Brooke Wisdom | January 1, 2011

Safe passage

Equipment transport Part 1:

Matching machines with hauling units

By Larry Walton, Contributing Editor

Most contractors don’t think of themselves as being in the equipment moving business, which can be a big problem if this thinking results in a lack of planning for and training in the safe transport of their machines.

As a business grows, attention goes to getting the job done, which is what pays the bills. Most contractors understand the importance of getting the job done safely and it shows in their equipment operating procedures and safety planning meetings. Many of these same contractors, however, seem to throw caution to the wind when it comes to transporting their equipment. Overloaded trailers, poor chaining, broken lights and inadequate hitches are a few of the things that put their crew, the public and their business at risk.

As a contracting business grows, its equipment transport capabilities must grow with it. A good example of this type of growth is Blue Ridge Timber Cutting, a company in Western Oregon that has long ago outgrown its name. As more equipment was added to fulfill numerous government and private contracts for road building, logging and stream restoration, owner Mark Villers had to figure out how to move that equipment through the highways and rain forest logging roads of the Pacific Northwest.

Like many contractors getting started in business, Villers paid transport companies to move his equipment for a few years. But eventually the math took over.

A pickup is a good option for moving smaller machines. Make sure you follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for towing with your vehicle including gross vehicle weight limits, which are effected by passengers, tools, supplies, fuel, the weight of the trailer and the weight of the equipment being transported.

“The number one thing is how often you move your equipment,” Villers says. “If you have a whole lot of small jobs, then your mobilization fees are really a big deal. If you have big jobs where you might stay for months, then moving the machine when you are done is not as big a deal.”

The decision contractors face for transporting their own equipment is a lot like the one they face for buying versus renting equipment. Factors include how often the transport equipment is needed, what the up front and ongoing costs will be, and how much time will be spent to gear up compared to just making a phone call to a transport company.

Once you decide to move your equipment, whether on a trailer behind a pickup or on a Class 8 lowboy, equipment transport becomes a big part of your business and you should give attention to doing it well.

Remind employees of transport safety procedures as they shift into move mode and get ready to load the machines at the shop or on the jobsite. Conscientious contractors get into the equipment transport mindset.

“I move my own equipment because it’s more efficient and cheaper,” says Villers, who just added a second lowboy to his rolling stock. “I have to force myself to focus on the move. You have equipment and want to get to the job and run your equipment. It’s hard to focus on the safety issues associated with the move because it’s not your main job, but if you don’t get to your main job, you can’t do your main job.”

Key concept: Safe equipment transport is just as important as safe equipment operation.

Size matters

When it comes to safely moving machines, size is everything. Big equipment, of course, means big trucks. Several smaller pieces of equipment can also add up to one big truck, which can be just as safe as and more cost effective than having several smaller equipment haulers or making several trips.

The newest heavy duty pickups (250/2500 and 350/35000) can be a great equipment moving option. Pay close attention to the tow rating specifics to select a configuration with adequate capabilities for moving your machines.

However, owning your own lowboy is not for everyone. As Villers says, “The newer diesel full-size pickups can move and pull a huge load. So if you are talking small machines like compact excavators and skid steers, there’s no reason to even have a lowboy.”

More equipment can be moved with a pickup truck than ever before. Recent innovations in the pickup industry have made heavy hauling (by pickup standards) safer and easier. With pickup tow ratings now exceeding 20,000 pounds, lots of skid steers, compact excavators, lifts and loaders can be hauled with a pickup and a properly equipped trailer.

The latest pickup models from Chevy, GMC, Dodge and Ford all have increased towing capacities with stronger frames and tougher powertrains. Each of these brands now has available integrated trailer brake controllers and the pickups themselves have better brakes with larger rotors, sturdier calipers and improved materials.

Additionally, each of these manufacturers is now making integrated exhaust brake systems for their diesels. This is a huge advantage for those who are pushing the limits of the truck’s capabilities. These exhaust brakes are not your daddy’s Jake Brake. Sophisticated computer programs monitor and/or control back pressure via turbo-charger vane pitches, fuel, gear selection, clutch lockup and driver input to provide optimal downhill control, often without using the vehicle brakes. All of this adds up to big improvements in vehicle control and safety, minimizing both vehicle and trailer brake wear.


When you read the fine print on pickup tow ratings, it assumes that the driver weighs less than 150 pounds and that he didn’t bring his lunch. In other words, passengers, fuel, cargo and tools in the pickup all contribute to the gross combined vehicle weight and take away from what can be loaded on the trailer. Remember, it’s not what the trailer can hold or what the truck can get moving, it’s what the manufacturer says the hitch, brakes, suspension, tires and drivetrain can safely handle.

Exceeding your truck’s tow/haul capacities is not only dangerous, it leaves you wide open for a lawsuit that can spell disaster for your company, stretch your relationship with your insurance company, and even leave you facing serious criminal charges. You need to get familiar with the tow capacities and how they are limited by the type of hitch, the weight of the trailer and the amount of other cargo in the pickup bed.

Reading the fine print

Pickup marketing materials, which highlight the maximum capabilities of a specifically equipped model, don’t make it easy to match a pickup to your machines. The heaviest haulers for Chevy, GMC, Dodge Ram and Ford are all dually pickups with diesel engines. Cab, drive train, cargo box, rear end gearing and hitch type all factor.

For example, you can order a Ford F-350 that will tow a maximum loaded trailer weight of 22,600 pounds and you can get it any way you want as long as it’s a regular cab, dually, 4×2 with a 5th-wheel hitch. The same pickup can pull a conventional trailer that weighs 15,000 pounds if you use a weight distribution hitch. Get it in a crew cab and you can tow 16,000 pounds conventional (1,000 more than the regular cab) but only 21,800 pounds with a 5th-wheel set up, which is 800 pounds less than the regular cab. You lose another 500 pounds of towing capacity if you go with a 4×4 version. Start with your hauling requirements and look for a truck configuration to get the job done.

Chassis cabs and up

At first glance it seems that matching a truck to equipment weight should be pretty straight forward. Weight classifications of trucks range from classes 1 and 2 – which include under 10,000-pound pickups – to more-than-33,000-pound heavy-duty Class 8 semis.

This information is helpful if you want to load your equipment on the truck itself, but it tells you little about what you can tow, which is how most equipment is hauled. Trailers come in more configurations for larger trucks and when this is combined with the large variety of configurations that can be built on a truck chassis the number of possibilities is staggering.

These configurations contribute to the large number of variables associated with towing capacities for all classes of trucks. You need to talk specifics with truck and trailer manufacturers who can point you in the right direction for a truck and trailer combination to fit your machines.

The first step in safe equipment transport is making sure that you have enough truck and trailer to safely and legally carry your machines. EW

Next month:

Part II, How to haul safely.

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