Advice from the Top Winter Maintenance Leaders: Extreme Equipment Maintenance and Fleet Management

The economy is still faltering. Cutbacks are the norm. And that may mean no — or very little — new equipment is being purchased. That means you need to know to hold on it, when to let it go, and how to care for it in between it all. It shouldn’t be a gamble. And you shouldn’t be robbing Peter to pay Paul.

by Tina Grady Barbaccia

Spring equipment tune-ups and fleet maintenance can be likened to the Peter-Paul principle: You rob Peter to pay Paul.

By putting off preventive maintenance, that’s essentially what’s being done, says John Scharffbillig, director of fleet services for the City of Minneapolis and member-at large for the American Public Works Association (APWA) Technical Committees. “You can either pay now or pay later,” he says.

Some agencies and contractors unintentionally adopt this rule by holding off on necessary maintenance. Instead of paying now for a potential problem, they pay later for a major problem that could have been staved off.

It seems like common sense to take care of minor problems. To keep your equipment running properly, you have to keep up maintenance. It’s just like putting off vehicle repairs. That odd engine noise could turn into a complete engine replacement if the problem isn’t taken care of. Either pay now or pay later.

The same goes for your fleet of equipment. The snowplows and deicing equipment are starting to be put away, and pavers, milling machines, loaders and patch wagons are being brought out of storage. However, many capital equipment purchases — which would supplement current equipment — are being put on hold, making it even more imperative to properly care for the equipment.

According to the Associated General Contractors of America’s (AGC) national construction hiring and business outlook released in a conference call attended by Better Roadsin late January, nearly nine-in-10 contractors say there will be no recovery in 2010. As a result, fewer contractors plan to purchase construction equipment, says Stephen E. Sandherr, the association’s chief executive officer. (For a full report on the construction business forecast, including links to the survey data, go to and click on “The Roadologist” blog and to

Agencies and contractors have eliminated capital equipment purchases because of budgetary constraints, says Mark DeVries, maintenance superintendent/superintendent of operations, McHenry County (Illinois) Division of Transportation and APWA Winter Maintenance Committee member. “They are still allowing us to purchase plow trucks,” DeVries says, “but they have eliminated everything else. We aren’t buying any other equipment…no tractors, etc.”

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DeVries says his agency has a regular equipment replacement program, which is common for most agencies. Typically, McHenry County purchases new equipment each year, with the type of equipment purchased based on the number of years or hours it has been operated. “We may keep a road grader for 20 years, but other things like a wood chipper may be replaced more often,” DeVries says. “But we are putting off purchasing any of this equipment.”

The problem, he says, is if a wood chipper or tractor is usually replaced every year, but it’s not being replaced this year — or even next year — the agency will be three years behind with equipment replacement. But that doesn’t mean three wood chippers or tractors will be able to be purchased in one year to make up for the deferred purchase.

“It’s not a huge hit to us right now, but the question is whether we’ll get caught up again with our equipment,” DeVries says. “I’m worried about two years from now. If we still haven’t recovered and have pushed off two, three or four tractors for two years, then it’ll be several tractors we haven’t replaced…and we can’t just go out and buy three tractors in one year. How do you recover? I don’t know if you can. You just adjust.”

Typically, plow trucks are used 10 years on a route and five years as a spare, making the span about 15 years of operation, DeVries notes. “But if you start changing that routine, you start extending how long the trucks are on a route, that starts playing into what you’ve traditionally done. It changes your whole maintenance and replacement routine.”

Delaying replacement, however, doesn’t mean it’s just money in the bank. There still needs to be an investment in maintenance, especially because eliminating/putting off the capital equipment purchases means they have to run longer. And just like a vehicle, the longer it’s kept, the more likely major repairs will need to be done.

“We expect more repair bills this year because we haven’t replaced equipment,” DeVries says. “And I know we’ll have to do more than just preventive repairs. You have to gear yourself up for an impact on your repair budget.”

But sometimes even extreme maintenance and major repairs just won’t cut it. How do you know when it’s not worth the maintenance and the equipment absolutely must be replaced? “You have to look at the value of the equipment and how much it costs to maintain,” DeVries points out. “At some point, it’ll cost you more to maintain it than to replace it. Every agency has a threshold. We look at how many hours there are on a piece of equipment and how long we’ve had it.”

The City of Minneapolis’ Scharffbillig when ownership and maintenance start to cross, it’s “the optimum time” to replace equipment. “Again, it’s the Peter-Paul Principle,” he says. “It’s pay now or pay later.”

Scharffbillig says, for example, if there is a problem with a speed sensor, it can either be pulled out and replaced — which may cost about $200 — or the problem can be put off, only to soon see the other components will not function. “Then you’re looking at $1,500 or so instead of a few hundred,” he says. “It ‘s the little things that will keep your equipment running. Big money takes care of itself, little money drives you broke.”

Wash away or wash in corrosion?

The Peter-Paul principle not only applies to equipment maintenance but also to storage. For snowplows, this is particularly important, Scharffbillig says. Although snowplows endure harsh conditions and corrosive materials when going down the road, he says, corrosion is even more of a problem while it’s in storage.

“When it’s being stored, it’s the most corrosive time after you’ve rinsed it down, parked it so it dries, and when the temperature is between 40 and 50 degrees [Fahrenheit],” Scharffbillig points out. “The corrosive material leaches in. You can wash it down really well and use rust inhibitors, but I haven’t found in my 30 plus years in this business of anything that stops it. The chloride water wicks in. Sometimes when [equipment is stored], the protective boots isn’t pushed back and left up to dry. Then it gets corroded there.”

Chloride is most effective on the road in liquid format, Scharffbillig. “We’re putting it on at the most active rate for the road but also most active for corrosion and causing other incidences to components because it gets caught in all the cracks and crevices and causes deterioration.”

To maintain and preserve the equipment — beyond just having a preventive maintenance program — is get make sure the program will be properly implemented, Scharffbillig says.

“You need to get the drivers to buy in and follow the program,” he says. “They need to sweep under the accelerator pedals. Once you get salt and material buildup under the pedal it just sit there. Corrosion is accelerated by the heat from the truck and the water off the boots of the operator creates a environment that is perfect for corrosion.  But more than that, it’s a safety issue. The pedal could stick, Scharffbillig says. “In the old square boxes style with cross bracing, if you don’t’ get an operator to clean off chunks of salt and debris, it will eat away at the equipment,” he says. “It’s hard on the bearings and cross members. It’s hard on the feeder chains in hopper bottoms too.”

Common sense doesn’t mean common practice

Some of these inspection points for your equipment fleet may seem like common sense. “If something doesn’t look right, then have it looked at further,” Scharffbillig says. But he notes that it’s surprisingly how many “common sense” points are overlooked or disregarded. “Inspect your brakes, check your tires…,” Scharffbillig says. “It seems like common sense, but if you talk to commercial vehicle inspectors, they’ll tell us they can’t believe what they are beginning to see out there.”

Ignoring easy and common repairs not only sets up an agency or contractor for a heftier repair bill down the road, but it means accepting a liability for its employees but for the traveling public, Scharffbillig says.

This is especially true when it comes to equipment maintenance and electronics. By not maintaining the electronics or not following protocol, a potential safety liability has been created. “There are so many safety sensors, from a car to a dump truck to of-road equipment,” Scharffbillig says. “If you do any alterations to it, you’ve accepted a liability.”

Scharffbillig gives two examples. The first, he says was drilling a hole in the rollover protection (ROPs) on a loader to hang a coat in the back of the seat. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) were doing and inspection found that the safety equipment was altered and told Scharffbillig’s agency that it had to re-weld along with having it re- inspected for to make sure that the integrity of the device was still there.

A second and more serious example was a stuck trailer hitch receiver on a  vehicle. “We put a chain around it and hooked it to a pole to pull the receiver out,” he says. “This used to be common practice in the feild.” But what seemed like no big deal actually created a problem. “We jerked so hard that all the airbag sensors went off,” Scharffbillig points out. “An airbag went off and gave the operator a black eye and knocked off the operator’s glasses. We ended up spending $5,000 to $6,000 to just repair the airbags, and we didn’t even hit anything.”

The lesson learned? “Think before you act. If someone runs into a snow drift or drills into equipment to mount an attachment, you need to understand what could happen and where all the electronics are.”

With hybrid equipment, such as the cars International Hybrid Trucks, Komatsu Hydraulic excavators have been recently released, Scharffbillig says. Now equipment is powered by electric, compressed natural gas and propane. This affects how maintenance to the fleet can be done.

“We just had a class with our first responders about electric hybrids,” Scharffbillig says. “We found out that if there is an accident, the hybrids mustbe properly marked to make sure people don’t get hurt or severely shocked. On some of the equipment, you need to be carful with is the Jaws of Life because it could hurt both the first responders and the operators.”

It all goes back to proper maintenance, training and adaptability. The operational schedule of fleets is being stretched longer, so more maintenance is needed. And times have changed. This all has to be considered when developing a preventive maintenance plan and determining an equipment care plan.

“You can’t always do things the way you’ve done them,” Scharffbillig says. “There has been an evolution of equipment. This isn’t your granddad’s equipment. Things have changed, and you need to adapt with it.”

A Cheat Sheet: Top 5 Tips to Spring Equipment Maintenance

John Scharffbillig, fleet manager with the Minneapolis Department of Transportation and a member-at-large for the American Public Works Association (APWA) Technical Services Committee, shares these quick tips about how to keep your equipment fleet running well and important maintenance guidelines.

1. Make equipment operators realize how important it is to keep equipment clean.

2. Make sure filters are being changed and use quality fuels and lubricants are being used.“Make sure you’re buying fuel from a reputable vendor, or have a testing program incorporated into your own in-house maintenance program to make sure you’re getting what you’re paying for,” Scharffbillig says. “Oil analysis programs can make sure you’re optimizing the most amount of fuel and pre-predict failures.”

3. Make sure you have your operators and drivers write up all the minor repairs. “Get them when they are small,” Scharffbillig says. “Don’t let a minor repair. Become a major repair get it while it’s small… It could be just a simple as tightening a bolt instead of just letting them all fall out.”

4. Shop is only able to repair equipment if it knows there is a problem.

5. Take time to do it right. “You don’t have to do it over,” Scharffbillig says. “With workforces being cut, everyone is trying to cut corners and cut costs. But you’re not going to get the job done if equipment is sitting in shop.