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The ABCs OF Truck Building

A truck is a working tool that can be made to work better with informed spec’ing choices

By Stephen Bennett

Fuel oil and propane dealers getting ready to order a new truck know they have decisions to make, and that one of the first is: Should they stick with the same specs as last time, or change up a few things to take advantage of new or improved components that promise operational benefits?

Roger Smith of Kurtz Truck Equipment, an outfitter based in Marathon, N.Y., said, “I started in this business in 1971. Back then they drove a pretty basic truck. It was a bare bones truck with a tank and a pump. Nowadays they’re buying very sophisticated trucks.”Onspot IMG_3715 Courtesy of Gabe Frezzo Liq Measurement

Sometimes a component isn’t radically new or new at all, but the spec is–for the fuel marketer. For example, a fuel oil or propane dealer who may not have been receptive to a particular established component or technology might be reconsidering for one reason or another. Sometimes adoption of a type of equipment or a system grows and becomes an industry trend.

Truck outfitters who build trucks for fuel oil and propane dealers offered their insights on spec’ing, and noted some useful components and auxiliary systems, some of which they said can make today’s trucks work and look different from their predecessors.

Automatic tire chains have been adopted by a number of fuel dealers. “They’re air-activated,” Smith said. “The driver just flips a switch in the cab.” A device tied to the rear axle extends a rubber disk that contacts the inside of the rear truck tires, causing the disk to spin. The spinning causes chains hanging from the mechanism to be continuously flung outward at road-surface level so the truck tires ride continuously on top of the splayed chains. Smith said drivers use the system in icy road conditions, and when backing up driveways. He said they could be “the difference between getting in and out – and not.” He estimated that Kurtz Truck Equipment installs 20 to 25 sets per year. Automatic chains are “a bit on the pricey side,” Smith said, but he pointed out, “If you use them and you save one towing bill”  you just saved” yourself from paying the going rate for a heavy-duty wrecker, which he said can be about $250 an hour, and in some cases double that.

“There’s one near me who won’t roll their heavy wrecker for less than $500 an hour,” Smith said.

Gabe Frezzo, president of Liquid Measurement & Controls, Collegeville, Pa., a tank truck fabricator and truck equipment seller, said, “Over the past ten years we’ve been seeing more and more guys spending money on the chains.” Insta-Chain, a manufacturer based in Springville, Utah, makes a set that can be mounted on air ride or spring suspensions, and in back of the tires or in front of the tires. It can also be mounted on a single axle and a tandem axle, Frezzo said.

Frezzo and Smith both said that another system that is being spec’d increasingly, and is considered to be beneficial to safety, is a camera mounted on the rear of a truck; that rear view, transmitted to a screen mounted in the cab, enables the driver to better monitor what is behind the truck as he backs up, they said.

 

Spec’ing a propane tank truck is a different drill from spec’ing a heating oil delivery truck, for many reasons, including regulations and cost, outfitters said.

“A well-built, quality propane truck would probably be in the $150,000 range” and maybe more, depending on options, said Smith of Kurtz Truck Equipment, who worked on the retail side of the business for 27 years for Suburban Propane, headquartered in Whippany, N.J.

The chassis costs for a heating oil or propane delivery truck are about the same, Smith said. The difference is in the cost of the tank and related equipment. He noted, for example, that regulations require that propane tank trucks have a remote emergency shutdown system on the truck.

Base Engineering, Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada, manufactures wireless remote controls for that purpose, Smith noted. The devices can be solely “single-function”–in an emergency the operator hits a button to shut all the valves and turn off the engine in the truck–or they can have multiple functions. These include unreeling and reeling the hose. Base Engineering markets a remote handheld that reads electronic meters as well, Smith said.

Liberty Propane Equipment Co., East Hartford, Conn., has sold some propane trucks with 5,000-gallon tanks, a size more commonly spec’d in the West than in the Northeast, said Chris Ouellette of Liberty. The trucks are spec’d with a tag axle–“a push axle that can carry a 5,000-gallon tank,” Ouellette said. “Guys really like them because they can turn real good with them and they can carry more product. They’re able to do more stops and they spend less time having to go back to their plant or wherever they go to get their propane loaded. If they can get three or four more stops done they do better in the course of a day–more productivity.”

A small number of customers have ordered propane tank trucks that are fueled by propane, Ouellette reported. “I’ve seen some interest in them,” he said. “The engines aren’t going to last as long as a diesel engine,” Ouellette said. “You can’t put as big a tank on them because they don’t have enough [power] to go up some of the big hills. There’s no engine brake so when a driver is going downhill he’s relying on his [service] brakes. But they also save you a lot of money on fuel.” Ouellette said he had sold four or five propane-fueled trucks in the past couple of years.

But a trend toward fueling propane service trucks with propane could be developing as the federal government continues promoting alternative fuels, said John Hawkins, CEO of H&H Sales Co., Inc. of Huntertown, Ind. At the Northeast Propane Show in Boxboro, Mass., in August, H&H exhibited a bi-fueled propane crane truck–a Ford 550–that runs on gasoline or propane.

Hawkins noted that the cost of propane fuel is less than gasoline or diesel, and propane “burns cleaner. Plus there is a maintenance saving.”

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