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March 21, 2016 3:30 AM, EDT

Heavy-Haul Fleets Require Large-Scale Attention to Preventive Maintenance

Lone Star Transportation

This story appears in the March 21 print edition of Transport Topics.

When it comes to heavy-haul fleets, lubrication and inspection are high on the preventive maintenance priority list, short intervals for oil drains are commonplace and tires are an even higher expense to manage because of excessive wear, executives said.

Bill Signs Trucking is a heavy-haul trucking operation based in Lakeside, California. The fleet has about 30 tractors and as many trailers, Jeeps, and a few flatbeds. Founder Bill Signs started the company 30 years ago, and then-General Manager Bob Neal bought the business after Signs died.

Neal said the company does its own maintenance and engine work. It has a regular transmission refurbishing contract with the military and keeps about 10 technicians busy, including one at night.

“We used to work all through the night just to have trucks ready for the morning,” Operations Manager Larry Joslin said. “Having spares on hand was essential, especially for engines.”

However, parts delivery has improved to the point where the company has a little more slack, Joslin said. Still, fluids and filters are readily on hand as oil change intervals on the trucks are just 10,000 miles. Oil is inexpensive so it’s better to change it, Neal said, because “it’s cheap insurance.”

At Carlisle, Pennsylvania-based Keen Transport, one of the largest heavy haulers in the United States, 4-axle tractors see drains at 16,000 miles, Director of Maintenance Lloyd Hair said. The lighter 3-axle tractor is at 18,000, and trucks with an auxiliary power unit get 18,000 and 22,000 miles, respectively, until they need an oil change.

The goal is to get the 3-axle tractors to 25,000-mile oil changes with the use of oil sampling, Hair said, noting Keen’s engine manufacturer uses mileage as the predictor of oil change.

“As long as I’ve been here, we’ve never had an engine oil failure,” Hair said. “But we do the sampling to back ourselves up with the manufacturer.”

Precision Heavy Haul President Mike Poppe and machine shop foreman Jerry Sheller detailed in e-mailed responses the extensive service the Tolleson, Arizona-based company’s equipment receives.

“We start every service with a 107-point inspection and use an oil-analysis program to identify a component failure before it becomes an issue,” they wrote. “We sample engine oil and all gear boxes at every service interval. In addition to the analysis program, we choose to drain all gear boxes at 60,000 miles due to the excessive heat.”

Precision Heavy Haul also runs tests on all of its emissions components on each service, which includes a diesel particulate filter cleaning at every 65,000 miles or 1,500 hours.

At specialty hauler Equipment Express, the 80 tractors and 250 trailers get super-regular service. Engine lube intervals are at 10,000 to 12,000 miles, and lube filters are swapped every other oil change, said Truett Novosad, vice president of operations for the Ayr, Ontario, company. This is done to ensure no problems arise with fuel supply.

“And we get into some dirt and dust at the job sites, so we change air filters twice a year,” Novosad said.

Lubrication and inspection also receive great attention.

“We like to get under the trucks once a week to grease them,” Novosad said, adding that the process takes about an hour. “But we can make sure the U-joints are lubed and look at the slack adjusters to make sure they’re working.”

Driveline lubrication is an essential task, Keen’s Hair said.

Drivelines are always lubed “till they purge,” Hair said. “If the universal joints don’t purge in the shop, we find out about it on the road with a universal joint failure of some type.”

At Fort Worth, Texas-based Lone Star Transportation, a Daseke company, the specialized hauler can run to as many as 20 axles. The techs receive check-out sheets for each area of equipment and are required to fill them out, said Garland Brown, vice president of maintenance.

It’s a three-step process: The drivers fill out a check-out sheet when they bring the trucks to the shop and give them to the mechanics. The mechanics then recheck all areas and makes sure any problem the driver has noted is fixed. Finally, the driver takes the sheet and rechecks the equipment.

“They look for stress cracks, and are experienced in hydraulic motors and cylinders, checking for leaks,” Brown said.

The company trains and certifies mechanics and has a director of specialized maintenance for the heavy-haul equipment.

Frame stresses and fifth-wheel mounts also are concerns.

The tractor frame and fifth-wheel mountings are “definitely part of the maintenance checks,” Brown said. “Fifth wheels are definitely part of the PM procedure,” agreed Keen’s Hair, noting that is the first thing DOT inspects at a roadside inspection.

Novosad said that they find bolts loosened on the fifth-wheel mounts “so we retorque them regularly.”

Unusually, Bill Signs Trucking refurbishes its trailers on a rotating basis, taking them down to the bare components to inspect, repair and line-bore and renew pins and bushings. Company technicians also build the special ramps that are needed to load different types of heavy equipment on heavy-haul trailers.

“We take one trailer at a time,” Neal said. “It is torn down, thoroughly checked, and we put it back together again sometimes better than when it left the factory.”

Because the company does its own maintenance and repair, it has equipment not seen in many shops today. Equipment includes a specially poured, 4-foot-thick concrete pad with beams and tie-downs to ensure the trailers are built up straight.

“These trailers are subjected to forces you have to respect,” Neal said.

Hair said Keen will sometimes rebuild trailers, depending on price. Rebuilding a trailer may cost $15,000 by the time brakes and wiring harnesses are completed.

“We have to make a decision whether to sand blast and paint, to fix it or to sell the trailer,” Hair said.

Lately, magnesium chloride on the roads is what affects the decision to sell rather than refurbish, Hair said.

“Mag chloride is the biggest driver in reducing trailer life,” he said.

Specialty trailers also make demands on maintenance staff not seen on regular over-the-highway equipment.

“We prefer electric over hydraulic systems,” Hair said, noting some big electrical problems with techs who use test lights instead of voltmeters.

“We have voltage gauges back on the trailers and drivers check them,” Hair said. “If there’s less than 12.2 volts, a driver knows there’s something wrong.”

As for tires, they, too, are a major expense for heavy haulers. None of the operators contacted would consider anything but “green rubber.”

Smaller wheels “run a lot faster than the tractor wheels and they do wear out fast,” Novosad said.

Keen Transport runs 100% automatic tire inflation. “You have to have a tire inflation system with 17.5-inch wheels and use synthetic grease in the wheel bearings,” Hair said.

When doing preventive maintenance, they check the bearing cavity to make sure it has grease and follow the recommended practice of the Technology & Maintenance Council, he said.

Ultimately, all agreed the equipment has to be right before it moves.

“Safety is very important to us,” Neal said. “We welcome these inspections from the police escorts every time we move. Each truck gets a full inspection before we can even go.”