Construction Specialties: Stepping up to your first service truck

In the past few years many equipment manufacturers and their dealers have offered attractive sales and service packages that enable contractors to forget about equipment service, repairs and maintenance and concentrate on just the money making part of construction.

For start-up contractors with limited capital and just a few employees these packages are hard to beat. But at some point in the growth of a young construction company a mechanic and service truck will become necessary to keep costs under control and downtime to a minimum.

A service truck may not cost as much as most pieces of equipment, but it’s no less complicated a decision. There are hundreds of options to consider and in nailing down all the details you have to work with a source for the truck and chassis, a crane/service body manufacturer and possibly a welder/generator provider. But the first question a contractor has to address is: When does it become appropriate or necessary to get a service truck?

Making the decision
A lot of variables go into the process of deciding whether or not you need a service truck. These include:

  • Geographic spread. If you’ve got a piece of equipment down for repairs and it’s just two miles away, that’s a lot different than having one 200 miles away, says Tim Worman, Iowa Mold Tooling company, product manager, commercial vehicles. “How much will it cost you to take a machine that’s 200 miles away out of the dirt and get it serviced?” Worman asks. “You’re going to lose a day transporting, a day to do the service work and a day to transport it back. It starts to add up pretty quickly. When the cost of doing business exceeds revenue generation then you need to start thinking about field service capabilities to get that piece of equipment back in the dirt quicker.”
  • Equipment size. “Some equipment is easier to transport,” says Kyle Whiteis, Auto Crane’s product manager. For example, a skid steer is a lot faster and less expensive to haul back to the shop than a dozer or big excavator, which often require DOT permits just to trailer, he says. The big machines are always less expensive to repair in the field.
  • Costs. Having others service and repair your equipment adds two types of cost to your operation. First is downtime. If your service provider operates on a first-come first serve basis there are going to be times when you’re going to have to wait to get a machine repaired. “There is a critical point when a contractor can’t afford to have his equipment down,” says Tim Davison, product manager for bodies and cranes at Stellar Industries. The second cost is just what you pay for the service. “Once your service calls from the dealer or repair service reach about 40 hours a week, then it’s time to start looking for a service truck,” he says. “Otherwise you’re paying a premium to have those guys come out and service your equipment.”

Beefy is better
Once you’ve made the decision, you need to determine what size of service truck you need and how you will outfit it. If your company is young and budgets are still tight it may be tempting to aim for the lowest cost option, but most industry representatives see that as a mistake.

Even a medium-duty chassis, service body and crane package is going to cost $75,000 or more. But if it’s a new diesel engine truck and chassis you can expect it to last seven to 10 years, so it only makes sense to invest wisely. “If you expect to see growth in your company, you don’t want to undersize your truck,” says Tom Wibben, sales and service manager at Maintainer. You want to make sure you have adequate payload capacity and tool storage so you can grow with the truck.”

First time buyers too often underestimate their payload capacity, Wibben says. “We like to see a minimum of 4,000 to 5,000 pounds on a Class 4 to 5 truck,” he says. “One tool chest can easily weigh 2,000 to 3,000 pounds and then you still have to carry things like a cylinder or other payload.” As your mechanics are asked to travel further distances, you’ll want them to carry more spare parts on the truck to avoid having them return to the shop or dealer for parts. And if you have a mixed fleet your truck will also have to carry multiple brands of parts in many instances, he says.

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By the time you get a Class 5 truck loaded up with a service body, crane, air compressor, parts and maybe a welder you may not have much capacity left for payload, Worman says. “That’s really pushing the legal limits on that size truck,” he says. “That’s where we’re seeing a migration away from the Class 5 trucks and into larger vehicles.”

Lifecycle costs should also factor into your decisions. “We could provide you with a truck that saves you money on the front side, but it will cost you in the long run because it’s undersized and can lead to increased service costs on the service truck’s chassis,” Worman says. The resale value on bigger trucks is also better, he adds. Even after a decade of use, well-maintained bigger trucks will sometimes sell for 40 percent of their original price.

Spec’ing the crane
Almost all service trucks come with a crane. In the small ranges you can get a 2,000-pound electric crane or hydraulic cranes that lift 3,000 to 4,000 pounds. These light duty cranes mount on a Class 3 or 4 truck like a Ford F-350 or F-450 or Chevy/GM 3500 or 4500, says Whiteis. On the medium-large end you can put a 10,000-pound crane on a truck with a gross vehicle weight (GVW) of 26,000 pounds and still stay below the commercial driver’s license requirements (See: The government and your service truck, page 42). On the upper end, service truck cranes are built big enough to pick up 14,000 pounds, but require a Class 7 or 8 truck with a GVW of 33,000 pounds and up.

The sweet spot for service truck cranes for the heavy equipment industry is around the 6,000-pound mark, Whiteis says, but the trend is moving toward bigger cranes in the 8,000- to 10,000-pound category. “You should look at the heaviest thing you’ll lift and then go up a bit,” he says. “These cranes lift a lot of cylinders, tracks, blades and sometimes engines and transmissions.”

Cranes also require the use of stabilizers to steady the truck during lifts. Hydraulic stabilizer extensions are easier and faster to use than manual extensions. And check to make sure your stabilizers are set up so your crane gets 100 percent of its rated capacity throughout its entire range of motion. “People get caught off guard by that,” Whiteis says. “They think they’ve got a 10,000-pound crane but they can only use 7,000 pounds of it at certain positions.”

In comparing cranes you also have several options to consider:

  • Electric vs. hydraulic. Electric cranes are the low-cost option but top out at about 6,000 pounds of lift capacity, Worman says. Even at that, a 6,000-pound electric crane may require a 24-volt vehicle electrical system. “They’re not a high duty cycle crane. But some operators like them because they can do lifts without the truck running,” he says. Hydraulic cranes run off the transmission power take off. They’re more durable and give you smoother operation and high duty cycles – you can lift all day long with them if need be. “If you’re setting up a truck with a hydraulic air compressor it doesn’t make any sense to go with an electric crane. You already have the hydraulic system, so for a few dollars more you can get into a hydraulic crane,” he says.
  • Hydraulic vs. manual extension. You can save money by ordering a crane with manual or partial manual boom extensions, but manufacturers say these have few buyers. With fully hydraulic extensions, you push a button and the boom is there, Davison says. With manual extensions you have to pull the boom segments out to the desired length. As these segments get rusty or debris collects between the segments, pulling them out and aligning the pin holes becomes a physical challenge. This is often such a chore that some operators won’t bother to collapse the segments after a lift but will run the truck down the highway with the boom pinned and extended – a definite safety hazard, he says.
  • Tethered vs. radio remote control. Years ago truck cranes were controlled by an operator pushing buttons on a control pad physically linked to the crane via a long electrical cord. But in the 1990’s the Occupational Safety and Health Administration expressed some concern about operators being vulnerable to electrical shock should they accidentally run their crane into overhead power lines, Davison says. Manufacturers responded with radio remote control devices that eliminated the cord and the electrocution hazard. The early radio remote units had some problems with radio interference issues, but these by and large have been resolved thanks to digital technology and signal hopping. Besides safety, the radio remote controls have other advantages. They let the operator stand anywhere he wants during the lift, and they eliminate the chore of having to unroll and roll up the cord every time he performs a lift.

Blowing air
Professional mechanics today use air driven tools to be productive. All these tools eat a lot of air.

“Air is a big factor in determining what size of truck you get,” Wibben says. “If a guy is running 1-inch impact tools or doing air arcing he’s going to need a lot of capacity.” For that level of air consumption, Wibben recommends a continuous-duty, rotary screw type compressor with 40-cubic-feet-per-minute air flow. In medium-duty applications you won’t need a rotary screw compressor, but you’ll want 20 to 30 gallons of onboard air storage fed by a two-stage piston design.

The manufacturers we talked to said virtually all the service bodies they produce go out with some type of compressed air capability.

Buying used
In an effort to keep costs down some contractors will buy a used highway truck and convert it to a service truck body. While this can be a money-saving strategy, it won’t work in every case and there are some hidden costs.

First, if the truck doesn’t have a transmission PTO, you’ll have to add one to power the hydraulics for the crane and air compressor, and that’s expensive, between $3,000 and $5,000, Worman says. If you have to move a rear axle to accommodate a service body, that can run anywhere from $1,500 to $2,500, he says. Plus you need clear frame rails from the back of the cab to the axle and may need to move battery boxes, fuel tanks or other components that clutter up the frame rails on highway trucks.

Another issue is strength, Davison says. “On a lot of highway trucks, the front axle rating is not where it needs to be for an off-road work truck,” he says. “They have lighter and softer front ends on them.” This may work if you’re servicing paving equipment from a roadway, but take the truck on a jarring ride across an earthmoving site and you’re probably going to break something. And its not just axles. For off-road conditions you’ll need suitable tires, suspensions and brakes as well.

Also count the number of miles you reasonably would anticipate putting on this used vehicle every month. If your technician is on the road every day going to multiple jobsites or remote jobsites you could easily log a few hundred miles a day or thousands of miles a month. And if the truck has a lot of miles on it before you buy it, your service body, crane and other equipment may outlast the truck itself. But if you’re not going to put a lot of miles on it, and the truck won’t require extensive modifications, the used truck option can be a smart way to go.

Considering combos
Most big fleets have a technician driving a service truck and separate vehicles and drivers manning the fuel and lube trucks.

For medium-size and smaller fleets another approach that has substantial cost savings in it is to outfit your mechanic’s truck with some lube storage capacity, creating what Wibben calls a “combo” truck.

“It’s a crane/service/lube truck,” Wibben says. “That way the guy can do some preventive maintenance along with his mechanic’s work. If he’s changing out a blown cylinder he can top off the hydraulic oil reservoir at the same time. It’s not a full blown lube truck per se but at least they can do some light-duty maintenance while he’s doing repairs.”

To handle the fluids the truck needs to have two or three 60-gallon oil tanks, a quantity of grease and a waste oil recovery tank, Wibben says, which will bump you up to a bigger truck. But the time and labor savings, particularly if the equipment being serviced is a long distance from the shop, may quickly compensate for the upsizing of the truck.

Another way to achieve this capability is to add a lube skid to your service truck. This is a simple product with a selection of hose reels and fluid storage tanks that slides into and out of the bed of the truck without requiring you to permanently mount it to the truck. EW

What about welding?
Along with cranes and air compressors, engine driven welder/generators are a popular option for service trucks. And as with trucks there are numerous options to consider:

Gas or diesel. Your first decision when evaluating service truck welder/generators is gasoline vs. diesel. Gas driven models are smaller and lighter and less expensive. In the smallest engine drive sizes, 250 to 300 amps, gas models run 500 to 700 pounds. Similar diesel models can weigh 700 to close to 800 pounds. In the biggest sizes for service trucks, about 500 amps, a diesel welder/generator may run close to 1,500 pounds. A typical gas unit might measure 40 to 50 inches long. Diesel will typically add 10 inches to that.

But diesel can also be more convenient when fueling. “Guys buying a diesel truck often want to match the fuel of the truck with the fuel for the welder,” says Eric Snyder, the product manager for engine-driven welders at Lincoln Electric. “When they go to the fuel truck or pump they can fuel the welder and know they’re not putting the wrong fuel in the welder.”

Gasoline, because of its lower flash point also has a bad reputation on some jobsites. “For safety reasons some supervisors don’t want their technician carrying around extra gasoline in the backs of their trucks,” says John Leisner, product manager for Miller Electric. But now that our welders have 12-gallon fuel tanks, there’s no reason to carry extra fuel. Diesel engines used to offer the advantage of being much longer lived, Leisner says. But today’s gasoline engines have almost caught up. “Diesel used to last five times longer, but with improvements in today’s gasoline engines its more like 1.5 to 2 times longer,” he says.

You might also want to check the engine rpms. A typical high speed gas or diesel unit will run at 3,600 rpms, Snyder says. A more robust industrial diesel will turn over at a calmer 1,800 rpm. “The slower speed of the engine means a longer running time before first overhaul and a lot of additional life after overhaul,” he says. “So an industrial diesel is a good investment even if it is more expensive.”

Easy access. Another convenience item to consider is access to controls and service points. There are a lot of different ways to mount a welder/generator to your truck. Just make sure the model you choose is mounted in the position you want it and gives the best possible access to the controls and service points. Daily engine oil checks are the most critical maintenance item, but easy air and oil filter access is also helpful.

You might also want to check the airflow around the welder before making decisions. Unless you’re going to mount it on top of the rear tool box (a popular option but one that interferes with the crane’s range of motion), space is liable to be tight. Without sufficient air flow and ventilation of the engine heat you could run the risk of vapor lock at certain times of the year, Leisner says.

Capacity and power. The bare minimum for heavy equipment welding is 250 amps, Leisner says. If you are replacing bucket teeth and adaptors and have to gouge out the old adaptors you need at least 250 amps. But Leisner says he’s seeing a trend towards 300-amp machines. “At 300 amps you can cover most of the processes they would use in the field. You can run all your stick electrode sizes, and wire welding with the larger diameter hardfacing wire. The 250-amp machines will get you by 95 percent of the time, but if you’re going to gouge and run large wires you should have 300 amps,” he says.

If you think you’ll do a lot of carbon arc gouging and want to be efficient at it, you may want to step up to a 400- or 500-amp machine, Snyder says. A 300-amp machine will work with 1/4-inch round carbon rod, a 400-amp machine bumps you up to 5/16-inch rods and a 500-amp unit will get you to 3/8-inch carbons.

The engine-drive welders designated for service trucks all come with electrical generating capacity as well. The electricity is most commonly used to power grinders for welding prep and clean up. But it can also be helpful in powering lights for nighttime work. Look for 10,000 to 11,000 watts of single phase and three phase power. Three-phase power is more efficient and also comes in handy for high demand applications like plasma cutting, which enables you to cut almost any metal including stainless steel. With a plasma torch, the more power the deeper and faster you can cut.

In certain welding applications material preheating is necessary and that means you need to spec enough storage space on your service body for oxyacetylene tanks, torches and equipment.

The government and your service truck
To operate any truck heavier than 26,001 pounds, your driver will need a commercial driver’s license, or CDL. Many technicians and mechanics have this or will obtain one over the course of their careers, but there are government regulations that have to be met by the companies that employ CDL drivers and costs associated with it. There is also the argument a CDL-holding technician can command a higher wage. But most heavy equipment contractors find it beneficial to have CDL-qualified drivers in the company, not just for service trucks, but to help haul equipment as well.

You should also be aware that in addition to federal regulations on CDL drivers, each state has unique rules regarding who can drive what and regulations about trucks in different weight classes. So be sure you factor in the overhead cost of maintaining a CDL driver in your company including all applicable licenses, tags and fees.