve got a 70-inch, but I’d like to go to a 110 to 120. I want a bigger bed and probably a sink. More closet space. I’ve also been thinking of a way to put a big flat-screen TV against the wall.”
The Pardues say truckers who experience a sleeper with RV features can’t go back to driving a truck without them. Susan says they’ll arrive home in Georgia from a long trip late in the evening and will sleep in their truck rather than going into the house. “He likes it better than the house,” Susan says. “There’s not as much to keep up with.”
“A lot of people worry about the weight, length and cost,” Donald says.
But once they do this, they will wish they would have done it years ago. I won’t go back – I’d have to change professions.”
Research – the Blueprint for Success
Building a custom sleeper is like building a house – you have to know what you want, be able to visualize it and explain it to the manufacturer. For the first-time purchaser of a custom sleeper, manufacturers and veteran truckers say a little research and a lot of soul searching goes a long way.
“‘How much space do I need and what features do I want?’ are common questions to ask,” says Double Eagle’s Mark Woodworth. “You have to stay realistic. You can’t fit a 60-inch bed in a 72-inch sleeper and do anything else.”
If you’re thinking about redesigning your bunk or adding a custom sleeper, start your research by visiting a manufacturer or going to a truck show, recommends trucker and three-time custom sleeper owner Susan Pardue. “Go to the sleeper manufacturers.
They have designs already put together. You can get a good idea of the workmanship and the quality. They’ll give you a couple of layouts of previous customers so you can see what you might like.”
Touring sleepers you see on the road is also helpful because the decisions you’ll have to make are endless. Do you want hardwood floors, carpet or vinyl? Do you want in-motion satellite TV? Do you want surround sound? Do you want a couch or a dining area? Where do you want your shower?
“See if you want to add more closets or a bigger bed,” Pardue says. “You have to pick out your colors, your light fixtures, faucets, hot water controls. It’s unbelievable.”
What you decide will also affect your cost. Woodworth says appliances dictate both the size and the price. Hardwood floor can be more expensive than carpet, but may be more to your taste.
“A lot of times our customers design their sleeper out on paper,” says ICT’s Mike Baxley. “When they step into our factory, some are good at imagining what they want. Others aren’t, and they’re a little surprised at the outcome.”
But with a good plan, all the hard work of customization pays off, says Russ Brown. “When I pull into a shipper or receiver, I’m spending time with people coming out looking at the truck,” he says. “They can’t believe the interior; they can’t believe what I’ve done with the truck.”