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Basics for service truck maintenance: Check everything from engines to brakes regularly

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Basics for service truck maintenance: Check everything from engines to brakes regularly

The service call starts like any other. The phone rings, information is exchanged, and you promise to dispatch the last service truck in your garage to a downed rig on the side of a local highway.

But your service truck isn't going anywhere; its radiator has lost all of its coolant due to a leaky hose. You also notice that the truck's left front tire is flat. The beacon light has stopped working and the brakes suddenly feel squishy. "Funny, everything seemed OK when we checked the truck last December," you mumble to yourself.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking and the immobilized trucker who called you is wondering where you are, his frustration building with each passing minute. It doesn't help that he works for one of your biggest fleet customers, who, unbeknownst to you, is shopping around for other tire service providers due to budget constraints.

This scenario doesn't play out every day. But in a segment of the tire business where Murphy's Law tends to get a good work out, there are no guarantees. That's why keeping service trucks in tip-top shape is absolutely critical, according to some of the country's leading commercial tire dealers.

Thorough inspection

"A good part of our road calls are trucks that have broken down due to lack of maintenance," says Bob Morris, commercial division manager for Norwell, Mass.-based Sullivan Tire Co. Inc., which has 10 commercial tire centers throughout New England. To make sure the same thing doesn't happen to Sullivan Tire's service trucks, they are inspected on a quarterly basis. Inspections include checking the following: battery, belts/hoses, brakes, tires, shocks, lights, engine, windshield wipers, coolant system, exhaust, alignment, front end, beacon light, mirrors and the air filter.

Sullivan technicians also check seat belts, windshields, reflective triangles, first aid kits and fire extinguishers -- and are required to sign off on each maintenance report.

"We try to assign a driver to each vehicle so the same guy is in the same truck almost every day," says Morris. "We hold our drivers responsible for maintaining the vehicle and its condition."

Timing is everything

Bluegrass Bandag, a single-location dealership in Winchester, Ky., operates two service trucks during normal business hours. (At one point, Bluegrass Bandag ran 10 trucks, but had to downsize its fleet due to escalating insurance rates, according to company owner Charles Roberts.)

"We service our trucks in-house," says Roberts, who feels more comfortable doing it that way than sending trucks out for maintenance work.

Both of Bluegrass Bandag's trucks are powered by diesel engines, "which last longer (than gas engines) without major maintenance. And their oil change intervals are closer than with a gas engine." The dealership's techs change truck oil every 4,000 miles, "and we change oil filters with each oil change. Hopefully it will help engines last longer."

Bluegrass Bandag checks its trucks' transmissions every six months. Roberts admits he's had transmission problems in the past, including gear failure, but believes that may have been caused by driver abuse rather than improper maintenance.

Regardless of cause, transmission work can be extremely expensive. In some cases, Roberts says it's almost more cost-effective to buy a new transmission when something goes wrong.

Bluegrass Bandag also carefully documents each maintenance procedure and reviews records regularly. "Number one, it's the law to keep commercial vehicle maintenance records in this state. And number two, you save yourself money" by being able to look back and see what has already been done.

Barry Kretzer, service manager for A&E Tire Co. in Denver, Colo., and his service truck drivers don't have a lot of spare time. He dispatches all 10 of his trucks for nearly 50 calls a day within a 200-mile radius that includes parts of neighboring states like Wyoming and Nebraska. But Kretzer and his men go the extra mile to keep extensive maintenance records.

"At the start of each day, our drivers have a Department of Transportation-type inspection (checklist) that they turn in. We do it voluntarily, basically for safety reasons."

A&E Tire also follows its own service truck maintenance schedule that includes oil and filter changes, lubrication ("we use regular tube grease"), and fluid checks (transmission, power steering and coolant).

The dealership replaces the brakes on its large trucks once a year and the brakes on its small trucks twice a year. Kretzer usually sends A&E Tire's small trucks to breakdowns in urban areas, which mean they stop and start more frequently. Trucks go to a specialty shop for brake work. "We've never had any brake failures," he says. "Maybe a cylinder might leak and the brakes will go soft, but the driver will know that when it happens and tell me.

"Whenever a problem is detected, we take care of it right away. (The other) night around 7:30, one of our guys called and said he had a lower radiator hose leak. When he got back to the shop it was dumping fluid." A&E Tire's techs replaced the bad hose immediately the next morning and the truck never missed a call.

Juggling act

Smart scheduling is critical to operating a fleet of service trucks, says Tim Stover, general manager for Grismer Tire Co. Inc.'s Commercial Division in Dayton, Ohio. Grismer runs 22 trucks out of five locations. In addition to a yearly performance review, each truck receives a bumper-to-bumper inspection every 3,000 to 4,000 miles; the inspection lasts half a day. "We don't want any surprises," says Stover.

Grismer Tire's service truck fleet contains models that range from less than one year to nine years old. "Our goal is to get 10 years service out of each vehicle." The dealership has never failed to achieve that. Keeping truck parts sufficiently lubed has been a contributing factor, says Stover. "If you get a lubricant that's been in a part like a gear for too long, it can cause problems.

Gear lube breaks down just like oil in your engine. The dirt that gets in there over the years doesn't do your gears any favors.

"Service is a cost, it's an aggravation -- but when that truck goes down, it takes a long time to regenerate (lost income). And if that truck is not rolling, I have a man sitting here and a customer who's upset."

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