Maintenance management: 10 questions to ask about service trucks

At some point in the life of almost every growing construction company – and usually quite early – a mechanic’s service truck becomes a necessity.

When and for what reasons contractors decide to buy a service truck will vary widely. Prices on a truck with a crane may range from $40,000 to $120,000, and contractors who buy a truck often hire an additional technician to man the truck. But you have to balance those costs against how much you’re paying for dealer service now, how much it costs to haul equipment into the shop for minor repairs and maintenance and how much downtime you can afford.

And if downtime is a dirty word in your company and you don’t have your own service truck or trucks, perhaps it’s time to reconsider.

1. Who needs a truck and why?

“Each company really needs to do an equipment uptime analysis and evaluate if their local equipment dealer can be responsive enough to meet their requirements,” says Tim Davison, sales manager – service cranes for Palfinger USA. “If not, they need their own service truck regardless of their company’s size.”

Different types of contractors also have different service needs, says Davison. “There are paving contractors that can’t wait for the equipment dealer to get to the jobsite when they have three trucks of hot asphalt waiting to be dumped,” he says. On the other hand some excavation contractors may be able to do the work with other machinery and leave the down machine until the dealer’s mechanic gets to the jobsite.”

But what happens when the next job is a half-day drive from your base of operations and your dealer? Then something as simple as a ruptured hose or a leaky fitting can cost you a lot of downtime.

“As much as anything what causes a company to get a service truck is the location of the jobs,” says Jim Darr of IMT. “In a lot of the country the jobs are remote and it becomes cost prohibitive for a dealer to come out and do the service. If it takes them a day or two to get to you, you’re going to pay a lot for that service.”

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Even if the distance is not great, hauling your equipment back to your yard or shop can be expensive. “It’s just not feasible to haul equipment back and forth for an oil change, or to fix the tracks on a dozer, or do minor maintenance on engines,” says Jim Berkenpas, a salesman for Service Trucks International.

Once your fleet reaches a certain size, a service truck becomes essential. Walt Van Laren, sales manager for Service Trucks International, says that doesn’t mean smaller fleet owners can’t benefit from having their own mobile service capability.

“Sometimes the little guy needs the truck more than the big guy because he doesn’t have any spare equipment and he has to have everything running,” says Darr. “These guys may be working nights and weekends when it’s hard to get a dealer out to the site.”

And contractors should also remember a service truck’s usefulness need not be limited to equipment maintenance. “They may be setting catch basins and pipe as well as using the truck to service their equipment,” says Brad Yocheim, product marketing manager, Stahl Manufacturing.

2. Why can’t I just use my pickup with a toolbox in the bed?

While a lot of heavy equipment field service can be accomplished with a few hand tools, service trucks with their multi-purpose storage, cranes, air compressors and welding options give you the equivalent of a service shop on wheels.

“With a service truck you have lifting and material handling capability,” Darr says. “And if you go to remote locations, you can carry all the nuts, bolts, filters and stock parts you need. You’ve got tool storage, an air compressor, welding capability if you want it and lockable cabinets.”

A lot of service truck bodies have filter drain drawers – a place to store and drain the fluid out of old filters after you remove them. These also make it easier for your technicians to comply with environmental regulations regarding disposal of used oils and fluids. Without conveniences like these, Darr says, a field mechanic’s work can get pretty messy. Another thing a service body can give you that a pickup can’t is a workbench to lay out parts and tools for more complicated repairs in the field, says Van Laren.

3. What size truck is right for my needs?

There are three basic sizes of service trucks. The smallest are built on chassis with a 15,000- to 19,000-pound gross vehicle weight. One-ton and 11/2-ton trucks such as the Ford F-450 and F-550 series and GM 4500 and 5500 trucks are popular chassis in this range. This size truck will typically have an 84-inch cab-to-axle length and a body from 9 to 11 feet long.

The next size up, a medium size service truck, will have a 26,000-pound GVW, an 84-inch or 108-inch cab-to-axle length, an 11- to 13-foot bed or body length and a Class 6 truck chassis. (Above 26,000 GVW, your technician or whoever drives the truck will have to possess a commercial driver’s license and keep the appropriate logbooks and records.)

On the large end, service trucks can go up to 33,000 GVW with 108-inch or 120-inch cab-to-axle length, Class 7 chassis, air brakes and service bodies up to 14 feet.

“There was a time when people bought smaller than what they needed and then overworked it,” Darr says. “The industry went through a period where the 10,000- and 11,000-GVW trucks weighed 12,000 pounds empty. And then they had tire problems and were breaking wheel studs. Now we know you’re going to load the heck out of it so we want to get it sized and powered correctly.”

4. How much crane capacity should I plan for?

The most important factor you have to consider when deciding on what size service body to buy is what you’ll be picking up with the crane. And the size of the crane then determines the size of the truck. “You can’t put a 10,000-pound crane on a body designed to hold 19,000 pounds,” says Van Laren. “If you’re going to pull a track from a Cat D-9, that takes a 10,000-pound crane and you’re going to need at a minimum a 26,000-GVW truck,” he says.

An 8,000-pound crane will do most track work handily, Berkenpas says, and the 6,000- to 8,000-pound cranes mounted on chassies with 19,000 to 26,000 GVWs seem to be where most of the market is. But if you start working with bigger equipment or mining equipment, a small crane or truck will limit you.

“When you get into the small trucks, with tools, blocks, chains and such, they come awfully close to being fully loaded empty,” Darr says. “There’s not a lot of payload. You may have a 6,000-pound crane, but whatever you’re picking up, you may not be able to haul it.”

“We just won’t do a crane equipped service truck below 15,000 GVW,” Van Laren says. “If you go that light the rest of the truck, the brakes, engine, transmission and suspension aren’t sized for the duty cycle. You can buy a 3/4-ton or 1-ton pickup and haul your camper easily, but that’s only occasionally. With a service truck you’re doing this all day, every day.”

Gary Hibma, national sales manager for Maintainer, says he asks customers to think not so much about their current needs, but what their needs will be five years from now. “You’re buying the truck for the long term, not just for your needs today,” Hibma says.

5. What kind of controls are best for the cranes?

A lot of discussion over the last few years has centered on the differences between cord- and radio-remote controls for cranes.

“Radio control puts your operator in a safe position, well out of the way of heavy pieces he is lifting,” says Gary Hanson, product manager, cranes and bodies, Stellar Industries. “Or if he contacts a power line with the crane, at no time is he connected to that crane or truck and he can rotate it away from the power line.”

At Service Trucks International, which offers both radio and corded remotes, Van Laren frames the debate this way: “Radio is more expensive and cords are easier to repair. One of the biggest downfalls of a corded remote is the cord itself. Eventually they deteriorate and you can lose the connections. The beauty of it is that they are very simple and pretty easy to trouble shoot and repair yourself. The radio remote is more expensive, but you don’t have a cord and the radio remote can reach 100 feet if you want. But if something goes haywire with the radio, chances are you don’t know how to fix it.”

Berkenpas says radio continues to grow in popularity but his company evaluated both technologies a few years ago and decided to stick with corded remotes as standard and offer radio control as an option.

6. What are my other crane options?

Most service truck cranes are run off hydraulic pressure supplied by the engine, but you can also get electric cranes. “The hydraulic cranes have a faster line speed,” says Donna Popp, communications manager for Stellar Industries, “so you can get more work done in a day. It costs a little bit more, but it pays for itself.”

Heat build-up is another issue with electric cranes. “We can hook a crane up to your 12-volt power source, but because of the way DC motors work it’s not something you’re going to run for eight hours a day,” Van Laren says. “You’ll have to let it cool down.”

Full hydraulic extension on cranes is also a popular feature, but some manufacturers offer manual extension too. “Full hydraulic is a little more expensive,” Hibma says. “But it saves time, and if time is money, it takes time to pull out the jibs and pin them and then stow it again.”

7. Can I get a service truck custom built to my needs?

Most manufacturers of service trucks offer a few standard packages but customize those to a great extent to meet the needs of their customers’ technicians.

“Field technicians are some of the hardest working people I’ve ever met,” Davison says. “A lot of them only go to the shop a couple of times a month. They have their parts delivered to their homes or a drop point in the middle of the night. Their office is typically riding in the seat right next to them. If I were buying a service truck for my best technician and I wanted him to be happy with it for the next five to eight years, I would make dang sure he got what he wanted,” Davison says.

Interior cabinet spaces are what most contractors customize the most, Darr says. That’s because it doesn’t cost a lot for the manufacturer to reconfigure shelves, drawers and dividers and most manufacturers offer a variety of storage components.

“We have a list of about 30 options that we catalog,” says Debbie Harcranft, vice president of marketing, Reading Bodyworks. “These can include chock block holders, increasing the height and depth of certain compartments, reinforcing the top of compartments for crane mounting, master locking systems where they can lock all compartments simultaneously, outriggers, special types of pull-out drawers, different types of bumpers, hooks and grab handles and ladder racks.”

“You’ll find some mechanics want to keep their Snap-On or Craftsman tool box and put it in the service truck,” Darr says. “The downside is that those boxes are designed to sit on the floor in the shop. So they have a lot of slide problems with the drawers. You can destroy a mechanic’s toolbox by putting it in a service truck. So we have basically the same kind of compartmentation only it is built into the truck with heavier rollers and shelving. The environment they work in is much tougher.”

8. What are my options for a truck cab and chassis?

All the manufacturers interviewed for this article acknowledge many contractors have established relationships with their local truck dealers. As a result the truck builders all work with whatever truck cab and chassis platform the contractor chooses. Some contractors bring in their own trucks, but others opt for a turnkey package from the service body manufacturer.

“I’d say the mix is about 50/50,” says Hanson. “We’re a drop ship point for both Ford and GM, so we can get the chassis delivered here even if the guy purchases it locally. And we also purchase and maintain a variety of cabs and chassis here.”

Used trucks can also be fitted with a service body, but there are criteria that have to be met. “We need to discuss cab-to-axle length and we need clear frame from 4 inches back all the way to the rear end,” Hanson says. “So if they have air tanks hanging off the side, battery boxes or something like that, those things have to be relocated. Frame length is also a consideration although we can do frame shortening here. And we have minimum specs for frame strength.”

“People think about the top of the frame rails, but with a service body we’re going below the frame rails, so it’s not like a van body,” Hibma says. “They can’t have any obstructions. If they do and we know ahead of time it’s not a problem because we can notch the body accordingly. They just have to let us know.”

Another thing contractors should take into account with their used trucks is the condition of the paint. “In a lot of cases the darker colors fade over time,” Hibma says. “If they have a used truck and they don’t repaint it, nine times out of 10 it looks bad.”

9. How much of a compressor and welder can I get on a service truck?

Depending on your needs you can spec a compressor that produces anywhere from 25 to 200 cubic feet of air per minute. Most trucks leave the factory with a compressor in the 35 cfm range with a piston-style pump run off the truck’s auxiliary hydraulics.

“Twenty-five cfm is on the smaller end. It’s the economy model and best for occasional use with 1/2-inch impact tools,” says Van Laren. “For the guy with 3/4-inch or 1-inch impact tools and the need for continuous duty, a 37-cfm compressor is better.” In either case a tank size of around 20 to 25 gallons is typical. “We’ve got many different variations on air tanks,” Hanson says. “You can put an air tank just about anywhere.”

For 60 cfm and above, a rotary screw compressor is preferred, says Van Laren. These are somewhat rare but with them you can blow out pipelines or run jackhammers and big air tools.

Your options are likewise wide open when it comes to welding equipment. The most common size of welding machine put on service trucks is a 250-amp stick welder with auxiliary power. But it’s not unheard of for contractors to take an older welding machine and have their service truck provider bolt it to a new truck. Another option is an integral welding machine that runs off the truck’s alternator like Stellar Industries’ Stelarc system.

10. What are the small details I should look for in shopping for a service truck?

Protection against rust: For the service truck bodies, most manufacturers use a type of galvanized steel called galvanneal, which is coated with zinc to prevent rust. Galvanneal steel is rated by the thickness of the zinc coating. For example: A40 means 4/10 of an ounce of zinc per square foot of steel and A60 galvanneal means 6/10 of an ounce of zinc per square foot of steel. According to Harcranft, the more zinc the better.

The next level of protection is the steel’s primer coat. “There are two different types, conventional spray or dip priming,” says Harcranft. “In dip priming the steel is dipped in a tank and electrically charged to deposit primer on steel.” Electro-deposition provides a more uniform coating of primer and also ensures that the edges of small holes and bends are fully covered.

Powder coat finishes are also starting to show up on service trucks. On a powder-coated finish, fine polyester particles are sprayed onto the body, which is then placed into an oven. The plastic powder melts and becomes a smooth durable finish with a high degree of resistance to salt, corrosion and scratching.

Another truck body innovation getting some attention is the use of composite plastic panels. “In fender and rear-end panels in high-impact, high-corrosion areas thermoplastic olefin panels resist corrosion and denting better,” says Hanna Rhamy, product marketing manager for Stahl Manufacturing. “If they get damaged, they’re more easily replaceable and they can take a beating and still pop back into shape.”

Pressurized, weather tight storage compartments: Rain and jobsite dust are ever-present problems facing mechanics working in the field. For this reason most manufacturers pressurize their service truck storage compartments with a small fan that creates just enough positive air pressure to keep out dust. This is extremely important for technicians who are carrying electronic diagnostic tools or other sensitive electronic parts.

Positive air pressure also helps keep out rain and moisture, but well-sealed, weather tight cabinet doors are also necessary. Thin rubber seals won’t close as tight as flange-type rubber gaskets that compress slightly when the door is closed. Channels folded into the sheet metal of the door and recessed doors can also help divert rain away from your tools and supplies.

Sturdy construction: The frame of a fully loaded service truck in an off-road environment takes a tremendous amount of stress and torsion as the wheels roll over uneven ground. As a result, cabinet doors can get stuck on an overloaded truck with insufficient frame stiffness. “It used to be a joke that you had to get the oxyacetylene compartment open first because you may have to cut the hinges off when the truck gets loaded,” Darr says.

Every manufacturer addresses this challenge in a slightly different way, whether it’s torsion-box frame construction or crossbeams to stiffen the frame rails. So it’s worth investigating how the frame is braced or strengthened and how the crane and outriggers tie into the frame. If at all possible, test-drive the type of truck you’re considering fully loaded and under your typical jobsite conditions.