To optimize the utilization, performance, and lifecycle cost of trailers, fleets can focus on three key areas: specifying, telematics, and preventive maintenance.
Return on investment (ROI) of any asset, including trailers, is impacted by purchase price, operating cost, income generation, and resale/trade-in value. Good maintenance practices will influence three of those areas. But everything starts with the initial purchase. A trailer’s specifications and other features should closely align with a fleet’s application needs for that specific trailer.
“The fleet needs to understand the freight it hauls,” says David Giesen, vice president of sales for Stoughton Trailers, a manufacturer of dry vans, refrigerated trailers, grain trailers, and intermodal transport solutions. “What freight is the most abusive? How often does the fleet haul it? After answering those questions, the trailer supplier can help the fleet build a trailer that will last.”
This is especially the case with reefers.
“If it is a deep-frozen load, the trailer must be built for those conditions versus a cold load that can have a thinner insulation package,” says Ted LeRoy, product manager for Stoughton Trailers.
Proper specifying requires proper planning
In terms of ROI, proper specifying helps the fleet from three perspectives: trailer productivity, maintenance costs, and safety.
“It is helpful when the specifying process is a collaborative effort between the maintenance, operations, and safety departments,” says Douglas Kenney, director of national fleet accounts – platform trailers for East Mfg. East Mfg. is a manufacturer of flatbed, drop deck, dump, and refuse trailers.
The fleet’s maintenance and sales departments must also be on the same page.
“Both must know how the trailer being specified will fit into the company’s ‘haul lanes,'” says Mark Sabol, product manager – platform trailers for East Mfg. “Will the trailer be specified for a dedicated haul or will it need to fit multiple applications?”
“A trailer is no longer just a box on wheels,” says Brett Olsen, marketing manager at Utility Trailer, a manufacturer of reefers, dry vans, and flatbeds. “Putting the proper specs together upfront will not only help the fleet from a day-to-day operations standpoint, but also in terms of value in the secondary market when it’s time to trade up.”
Trade-in value is an important part of ROI analysis. That is because true ownership cost is the difference between purchase price and trade-in (or resale) price. The higher the trade-in value, the lower the ownership cost. The lower the ownership cost, the better the ROI.
Used trailer value becomes especially important with refrigerated trailers. According to Olsen, fleets typically replace reefers much sooner than dry vans. Thus, a well-maintained reefer with the right specs and features will typically command a higher resale price.
When first specifying a reefer trailer, Olsen says fleets should steer toward the best thermal dynamics possible.
“Most modern trailers are designed well and don’t allow much heat loss,” Olsen points out. “Still, fleets need to understand the products they are hauling. It’s important to spec the appropriate insulation for the load so the refrigeration unit doesn’t run so many hours. When a fleet goes to trade in the reefer a few years later, the value is partially determined by the number of hours the refrigeration unit has run.
“If the fleet happens to be running refrigerated cargo one way but the back haul is a dry good, the fleet can probably get away with a minimal amount of insulation,” Olsen continues. “But if the fleet hauls deep-frozen one way and produce on the back haul, that trailer is going to need more insulation. Many fleets simply choose a standard insulation package. But that typically won’t be as efficient as they’ll need it to be if they are hauling a lot of deep-frozen.”
Proper specifying is also about choosing unique features that give the fleet an advantage. Aerodynamics is a good example of an option that should be carefully considered from an ROI perspective.
“One potential maintenance challenge we’re seeing has to do with various aerodynamic skirts being mounted underneath trailers,” says John Freiler, engineering manager for the Truck Trailer Manufacturers Association (TTMA). “That can make it harder to see when a potential problem is building or when something is in need of repair. The technician likely has to get on a creeper and get under the trailer to do a good inspection. Without some of those mounted aerodynamic features, it would be easier to spot some of those issues during a simple walkaround.”
The potential trade-off between aerodynamic-driven fuel savings and technician convenience helps illustrate the importance of properly specifying trailers. It’s important for fleets to carefully consider what an individual trailer is going to be expected to do when determining the appropriate specifications and features.
“While there is strong evidence that aerodynamic devices work at highway speeds, there is also evidence that they do not work well at lower speeds,” says Jeff Sims, president of TTMA. “In a pickup and delivery application, for instance, the fleet might just end up adding cost and weight with no real benefit. On the other hand, it would make sense to order a full aerodynamic package for a linehaul application. In that circumstance, the ROI would be there.”
Sims adds that it’s important for a fleet to describe its needs and applications to the dealer and/or trailer manufacturer. The TTMA offers a trailer specifying document to help guide fleets through this process.
There are also some common specifying pitfalls a fleet should watch out for.
“Floor rating sometimes gets missed for fleets that load repeatedly heavy loads,” Stoughton Trailers’ Giesen points out. “In this case, adding a floor rating through spec can extend trailer life and reduce maintenance costs.”
“Not paying for specific options upfront and trying to add them through the aftermarket can be incredibly expensive,” Stoughton Trailers’ LeRoy says. “A prime example is a tire inflation system, which is one of the best investments on the trailer since it can significantly prolong the life of tires. Ordering one after the trailer is built is roughly double the cost.”
How technology helps fleets manage trailers
Sensors, telematics, and other technologies have permanently changed the way heavy duty trucks are manufactured, managed, and maintained. Much of that technology is also making its way to the trailer.
“We’ve been hearing more discussion amongst our members about making a trailer a smart trailer,” TTMA’s Sims says. “That includes having the ability to feed maintenance-related information to the fleet manager or service department. There are so many manufacturers, particularly the lighting companies, that offer different types of communication devices today. Essentially, if it’s a component on a trailer that generates information a fleet can benefit from, someone can probably build a sensor for it.”
Somebody probably will — if it isn’t being built already. Telematics solutions currently exist to monitor things like door open/close events, lighting operability, cargo load, temperature, and humidity. Sensors and telematics can help fleets gain clearer insights into trailer utilization, performance, and safety. Those insights can help fleets gain an advantage when it comes to trailer ROI.
“For example, sensors identifying maintenance issues can be communicated to the driver and operations department in real time,” East Mfg.’s Kenney says. “Then the severity of the issue can be determined, and appropriate action taken. This instantaneous communication has reduced operating costs and improved ROI.”
East Mfg.’s Sabol adds that sensors and telematics enable fleets to review trailer performance and potential failures without having to rely on feedback from drivers or other outside sources. That improves efficiency while reducing the chances for communication failures, both of which can help lower maintenance costs and improve ROI.
Preventive maintenance tips to reduce trailer operating costs
Since income generation is a key factor in ROI analysis, trailer uptime and productivity are essential. According to Larry Olson, director of field maintenance for the West Region at transportation and logistics company Ryder, the most common causes for trailer breakdowns are tires, brake wheel ends, lighting, and liftgates.
“Most tire repairs will cost $100 to $150 at the terminal, but on the road they can easily hit $600 or more,” Olson says. “Reducing tire-related costs requires the shop and drivers working together to identify low pressure and tire tread issues prior to dispatching.”
Properly performed pre-trip inspections are a critical part of the process. Likewise, Olson says technicians should always take time to inspect tires for tread and damage anytime they are working on a vehicle.
“Another cost savings can come from using repaired tires on trailers to run out the remaining tread without compromising safety on the steer axle position, should one of those tires get punctured,” Olson says. “Don’t forget to match tire diameters with a tire square when changing just one tire in a dual position; a difference of 1/4-inch or more will cause the smaller-diameter tire to scrub off tread at a higher rate than the larger tire it is matched to. Finally, make sure trailer axles are in alignment, which will become apparent with certain abnormal tread wear patterns.”
Innovative features can help fleets gain control of tire-related costs. For instance, Utility Trailer’s Olsen says that roughly 70 percent of the trailers the company builds now have tire inflation systems.
Ryder’s Olson says tire pressure monitoring systems (TPMS) can also help. They feature temperature and pressure sensors that provide real-time notifications of slow leaks to help prevent complete tire failure and expensive road service.
“High temp[erature] warnings could also be an indication of developing brake or wheel-end component failures,” Olson adds.
Speaking of brakes, Olson says thorough inspections are key and should include:
- Checking inside and outside of wheel-end components for signs of fluid leaks or worn brake linings
- Checking brake lines that connect tractor to trailer, as well as all lines feeding the braking components
- Proper lubrication of all brake components
Lighting systems can also create ROI challenges. They are prone to damage from striking elevated objects such as tree branches. Additionally, water is a common culprit that fleets need to be especially vigilant about.
“Water migration into the electrical connectors is a major issue that can corrode and compromise the flow of electricity,” Olson says. “Always use dielectric grease in plugs and pins to ensure that moisture is kept out of the area. Also, only use crimp terminal connectors that have heat-shrink sealing. Finally, never do more than one repair for every five feet of wire [10 to 20-gauge size].”
The liftgate is another area that needs to be closely maintained in order to maximize trailer ROI. Olson says he has recently noticed an increase in battery failures during high-cycle routes.
“With some fleets, the impact from COVID had shortened their runtime in a day – to the point that it was preventing proper charging of liftgate batteries,” Olson relates. “After a few days, the battery would fail. This was not anticipated when initially spec’ing the trailers. So that means looking at solar charging and available charging components such as the refrigeration unit and tractor supply to increase the daily charging amperage demanded.”
For preventive maintenance, Olson recommends performing battery load/cable voltage drop tests at least every six months to ensure the integrity of an electrical system.
“Poor connections are a notorious contributor to failures here,” he points out.
As important as all of these common trailer breakdown points are, fleets must be careful to not overlook the trailer body itself. As Utility Trailer’s Olsen explains, trailers are designed so that all components work together to bear the load. For example, the sidewalls protect the cargo, but also help bear the load of the cargo and support the floor. Anytime body damage occurs, technicians should thoroughly examine it and determine the appropriate way to repair it.
“It might seem convenient, but you can’t always just slap a piece of aluminum tape over it to simply keep water out,” Olsen says.
On the topic of physical damage, Ryder’s Olson says technicians shouldn’t neglect the top of the trailer.
“Technicians need a safe ladder or inspection mirror on an extendable pole to view the integrity of the surface skin and attaching crimp or rivets,” Olson says.
With respect to reefer maintenance, Utility Trailer’s Olsen says fleets need to be careful with the cleaning solutions they use.
“Caustic cleaners can be really hard on steel and aluminum,” he explains. “Plus, it can be difficult to get them completely rinsed off. If a caustic sits on a metal for too long, it can start to pit that metal – not enough to weaken it, but definitely to the point that microscopic holes emerge that allow moisture in.”
When that happens, the trailer can start to gain weight, which can negatively impact ROI through reduced fuel efficiency.
“Caustic cleaners can also lead to galvanic corrosion,” Olsen adds. “Most soaps are okay to use. Just be careful with caustics such as acids and bleaches.”
East Mfg.’s Sabol says that maintaining a clean trailer overall is an easy thing for a fleet maintenance department to do.
“Clean equipment makes it easier to see potential issues during pre-trip inspections and normal service intervals,” Sabol says.
It is that kind of proactive intervention that can help reduce downtime, control maintenance costs, and bolster resale value – all of which help improve ROI. When the same kind of proactive approach is applied to specifying trailers in the first place, fleets can see even more impressive ROI gains.
The audit is a key tool to know the overall status and provide the analysis, the assessment, the advice, the suggestions and the actions to take in order to cut costs and increase the efficiency and efficacy of the fleet. We propose the following fleet management audit.