Tag: Fleet Maintenance


Aftermarket vs. OEM Replacement Parts

Are you unsure whether to purchase aftermarket or OEM replacement parts for your fleet’s vehicles? Using a mix of both has proven to be an effective strategy for Ameren Illinois Company (AIC), Fairfax County Water Authority (Fairfax Water) and Oklahoma Gas & Electric (OG&E), according to fleet representatives from the three utilities.

Safety, performance, availability and quality are among the factors that make OEM parts the best option for certain aspects of fleet operations.

“On critical components, it’s better to get the original equipment parts instead of taking a chance on questionable quality of the aftermarket materials,” explained Dale Collins, CAFM, fleet services supervisor for Virginia-based Fairfax Water, which maintains more than 400 fleet units. “Folks can easily replicate good-quality wiper blades, but not more sophisticated electronic parts.”

Several years ago Fairfax Water replaced the original brake pads on its heavy-payload pickup trucks with aftermarket pads that did not hold up well. The utility now relies on the durability of factory OEM brake parts that they have found to be superior to aftermarket products. Fairfax Water also depends on original equipment parts for engine management due to past performance issues with some of its construction equipment, and it uses OEM parts for auto body and crash repairs in critical areas of the vehicle in order to maintain “crashworthiness,” or the ability of a vehicle to protect occupants during an impact.

Similarly, AIC sticks with OEM parts when it comes to electronic and emission components and large component rebuilds such as engine transmissions. According to Dan Remmert, manager of fleet services for the Collinsville, Ill.-based utility, OEMs are usually quicker to implement upgrades on emission-related items than aftermarket parts manufacturers.

“With the OEMs, there appears to be less lag on new-model parts,” he said.

Aftermarket Appeal
OEM parts certainly meet various utility fleet needs, yet there are a number of reasons underlying the popularity of aftermarket parts. For one, these parts can help utility fleets save money.

According to Remmert, cost savings is the reason AIC turns to the aftermarket for its preventive maintenance parts, including filters, bulbs and even batteries. In terms of volume, more than 80 percent of the utility’s parts are aftermarket purchases.

Fairfax Water also depends on aftermarket suppliers for tune-up parts, filters, chassis parts, brake parts, wiper blades, bulbs/vehicle lighting and other items.

Beyond cost savings, the aftermarket can provide solutions when OEM parts fail to do the job.

“A few years back we had some pickups that had fuel gauge problems because of how the fuel sending unit was designed,” recalled Paul Jefferson, fleet manager for OG&E. “I read an article about how the aftermarket had already identified [the problem] and so we switched.” OG&E uses aftermarket parts mostly for brakes and suspension, filters, electrical tune-up parts, wipers and batteries, and sometimes for engine components for the pickups and sedans in its fleet of nearly 2,000 units.

Fairfax Water had an experience similar to OG&E’s. “Oftentimes the aftermarket tends to do a better job at re-engineering a weak area in an OEM part,” Collins said. “Years ago we went through a lot of belt tensioners. The bearing itself wasn’t sufficient to support the load, so the aftermarket responded and put in a more robust bearing, which solved a lot of the problems.”

Streamlining of vendors is another reason utility fleets turn to aftermarket parts. For example, in the past OG&E would buy aerial baskets from one manufacturer, digger derricks from another and small baskets from a third. The units would end up with different strobe lights, brake controllers, taillights and other components. Now the fleet minimizes the number of vendors it works with by sticking to one standardized part.

AIC also has increased its reliance on the aftermarket because of the utility’s desire to standardize and streamline its work with vendors.

“If all things are equal, I’m going to go with the aftermarket and get a bigger spend with one guy than some OEM and deal with so many more vendors,” Remmert said. “The desire is to do more with less.”

Remmert enjoys having a single source for sales support as well. “I deal with one guy and he can handle the whole territory,” he explained. “OEMs seem to be more independently owned, so you’ve got multiple contacts, if any sales support at all.”

Plus, AIC has been able to leverage the aftermarket’s non-catalog items. “We use a lot of widgets that typical suppliers wouldn’t stock,” Remmert said. “[Aftermarket parts suppliers] actually go out and find those parts. I haven’t had that kind of luck with an OEM.”

Warranty and Safety Considerations
Charlie Guthro, vice president of operations for ARI, one of the largest fleet management companies in the country, has some insight for utility fleets that are trying to make the choice between OEM and aftermarket parts.

“When faced with the decision of needing to replace a part, fleets should consider whether there is the potential to recover any of the cost under the terms of any existing warranties,” he said. “Generally, warranties are only available on OEM parts.”

Guthro also advised fleets to give ample consideration to the safety of aftermarket parts. “While aftermarket parts can often offer the greatest value, fleet managers should check to be sure the parts do not affect the safe operation of the vehicle or other upfit parts,” he said.

About the Author: Grace Suizo has been covering the automotive fleet industry since 2007. She spent six years as an editor for five fleet publications and has written more than 100 articles geared toward both commercial and public sector fleets.


Data is Driving Utility Fleet Maintenance Decisions

Maintenance schedules based on “the way it’s always been done” are trending downward. Instead, more utility fleets are relying on the operational data they collect from onboard technologies to set maintenance intervals and equipment specs.

That’s the biggest trend today in fleet maintenance, according to Chris Shaffer, partner at Utilimarc (www.utilimarc.com), a Minneapolis-based consulting and benchmarking firm. “[Utility fleets] are using actual engine hours or miles to trigger service.”

That collected operational data also is driving changes in equipment specs with the goal of reducing maintenance costs and improving utilization, Shaffer added.

“There is pressure to rightsize the fleet, and to do that successfully [fleet managers] have to spec the vehicle to improve utilization. They’re trying to be leaner, meaner, and that means they have to better spec the vehicle,” he said.

Sherry Pinion, director of fleet services for Cobb EMC, an electric cooperative in Marietta, Ga., said that was the idea behind some of the changes the fleet made to its specs.

“We’re trying to do a better job designing the vehicle for the job use,” she said.

“In the past, all of our trucks’ bed configurations were different,” explained Chris Hardy, Cobb’s fleet services coordinator. “We are standardizing our bed configuration, material quantity, even the material location in an effort to improve inventory tracking, worker efficiency, safety and weight distribution on each chassis,” all to improve utilization and reduce maintenance costs.

Indianapolis Power & Light Co. (IP&L) has been using telematics from Telogis (www.telogis.com) for several years to improve truck specs and reduce the turnaround cycle on their trucks, said Les Gose, fleet maintenance manager.

“We’re trying to retire equipment before it becomes burdensome on our costs,” he said. Better spec’ing has meant reduced downtime and better utilization, which has enabled IP&L to reduce manpower by about 30 percent, Gose added.

Meeting Standards and Sharing Data
A current challenge facing utility fleets’ maintenance departments are the changes required to meet greenhouse gas emissions standards, said Charlie Guthro, vice president of North American fleet management for ARI (www.arifleet.com).

“As OEMs adapt and change their engines to meet new regulations, operators continue to struggle to keep their vehicles on the road,” he said. “It can be a combination of maintenance requirements or operator education and awareness. As engines become smarter and more fuel-efficient, they become more complicated with increased [onboard diagnostic] warning lights and readings that drivers and maintenance technicians need to diagnose to keep vehicles on the road.”

The upside to this and certain other maintenance-related challenges is that, more and more, fleet maintenance departments don’t have to face them all on their own. There is now a growing trend among utilities to share operational and maintenance data gathered from onboard vehicle technologies between the two departments.

“Sharing information between them is very resourceful,” said John Davis, fleet management consultant for Dossier Systems (www.dossiersystemsinc.com), a maintenance software provider headquartered in Burlington, N.J. “We’re seeing improved communications between the two because everyone is now looking at the same data. Having the [truck’s operational] information at their fingertips means better decisions, and that means saved money.”

Sharing that kind of data gives both the operations and maintenance departments a better understanding of how vehicle use affects maintenance, said Jeffrey Schneider, fleet manager for Louisville Gas and Electric Co. The company will be installing GPS and telematics systems in its fleet of more than 1,800 vehicles with the goal of reducing both operational and maintenance costs.

“We’re trying to bring maintenance and operational groups closer together to share more of the vehicle maintenance [data] with the operational side,” he said. “The addition of telematics will give our operational people a better idea of how the truck is used.”

About the Author: Jim Galligan has been covering the commercial truck transportation sector for more than 30 years and has extensive experience covering the utility fleet market. In addition to writing and editing for magazines, his background also includes writing for daily newspapers, trade associations and corporations.


Maintenance Infographics

Source: Utilimarc

Maintenance-related wages and work among utility and municipal fleets have not varied much from 2011 to 2014, the latest data available, according to Utilimarc. Data is based on annual surveys of 55 to 60 companies with approximately 150,000 collective units.

The mechanic’s average straight wage increased a total of about 6.5 percent from 2011 to 2014. As shown, the average billed hours and outsourced work dropped slightly from 2013 to 2014.

A total of 32 percent of utility companies pay mechanics between $33.57 and $36.59 an hour, while 70 percent of municipalities pay mechanics less than $33.56 an hour, according to 2014 data, Utilimarc said.

It’s notable that the average days between preventive maintenance intervals jumped 41 percent in 2013. Many utility and municipal fleets were able to buy new equipment beginning in 2013 after several years of spending freezes, which might account for the extended intervals. Similarly, the average days between unscheduled maintenance also increased from 2011 to 2014, perhaps reflecting the influx of new equipment into the fleets.

-Jim Galligan


3 Tips for Selecting Heavy-Duty Vehicle Lifts

For utility fleets that perform their own maintenance and repairs, heavy-duty vehicle lifts are an integral part of the process. So, when it comes time to purchase or lease a lift, it’s important that the decision is based on good research and a strong understanding of what kind of lift will work best in the fleet’s shop. Following are three tips in particular that fleet managers should consider when selecting heavy-duty vehicle lifts.

Tip 1: Invest in Safety
When buying or leasing a heavy-duty lift, one of the best ways to help ensure safety is to invest in certified equipment and options. “There is only one nationally recognized safety standard for lifts: ANSI/ALI ALCTV, administered by the Automotive Lift Institute,” said Steve Perlstein, sales and marketing manager for Mohawk Lifts (www.mohawklifts.com).

To determine if a lift and/or lift option is certified, visit www.autolift.org/ali-directory-of-certified-lifts/. If you can’t find the lift or lift option you’re looking for in the directory, it is not certified for use.

Besides meeting the requirements of the standard, there are several other safety factors fleet managers should consider when selecting lifts. Look for lifts that are made of corrosion-resistant materials. A lift also should be constructed in such a way that, when it is installed in the work area, cords and other parts won’t act as trip hazards. Additionally, fleet managers should make certain that the lift they ultimately choose has the proper number of pistons to handle the weight of the fleet’s specific vehicle types. And don’t forget that easily accessible, free-standing controls give maintenance personnel an increased range of movement while on the job.

Tip 2: Focus on Efficiency
Labor comprises a significant percentage of a fleet’s maintenance budget. But fleet managers can significantly reduce costs through the efficiency of their equipment, including heavy-duty lifts.

“The type of lift used can dramatically increase shop efficiency and keep more vehicles on the street versus in the shop,” Perlstein said. In fact, he continued, the installation of a single vehicle lift can reduce costs within a fleet maintenance department by up to $100,000 or more in the first year alone, depending on use.

Kirk Dawson, vice president of heavy duty at Rotary Lift (www.rotarylift.com), advises fleet managers to look for lift features that simplify setup, reduce downtime and enable the technician to quickly raise and lower the vehicle to save time during each job.

“Since labor is often a fleet’s second-largest equipment and maintenance expense, surpassed only by fuel costs, it is important to maximize the productivity of each technician,” he said.

Helpful lift features include:
• Universal adapters for inground lifts that can be easily adjusted for a variety of vehicles.
• Technology that helps to reduce setup time, such as wireless communications, intuitive controls and automatic steering systems for mobile column lifts.
• Pendant controls for inground lifts that simplify the vehicle spotting process.
• Fast-rise speeds that reduce the amount of time the technician has to wait before starting work.
• Automatic ramp chocks and single-point lock releases for four-post lifts, which make it easy to get the vehicle on and off the runways.

Tip 3: Factor in Cost While Ensuring Quality
Cost represents a critical factor when leasing or purchasing heavy-duty vehicle lifts for a fleet facility. But it’s not just the cost of the equipment that fleet managers need to consider. “In addition to buying the lift itself, you should also factor in costs for installation, user training and annual inspections,” said R.W. “Bob” O’Gorman, president of the Automotive Lift Institute (www.autolift.org).

Some lift manufacturers provide on-site lift-use training as well as safety-related videos on their company websites. And ALI offers “Lifting It Right” at www.autolift.org/ali-store/lifting-it-right-2014-online-edition, which simplifies the training process by covering all lift types in one convenient, Web-based course.

Perlstein has a final thought for fleet managers who are in the market for new vehicle lifts. “Consider the quality of the lift, where it was manufactured and how long it is going to last,” he said. “It is also important to evaluate the total cost of ownership, as lifts with a higher initial price but higher quality are worth it in order to avoid costly lift downtime. If the lift is down, the utility truck can’t be repaired.”

About the Author: Cheryl Knight has written for the fleet industry for more than 20 years. Her work has appeared in Automotive Fleet, Fleet Financials, Government Fleet and a number of other niche-market publications.


What Type of Lift is Right for Your Fleet?
When investing in a heavy-duty vehicle lift, fleet managers must address two key factors: space constraints in the shop and how the lift will be used.

“There are many types of heavy-duty vehicle lifts, so it is important that the fleet manager selects the right kind for the vehicles he or she will be servicing,” said R.W. “Bob” O’Gorman, president of the Automotive Lift Institute. “Each lift type also has its own installation needs, which can range from the addition of a simple electrical outlet to breaking concrete.”

Among the heavy-duty lifts in use today are mobile column lifts, parallelogram lifts and inground lifts. Mobile lift systems are typically popular with users who are looking for portability and flexibility, while parallelogram lifts require little to no setup. Inground lifts – which were the most widely used lift type until the 1980s, according to the ALI website – offer great space efficiency and excellent access to a vehicle’s undercarriage.

For more information about the variety of lifts available in the marketplace, as well as purchasing guidance, visit www.autolift.org.


In-House Vehicle Maintenance vs. Outsourcing: What’s Right for Your Fleet?

All utility fleet operations have to make one especially critical choice – whether to handle vehicle maintenance in-house, hire an outside vendor to take care of the work or use a mix of both. And it’s not an easy decision to make. There are many factors to consider, not to mention the wrong choice can lead to real problems such as increased vehicle downtime and higher operating costs.

“It’s not a cookie-cutter solution,” said Dave Fisher, a 28-year fleet industry veteran and fleet manager with PNM Resources, which includes subsidiaries Public Service Company of New Mexico and Texas-New Mexico Power. “Managers need to ask what the vehicles are worth. In-house maintenance can oftentimes provide far superior quality and less downtime, but outsourcing can cost less.”

Fisher oversees close to 1,300 utility vehicles: approximately 900 on-the-road vehicles and 400 trailers and pieces of equipment. Vehicles are used for anything from meter reading to transmission and distribution work, and include light-duty vehicles, medium-duty trucks with service bodies, small buckets and cranes, aerials and more. PNM’s vehicle maintenance program consists of both an in-house component for large trucks and big equipment and an outsource component for light-duty vehicles.

Factors to Consider
Cost is one of the most important factors for management to consider when determining whether to outsource maintenance or keep the work in-house. Often, outsourcing can provide a lower cost than in-house maintenance because there’s no need to invest in maintenance equipment, train personnel or stock and keep track of parts.

“It doesn’t make sense for us to do our light-duty preventive maintenance for 1-ton pickups and down because our internal labor rates can’t compete with what the industry offers,” Fisher explained. “We’re an $85-an-hour loaded labor rate, and that can’t compete with a $40 oil change at a dealer or Quick Lube.”

Even though cost is a driving factor in a utility fleet manager’s ultimate decision about how to handle vehicle maintenance, other criteria – like access to high-quality, well-trained personnel – can come into play. Fisher pointed out that the outsource-versus-in-house decision should take into account where vehicles operate as well as dealer network reliability.

“For some of our vehicles, we are limited in finding quality repairs for our aerial equipment in our dealership network, so we rely on our guys who are hydraulic certified,” he said. “I can’t find that expertise in the field, and it’s getting harder and harder to find.”

Another argument for keeping maintenance in-house is the ability of a utility to establish its own quality controls and generate quicker turnaround time.

However, outsourcing vehicle maintenance does offer other benefits in addition to potentially lower costs. For instance, with the time saved by not performing maintenance work, utilities can place greater focus on issues such as customer service. Additionally, fleets that outsource can benefit from expert advice provided by their maintenance vendors as well as vendor-supplied reports that document critical life-cycle metrics.

What’s Best for You?
At some point, a utility must choose whether to perform their own in-house vehicle maintenance, outsource the work or use a combination of both methods, depending on what’s best for the organization. Not all factors are equal, and as Fisher pointed out, one solution does not fit all.

For PNM, Fisher’s hybrid outsource/in-house approach has worked well. “On our light-duty preventive maintenance, I can trim close to $50,000 a year by outsourcing,” he said. “And for our heavy-duty trucks, I can save $350,000 to $400,000 per year by repairing them in-house.”

While Fisher has been “playing with” PNM’s preventive maintenance program for the past seven years, he continually monitors and assesses it.

“It’s a moving target,” he said. “And I’m getting ready to relook at our entire PM program again.”

About the Author: Cheryl Knight has written for the fleet industry for more than 20 years. Her work has appeared in Automotive Fleet, Fleet Financials, Government Fleet and a number of other niche-market publications.


The Importance of Benchmarking
For utility fleets, it can be quite difficult to decide how to handle vehicle maintenance. The use of benchmarking – which allows a utility fleet to compare its performance to that of other, similar organizations – is one way fleet managers can determine what best suits their unique needs.

By using a benchmarking program, fleet managers can measure their operational costs, technician wages and other data against data provided by utilities across the country that are similar in size and other criteria. This process of comparison allows fleet managers to identify the areas in which they are doing well and the areas in which improvements may need to be made. For instance, benchmarking can help utility fleet managers determine the cost-effectiveness of their current vehicle maintenance program and whether it would be worthwhile to make any program modifications.


Preventive Maintenance and the Electric Vehicle

In an effort to reduce fuel costs, extend replacement cycles and lower greenhouse gas emissions, an increasing number of utility fleets now operate electric vehicles (EVs). In fact, in November 2014, the White House and Edison Electric Institute announced that more than 70 U.S. electric utility companies have plans to devote at least 5 percent of their fleet acquisition budgets to buying plug-in EVs and related technology. Their investments will total approximately $50 million each year.

With fewer moving parts and less reliance on oil to lubricate and help cool the engine parts that do move, EVs represent a sound investment, over time, for many utility fleets. In addition to lower fuel costs and fewer emissions, others benefits of operating EVs include reduced noise levels, exportable power and lower total cost of ownership.

“While you pay more for a plug-in, the overall cost of ownership is significantly lower,” said David Meisel, senior director of transportation and aviation services at Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), explaining that payback for the company’s fleet usually ranges from two to seven years. “For our bucket trucks, we’re looking at paybacks in 24 to 30 months. Some of our light-duty applications pay back in five years or less. And some of our pickup trucks see payback in seven years.”

All Maintenance Programs Are Not Equal
By developing an effective preventive maintenance plan and sticking to it, companies can expect longer life for the EVs in their fleets. This means fleet managers do not have to replace vehicles as often, generating even more savings when added to the decreased costs of operating EVs. In addition to a great return on investment, companies that operate EVs can lower their environmental footprints as well.

But should maintenance schedules for EVs be the same as their gas and diesel counterparts, and how can you adequately protect and ensure the long life of your EV fleet?

The PG&E fleet operates about 1,400 EVs out of a total fleet of 14,000. The fleet’s EVs range from Chevy Volts to Ford Fusions to GMC Sierras, among many others. According to Meisel, the key to an effective EV maintenance program is to recognize that all EVs are not equal – they are application specific. So, maintenance schedules must be unique for EVs.

“If fleet managers don’t treat them differently, they are missing out on a big opportunity,” Meisel explained. “If they run the same preventive maintenance program for EVs as their other vehicles, they are leaving a tremendous amount of money on the table and forgoing the benefits of electrification.”

Preventive Maintenance Best Practices for Utility EVs
Unlike traditional internal combustion vehicles, EVs rely on electricity to power the various systems that make them go. But because EVs still use some moving parts, effective maintenance can help keep them in proper working order. This means that, in addition to any lubricants and other fluids associated with traditional vehicle maintenance, fleet managers should also design schedules centered on maintaining the vital electric components of an EV’s drivetrain. And of course, fleet managers should follow the manufacturer’s recommended maintenance schedule for best results.

Training mechanics also is critical to the preventive maintenance process, not only to keep parts properly maintained, but to ensure the safety of all personnel. “The voltage on these vehicles can kill. It’s very important that those who work on them are specially trained,” Meisel said. “We train all our mechanics on high-voltage EV systems because safety is first and foremost.”

As far as set maintenance schedules for EVs, in PG&E’s case the EV components essentially are worry-free, with a few more connections to look at and possible wear on lines. And according to Meisel, fleet management has drastically extended its preventive maintenance in many areas, including oil changes and brake work. “The maintenance intervals are significantly longer because of the durability of the systems,” he said.

Meisel pointed out that it is best practice to adhere to regular preventive maintenance schedules even though EVs do not require as much maintenance as their gas and diesel counterparts. “For our electric vehicles, we are finding that we can drastically extend our preventive maintenance. For instance, for some vehicles we do oil changes only once per year; for others, every 15 years. Not because they need it, but because it’s time.”

PG&E’s fleet management is also finding that EVs used in urban areas are seeing brakes lasting two to three times longer, thanks to regenerative braking. “Our maintenance work on our brakes has dropped drastically,” Meisel explained.

He summed up PG&E’s experience with EV maintenance by stating, “Our experience is that EVs are extremely bulletproof from a maintenance perspective.”

About the Author: Cheryl Knight has written for the fleet industry for more than 20 years. Her work has appeared in Automotive Fleet, Fleet Financials, Government Fleet and a number of other niche-market publications.


Learn More
In June 2014, Edison Electric Institute published “Transportation Electrification: Utility Fleets Leading the Charge,” which provides a wealth of information about the benefits of electrification, vehicle technology, total cost of ownership and much more. A copy of the white paper can be found at www.eei.org/issuesandpolicy/electrictransportation/FleetVehicles/Documents/EEI_UtilityFleetsLeadingTheCharge.pdf.


How to Maximize the Tire Life of Medium-Duty Trucks

Because every fleet is different, what you spend on tires is going to be unique for your operation. One thing is certain, however: No matter what your operation, tires are going to make a significant contribution to your cost of doing business. Because of that fact, it’s important for fleet professionals to do everything possible to minimize the cost of every 32nd of an inch of tread rubber they purchase.

Spec Tires Designed for Long Life
Although radials dominate the tire market in every commercial application, there are still some fleets using bias-ply designs. It’s not the original price that should be considered when buying tires; what’s important is the total cost per mile the product delivers before it’s scrapped. And a radial will win that contest every time.

There is less rolling resistance and heat generated as a radial rolls down the road because of its steel-supported tread and casing. This results in better fuel economy, longer casing life and lower cost per lifetime mile than bias-ply designs. Radials also offer bonuses of better road handling, improved driver comfort and less downtime.

Maintain Optimal Air Pressure at All Times
After any tire is put into operation, ongoing maintenance is required to maximize its service life, and air pressure is the most critical tire maintenance factor. Operating with an underinflated tire will cause heat buildup in the casing, leading to shortened casing life, irregular tread wear and possible sudden tire destruction. These possibilities make it imperative to perform regular pressure checks. Air will migrate through the walls of every tire, causing them to lose pressure over time. Lost air must be regularly replaced.

Inflation pressures should be checked with calibrated tire gauges – not tire billies – at least weekly and definitely before any long trips. Check pressures when tires are cold; early morning is normally a good time. Even a short trip will cause heat buildup and a pressure increase. Remember, never bleed air from a hot tire.

When tire inflation pressures are being checked, it’s also a perfect time to inspect those same tires. If a regular pressure check finds that a tire has lost 4 psi, look for something that could have caused such a loss – valve leakage, tread penetration or rim damage, for example. You should consider any tire to be flat if it is found to be 20 percent below its desirable air pressure, and it should be removed from service as should any tire with a bulge, crack or cut.

Ensure Timely Vehicle Inspection and Maintenance Intervals
While both underinflation and overinflation can cause rapid tread wear, most tire wear problems can be traced to the vehicle’s condition. Alignment refers to more than steering axle geometry. Total vehicle alignment also addresses the tracking of all axles on the vehicle to include any trailer axles. The Technology & Maintenance Council of the American Trucking Associations (www.trucking.org/technology_council.aspx) has established recognized standards for vehicle alignments in its Recommended Practice 642.

Regular vehicle alignment checks included in a preventive maintenance program will help to minimize tire costs and help control fuel consumption. Consider including vehicle alignment checks:
• Upon delivery of new vehicles.
• At a vehicle’s first maintenance check.
• When new steer tires or front-end components are installed.
• When tire wear suggests a problem.

Tires are expensive for any fleet, but attention to both tire and vehicle maintenance will not only help in minimizing your tire cost per mile, it will also help to increase your fuel economy.

About the Author: Tom Gelinas is a U.S. Army veteran who spent nearly a decade as a physicist before joining Irving-Cloud Publishing Co. While at Irving-Cloud, he worked in various editorial capacities for several trade publications including Fleet Equipment, Heavy Duty Equipment Maintenance and Transport Technology Today. Gelinas is a founding member of Truck Writers of North America, a professional association, and a contributing writer for Utility Fleet Professional.


Effective Preventive Maintenance Programs

A tool is anything used as a means of accomplishing a task or purpose. That being the case, few experienced fleet managers would argue with the idea that a good preventive maintenance (PM) program – properly performed and in a timely manner – is one of the best tools any shop can make available to its maintenance technicians.

If a fleet has an effective PM program, its vehicles likely will spend less time in the shop and experience far fewer road breakdowns. Additionally, its trucks will typically have longer service lives and greater disposal values than those of a shop that looks upon PM as a burdensome activity. The program will also save the fleet money.

If a good PM program will save money, can you conclude that performing more of this type of maintenance will save even more money? Definitely not. Like too much of anything, too much PM will not provide better results than a PM program optimized for your fleet.

Every vehicle comes with an OEM-recommended PM program, but if it’s built around oil change intervals as many programs are, does it take into account the changes in lubricant products currently available to you? “My belief has always been that we have plenty of life available in the oil,” said Darry Stuart, president and CEO of DWS Fleet Management Services (www.darrystuart.com). “However, we still need to do a good PM inspection so the vehicle can get to the next PM without a problem under operating conditions that are normal for that vehicle.”

Extending service intervals may be allowed under certain situations, but when considering extending intervals, operators should have an effective oil analysis program in place. It is also a good idea to include a dry service in the schedule between wet services to identify worn or damaged components before they fail on the road, causing unnecessary expense and downtime. Always keep in mind that extending service intervals requires close monitoring and may impact overall life-cycle performance.

“I don’t like the term ‘extended drain intervals,’” Stuart said. “I believe it’s really optimizing the life of the lubricant. Years ago, we had to deal with oil that simply wasn’t capable of doing the job delivered by today’s products. Today we have lubricants that can perform very effectively beyond engine manufacturers’ recommendations.”

Yesterday’s oils needed to be changed at intervals that worked well with desirable PM inspection periods, so the industry built PM programs around the quality of engine oil. Even then, however, many aggressive fleet managers in line-haul operations would stretch oil change intervals. “If we want to operate in an environmentally friendly manner, we need to use the oil for as long as we can,” Stuart said. “I’m included in those who believe that oil never really wears out. It’s the additive package that dwindles over time.”

If you’re interested in optimizing your PM intervals to save money, don’t stop at your road equipment. Utility fleets generally have many powered units in addition to trucks and automobiles. These need the same kind of attention as road equipment. The most cost-effective PM programs are the result of hard work aimed at having all service scheduled. Unscheduled downtime is very expensive.

About the Author: Tom Gelinas is a U.S. Army veteran who spent nearly a decade as a physicist before joining Irving-Cloud Publishing Co. While at Irving-Cloud, he worked in various editorial capacities for several trade publications including Fleet Equipment, Heavy Duty Equipment Maintenance and Transport Technology Today. Gelinas is a founding member of Truck Writers of North America, a professional association, and a contributing writer for Utility Fleet Professional.

15 Tips for Improving Your Inventory Control

For some, the term “inventory control” may seem more like an oxymoron than a management practice. If you feel like your inventory is anything but controllable, here are 15 tips to help you better manage the process, thereby creating added success and profitability for your fleet.

Tip 1: Implement and Enforce an Inventory Control System
Every parts operation needs an inventory control system of some sort, which should incorporate the following key elements:
• It must warn parts personnel far in advance that a part is being depleted from stock.
• It must list a part’s historical purchase price so that if the price changes, the
manager will be able look into the issue and ascertain whether this change is a price increase or due to incorrect billing.
• It should list vendors that offer the best prices.
• It should give past usage rates so that the manager can determine proper inventory
• It should require as little writing as possible, particularly by mechanics.

Tip 2: Know Your True Total Demand
Total demand is a complete record of all filled orders and actual parts delivered to customers regardless of the source. In addition to filled orders, a complete and total record of all lost sales – those sales that never occurred due to lack of inventory – must be kept.

A total demand record helps to reveal the changing and flexible nature of the marketplace and aids you in stocking the right parts in the right quantities at the right time.

Tip 3: Define Your Economic Order Quantity
The economic order quantity equation helps define the optimum inventory order amounts by factoring in the cost and demand of that inventory. Your goal should be to make as few orders as possible while also maintaining the proper inventory.

The cost of writing a purchase order and of paying the bill varies between approximately $35 and $50 per transaction. Considering this high cost, a target minimum of $500 of inventory per month should be purchased from each vendor. Placing an order for a smaller amount of merchandise creates a disproportionate and uneconomical clerical expense. If only a small amount of stock is ordered each month, good prices for those items will not offset the cost of paperwork.

Tip 4: Reduce Your Carrying Costs
The carrying costs of inventory can be between 30 and 40 percent of the total inventory value. You should have an ongoing strategy for reducing the costs of:
• Rent or proportionate building depreciation; building maintenance and repair; utilities; and labor costs for janitorial staff and security guards.
• Inventory storage and material-handling equipment.
• Taxes.
• Insurance.
• Inventory personnel salary and benefits.
• Damaged and nonreturnable parts, pilferage, warranty claim time and returning parts.
• Lack of return on inventory and control investments that might otherwise produce income.

Tip 5: Establish a Formal Warranty Program
Each premature component failure due to a supplier vendor providing poor workmanship, poor materials, and/or any latent defects should be flagged by fleet management and inspected by the vendor. Once inspected, the vendor can make a decision about the fleet’s claims about the component. The vendor should provide a monthly inspection that includes an agreed-upon settlement and a credit to the fleet. These parts failures have costs, and it is important that you set your ceiling for recovery at 5 percent of the dollars spent with that vendor. Should reclamation be more than 5 percent, begin exploring alternative vendor solutions.

Tip 6: Start with Big-Ticket Inventory Items
In evaluating big-ticket items or items with an aggregate targeted shelf inventory value of at least $5,000, limit your inventory to the amount needed for a 90-day period. If these items can be purchased locally within one or two days, it may not be necessary to stock them at all, especially if the repair requires one or several days of preparation work before the part is needed.

Make sure you weigh the cost of keeping big-ticket items in stock against the cost of customer out-of-service times. You may find that limited out-of-service times are more economically sound than maintaining inventory of relatively expensive items.

Tip 7: Invest in Your Brain Power
If a large inventory is your only solution to create a high level of vehicle availability, you will be hard-pressed to find ways to reduce inventory costs. The reality is that you must be consistently vigilant at keeping your inventory as lean as possible. The more you learn about the parts inventory business model, best principles and practices, successful analysis and applied corrective strategies, the better you will be at effectively planning a successful inventory strategy.

Tip 8: Don’t Confuse Price with Cost
Too often, price and cost are used interchangeably and in error. Price is what you pay in dollars to acquire a product or service. Cost takes into consideration all the factors that add up to return on investment. Ease of installation, frequency of service, labor required and safety are only a few of the considerations in determining cost. In essence, if you are to justify the high initial price of a product, you will have to do so based on cost. Make sure you analyze and understand all of the costs of your operations prior to beginning any inventory strategy.

Tip 9: Require Vendor Guarantee of On-Time Delivery
Don’t resort to expensive stockpiling of key materials in order to avoid inventory shortfalls
caused by late delivery of parts by suppliers. Instead, put the burden of responsibility for
prompt delivery on suppliers – where it belongs. One way to do this is to guarantee the vendor a minimum monthly purchase in exchange for the vendor promising both on-time delivery as well as a penalty payment if you have to purchase materials on the spot market to fill a gap when a delivery is late. The penalty payment should be equal to the cost you expended to obtain the materials.

Tip 10: Negotiate, Negotiate, Negotiate
When mounting an effort against waste in inventory handling, a manager should first consider the company’s purchasing policies and past experience with parts suppliers. Are the prices the lowest possible? If lower prices can be negotiated elsewhere based on volume, will service and delivery remain acceptable? It is futile to negotiate with no idea of realistic costs or possible price reductions. Therefore, purchasing guidelines must be established early in negotiations by someone familiar with parts-pricing discounts.

Tip 11: Brand Loyalty Doesn’t Pay
Negotiations should not be brought to a standstill by a fleet manager’s insistence on one
and only one brand of a part. In virtually every area, there are competitive lines available. This
can be a negotiation advantage. For example, if one line is not available at a jobber price – which is usually between the MSRP and warehouse distributor price – perhaps a competitive brand would be. Flexibility in this aspect can be profitable.

Tip 12: Don’t Overlook the Small-Ticket Items
Bolts, nuts and other similarly sized shop supplies constitute an often-neglected expense that can be significantly reduced. A common mistake on the part of managers is thinking that nuts and bolts are small-ticket items. In fact, such supplies will generally account for around 8 percent of the total parts bill each month. Much of this expense is waste attributable to poor purchasing habits. For instance, if you purchase these expendables from a salesperson who offers free bolt bins and other inducements to buy, you might be paying two to five times more than you should for these supplies. Even though they may be easy to overlook, it’s important to be aware of the cost of these materials.

Tip 13: Do Your Pricing Homework
If you don’t have an ongoing method for checking parts prices, you’ll have a hard time creating inventory efficiency. You should always have the latest price sheets from all the vendors with whom you do business.

As merchandise is received and volume changes, the prices on several items should be spot-checked to make certain the proper discounts are in effect. Without this monitoring, you will miss pricing and discount mistakes made by the vendor. To reduce any confusion over agreed-upon pricing, deal with one designated representative from each vendor whenever possible.

Tip 14: Plan Ahead for Hard-to-Get Parts
Availability of hard-to-get parts can obviously present problems, but longer delivery times shouldn’t necessarily preclude the use of a particular vendor. For instance, a part might be available locally at a cost of 20 percent greater than an out-of-town vendor would charge. If the part is ordered from the local vendor, delivery would require only a few days while the other supplier would need two weeks to deliver the part. However, given the substantial cost savings, it would be better to use the out-of-town vendor and simply stock an extra two weeks’ supply of the part.

Tip 15: Keep the Old Inventory Cycle Going
Simply put, old inventory needs to be removed from the parts room. A formal inventory should be taken every six months. Items that have not been used in those six months should be taken off the shelves, assuming that a system of cycle counting – frequent, random sampling of inventory line items – is not being used.

About the Author: John Dolce is a fleet facility and maintenance specialist employed by Wendel Companies, an architectural and engineering firm. He is an active consultant, instructor and fleet manager with more than 40 years of experience in the public and private sectors. Dolce has written three fleet-related textbooks and teaches fleet management courses at the University of Wisconsin’s Milwaukee and Madison campuses. He can be contacted at johnedolce@yahoo.com.

Train for Efficiency

Today’s trucks and automobiles have hundreds of programmable features that can be used to customize these vehicles for a fleet, and today’s technicians need to understand how to program these parameters as well as how to utilize the many diagnostic modes in modern vehicles. Since technological change is one of the few constants in our industry, such demands make ongoing training critical to keep technicians efficient.

Darry Stuart, president and CEO of DWS Fleet Management Services (www.darrystuart.com), echoed such sentiments. “Ongoing training for technicians is critical,” he said. “The advent of electronics has made the truck a very sophisticated machine. While it incorporates sophisticated control systems, it contains even more sophisticated diagnostic systems, which have taken a good portion of the guesswork out of troubleshooting. As a result, fleet technicians need regular training to keep up with these changes.”

Most employees – and certainly those with a desire to succeed – seek as much training as possible so they can better perform their jobs, qualify for monetary rewards and elevate their positions. And knowledgeable fleet professionals understand that staff training will help their companies gain operational efficiencies. On the other hand, it’s important to understand that you may have someone who is satisfied with what he or she is doing and really doesn’t want to progress. You may have to find a place for such a person if you want to keep him or her on your staff.

New Hires
When fleets need to make additions to their shop staff, most fleet professionals prefer to hire technicians with some practical experience, but all too often such personnel are not available. While trade schools are a source of young people who have been exposed to some of the basics, vocational school graduates generally still need a good amount of support before they’re ready to handle assignments on their own.

New hires, without a few years of practical experience, are usually assigned tasks such as cleaning parts, fueling and lubricating vehicles, and driving vehicles into and out of the shop. Beginners are then promoted as they gain knowledge and experience and as vacancies become available. These workers advance to increasingly difficult jobs as they prove their ability and competence. During this time they are often assigned to work under a more senior technician on engines and other systems such as brakes, transmissions and electrical systems.

Sometimes, however, fleet managers are faced with a lack of ample training time for new hires, or simply do not set aside the appropriate amount of time. “The most important activity in any shop is preventive maintenance,” Stuart said, “but it seems very difficult for a fleet manager to take a new technician, sit him down in the break room and let him review the fleet’s PM procedures, which, of course, should be available for review. A new hire, even one with experience, should have two or three hours every day for at least a week to go through established procedures. Too often, a new technician is put to work immediately.”

Determine Training Needs
Stuart suggests you practice management by walking around the shop floor. If you establish an atmosphere of open communication, technicians won’t hesitate to tell you their problems and potential training needs as you wander by. In your wanderings, you can also check scrapped components to see if they really need to be replaced.

Vehicle OEMs and major component manufacturers can supply you with standard repair times for many of their products. Compare these times with those needed in your shop for particular jobs and you might find that you need an evening in the break room with pizza and vendor training for your staff. If you require staff members to attend these types of sessions, be sure they are on the clock.

Our industry is fortunate to have suppliers who consider aftermarket training as part of their cost of doing business. Most have personnel in the field who can conduct training at fleet locations to ensure their products continue to perform satisfactorily, but it’s up to you to make sure that what’s being presented is in line with your policies. Remember, vendors want to sell parts; fleets want to avoid buying parts unnecessarily.

What’s the best training for shop technicians? “Some classroom training is fine, but training by an older mentor is best,” Stuart said. “Too often, though, a mentor simply shows the trainee how to do something, and the young tech never gets a chance to put his hands on the work. The mentor should do some awareness training, then let the young man do the work using the five-minute rule. If you can’t figure what’s wrong or need help after five minutes, ask the question.”

Whether it’s to familiarize technicians with new technology or to reduce the purchases of high-cost maintenance items, ongoing training is a necessity. You’re going to part with some money to get that training, but if you’ve done your homework and scheduled the proper training, the money will likely come back to you in improved efficiency, making it an investment – not an expense.

About the Author: Tom Gelinas is a U.S. Army veteran who spent nearly a decade as a physicist before joining Irving-Cloud Publishing Co. While at Irving-Cloud, he worked in various editorial capacities for several trade publications including Fleet Equipment, Heavy Duty Equipment Maintenance and Transport Technology Today. Gelinas is a founding member of Truck Writers of North America, a professional association, and a contributing writer for Utility Fleet Professional.

Using Benchmarks to Improve Fleet Operations

A benchmark is something that can be used to judge the quality or level of other, similar things. As such, a benchmark is a very nice thing for a fleet professional to have when some difficult questions are being asked. Are we competitive? When should we replace our equipment? Exactly how many technicians do we need to effectively maintain our equipment?

Those are three questions that Chris Shaffer, one of the founding partners of Utilimarc (www.utilimarc.com), believes fleet managers should be answering at least annually. His company analyzes fleet data and, using its proprietary analytic software, generates a number of management tools. Benchmarks are one of those tools.

If you’re going to compare your performance with supplied benchmark data, keep in mind that it’s essential to compare apples to apples. “We have found that it’s very important to benchmark like vehicles doing like work in like applications,” Shaffer said. “If you consider, for example, a heavy-duty bucket truck, it’s important to compare yours with trucks in other fleets that have exactly the same kind of truck doing exactly the same kind of work.”

Michael Riemer, vice president of products and channel marketing at Decisiv Inc. (www.decisiv.com), echoed the importance of benchmarking on a regular basis. “It can greatly help improve the performance of maintenance operations and generate greater returns on investment in assets and personnel,” he said. “Regularly scheduled benchmarking enables fleets and their service providers to compare their performance with competitors and best-in-class performers. This analysis can help fleets better prioritize and measure key maintenance initiatives.”

Both Utilimarc and Decisiv represent fleets totaling more than 300,000 vehicles. As a result, both are capable of generating meaningful data that fleet professionals can use to benchmark their operations. There are, however, other opportunities available that enable fleets to generate yardsticks against which their performance can be compared.

One Fleet Association’s Approach
One example of other benchmarking opportunities comes from Frank Castro, transportation manager for the Snohomish County Public Utility District based in Everett, Wash. The utility’s fleet consists of light pickup trucks, Class 8 vehicles and everything in between. Castro participates in a regional professional group – the Northwest Electric Utility Fleet Managers Association (NEUFMA) – which represents 5,000-plus vehicles throughout Idaho, Washington and Oregon.

Regarding the organization’s benchmarking activities, Castro said, “If you’re just looking at your own fleet, how do you really know if you’re doing a good job unless you can compare against another organization? Maybe the best scenario would be to compare against a much larger organization.”

NEUFMA members realized that they already had the much larger organization they needed in the form of their association, which meets quarterly but has more frequent contact through email. As a result, they decided to generate a list of fleet-related issues that all members were asked to respond to at their meetings. The idea was to have a discussion about the various topics, giving members the opportunity to ask how some fleet managers were getting better numbers than others might be getting.

According to Castro, “If nothing else, we were hoping to get some help answering the question: Are we doing well or are we doing poorly? When we find a fleet that’s doing something better than we are, we talk about what they’re doing differently to see if their procedures would work in our fleets.”

Approximately 25 percent of the association’s members regularly contribute information about the various topics scheduled for discussion, but, as it turns out, that’s often enough. “In reality, everybody loves the information, but not everybody is willing to spend the time to prepare a report for the meeting,” Castro said. “Fleets who do not participate are still able to reap the benefits of our benchmarking discussions. It’s all open discussion. If they’re at the meeting, they can hear what’s going on. We also send out summaries of our discussions to the entire membership.”

The association also encourages regular email contact among its members. As a result, if anyone is having a particular issue, he or she can send out a question to the entire membership for input. Castro believes NEUFMA’s benchmarking studies provide added value to the members of the association.

A Benchmarking Caveat
While benchmarks can be valuable tools, they can also plague fleet professionals. Consider the possibility of a fleet professional having a benchmark imposed on him not by an experienced individual who understands what it means to maintain a fleet of utility vehicles, but by a middle manager who lacks the practical knowledge it takes to actually keep equipment operating and ready for service.

As Decisiv’s Riemer put it, “The ability to ensure the right information is captured [and understood] as part of the core service and repair process is the foundation for good benchmarking.”

About the Author: Tom Gelinas is a U.S. Army veteran who spent nearly a decade as a physicist before joining Irving-Cloud Publishing Co. While at Irving-Cloud, he worked in various editorial capacities for several trade publications including Fleet Equipment, Heavy Duty Equipment Maintenance and Transport Technology Today. Gelinas is a founding member of Truck Writers of North America, a professional association, and a contributing writer for Utility Fleet Professional.

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