Service Vans Serve Up Easy Access

Exterior storage compartments on Knapheide service bodies help technicians stay organized and work more efficiently.
Service Vans Serve Up Easy Access
Grabill’s technicians are cross-trained to handle both new construction and service work, and their trucks are spacious enough to hold tools and supplies for both kinds of work, improving flexibility and efficiency.

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For many plumbers, a service vehicle is essentially a tool of the trade that carries supplies and gets technicians from Point A to Point B. But Kevin Grabill views them as mini-businesses — profit centers that are critical to generating revenue and boosting efficiency.

As such, Grabill has invested around $350,000 in 10 rolling “offices” for technicians at Grabill Plumbing, the company he owns in Kansas City, Kansas. Those offices feature KUV service bodies from Knapheide Manufacturing mounted on 2015 Ford E-350 truck chassis.

“I only buy vehicles that can serve as profit centers, and I try to have those profit centers on the road and working as much as possible,” says Grabill, who established the company with his father, Gary, in 1986. “If you put a pickup truck out there and the guy driving it is just hauling stuff back and forth, it’s real hard to be sure that it’s accomplishing anything except serving as transportation for that employee. I don’t look at trucks as transportation; I look at each one as an independent business.”

Unlike cube bodies or service vans, the KUVs feature exterior storage compartments on each side of the service body. That’s a relief for technicians who are tired of crawling around the interior of a cluttered service van to retrieve tools and parts. A large central compartment, which offers enough headroom for most people, provides space for larger pieces of equipment and materials. Dedicated conduit chutes conveniently store up to 10-foot-long pipes and keep them from cluttering the floor — and from rolling around the interior, Grabill says.

The KUV’s configuration provides a competitive advantage for Grabill Plumbing, which primarily does new-construction plumbing (about half commercial and half residential) and plumbing service and repairs throughout the metropolitan Kansas City area. How? For starters, Grabill Plumbing employees are cross-trained to handle both new construction/renovation plumbing as well as service work, and the trucks are spacious enough to hold tools and supplies for construction and service work. In fact, each truck carries approximately $10,000 to $11,000 worth of repair parts, Grabill says.

The upshot? Grabill says he can operate more efficiently with half as many trucks as he might otherwise require if he had bought vehicles dedicated to just construction work or just service work. “The KUVs can support two plumbers instead of one,” he explains. “And they help us handle sudden surges of service pressure,” he adds, noting that the company employs just four full-time service technicians out of a little more than 20 field employees. “If we get a lot of rain and are inundated with service calls, we don’t have to tell customers to wait until tomorrow for emergency work — our trucks are equipped for both service and construction. We couldn’t do that with cargo or service vans.”

Furthermore, Grabill notes that some companies dedicate trucks to just rough-in work or finish work. But the KUVs can carry enough equipment to do both. “They allow us to adjust very quickly to whatever type of work comes up,” he says. “From a productivity standpoint, we can do a lot more work with less people because we don’t have downtime. … We don’t have service guys sitting around waiting for that next call.

“In addition, we don’t have to hire more people to cover the high-pressure periods,” he continues. “And from a profitability standpoint, we’re working all the time, rather than experiencing uptime and downtime. Our work is pretty steady and the trucks help facilitate that.”

Grabill says the central storage compartment is valuable because it provides ample floor space for big-ticket items that will be off-loaded for specific jobs — things such as bathtubs, water heaters, toilets and so forth. “Even if that space is stuffed with things for a specific job, you still have access to all your parts and tools on the exterior for more urgent work,” he points out.

Some contractors balk at the KUV’s exterior storage configuration because it exposes employees to inclement weather. But Grabill says that hasn’t been a deal-breaker for his employees. “We’re big boys,” he says. Moreover, the KUV’s organizational capabilities more than make up for some exposure to the elements.

All of the KUVs are set up the same, so there’s no confusion if technicians have to drive a different truck. For example, gas fittings and caulk, glue and flux go in a compartment over the wheel well on the passenger side of the body. Copper fittings are stored in a compartment above the wheel well on the driver’s side. Valves are by the driver’s-side door. And as luck would have it, small-parts organizers made by manufacturers like DeWalt and Milwaukee Tool stack perfectly in a compartment above the wheel well, he says.

“It’s amazing how much stuff you can fit in those compartments,” Grabill says. “The biggest benefit to being organized is that if everything has a place, it doesn’t take much to stay organized. You only take out of the truck what you need and when you get back to the truck, you don’t need to find a place for it. With these trucks, we never had to force our guys to stay organized — it just makes sense.”

When it comes to KUV bodies, this is not Grabill’s first rodeo. Attracted by a promotional deal that offered a five-year financing program with no interest payments, he bought 10 KUVs about 10 years ago. The only reason he recently bought 10 new KUVs was that the truck chassis on the old ones were wearing out and it’s too expensive to transfer the bodies to new chassis.

“Plus the maintenance costs per truck were running about the same as a monthly payment for a new truck,” he points out. “And buying 10 at one time allowed me to leverage the price a bit … and I’m on a lease-to-own program, so the per-month cost of ownership per truck is very low. All in all, it was a no-brainer.”


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