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January 19, 2018 2:15 PM, EST

Some Small Carriers Embrace Glider Kits to Avoid Costs of Emissions Systems

Elkhorn Valley Trucks offers a variety of glider kits, such as this one. (Photo by Elkhorn Valley Trucks)

Like some other small trucking firms, Old Forge Services of Mogadore, Ohio, has turned to glider kits to reduce maintenance expenses and downtime.

Glider trucks, which combine a new truck body with an older engine, can simplify vehicle maintenance, providing an experience similar to that of trucks in the ’90s, company owner Bob Eubanks said.

“It is just like we stepped back in time, and we can handle it in our own shop,” he said. “We don’t need a $40,000 computer to tell us we need a $30 sensor.”

Eubanks bought his glider from Hoover’s Truck & Equipment, which assembles most of its gliders using 2000-03 engines, which don’t have the modern emissions systems found on newer engines, such as diesel particulate filters and selective catalytic reduction, company owner Jerry Hoover said.

“The DPF and urea trucks have 50 to 70 sensors,” he said. “These sensors can fail and de-rate the engine or horsepower, and those trucks have to be towed in.”

Robert Braswell, executive director of American Trucking Associations’ Technology & Maintenance Council, said glider kit buyers are looking to purchase equipment as close to a new vehicle as possible without the perceived disadvantages of newer emissions systems.

“In doing so, they are hoping for lower maintenance costs,” Braswell said.

Glider kits mix refurbished older components, including transmissions and pre-emissions engines, with a new frame, cab, steer axle, wheels and other standard equipment. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 10,000 gliders are manufactured annually but comprise less than 5% of the Class 8 heavy-duty highway truck market.

Buyer’s say pre-emissions engines, such as this one, can result in improved fuel mileage. (Photo by Hoover's Truck & Equipment)

However, the regulatory environment for the glider business has been in flux in recent years.

In October 2016, under the Obama administration, EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration finalized their Phase 2 greenhouse gas emissions rule, which included a provision mandating that rebuilt ­engines installed in gliders satisfy emissions standards applicable to new motor vehicle engines in the year they were assembled.

But in November 2017, EPA issued a proposed rule to repeal the Phase 2 GHG and fuel-efficiency standards for the glider industry.

Most customers who purchase glider kits are owner-operators and small or midsize fleets.

“Typical glider kit customers are deciding between continuing to run an older, less-safe tractor, on one hand, and purchasing a glider equipped with the latest safety features on the other hand,” said Tommy Fitzgerald Jr., co-owner of Fitzgerald Glider Kits, which is one of the largest assemblers. “For financial reasons, that customer is not in the market for a new OEM tractor.”

Opting for gliders to avoid the latest engine technology is a shift from the past, when glider kits were predominantly used for trucks that had been crashed or rusted out, said Tim Kraus, president of the Heavy Duty Manufacturers Association.

Bob Eubanks of Old Forge Services purchased gliders from Hoover’s for their reliability and ease of maintenance. (Photo by Hoover’s Truck & Equipment)

Patrick Jeffrey, owner of Jeffrey Trucking, based in Champion, Ohio, bought a glider in 2015. He said he has less maintenance costs and better fuel mileage with a glider, plus he avoided the federal excise tax, which he said is 12% on the cost of a new truck.

“Everything you’re getting on the truck except for the drivetrain is brand new,” Jeffrey said. “The biggest thing is that people want to get away from the emissions [technology].”

Darry Stuart, CEO of DWS Fleet Management Services, said trucks with pre-emissions engines are simpler and less expensive to operate. Depending on the model year of the engine, emissions equipment can add anywhere from 3 to 7 cents a mile, he said.

To create a glider vehicle, original equipment manufacturers produce truck bodies, and those kits are then put together by an assembler that also installs major components.

A glider kit is built to current production from the factory.

Pat Stalp, owner of Elkhorn Valley Trucks, a glider truck assembler and dealership in Fremont, Neb., said most features available on a new truck also can be included on a glider truck, which gives buyers more options compared with purchasing a traditional used vehicle. About 95% of the gliders Stalp sells have air disc brakes, for example.

The cost of glider kits varies. Hoover said that, in many cases, the cost is similar to a new OEM tractor, depending on the customer’s specs. “The cost savings come from better fuel economy, less maintenance and better resell. They’re not in the initial build,” he said.

Patrick Jeffrey, owner of Jeffery trucking, which hauls pre-cast concrete, bought his glider from Hoover’s and said it saved him time and money due to improved maintenance. (Photo by Hoover’s Truck & Equipment)

However, glider kits “really can make a huge difference” price-wise to get some of those aspects to truck buyers that don’t have the same amount of cash flow that is required to purchase new tractors, said Molly MacKay Zacker, vice president of operations for MacKay & Co., a research firm based in Lombard, Ill.

At Fitzgerald, the cost of a glider kit is usually around 25% less than a new tractor, but most customers get their value from fuel and maintenance savings, Fitzgerald said. “Our customers report the maintenance cost savings are several cents per mile,” he said.

What’s more, owners of glider kits built using pre-emissions engines can avoid purchasing diesel exhaust fluid.

“People are telling me in DEF alone, you can save between $2,500 to $4,000,” Stalp said. He estimates that buyers save $20,000 on DEF expenses, fuel costs and maintenance over the course of three years.

Less maintenance also results in improved uptime, which is a primary concern for glider kit owners.

“The major reason people are going to gliders is they need reliable equipment, especially in the logging and oil field industry. These trucks are hundreds of miles away from shops; they need to be reliable,” Hoover said.

Jeffrey hauls pre-cast concrete.

“We don’t have the big overhead to have an extra truck when one goes down because of a sensor or a regen issue,” he said, referring to the process when the engine burns off soot that has accumulated in the diesel particulate filter.

If Jeffrey is late delivering a load because his truck has broken down, he could face large fines from customers.

“I haul a lot of bridge beams,” he said, adding that builders have to close roads and rent cranes to install the beams. “You have to be on time or you have to pay $1,500 to $2,000 for every hour you’ve kept them down.”

Glider trucks combine new truck bodies and the latest safety equipment with remanufactured engines and major components. (Photo by Fitzgerald Glider Kits)

About 65% of customers at Elkhorn Valley Trucks are in the livestock industry.

“They can’t afford to be broken down on the side of the road,” Stalp said.

Drivers said there are benefits to gliders when operating in certain regions, such as those with low temperatures.

Bill Rethwisch, owner of Rethwisch Transport in Tomah, Wis., said his post-emissions trucks ended up in the shop more once cold weather hit. He decided to seek out a used truck or a glider kit and ended up buying a glider vehicle from Fitzgerald.

“When you lift the hood on these things, it is simple. Everything is right there, and it is easy to get at,” he said.

Glider kits also retain their value, Stalp said. Resell value on a glider kit can be $25,000 to $30,000 more than for a standard used truck, depending on the engine. “I have people on the waiting list to buy used gliders,” he said.

Technicians work on a Detroit 60 series engine inside the Fitzgerald Glider Kits factory in Byrdstown, Tenn. (Photo by Fitzgerald Glider Kits)

Remanufactured engines can get the same lifespan as a new engine, and engines can be remanufactured multiple times as long as the structure is intact, MacKay & Co.’s Zacker said.

Fitzgerald said gliders are an important aspect of modern-day recycling.

“The heart and soul of the tractor, including its engine, transmission and rear axle — these parts are all reused in a glider. For each glider, that equates to more than 4,000 pounds of cast steel being reused,” he said.

However, HDMA’s Kraus said glider kits are not without concern, particularly when they are purchased to avoid the latest engine technology.

“The big issue for us is what constitutes a new truck,” Kraus said. “If everybody else is going to be held to the standards and has done what it takes to comply, there should not be a side path for people to march down to avoid those things because it isn’t fair to those that are in compliance.”

John Mies, a spokesman for Volvo Group North America, which does not manufacture glider kits, said the manufacturer recognizes legitimate applications for glider kits, as in the case of wrecked vehicles, but said a whole new business ­model has emerged based on gliders.

“We support the Phase 2 regulation’s effort to curtail the rapidly growing practice of installing outdated emissions controls into what are otherwise new vehicles,” he said.

Navistar, which also does not manufacture glider kits, also supports current regulations limiting the kits’ use. “The glider kit vehicles are predominantly ­using pre-2004 engines, and you have some pretty high [nitrogen oxide emissions] coming out of them, 20 to 40 times the new vehicles,” said Jason Quaranto, director of government relations for the Lisle, Ill.-based truck maker. “When you factor in that there are many, many times greater NOx pollution from them, it is a problem for our industry that is being challenged to reduce NOx emissions.”

Hoover, meanwhile, expects to see an increase in glider kits if the EPA pro­posal to repeal the emission and fuel-­efficiency standards for gliders is approved. “The longer people have [diesel particulate filter] units, the more frustrated they get,” he said.

Daimler Trucks North America, parent company of Freightliner brand trucks, and Paccar Inc., parent of Peterbilt and Kenworth brand trucks, declined to comment for this story.