Author: Sean M. Lyden

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Shedding Weight of Utility Fleet Upfits to Boost Payload and Productivity

New diesel emissions aftertreatment devices – including diesel particulate filters, selective catalytic reduction systems and diesel exhaust fluid tanks – have added considerable weight to medium- and heavy-duty truck chassis in recent years. This has contributed to a payload challenge for many fleet managers, especially for those utility fleets operating Class 7 and 8 digger derrick and aerial platform trucks. They’re looking to keep their trucks within a certain weight range to comply with federal bridge laws and, if possible, avoid having to bump up to a larger chassis that may require a federal excise tax.

A federal excise tax applies to the first retail sale of a truck with a gross vehicle weight rating of 33,001 pounds and above, adding 12 percent of the purchase price to the total cost of a truck. So, having to go to a bigger chassis could mean as much as a five-figure increase to the cost of each truck. Spread that added expense across an entire fleet, and you get the idea of the financial stakes at hand with truck weight.

How can fleet managers reduce overall vehicle weight without having to upsize the truck? One solution is to shed weight from the body and equipment that are mounted on the chassis, replacing conventional steel – where feasible – with advanced lightweight materials such as aluminum, fiberglass composites, plastic composites and thinner-gauge steel.

Lightweight Potential
Conventional steel is the predominant material used in truck bodies because of its relatively low cost and the comfort level that many fleet managers have with its strength and durability to hold up under rugged working conditions. But steel is also heavy, and replacing it with lighter-weight materials could offer substantial weight savings and increased payload capacity.

According to Joe Caywood, senior marketing and product manager for Terex Utilities (, a global manufacturer of aerial work platforms, using fiberglass and aluminum can reduce the weight of a line body, also known as a utility body, by about 38 percent. So, what impact does that make in terms of real-world payload?

Take, for example, a standard steel 156-inch line body, which weighs about 2,300 pounds, Caywood said. Reducing the weight of that body by 38 percent translates into an increased payload capacity of 860 pounds.

Then there’s lightweighting the equipment mounted on the body. Caywood said that Terex has been able to generate 15 to 25 percent weight savings in their aerial platforms and other equipment by incorporating some high-strength steel – which is thinner and lighter than traditional steel, but with comparable strength – in the company’s upfit designs.

A side benefit of some lightweight materials, specifically aluminum, fiberglass and plastics, is corrosion resistance, which is important for the longevity of upfits. They must be able to withstand the corrosive impact of road salt in the Snowbelt states and salt air in coastal regions.

“Many fleets evaluate body material selection based on the region where the vehicle will operate,” said Justin Chandler, body sales manager for Altec Inc. (, a truck equipment manufacturer and service provider for the electrical utility and telecommunications market that offers fiberglass and aluminum bodies as part of its Green Fleet product line. “Some fleets may use more fiberglass in a region that is an intense corrosive environment, whereas steel – which is less expensive – may work fine in a less corrosive environment. The key is to find the best material solution for each customer based on the factors most important to them, whether it’s weight, cost or corrosion resistance.”

Balancing Act
Since lightweight materials tend to cost more than steel, too much of an advanced material could drive up the cost to a point where it’s not financially practical. And then there’s the issue of material strength, which impacts body durability and performance.

“Generally, you want to stick with steel for the understructure of the body, especially in utility applications, because of the potential twist and torque of the body, whether the truck is going off-road or carrying a crane or an aerial device,” said Eric Paul, regional sales manager for ETI (, a manufacturer of aerial lifts, mobile service cranes and custom bodies.

Where are the most appropriate opportunities for lightweighting the body while keeping costs in line and without sacrificing structural strength?

“You want to look at nonstructural areas in the body – the side packs [the side compartments in line bodies], doors, floor pan – any area of the body that doesn’t absorb a tremendous amount of stress,” Paul said. “Fleets may wish to also consider composite bushings and aluminum or composite shelving.”

Said Caywood, “Look for opportunities, such as wire holders or different components of the body for storage that can be made out of aluminum or other lightweight material. Even something as simple as redesigning to reduce the inches of weld in the body design can reduce weight.”

“Lightweighting is a big balancing act,” Paul said. “And when it comes to selecting lightweight materials for a body, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. There needs to be an engineering mindset about it. Recognize the physical properties of each of the various materials and strategically include the right mix of materials for the body to do the job it has to do.”

Reducing weight of upfits will help increase payload capacity, but not all lightweight materials are created equal or suitable for every situation. Therefore, when considering lightweight upfits, work closely with your body manufacturer and upfitter to select materials that best fit the application – and your budget.

About the Author: Sean M. Lyden is a nationally recognized journalist and feature writer for a wide range of automotive and trucking trade publications, covering fleet management strategies, light- and medium-duty trucks, truck bodies and equipment, and green fuel technologies. He blogs at Strategy + Writing (


Spec’ing Medium-Duty Chassis for Utility Applications

Fleet managers dread receiving a call from an upfitter who says that the chassis delivered to their shop won’t work with the original body design and will require expensive changes to make it right.

At stake could be several thousand dollars to correct the issue and costly delays in vehicle delivery. And when you multiply that across five, 10 or 20 trucks ordered with the same spec, you get a clear idea of the potential financial fallout.

How do you reduce the risk of error when spec’ing a medium-duty (Class 4-7) chassis? Follow these four principles to write a chassis spec that’s suitable for the upfit – and the job.

1. Begin with the upfit in mind.
Whether it’s a digger derrick, an aerial platform or a service body with a crane, the upfit dictates what the chassis specs should be, said Mark Steffens, medium- and heavy-duty truck consultant at Donlen (, a full-service fleet management company based in Northbrook, Ill., and wholly owned subsidiary of The Hertz Corp. (NYSE: HTZ). “So work closely with upfitters from the beginning because they can help you navigate potential pitfalls with the chassis, which are expensive to correct after it has been built.”

This is especially important because new diesel emissions technologies – such as diesel particulate filters, selective catalytic reduction systems and diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) tanks – added to medium-duty trucks in 2007 and 2010 have significantly reduced available frame rail space, requiring utility fleet managers to rethink fuel tank configurations, PTO locations and openings, exhaust systems and chassis lengths.

“A dual vertical exhaust was common in the past for many utility fleets, but it’s not really a good option these days with the addition of the DEF tank,” said William J. Byron, senior truck specialist, medium- and heavy-duty trucks, at Donlen. “You’ll find that many fleets are going to the horizontal exhaust because of the [frame rail] real estate issue.”

The use of alternative fuels also impacts upfit design, said Jim Palin, truck application engineer at GE Capital Fleet Services (, a leading full-service fleet management company based in Eden Prairie, Minn. “Extra battery packs [for hybrid-electric] or fuel tanks for propane or CNG could take up space on the frame rail, and the upfit will need to account for it. So, you may need to select a longer [cab-to-axle] chassis to allow for extra space,” he said.

2. Include a buffer with gross payload requirements.
What is the total weight of the body, the equipment mounted on the body and the expected cargo at maximum load?

Calculate that weight, also known as gross payload, and add a little extra to serve as a cushion. Byron suggests adding 2,000 pounds. Then select a chassis that offers the capacity to handle the maximum estimated payload, including a buffer. This way, you reduce the risk of overloading the truck, which could lead to safety concerns, a shorter life cycle, and premature maintenance and repairs.

3. Remember the trailer.
“Gas and electric utilities tend to use trailers a lot, particularly with their medium- and heavy-duty trucks, to pull backhoes, trenchers and other equipment,” Palin said. “But a common mistake fleet managers make is that they underestimate the weight of their trailer and the machine on it. We have to be very vigilant to get the make and model of the machines and an idea of any extra items that will be placed on the trailer so we can ensure the chassis is spec’d to the proper towing capacity.”

Will the truck pull a trailer? If so, how much does the trailer weigh? What will go on the trailer and how much will that cargo weigh at its heaviest load?

Once you’ve calculated these weights, make sure the chassis offers a sufficient gross combination weight rating – the maximum allowable combined weight of the truck and trailer at full loads – to support your towing requirements.

4. Account for terrain.
“The bulk of our utility clients want as many wheels turning as possible just because they have to deal with all types of environments, whether the trucks are on dry pavement, off-road, mud or snow,” said Mark Stumne, truck application engineer at GE Capital Fleet Services. “But if the truck isn’t going to be used off-road or on harsh terrain significantly, they’ll shy away from spec’ing four-wheel drive because it usually adds about $20,000 to those trucks.”

Palin said that terrain also impacts fuel tank selection. “If you’re going off-road, a key issue is ground clearance, especially with Class 6 to 7 trucks. In these cases, we recommend selecting shallow fuel tanks versus deep tanks, which can hang too low.”

Another consideration is gradeability, or steepness, of the terrain, Steffens advised. “Will the truck operate in the Rocky Mountains or in areas where it’s flat? Spec the optimal powertrain combination of engine horsepower and torque, transmission, and drive-axle ratio to ensure the truck has the power to get off the starting line with a heavy load and handle steep grades.”

What is the horsepower sweet spot for diesel engines in utility fleet applications? Byron offered this rule of thumb: “If it’s a severe-duty vehicle, anywhere from 275 to 330 horsepower is widely acceptable.”

What about transmission selection? “If the truck operates primarily off-road, a manual transmission might be a good idea,” Byron said. “But you also have to take into consideration how many drivers you have for that vehicle. If you have multiple drivers, and they’re not skilled with a manual, the automatic transmission would be the better fit.”

The Bottom Line
When in doubt, seek input from your upfitter or fleet management company to ensure the medium-duty chassis you’re about to order fits the application. Taking a little extra time upfront to get the spec right will pay dividends in peace of mind and money saved down the road.

About the Author: Sean M. Lyden is a nationally recognized journalist and feature writer for a wide range of automotive and trucking trade publications, covering fleet management strategies, light- and medium-duty trucks, truck bodies and equipment, and green fuel technologies. He blogs at Strategy + Writing (


Selecting Cargo Management Systems for Work Vans

A van’s cargo management system – which may include a partition, shelving, bins, drawers, reel holders, a ladder rack and other accessories – not only secures the payload to protect drivers from unintended projectiles, but also provides technicians with greater visibility and easier access to their tools and equipment. This translates into quicker turnaround on service calls, enhancing customer satisfaction and profit per job.

But with an array of cargo management options to choose from, how should fleet managers determine what’s best for their operations?

Utility Fleet Professional spoke with Bruce Jones, application engineer at GE Capital Fleet Services, a leading full-service fleet management company based in Eden Prairie, Minn., who recommended that fleet managers use these three principles to guide their cargo management selection process.

1. Fit the system for the job
What’s the van’s job description? What exactly will it be hauling? Where will that cargo – such as parts, tools or equipment – need to be positioned in the van for safe, quick and easy retrieval?

Jones used the example of a telecommunications fleet that typically configures one cargo management system for their installers and another for service vans.

“On the installation side of the business, you’re hauling new products and components, which tend to be bulky, preboxed from the manufacturer. So the cargo interior will likely be comprised of racks with large open shelves, while leaving enough floor space to stack and secure large product,” Jones said. “But service techs tend to stock their vans with smaller parts and components for repairs, requiring a cargo interior package that can house the small pieces in a way that’s easy to find and access. In this case, you’ll have interior shelving that may use a lot of dividers or plastic bins that can slide into and lock onto the shelves. Service vans will also have more parts drawers, which take the place of the large open shelves that an installation van might use.”

2. Allow for adaptability
While tailoring the cargo management system to the job is important, avoid over-customization, which could limit your ability to use the van for other purposes. “The marketplace is in constant flux and, more than likely, at some point in the life of the van, you’ll need to switch the application to get the most use out of the vehicle – and there’s no one out there that wants idle vehicles,” Jones said.

What’s a solution?

“If it’s a telecom fleet, consider using the same core shelving or system for both [installation and service] vans, but make it adaptable, where you can slide in plastic bins, use removable modules or install dividers onto the shelves for the service vans,” Jones said. “This way, if you need to convert the van for installation jobs, you can do it with minimal time, effort and cost.”

3. Spec with ergonomics in mind
Proper ergonomics can be achieved by configuring the cargo area of the vehicle in a way that protects workers from musculoskeletal disorders, which are caused by awkwardly lifting heavy items and performing repetitive, high-strain movements.

“The question to ask is: Do I really need to make my technician get inside the van? Anytime a technician gets inside a cargo van, you’re increasing your chances of something going wrong – a technician twists his back or hurts himself in some way,” Jones said. “Try to keep the heavier, bigger items closer to cargo doors so [technicians] can stand safely and grab whatever they need from outside the van.”

One option that Jones said is growing in popularity is spec’ing vans with dual sliding doors for both curbside and street-side access. “Some fleets will turn the shelving toward the street side of the van, facing the door, so that as you open that sliding door, there’s a shelving module where the most frequently needed items are easy to access. [Technicians] can just grab and go, without straining to get inside the van.”

Jones said that ladder rack selection also impacts ergonomics, especially with new Euro-style full-size vans entering the market – such as the Ford Transit, Ram ProMaster and Mercedes Sprinter – with high-roof configurations that can make it difficult for workers to reach and safely load and unload a ladder from the top of the van. In these cases, consider a drop-down-style ladder rack, which is mounted on the roof and lowers to a level where the ladder can be easily loaded and unloaded, and then raises to its secure travel position, with minimal effort for the driver.

Another option is an interior ladder rack, ideal for stepladders up to 6 feet, which is ceiling-mounted inside the van’s cargo area, eliminating the need for drivers to reach up to the roof to grab that ladder. “But keep in mind, this will impact the interior height of the van. So if the technician needs to go inside the cargo area, then you have to deal with an object that he can bump his head on,” Jones said.

The Bottom Line
When it comes to cargo management systems for vans, one size does not fit all applications. Work closely with your van upfitter to lay out the shelving, bin and ladder rack configurations in a way that protects your drivers from injury, makes it quicker and easier to retrieve the parts and tools they need for the job, and ultimately enhances their productivity.

About the Author: Sean M. Lyden is a nationally recognized journalist and feature writer for a wide range of automotive and trucking trade publications, covering fleet management strategies, light- and medium-duty trucks, truck bodies and equipment, and green fuel technologies. He blogs at Strategy + Writing (

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What to Consider When Selecting All-Terrain Vehicles for Utility Applications

All-terrain utility vehicles (ATVs) are built to go where four-wheel-drive pickups and other conventional vehicles cannot, whether on steep hills, through soft mud or over water, to transport workers, supplies, and tools to remote areas for servicing and repairing power lines and other equipment along the right-of-way.

But when it comes to ATVs, one size does not fit all applications. Some are designed primarily as people movers that may also carry light cargo, while others can haul more than 40,000 pounds with heavy equipment, such as aerial lifts or cranes, mounted on them. Then there are ATVs capable of negotiating the steepest of hills in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and others that offer amphibious capabilities to cross deep waters in flooded lowlands.

With a vast range of shapes, sizes and capabilities to choose from, what should utility fleet managers consider to select the right ATV for the job? Here are six questions to help guide the process.

1. What’s the ATV’s job description?
“If [the ATV’s] job is to be a survey vehicle – to carry a two-person crew to inspect, say, a five-mile stretch of power line to make sure everything is up and running properly – we’ll likely recommend [a smaller-model ATV],” said Craig Simonton, sales and marketing, Hydratrek Inc. ( “But if you have a lot of upcoming new projects with building new power lines, requiring large crews and heavier equipment, we’ll point them toward a bigger vehicle so they can haul more material and more people in one trip.”

2. What’s the maximum number of people the vehicle will carry at one time?
The Hydratrek model D2488B, for example, can be configured to carry three to as many as nine passengers on the same size vehicle, depending on how much cargo space is required. The key is to strike the right balance between seating capacity and cargo area to achieve optimal productivity.

3. What are the payload requirements?
“Fleet managers have to take stock of everything they intend the vehicle to carry,” advised Bill York, utility vehicle sales, Prinoth LLC ( “If the machine is going to haul a digger derrick, crane or aerial unit, it makes sense to involve the heavy equipment upfitter who can help you determine precisely how much payload is required. This way, all parties [ATV manufacturer, equipment upfitter and fleet manager] can put their brains together to come up with the best fit.”

But also remember the little things that can add up. “Perhaps the fleet plans to mount a digger derrick that could fit on a 16,000-pound-capacity [ATV], but they also want to haul 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of extra gear that exceed the capabilities of the 16,000-pound carrier. In that case, you need to go one size up to a larger machine,” York said.

4. What type of terrain will the ATV be used on?
“If it’s hilly terrain, how steep of an incline can the machine safely navigate up and down? And what about sidehill capabilities – what degree or percent grade can the machine handle moving across the side of the slope? Every machine has different ratings for this,” York said.

Then there’s water. If the vehicle must operate in floodplains or other areas where water could be an issue, is it equipped to handle those types of conditions? Some ATVs can drive through a certain depth of water, almost fully submerged, so determine what that capability is for the vehicle you’re evaluating to ensure it’s sufficient for the job. There are also ATVs that offer amphibious capabilities, which can float, using a rear propeller system, to cross deep-water areas.

Additionally, keep in mind the vehicle’s ground pressure in terms of pounds per square inch (psi), especially in soft ground and environmentally sensitive areas along right-of-ways.

“This is one of the advantages of a rubber track system [versus wheels],” Simonton said. “Tracks are very important to keeping your footprint very light, which essentially helps the vehicle ‘float’ on top of mud, on top of wetlands, and keeps the vehicle from tearing up the ground in environmentally sensitive areas.”

But a light footprint doesn’t necessarily mean a light vehicle. York offers this frame of reference: “The average human male puts down 8 psi. Yet our biggest machine, fully loaded, weighing around 82,000 pounds, only puts down about 4 psi in ground pressure. So these vehicles can go places where we can’t even walk over without sinking. This is because of the vehicle’s weight distribution, based on the design of the length and width of the track.”

5. Have you accounted for safety?
“Make sure the vehicles are [rollover protection system] certified to the highest standards to protect workers,” said Jim Blaze, national accounts manager, Polaris Industries (

Blaze also advised that fleet managers consider safety harnesses. “[Polaris] puts shock absorbers on safety harnesses because, in remote areas, where the ride can get real bouncy, the shock absorbers can help protect you from dislocating your shoulders.”

Side cab protection is important as well, Blaze said. “Consider a netting system to keep arms and legs inside the vehicle. In some cases, companies might order hard caps, which are like automotive doors for extra protection.”

6. How responsive is the manufacturer’s support network?
“Is there 24/7 availability for technical support? How easy is it to get parts? How far, how fast is that company willing to send people to help you if you have a machine break down in the field?” York posed. “Especially with large utilities, if a power line or transmission line is down, the amount of money being wasted is staggering, sometimes approaching as much as $100,000 per minute. And if [the all-terrain vehicle] that’s needed to help repair the line is also broken down, that creates a huge issue. So the key is how fast can you get that vehicle up and running? How fast can the [ATV manufacturer] get a tech out there to help you? These are the things that need to be considered up front. And the bigger your area and the more diverse the terrain, the more important manufacturer support becomes.”

About the Author: Sean M. Lyden is a nationally recognized journalist and feature writer for a wide range of automotive and trucking trade publications, covering fleet management strategies, light- and medium-duty trucks, truck bodies and equipment, and green fuel technologies. He blogs at Strategy + Writing (


Three Mistakes to Avoid When Spec’ing Aerial Platform Trucks

Considering that aerial platform trucks, also known as boom or bucket trucks, often carry a hefty six-figure price tag, it pays to confirm that the chassis, body and aerial equipment specifications fit the job before issuing the purchase order. The stakes are high because spec errors result in disruptive downtime, lost productivity and increased safety risks, taking a chunk out of a fleet’s bottom line.

And fixing the issue isn’t as easy as picking up a replacement truck at the local dealer because turnaround time on these trucks – from purchase order to delivery – can take anywhere from six months to a year and a half, depending on market conditions and chassis manufacturer lead times.

So, how can utility and telecom fleets ensure that they craft a spec that suits the application – to enhance productivity, worker safety and profit per truck? Steer clear of these three mistakes.

1. Assuming yesterday’s spec will work today
“The replacement cycle on aerial platform trucks is easily a decade, sometimes longer. So a lot can happen since you last bought a truck,” said Dave Blanding, order technical support, Terex Utilities (, a global manufacturer of aerial work platforms.

One area of change that’s often overlooked is the impact of new diesel emissions technologies, such as diesel particulate filters and selective catalytic reduction systems, on chassis weight. “Trucks are getting heavier, not lighter,” Blanding said. “And the heavier the truck, the less you can put on the truck and stay legal. The fleet could be in the position of not having enough truck to carry all that they need to carry if they haven’t thought through the changes in the chassis and adjusted the requirements accordingly.”

Another factor to consider is any change in utility pole setback – the distance between the pole and the road surface – since the last truck spec was written. “Today, with the way the roads are being designed with traffic safety in mind, roadside structures are being moved farther from the traveled road surface to avoid having cars come in contact with them, causing fleets to consider taller aerial devices with extended reach,” said Josh Chard, Ph.D., director of product and corporate safety, Altec Inc. (, an aerial equipment manufacturer and service provider for the electric utility, telecommunication, tree care, lights and signs, and contractor markets.

The impact on truck specs?

“While a company may have been able to get away with a 40-foot or 50-foot or 55-foot aerial [in the past], they may need a taller unit or one with extended side reach or both so they can get to the same work area they used to get to,” Chard said. “With telecom companies, they’re having to reach the same 20 to 25 feet they used to reach, but now they need to do it 10 feet farther off the side of the road.”

Also review platform capacity to ensure it’s current with how the vehicle will need to be used today. “The last time you might have spec’d a 300- or 350-pound [platform] capacity, but after a job or task analysis, you might find that operators also need to lift materials [inside the platform],” Chard said. “If the workers themselves combine for 300 pounds or more, they wouldn’t be able to take the tools up with them if the platform is spec’d at the same capacity.”

2. Underestimating functional and weight requirements
Here are common areas of under-spec’ing aerial platform trucks that put workers at greater risk of injury and can lead to premature truck repairs and shorter truck life.

Height and reach capacity. “The risk, if spec’d incorrectly, is that workers will try to extend the reach of the unit through some sort of alternative work practice at the job site, which is unsafe and unproductive,” Chard cautioned.

Payload capacity. “Sometimes the fleet doesn’t factor in the weight of all the gear that they’ll haul in the truck, beyond the weight of the body and aerial unit,” Blanding said. “They may not have taken into consideration that they need to put a 500-pound transformer on there. Or they haven’t thought about the generators, air compressors or water tanks [to wash down equipment] that will go on the vehicle. Water weighs 8 pounds per gallon. So if you have a 100-gallon tank, you have 800 extra pounds there. All that can add up fast.”

Trailering capacity. “Weight not only has to do with cargo,” Blanding said. “The truck often needs to tow something from time to time – whether a chipper or generator trailer or pole trailer. Fleets often don’t think about that roughly 10 to 15 percent of the trailer’s weight that will be borne by the hitch. So you may have a situation where the rear axle is in good shape until you put that trailer on.”

3. Spec’ing an aerial unit with too much height and reach for the job
More boom is better, right? Not necessarily. “You don’t want to buy the biggest unit if you don’t need it,” Chard advised. “Otherwise, you’re hauling all that weight of the extra boom, so you’re spending more money on fuel, and you’re having to buy a bigger chassis to carry that bigger [aerial] unit.”

Blanding agreed. “Don’t overreach. You may think it’s better to have a 50-footer instead of a 45-footer. If you don’t actually need it, don’t spend the money for it. And that’s also an extra 5 feet to have to deal with. It may mean that you have to change the truckload to accommodate that extra size and weight. You could run into a whole slew of issues that you don’t want to deal with. The assumption is that more is better, but more could be a start of a set of problems you didn’t anticipate.”

The Bottom Line
Match the spec to the job – no more, no less. “Work closely with equipment manufacturers early in the spec-writing process,” Blanding advised. “They will be able to walk you through the changes that have occurred since your last truck purchase and what adjustments in specs you might need to meet the truck’s job requirements moving forward.”

About the Author: Sean M. Lyden is a nationally recognized journalist and feature writer for a wide range of automotive and trucking trade publications, covering fleet management strategies, light- and medium-duty trucks, truck bodies and equipment, and green fuel technologies. He blogs at Strategy + Writing (


Gas vs. Diesel in Utility Fleet Applications – Which is Better?

A decade ago, the choice between gasoline and diesel engines in most Class 3 to 7 truck applications was a no-brainer – diesel, of course. At that time there were few gasoline engine options available in heavier trucks and diesel held a significant advantage in terms of fuel efficiency, low-end torque and longevity, for only $3,000 to $4,000 more up front.

Today, however, the decision is a bit more complex. New gasoline engine technology has begun to narrow the fuel-economy and performance gap with diesel. And after progressively stringent federal emissions standards for diesel engines were put into effect in 2004, 2007 and 2010, requiring expensive exhaust reduction technologies, the price gap has essentially doubled, with diesel engines costing about $7,000 to $10,000 more than a comparable gas-burner, causing utility fleet managers to take a hard, second look at gas, when it’s available.

So, in instances where both gas and diesel are available in a particular class truck, which is better for utility and telecom fleets? Utility Fleet Professional spoke with experts at GE Capital Fleet Services ( and Donlen ( to get their take. Here are the criteria they recommend when deciding between gas versus diesel.

When Diesel is Better
Despite the substantially higher price tag, when does diesel make the most sense from a performance and life-cycle cost perspective?

“When the fleet expects the truck to run longer periods of idling time powering auxiliary equipment, they tend to lean towards diesel,” said Ken Gillies, manager of truck ordering and engineering at GE Capital Fleet Services, a leading full-service fleet management company based in Eden Prairie, Minn. “Also when there’s heavy towing necessary, they’ll choose diesel because of the engine’s higher torque output.”

Steve Jansen, manager, fleet services and regulatory compliance at Donlen, a full-service fleet management company based in Northbrook, Ill., and wholly owned subsidiary of The Hertz Corp. (NYSE: HTZ), agreed. “If you’re taking a [Ford] F-550, and you’re putting on some sort of small crane or bucket truck or you’re going to do some high-wire stuff, you’re probably not even going to think about gas. You’ll jump into diesel because it’s going to give you the torque you’re going to need and the longer life,” Jansen explained. “The torque is important to get you up and down the road with the weight you’re pulling. And if you’re taking the truck off-road into brush or something like that, you’re going to need a lot of low-end torque of the diesel to help drive the truck out of those situations.”

What’s the difference in life expectancy between diesel and gasoline engines?

“I’m still a firm believer that gas engines are built to go 200,000 miles. Diesel life is in the 300,000 to 350,000 to almost 400,000 miles range, depending on the size truck and application,” Jansen said.

According to Gillies, another factor that drives diesel selection is fuel economy. “Although the gasoline world has done a great job with efficiencies for fuel injection and various controls, diesel still holds a miles per gallon advantage, which we see as a way to help fleets control fuel costs in high-mileage, high-idle situations,” Gillies said.

What exactly is diesel’s fuel economy advantage?

“The diesel is 15 to 20 percent more fuel efficient than gas,” Jansen said. “And even though the gasoline engines have improved, the one thing that remains the same is that the diesel fuel itself is still 30 to 35 percent more efficient than gasoline [in terms of energy density]. So, theoretically, for every gallon of diesel fuel you put in, you’re having to put in 1.3 gallons of gasoline because of the efficiency ratio.”

Gillies estimated the diesel advantage at about 2 mpg, but said that at that rate, “it still takes a long time to clear the higher [initial] cost of the diesel engine, depending on the specifics of the application and the actual road mileage the vehicle is encountering.”

When Gas is Better
In what utility fleet applications is gasoline a good fit?

“A gas engine is suitable in a light utilization vehicle,” Gillies said. “By that I mean light-duty Class 2 to 3 and, in some cases, Class 4, when it’s operating with relatively short idle time. The diesel starts to make more sense if the application requires longer idle time [to operate cranes, buckets and other specialty equipment], even if it’s a lighter-class truck.”

Also, if the fleet is considering converting vehicles to gaseous alternative fuels such as CNG or propane autogas, a gasoline engine would be the most economical option because it’s inherently more “gaseous-fuel ready” than diesel, according to Gillies. “It’s about a $9,000 or so conversion cost to equip a gasoline-powered Class 6 truck for CNG. If you take the same truck, spec’d with a diesel engine, and you want to convert it to gaseous fuel, you’re looking at, on average, three times the cost,” Gillies said.

The Bottom Line
Jansen summed up the gas versus diesel deliberation this way: “The whole decision is based on what the job is you’re going to call on that truck to do. If it’s running from job site to job site to check on workers or as an estimator, carrying a small amount of tools or equipment going out to inspect well sites, then gas is going to be fine. The heavier the job, that’s where diesel is really going to pay off, giving you the long life and low-end torque and start-ability you need to drive that truck out of a ditch, whereas the gas [engine] is going to struggle a little bit in that scenario.”

About the Author: Sean M. Lyden is a nationally recognized journalist and feature writer for a wide range of automotive and trucking trade publications, covering fleet management strategies, light- and medium-duty trucks, truck bodies and equipment, and green fuel technologies. He blogs at Lyden Fleet Strategies (


Driver Behaviors that Waste Fuel – and How to Correct Them

As utility fleets look for ways to blunt the impact of rising fuel costs on their bottom line, one opportunity for substantial cost savings can be found in training and motivating their drivers to operate their vehicles with more fuel efficiency.

According to a 2011 study by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (, the cumulative impact of neglecting good eco-driving practices can take a highly fuel-efficient vehicle with baseline performance of 36 mpg down to 19.8 mpg, a 45 percent drop in efficiency. Considering that commercial trucks are used in much harsher duty cycles and conditions than passenger vehicles, there’s potential for even greater negative impact on fuel economy if drivers aren’t managed effectively.

Biggest Fuel Wasters
Three driver behaviors tend to be the biggest fuel wasters.

1. Unnecessary Idle
Engine idle wastes 0.25 to 0.5 gallons per hour depending on engine size and air conditioning operation, according to the Environmental Protection Agency ( “Whether it’s the guy that eats lunch in his vehicle or, in some cases, we see people who leave the vehicle running almost the entire the day [to keep it cool during hot summers], that’s a significant waste of fuel, as well as additional wear and tear on the vehicle,” said Karl Weber, vice president of enterprise sales for SageQuest (, which is owned by Fleetmatics Group (NYSE: FLTX) and a provider of GPS fleet tracking and management technology designed to improve mobile workforce efficiency.

As a frame of reference, if only one driver excessively idles the vehicle for two hours per day, that adds up to a nearly $1,000 annual hit to the bottom line assuming $3.75 per gallon. Spread that over 10, 20, 50 or more drivers and the loss compounds.

Not all idle can be avoided, however – especially in utility applications. “In some types of vehicles, you have equipment on them that requires the engine to run,” Weber said. “If you take a vehicle in the utility industry that’s equipped with a bucket, often the engine has to be running for the bucket to be engaged and go up [via a PTO provision]. In that instance, organizations are going to be interested in tracking their drivers’ PTO idle versus non-PTO idle.”

2. Speeding
“For every 5 mph you travel over 65 mph, you reduce your efficiency by 7 percent,” said Nick Ehrhart, telematics vice president of business development for Donlen (, a full-service fleet management company headquartered in Northbrook, Ill., and a wholly-owned subsidiary of The Hertz Corp. (NYSE: HTZ). “So, slowing down when it’s safe to do so will greatly increase your vehicle’s fuel economy.”

This is because as speed increases, so does the aerodynamic drag (wind resistance), which forces the engine to work harder and consume more fuel to operate at the higher speed.

3. Aggressive Driving
Rapid acceleration and harsh braking reduce fuel economy by as much as 33 percent at highway speeds and 5 percent in town, according to the EPA. Therefore, if you have multiple drivers who make it a habit to “punch” the accelerator “off the line,” weave through traffic or slam on the brakes, their behavior is eating a chunk out of your organization’s bottom line.

Correcting These Behaviors
What can fleets do to help drivers break these habits so they become more fuel-conscious? Here are three tips.

1. Hold drivers accountable. “By far the most critical strategy to changing driver behavior is to create a driver policy [that clearly states expectations and consequences for noncompliance] and enforce it,” Ehrhart said. “You want all drivers to have a chance to be recognized or given a token of thanks [for improving behavior], but for those that don’t try and continue to behave poorly, there needs to be some type of repercussion.”

2. Educate drivers on the big-picture consequences of fuel-wasting behaviors. “I think most people realize that aggressive driving is not good, whether it’s from a safety perspective, or wear and tear of the vehicle, or fuel economy,” said Art Liggio, president of Driving Dynamics (, a Newark, Del.-based driver training firm for corporate fleets. “We focus on challenging the drivers to think about the responsibilities they have when they’re on the road, getting a little bit deeper into the person’s psyche. Instead of just saying, ‘It’s because you’re going to reduce your gas mileage by 5 miles per gallon,’ the focus is more about how this activity, action or behavior has even deeper consequences, drilling down all the way to how much these [driver behaviors] affect the financial viability of the employer.”

3. Incentivize positive driver behaviors. Weber referred to one client that implemented a driver incentive program, based on vehicle data captured by SageQuest’s GPS/telematics system, that helped reduce daily idle per vehicle from two hours to 45 minutes, saving the company nearly $1,000 in fuel costs per day. “They said, ‘All right, we’re going to rank our drivers every week based on the average idle time per day. And if you hit a certain threshold, you go into a bucket. Once a week, we’re going to pull a name out of that bucket with drivers that qualify based on appropriate behavior. We’re going to give away prizes, such as Xboxes or 40-inch LCD TVs.’ They’ve significantly reduced their idle and maintained it with this [incentive] program.”

Learning Moments
When it comes to correcting driver behaviors, Liggio summed it up this way: “If you want to change behavior, it’s not about throwing facts and figures at your drivers. You have to give them a 360-degree view into how their behavior actually affects others, and their employer in particular. And that opens their mind. Then they have this learning moment where they say, ‘Hmm. Maybe being an aggressive driver gets me to appointments faster or on time, but maybe being three or four minutes late is not as painful as the other things my behavior can cause.’”

Said Weber, “Fleets are realizing that they’re not just going to be able to eliminate the behavior, they need to manage it. They need to help drivers understand the benefit to them – ‘If we can cut this [idle] down, we’ll have more money to do other programs.’”

About the Author: Sean M. Lyden is a nationally recognized journalist and feature writer for a wide range of automotive and trucking trade publications, covering fleet management strategies, light- and medium-duty trucks, truck bodies and equipment, and green fuel technologies. He blogs at Lyden Fleet Strategies (


Spec’ing Service Bodies to Boost Productivity and Profit in Utility Fleets

Service bodies, also known as utility beds, mounted onto light- and medium-duty truck chassis provide utility contractors with easy and secure access to their tools, equipment and parts to do their work more efficiently – and profitably.

That is, if the body is spec’d properly for the job. If you’re replacing an existing service body truck, keep in mind that yesterday’s spec may not be optimal for today’s work, potentially impeding driver productivity and increasing fleet operational costs.

“Don’t assume that duplicating the old truck that’s being replaced is the right thing to do,” cautioned Jim Palin, senior truck applications engineer for GE Capital Fleet Services ( “Fleet managers need to get down to the driver level and make sure the job function hasn’t changed. And if it has, revise the body spec accordingly.”

How do fleet managers sort through the various body configurations, materials and other options available to ensure their service body spec best fits the job? Follow these three steps.

1. Begin with the truck’s role in mind. What function is the truck expected to perform? Will the truck include body-mounted equipment such as an aerial bucket or telescopic crane? Or will it carry smaller tools and parts? Will it need to haul ladders or wire spools or compressors? What is the expected maximum payload?

Answers to questions like these will help you nail down the big picture of your truck and service body requirements, including:

  • Chassis selection based on gross vehicle weight rating.
  • Chassis length in terms of inches between cab-to-rear axle.
  • Body dimensions and any provisions for mounted equipment.

2. Dig deep for the details. “Seek feedback from drivers,” Palin advised. “You want to drill down to the granular level of how drivers use the truck to do their job to ensure the body is configured to support their work – to equip them to be as productive as possible.”

Craig Bonham, director of business development at The Reading Group (, a truck body manufacturer based in Reading, Pa., agrees. “[Drivers] have a lot of different parts and things that they utilize on the service line and so they have different requirements, ranging from a different size door to a way the shelf may be angulated for easy [part] retrieval,” Bonham said. “Sometimes these vehicles work in the evening, so they may want rope lighting inside the cabinet network. Since utility operators are in the load space of the truck bed more often than your common contractor [to access the aerial device, for example], the ease of getting in and out of the load space has to be a priority. You could have a stairwell built into the body, which makes getting up into the body more ergonomically friendly. There are also grab bars and nonslip surfaces to consider because safety is a very, very strong focus involving utility and aerial devices.”

Another important factor, said Eric Paul, vice president of sales and marketing at Fort Worth, Texas-based BrandFX Body Company (, is the location of the body compartments. “If you’re an infrastructure worker or utility worker that works in a metropolitan area, chances are you will want the tools and products you use most of the time on the curb [or passenger side] of the vehicle. The reason for this is so the operator is not working on the driver side of the vehicle, where there is traffic on the major thoroughfares.”

Also account for any off-road use, advised Bonham. “The body has to be installed in a way that allows articulation of the chassis frame while also protecting the body from structural failure when operating off-road,” Bonham said. “The solution, in many cases, is to spring-mount the body. This method allows proper chassis frame articulation in unimproved road surfaces and helps to eliminate permanent structural deformation to the body structure.”

3. Evaluate the cost benefit of lightweight materials for body construction. Most service bodies continue to be built out of conventional steel because of its attractive price point and reputation for durability. But lighter-weight materials, such as aluminum and fiber composite – heavy-duty fiberglass laid over a durable foam core – have gained momentum and market share in the service body market as fleet managers seek ways to improve fuel economy and squeeze more cost savings from their operations.

“Service body specs for bid often only include steel. But if you can achieve 40 to 50 percent weight savings, fleet managers would be negligent not to scrutinize the spec,” Paul said. “If you take 50 percent out of the weight of the body structure, theoretically you can choose a lighter powertrain or [more fuel-efficient] rear axle. Or it could mean that you spec it out on the same size vehicle, but up your payload, which means you can stock your trucks heavier – and that means fewer trips back to dispatch.”

Both fiber composite and aluminum bodies also tend to be more corrosion resistant than steel, offering fleets a longer service life. “Whereas several years ago, many utility fleets were leasing trucks and turning them back in every five to seven years, we have seen a very big departure from that in the past four years [due to the economic downturn],” observed John Dunn, director of utility services with The Reading Group, which manufactures steel and aluminum service bodies. “Most of these fleets are keeping their trucks as long as 10 to 12 years. And because of that, [corrosion-resistant materials] are a better fit for many of these fleets to ensure the bodies will last.”

A key question to ask is this: Will the higher upfront cost of lightweight materials – versus steel – be offset by potential savings generated by longer life cycles, improved overall fuel economy, downsizing the chassis or increasing body payload? Run the numbers for your application. In a low-mileage scenario where the truck is expected to be replaced within five to seven years, steel may remain the more economical choice.

The Bottom Line
Define the job description for each service body truck. Then ask, how can we spec this truck and body in a way that equips our drivers to do that job faster, safer, with maximum fuel efficiency and at the lowest possible vehicle acquisition cost? Develop a service body spec that achieves all these objectives to squeeze more productivity – and profit – from your fleet operations.

About the Author: Sean M. Lyden is a nationally recognized journalist and feature writer for a wide range of automotive and trucking trade publications, covering fleet management strategies, light- and medium-duty trucks, truck bodies and equipment, and green fuel technologies. He blogs at Lyden Fleet Strategies (

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