Vans and pickups. Box vans and line trucks. Trucks with aerial devices and trucks to transport equipment, supplies, tools and personnel. Without these and other specialty vehicles, electrical construction and maintenance work would stop.

Keeping these trucks in good operating condition is essential, and the effectiveness of an organization’s vehicle maintenance program not only affects daily operations, it impacts profitability.

“Each vehicle is asset which should earn a return on its investment like any other piece of equipment,” said Robert Johnson, owner of Fleet Maintenance & Design Consulting Services. Johnson has 37 years of vehicle and heavy equipment fleet management experience, including 31 years managing vehicles for Verizon Communications and its predecessor companies.

“Too often,” he continued, “contractors look at vehicles as an unavoidable expense. Properly managing vehicle maintenance goes a long way toward minimizing the cost of owning or leasing vehicles and their daily operation, thereby insuring that each vehicle is contributing to the bottom line instead of dragging it down.”

A comprehensive maintenance program includes a tracking system that gathers and stores essential data on each vehicle, documenting service and repairs performed throughout its life. Such records provide critical data for making decisions to most effectively manage the fleet.

These programs should be used to establish and track preventive maintenance requirements and schedules.

“It is critical that at a minimum, the schedule conforms to the chassis manufacturer’s recommended schedules,” advised Johnson. “This helps you to take full advantage of the OEM warranty coverage on each new vehicle.”

OEM (original equipment manufacturer) service intervals are driven either by time or mileage.

Said Johnson: “Time is the driving factor for low-mileage applications. For high-mileage vehicles, use average monthly mileage as a guideline, and set up a time-based schedule for appropriate monthly service intervals. By doing this, you can keep in sync all of your various maintenance schedules—lube, oil, filter; state inspections; emissions inspections; DOT inspections for larger trucks. This reduces overall maintenance costs and down time. It also eliminates dependence on drivers properly reporting vehicle mileage every week.”

Have a program

Preventive maintenance is more than simply changing oil and filters every 3,000 miles.

Every time a vehicle is in for service, Johnson recommends visual inspection of major systems, including:

o Suspension and steering (including tire wear patterns)

o Brakes (shoes, pads, master cylinder, booster, lines)

o Exhaust system

o Electrical components (battery, alternator belts, condition of exposed terminals)

o Cooling system (radiator, belts, water pump, hoses)

o Overall body condition

o Glass and wiper

o Lubricate door hinges and latches

These inspections take only a few minutes, and catching a problem before it becomes major saves money.

Johnson also recommends servicing automatic transmissions every other year. In addition, keeping accurate records is essential for any vehicle maintenance program.

“In today’s world,” said Johnson, “I believe all vehicle records should be maintained on computers. Small fleets—15 vehicles or less—can be tracked on spreadsheet programs with a separate file for each vehicle. For larger fleets, there are dedicated fleet maintenance programs.”

Software options include programs for fleets of varying sizes.

At a minimum, Johnson said, a program should allow the fleet operator to maintain a complete record of each vehicle, including VIN, registration, license information and the ability to schedule and track maintenance and inspection requirements—state, emissions, ANSI inspection of aerial devices, etc.—and to maintain a basic vehicle maintenance history.

The better programs maintain a more complete maintenance history and track the maintenance data at a higher level of detail.

“Most of the high-end programs are targeted toward fleets that have their own maintenance shops and include features such as repair parts inventory and automatic parts reordering,” Johnson explained. “Most small fleets with outsourced maintenance can do very well with one of the low-end programs. Larger fleets will benefit from the expanded data available in the midrange programs when it comes time to make replacement and new purchase decisions.”

Who should maintain the vehicles?

In-house versus outsourced maintenance and repair service has been an issue almost since vehicles were put into commercial service, and it isn’t likely to go away soon. If your fleet is large enough to justify full-time service personnel and an adequate maintenance facility, then it frequently pays to do your own maintenance, Johnson has found. “Otherwise,” he said, “it almost always is better off to send your vehicles to a qualified fleet maintenance facility. Work with an established vendor, and make sure they understand the level of service you want.”

Proper maintenance significantly extends the life of any vehicle, but the day eventually comes when it is time to remove it from service. Replacement policies vary widely with some owners replacing vehicles on a regular schedule, while others keep them for 200,000 miles or more.

The longer a vehicle is kept in service, the more important maintenance becomes.

“It is important to pay more attention to age-critical maintenance once a truck is five to six years old,” said Johnson. “Typically this includes such things as the condition of engine and gearbox seals, cooling system hoses, rubber suspension and body mounting components, under body corrosion of fuel and brake system components, body corrosion, wiring harnesses, etc. By stressing these time critical maintenance items some of the major utility fleets that operate in low-mileage environments typically keep their vehicles for 12 years and longer.”

A good rule of thumb, suggested Johnson, is to get rid of a commercial unit at 150,000 miles, or repair it and keep for another 100,000 miles. If a unit will not last the next 100,000 miles, don’t waste money on major repairs.

Whatever replacement philosophy an organization has, it is better to replace vehicles on a planned, rather than have-to, basis.

“Remember,” concluded Johnson, “a vehicle is an asset which must earn a return on investment. Keeping a vehicle until it drops seldom accomplishes that goal and creates other problems, as well.” EC

GRIFFIN, a construction and tools writer from Oklahoma City, can be reached at 405.748.5256 or up-front@cox.net.