Mileage, Age and Appearance Are Factors in Determining How Long to Keep a Truck

Knowing when to replace your service truck is a tricky equation to figure out, even for experts.

Mileage, Age and Appearance Are Factors in Determining How Long to Keep a Truck
Ricky Skeen, owner of Skeen Plumbing & Gas in Mississippi, looks at mileage, age and appearance of the trucks to decide if the time is right to replace them. Figuring out when to replace a work truck can be a tough thing to do for many plumbing contractors. (Photograph courtesy of Skeen Plumbing & Gas)

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Some quests are quixotic, such as the never-ending search for a fountain of youth. Others are more realistic but perhaps just as unlikely to be realized. Among these is the desire of fleet managers to know precisely when to replace a truck. Dream on.

“That is the $64,000 question, isn’t it,” says Ricky Skeen, owner of Skeen Plumbing & Gas in Ridgeland, Mississippi. The company has been plumbing homes and businesses in the Jackson area of the state for more than a quarter century, beginning with a single truck and now running a fleet of 11. The trucks range from a light delivery van to Chevrolet Kodiak 4500 2-ton rigs pulling enclosed trailers for drainpipe projects.

Skeen is an affable man who makes light of his “system” for culling trucks from his fleet. “I ask myself, ‘Do I want to spend any money this year?’” he says with a laugh. More seriously, Skeen says it took years of trial-and-error management of his trucks before he began to arrive at a system. In truth, he is still somewhat less than systematic in evaluating his rolling stock.

“We used to swap out a truck after five years, but we didn’t do that the last time around,” he says and suggests that the age of a truck no longer is a factor in the decision. “We do depend on mileage to a degree. When a truck has mileage in the 130,000 to 150,000 range, we look at it pretty carefully.” He says he has never kept a truck around for 200,000 miles.

In the end, it comes down to analysis of an individual truck’s appearance and mechanical condition. Skeen’s rule of thumb is this: When a truck is looking “raggedy” or is beginning to require extra mechanical attention, he scrutinizes it and estimates the cost of making the vehicle whole. “If you have to spend $3,000 to $4,000 to get it back to par, that might be OK. But when you reach an estimate of $5,000 to $6,000, that’s too much.”

MILEAGE COUNTS

Owen McCloskey is a tad more systematic in rotating trucks out of The Waterworks fleet. McCloskey is fleet manager for the Columbus, Ohio, firm, which has been providing plumbing, sewer, and drain services in and around the state capital since 1935. Its truck replacement system is wedded to mileage.

“After 130,000 miles, we do a full appraisal,” McCloskey says, “including the transmission, rear-end, motor, whatever.” If a truck is appraised as a mechanical risk, it is sold outright. If it seems sound, the truck continues in service but a follow-up appraisal is scheduled for 20,000-30,000 miles further down the road. Unless it is an exceptional vehicle, a truck usually is sold at that point. “These trucks are apt to be on the road 24/7, and they rack up the miles. You get much beyond 150,000 miles, it becomes problematic about putting money in a high-mileage truck.”

A corollary system at The Waterworks is based on appearance. “The trucks have to look good,” the fleet manager says. “They are a rolling advertisement, carrying logos the full length of a box and on the back, with Twitter information and everything. So when a truck starts to look bad on the outside, we check the mechanical condition and decide whether we should invest in redoing the logo.” When the mechanical condition on one of these trucks is only slightly problematic, logos sometimes are refurbished and the truck is kept as a backup unit for when a front-line vehicle goes down. The Waterworks fleet numbers more than 50, most of them gasoline-powered Chevrolet 1-ton vans and 1-ton boxes. The fleet is transitioning to new Ford Transit vehicles, offering better fuel economy and greater operator comfort.

McCloskey says the company’s strong relationship with Ford and Chevrolet dealerships in the area helps management in its decision-making on high-mileage trucks. He gives the example of a transmission warranted for 100,000 miles that goes out at 112,000 miles: The dealerships tend to work with the company to adjust the cost of the not-quite-covered repairs, which mitigates some of the sting of having hung on to a truck too long.

GOING SECONDHAND

The truck fleet of Silverado Rooter & Plumbing is operated and maintained under a different set of criteria. That’s because the market for the Pima County (Tucson), Arizona, plumbing company is lower than, say, in more affluent Phoenix and Maricopa County. Consequently, Silverado Rooter & Plumbing solely buys used vehicles and operates a full-time mechanical shop to keep them running. The fleet is comprised of numerous truck brands — pretty much whatever is discovered on a used vehicle lot. “If we find a really good deal on a truck, we buy it,” says Kasey O’Connor, manager of Silverado Rooter & Plumbing. The company’s 23 trucks include pickups, vans and box trucks.
He says company owner Art Cake did the math and decided to go the secondhand route in building out his fleet. “We’re not really a rich city. We don’t have the pricing found in more competitive communities.”

Silverado Rooter & Plumbing vehicles obviously start out with more mileage than if the fleet were stocked with brand-new vehicles. It follows that mileage is not a major factor in replacing a truck. The company maintains “a really good balance sheet,” according to O’Connor, so any truck that suddenly requires an expensive fix is more apt to be replaced. “If we have an $8,000 truck and a transmission needs to be replaced at a cost of several thousand dollars, we’ll just buy another one instead.”

FINDING AN EXPERT

Fleet management experts aren’t much help in finding a magic formula for squeezing the maximum mileage out of a plumbing truck before disposing of it in the nick of time. There are too many variables — too many moving parts — for such a formula.

There is a movement among management experts to evaluate a truck by its operating costs rather than by its mechanical condition, which makes sense except when a transmission implodes without warning and then it’s all theoretical. Consumer Reports says the average life expectancy of a new vehicle — read: car — is 150,000 miles, but fleet managers have lots of experience with trucks and cars that conk out long before the odometer registers anywhere near that many miles.

USING TELEMATICS

In all of this, a truck’s propensity to surprise is the big unknown. However, fleet managers can reduce the element of surprise by keeping closer tabs on their rolling stock. One tool they have to do this is telematics. The software lets a fleet management office monitor engine stresses in real time and diagnose the need for unscheduled maintenance. Yet, it is evident that some plumbing companies rely minimally on telematics in tracking the health of a fleet.

That seems to be part of a wider disregard for the technology among fleet managers. “Most of my clients either do not use the maintenance tool on their telematics or do not reference the tool when they ask us about maintenance,” says Eric Warren, owner of Richland, Texas-based Classic Fleet Management. He says his company regularly contacts clients about mileage on their trucks as part of the company’s preventive maintenance program, and that might explain their failure to use telematics in looking after their trucks. Even so, ignoring the telematic maintenance tool seems to be an oversight.

Or it might just be that new-fangled diagnostic systems aren’t any better than old-fangled ones in predicting when trucks are going to give out. Managing a truck fleet still can be as much art as science. Skeen acknowledges this reality. “You can hang onto something too long and if it breaks down, you are behind. But where exactly the point is to let a truck go, I don’t know. I just know when a truck rolls in and something is clanging, then it’s time to trade.”



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