Heavy duty decisions: The right specs for your hardworking vocational truck

by Harry Rudolfs

Construction companies, typically, have to fill a variety of transportation needs. Even a small to medium-sized outfit usually contains a fleet of tandem and/or tri-axle dump trucks, a few tractors to pull around floats and equipment, and possibly some specialized equipment like water tankers or fuel trucks. Some of the dumps might see year round service and get converted to sanders or snowplows during the winter months.

Durability and economy are major considerations when it comes to spec’ing new equipment. The units must be heavy-duty workhorses with the ability to withstand extreme conditions, stay out of the shop, and provide a good return on investment during the dozen or so years that they will be the mainstays of the fleet.

G. Tackaberry and Sons Construction Co. Ltd., of Athens, Ont., is among the most successful road builders in eastern Ontario, drawing gravel out of 50 self-owned pits and quarries as well as running an asphalt business. Like most large construction companies, their operations include well-appointed shops that can fabricate anything they need (many of George’s machinists and mechanics are kept busy working on restoration projects for the family truck museum whose collection of vintage International trucks is second to none in the world).

So I was surprised to hear that the Tackaberrys get their vocational trucks “off the rack,” so to speak, from a local International Truck dealer in Kemptville, Ont., with little or no customization.

One of the sons, Charlie Tackaberry, explains. “We’re a 100% International fleet and we can buy what we want pretty much off the shelf from the dealer.” For their dump units, the Tackaberrys go with the aluminum-cab Paystar model powered by a 500 horsepower Cummins ISX engine. Transmissions are usually 18-speed manual Eatons or Fullers—the family is old school and not interested in automatic transmissions at this time. But other construction companies are getting good results with the six-speed Allisons.

Tackaberry spec’s rear gear ratios at 3.90 for tractors and a little bit slower, 4.33 for their dump trucks. With the amount of quarry work the trucks do, the axles are spec’ed on the heavy side, with the steering axle pegged at 20,000 lbs and the rears at 46,000. As far as suspensions go, Charlie Tackaberry prefers the Hendrickson HN rubber block suspension to air ride. “We feel it’s more manoeuvrable in the pits and maintenance-free,” he says. “Of course our SPIF-compliant lift axle tri-axle dumps are all air.”

So much depends on the application. Although the Tackaberrys’ gravel-ready vocational trucks don’t require much customization, most buyers need to work closely with the body builder and the dealer to obtain the equipment they require. For instance, a company using dump trucks year around might only need a 350 horse power engine, but the front ends have to be heavy — 22,000 lbs — because of the extra weight of the plow harness and plow blade sitting ahead of the front axle. It’s also important to have enough room behind the cab to mount a hydraulic reservoir and controls.

For lighter applications, such as a water or vac truck, Pat Kinnear of Tallman Truck Centre in Kemptville, Ont., suggests that the International Workstar might be a better option. Instead of the 12 inch double frame of a Paystar, the Workstar has a 10 inch double frame, and a slightly smaller cab and sits lower to the ground, making it easier for the driver who has to get in and out of the truck frequently.

“It depends on what the customer is looking for,” says Kinnear. “Someone running a truck around Ottawa might be more interested in performance than mileage, but fuel economy is becoming a bigger part of the equation so guys are looking to run with slower rear ends to bring the RPMs down a bit.”

Another consideration is where the equipment is going to be operating. Ontario allows for some of the heaviest weight limits–a typical spec’ for a float tractor might be 18,000 front end 46,000 rears, matched with 52,000lb Neway air ride rear suspension that can handle any 50 ton machine. But this configuration might be problematic if you’re working inter-provincially.

I recently spoke to an operations manager of an Ontario company who may be getting some work in Manitoba. He didn’t want his name used because the project is still pending. “Everything in Ontario is run heavy but if you’re working elsewhere you might have to invest in some lighter equipment, like lighter float trailers,” he suggests. “My Peterbilt floats have 16,000 front ends, but out there they run 12-14,600 front ends. I think the ideal wheelbase for a float tractor might be 244 inches for the western provinces” he says.

Into the Oil Patch

Extreme heat and cold, and rugged terrains, are the norm in Canada’s oil patch. Temperatures, alone, can vary 140 degrees F, from 100 degrees above zero to 40 below within a few months. Since much of the work is off road, the majority of the vocational equipment is spec’d with similar heavy duty options: higher horsepower (up to 650 hp), heavy axles, all-way lock-up on the drives, extra insulation around the EGR components, and Arctic packages (300 watt oil pan heater, 1500 watt coolant heater, 160 amp alternator, 2800 CCA batteries & cab insulation).

In general wheel bases run a little longer in “the patch” and there’s a lot more specialized equipment.

“You can go to a trade show in Lloydminister, for instance, and not be sure of what some of the equipment does,” says Ron Duda, sales manager for Readhead Equipment, a Mack dealer in Regina, Sask. “Guys are getting all kinds of ideas and some of these units are multi-functional. You might have one truck now where you used to have three.” For example, a vacuum truck might be combined with a flush system and both tanks might be enclosed in a van body so the operators can stay warm in the winter.

So it follows that each specialized vocation requires careful and individualized spec’ing. “What we need to know is the distance from the back of the cab to the centre of the drive axles,” says Duda. “That’s the crucial number given to us by the body builder or in some cases the customer himself. We also need to know the weight that’s being hauled and what the off-road application is going to be. With that information we can supply the right configuration and spec’s for that truck.”

Almost everything in the oil patch rides on heavy-duty air suspensions (rubber block is a rarity), usually 46-52,000 lb rear axle ratings matched with either Hendrickson, Neway or Radan Air Link systems. Duda suggests that the Mack Granite with a 13-litre, 505-horsepower engine is a good fit for most vocational applications, whether they be dump boxes, vac units, pickers (crane trucks) or bed trucks. Available with set-forward or set-back front axles, and single, double or triple frame chassis. “Set back front axles are more common in the east, while in western Canada you tend to see more axle forward.,” says Duda.

Ernie Klassen, director of fleet maintenance for Mullen Oil Field Services, manages an almost all-Kenworth fleet that has its own unique challenges. “All our work is heavy and off-highway so we look for a truck that will take a beating,” says Klassen. “We spec’ them with triple frames and 52,000 lb rear ends, and planetary rear ends for heavier stuff.”

Klassen is referring to Mullen’s bed trucks and pickers (crane trucks), which are spec’d ultra-heavy, often with two steering axles (sometimes three) and often three drive axles. The 165,000 GVW bed trucks, always equipped with a winch, are used for spotting rig equipment, and moving components off-road between float trailers and the rig site. The engines are rated between 525 to 560 horsepower, and Klassen prefers 18-speed manual transmissions, though Mullen does run some 4700 Allison automatics.

According to Klassen, one of his trucks can expect to be in service for 15 years, about 35,000 hours, and even longer for equipment domiciled at camps in the Arctic or Northwest Territories. “Those trucks are in the neighbourhood of 25 years old,” he says. “We don’t even put newer trucks up there, too much electronics on them.”
No one in trucking has been immune to problems posed by contemporary EPA-compliant engines. And operators in the north are more affected by emission-system failures, so that extra insulation around sensitive emission-system components is standard fare in the oil sands. While the OEMs seem to be ironing out the glitches, Klassen, for his part, declines to use trucks with EGR/SCR systems in the far north. ‘The issues are huge when it gets cold,” he says. “we keep rebuilding the old ones instead.”
Like most heavy equipment operators in the patch, Mullen buys the full spectrum of warranties. But Klassen says he doesn’t always get the chance to make claims. “Most of our repairs are done in-house. We can’t have them sitting around waiting for a warranty when they’re in demand, especially in the winter time.”

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