Is the service truck of the future a van?

Updated Jan 7, 2018
2017 Ford Transit2017 Ford Transit

There’s a certain swagger mechanics get when riding around in a massive, Class 7 service truck complete with welder, compressor and crane. But is that image and the truck that goes with it a dinosaur?

Not entirely. Big service trucks still have their place, but increasingly vans—as in Mercedes Sprinters, Ford Transits and Ram Promasters—are going to play an important role as service vehicles for heavy equipment fleets.

That’s the opinion of Bruce Bunting, Industrial products specialist at Knapheide Manufacturing and a 20-year veteran in the service truck arena. Bunting shared this vision of the future of service trucks at the Association of Equipment Management Professionals Equipment Shift Conference held in October. “The days of simply being larger and heavier are not going to be sustainable,” Bunting says. “Everybody is going to get smaller. There is a niche now in your fleet for a Class 2 service truck.”

According to Bunting there are four main developments driving this change in the heavy equipment environment: emissions, weight, technology and the bottom line.



Today’s emissions regulations require a diesel particulate filter (DPF) or diesel oxidation catalyst (DOC) on Class 7 service trucks with diesel engines. These devices regenerate or self-clean easily in a highway haul truck barreling down the road at 70 miles per hour, or in a piece of off-road machinery with high load factors.

But a big service truck in the field may idle most of the day. And idling causes soot to build up quickly in a DPF or DOC. Even when the technician is using the truck’s PTO to drive a compressor or a welder-generator, he’s not creating enough heat through the engine to regenerate or burn out the soot.

“I still see jobsites where service trucks idle for three or four hours and there is nobody in the truck,” Bunting says. “We still see guys working on jobsites where they never go over 30 miles per hour. We’re seeing major issues with DPFs, and that has all kinds of ripple effects. We simply can’t afford to operate trucks that way. Old habits have got to change.”



2018 Mercedes Sprinter2018 Mercedes Sprinter

“Do you need that large capacity air compressor,” says Bunting. “That’s the single biggest horsepower draw when that truck runs at idle.” Some technicians are eliminating the compressor in favor of cordless rechargeable impact guns. “Those are getting more efficient and changing the landscape of what you need to put on your truck.”

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As an alternative to PTOs, some service techs are using auxiliary power units, says Bunting. These APUs require you to keep up with a second engine, but the benefit is that you’re not turning the entire drive train of a seven-liter, 300+ horsepower diesel engine just to power one tool.

Likewise with welders which may weigh 600 to 800 pounds. In some applications, they’re necessary. But when not needed, you’re wasting fuel just to haul them around.

Trucks gain weight over time, says Bunting. “A lot of service trucks have been overweight for years, and it’s an accepted practice,” he says. These overweight trucks are a target for DOT enforcement. With the new Electronic Logging Device mandate, a lot of companies are looking to get lighter on their trucks, even if it only brings them down one Class size.

The increasing use of compact machines like skid steers and compact track loaders means that not every service truck in your fleet needs a full compressor, generator or welder. The increased use of rental machines also reduces the need for big service trucks, Bunting says. If the size of the work being done is shrinking, then the size of the service vehicle should shrink as well, Bunting says.



The changing nature of the technicians’ daily operations is also having an impact on service truck choices, says Bunting. In a lot of cases what they’re being called out to the field to do involves, sensors, electronic communications and telematics.

“The ability to talk to these machines from your truck is becoming vital,” Bunting says. “A van provides the environment to do that. Some of these vans are looking like surveillance vehicles with all the monitors on the inside.”

The cab of a pickup-truck based service trucks is also unsuited to doing electronic diagnostics and repairs. By contrast, a van provides the technician room to sit down at a small bench and work with circuit boards, wires and digital diagnostic tools in a clean environment and out of the weather.


The bottom line

Some companies order the same service truck year in and year out without taking into account the changing nature of the costs involved and the work being done. Bunting suggests you review your needs and specs every three years, or at least at the halfway point in a truck purchase lifecycle.

“If you wait five or ten years there are so many things that change. Just blueprinting the same truck year in and year out is not going to work,” Bunting says. “Small changes can lead to big results on the backside. You can take steps that can create new pathways to better efficiency and add a tremendous amount of profitability back to the bottom line.”


Comfortable and convenient

Bunting also thinks the van as service vehicle appeals to the older mechanics and can be a good recruiting tool to keep them at your company. The interiors are quieter and more automotive like. A van is easier to park and maneuver in traffic. And if you allow your technicians to take the service vehicle home at night, some may live in neighborhoods that don’t allow service trucks to be parked outside of homes overnight. A van avoids that problem.

Bunting adds that vans are not just for light-duty work or applications, noting that his company Knapheide has built service vans on a Mercedes Sprinter platform to work in the Canadian oil sands regions. But he encourages fleet owners and dealerships to look closely at their needs and the costs of running traditional, fully outfitted service trucks and give serious consideration to a van or two in their fleet mix.