Maintenance/Management: Light equipment maintenance

For a general contractor who fields dozens of big machines every day, finding the time or personnel to maintain light equipment can be a challenge. The other option, finding a service center to work on your light equipment, isn’t any easier. Consolidation of the big rental chains and the low margins dealers get on repairs and service make these opportunities few and far between. The number of full service light equipment dealers, by some estimates, has shrunk by two-thirds in the past 15 years. As a result, light equipment sometimes gets treated as a disposable item, charged to the job and written off as the cost of doing business.

While the problems are many, some solutions are beginning to emerge. Manufacturers of light- and medium-size equipment are working harder to help contractors manage their needs. Some are even stepping into the gap left by the shrinking number of dealers who are willing to provide full service to their light equipment lines, creating new, service-only businesses that don’t compete against the dealers’ light equipment sales. Many of these service and repair businesses are even helping the dealers with parts inventory and service overruns.

Nobody in charge
“Something I’ve heard contractors say is that since they originally charged the tool to the job, they’re not sure what they’ll do with the tool once the project is complete. Many don’t want to bother with inventory,” says Mark McKenney, market manager for Hilti. “So, I’ve seen working tools be disposed of prematurely.”

One of the biggest mistakes that some contractors make, McKenney says, is not so much on the jobsite but in the office when they inventory the tools. “They don’t always have a clear picture of what the repair costs are.” If a piece of small equipment or a hand held tool requires one repair a year and you have a few dozen pieces on each of four or five jobsites, the repair costs alone, not to mention all the downtime, can create real financial losses that don’t show up on the books. That’s why it’s important to know what type of warranty you’re getting with a tool.

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Steve Olson, national field service manager for Multiquip, says the size of the company often makes a difference in how well or how poorly its light and medium equipment is managed. “The big companies, the A-level contractors like Granite and Kiewit, are more apt to have somebody who monitors the light equipment. They’re going to take care of it. It’s going to be signed out to a job and come back into the tool room.”

The smaller companies, specialty and independent contractors, what Olson calls “C-level” also watch their equipment closely. “If the owner is on the site regularly, the equipment is going to be taken care of. If one of his workers abuses the equipment, the owner’s going to know about it quickly.”

Where most of the abuse and problems happen is in the medium-size companies that don’t have the manpower to designate somebody to be responsible for the light equipment, Olson says.

A bias for big
Another problem is that few mechanics like to work on both heavy and light equipment. “Most technicians have the skills to work on both types of equipment, but it is unusual to find a one who is willing to do both and not complain about it,” says Alan Franklin, a metro service specialist for Equipro, a franchise that specializes in light equipment service and repair. “Whether it’s a dealer or a contractor, the money and priorities go to repairing the big equipment, and that’s where the effort goes.”

Additionally, diesel engine technology is taught at most vocational schools, but technicians with the knowledge to repair electrical motors are much harder to find. “That’s where a lot of technicians fall short,” Franklin says.

If you get on the phone to chew out somebody because one of your $300,000 excavators isn’t functioning, chances are you’ll get a technician’s attention fast. Try the same tactic when your dewatering pump burns out and – depending on who you bought it from, what your warranty and service agreements are and how well the vendor is stocked with parts – you may not get the kind of service you’ve come to expect for your more expensive machines. But even if the cost of replacing or repairing the pump is negligible, if your excavator isn’t working because the ground is too wet, you’re losing as much money and business as if your excavator were broken.

What, me worry?
The other problem plaguing light equipment is the neglect it gets in the field. Most big machines require a daily greasing or preventive maintenance, but with the pressure to crank up the machines and start making money, the light equipment maintenance often gets neglected.

“Too many contractors just run them till they break,” says Dean Hoffman, the service center manager for Equipro in Atlanta. “I’ve had machines brought to me where you could barely see any oil at the end of the dipstick.” Air and oil filters rarely get changed, and Hoffman says he’s seen people in the field drag light equipment around jobsites in the bucket of a wheel loader, damaging electronics and lift eyes.

Another thing that contributes to the equipment failure, especially in the concrete and masonry trades, is that multiple operators use the tool, so preventive maintenance could be accidentally neglected, McKenney says.

Ask what dealers can do for you
Fortunately many manufacturers and their dealers are aware of these problems and are boosting their efforts to steer contractors clear of the thrash-it-and-trash-it approach.

The Equipro franchise network was started by Wacker to fill the need for after-sales service for a variety of non-competing light equipment products. “With new equipment dealers either cutting back on or having a hard time finding qualified technicians, they are overloaded with work,” Franklin says. Equipro has 12 regional service centers that work on machines from Wacker, ICS, Blount, MK Diamond Products, Mi-T-M, Sullair and Lincoln Electric as well as engines from Briggs and Stratton, Honda, Kohler and Robin. The franchises provide service only, so they don’t compete with the dealers on sales and often assist the existing dealers with service overruns and warranty fulfillment. And unlike dealers who limit the size of their light equipment parts inventories, the company is going in the opposite direction. “We’re stocking parts, and that seems to be a big issue with the end users,” Franklin says. Even if they want to do the maintenance themselves, they often don’t have anywhere local to get the parts.”

Hilti runs a network of some 110 sales outlets, puts a one- to two-year, full-service warranty on every tool it sells and promotes a lightning-fast turn around time on all it’s tool repairs. Should one of your Hilti tools require repairs or warranty service, the company will fax you a prepaid shipping label. All you have to do is rustle up the box, slap the label on it and in three to five days you’ll have your repaired tool back. For construction companies that buy large quantities of tools each year, Hilti started what it calls its fleet program three years ago. With this, the construction company doesn’t buy the tools outright but has a three-year contract on which they pay a monthly fee that covers the cost of the tool, service and maintenance. “If it can’t be repaired, we replace the tool,” McKenney says. “With the fleet program customers have very little administration regarding their tools. They know exactly what they’re paying every month and don’t have to worry about repair costs, shipping and turnaround time. They can get on the internet and trace their entire tool fleet.”

Multiquip started setting up service- and repair-only Authorized Service Centers six and a half years ago in response to the shrinking pool of full service dealers, and now has about 80 ASCs across the country as a supplement to its some 3,500 dealers. “The ASCs are independently owned repair houses,” Olson says. Except for those who were grandfathered into the deal as existing Multiquip dealers, they’ll work on any brand of equipment. “Their priority is service, not selling equipment. That’s their main business. Their commodity is their labor.” For the technicians in the ASCs, Multiquip offers free one-week training classes and will also train contractor technicians recommended by their dealers. Classes are conducted by field service managers, and next year the company is also going to offer classes in service and repair work on welders and generators from 2.3 kw to 9.7 kw.

Here are some best practices you can adopt to help keep your light equipment in tip top shape:

One: Buy the best tools with the best warranties. Contractors used to disposable hand tools or light equipment may balk at paying 20 or 30 percent more for a premium product. But when you buy a tool twice you pay a 100 percent premium and take a hit on downtime. And since even commercial grade tools will require some service or repair, a full warranty can neutralize the advantage of a cheaper tool with a less generous warranty, Hilti’s Mark McKenney says.

Two: Before you buy the equipment, make sure the dealer has the ability to service it and handle warranty claims. “It all boils down to what kind of support you’re going to get after the sale,” EQUIPRO’s Alan Franklin says. “I’ve had people tell me the reason they bought a particular brand of machine was the support we’ve given them after the sale.”

“Ask who will be repairing the tool,” McKenney says. “Will it be the manufacturer or people who have been trained by the manufacturer? And ask about the turnaround time.”

You should also look into the possibility of getting your own people some training, Multiquip’s Steve Olson says. Look for not only service and repair training but training for equipment users and operators on the proper use of a tool.

Three: Find out what the service intervals are and train operators and supervisors about preventive maintenance. “Generally you can get a wall chart from the manufacturer that gives service intervals,” EQUIPRO’s Dean Hoffman says. You can also get on the websites of most of these manufacturers and pull up the service intervals there as well.”

Four: Fix small problems before they get expensive. “I’ve had people run their rammer with a hole in the boot and they just let the oil run out until it seized up,” Hoffman says. “So what would have been a $190 repair turned into a $900 repair.”