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Out with the old

TORONTO, Ont. – It’s hard to put a number on the average life of a trailer, say industry experts, because the longevity of your trailer all depends on what you buy and how you maintain it, not to mention safety and environmental...

TORONTO, Ont. – It’s hard to put a number on the average life of a trailer, say industry experts, because the longevity of your trailer all depends on what you buy and how you maintain it, not to mention safety and environmental regulations and customers who won’t load trailers once they reach a certain age. But there are some hard and fast rules about how to get the best return on your investment.

“Right now we’re looking at an average life of 10 to 15 years for most trailers,” says Mike Hignett, used equipment manager for Glasvan Trailers. “But equipment with more components and technology, like reefers, tend to have a shorter life” (around seven to 10 years) he explains. “So it’s not uncommon for a flatbed to outlast every other type of trailer on the road.”

When it comes to trailers in general, regular maintenance of suspension and braking components is essential to extending life.

“Suspension components, brakes and bushings have to be maintained. If you grease components regularly you’ll get more life out of them,” says Hignett. “Other things, like brakes can be changed regularly. But if you ignore these things for any length of time that’s where it can get expensive. You end up with a trailer that’s only good for scrap or storage.”

Structural integrity compromised by wear and tear during loading and unloading is another killer, say experts.

“In reefers especially, the floors, if they’re not built or spec’d properly, can crack over time due to big forklifts loading pallets that are too heavy,” says Hignett. Aluminum floors can also suffer from the regular use of harsh cleaning chemicals. “Then, if the fibreglass sub-panel underneath the floor gets broken, and you don’t seal it up, all that water and all those chemicals on the road get sucked up in to the insulation. Then you’ll have to replace the floor, which is very expensive.”

Rust constitutes another serious, but preventable threat to trailer longevity.

“In a lot of cases, we see corrosion issues in body panels, rails, cross-members and elsewhere due to salts and calcium and other stuff they’re using on the road,” says Conny Weyers, president of Trailers Canada.

“The problem with steel is rust,” points out Nick Lambevski, v.p. at Transport Trailer Sales.  “What people should be doing is sandblasting and painting every five years, which is expensive but you have to do it, otherwise your cross-members will have holes in them and that’s too expensive to fix.”

Spec’ing for ROI
It’s no secret that spending a little more up front on extras and new technology designed to extend the life of your trailer will get you a better return on your investment.

Lambevski says corrosion is the main reason many of his customers are switching to aluminum when it comes to floors and crossbeams. Rust-busting galvanized steel components are another recipe for longer trailer life, points out Tom Ramsden, vice-president of sales for Manac. There are even measures you can take to extend the life of insulation in reefers.

“There are tiny gas bubbles in the insulation they blow into the wall of a reefer,” Hignett says. “Over time, these bubbles work their way towards the interior of the trailer and leak out through the lining. Over time, the insulation stops working as well, and the refrigeration unit has to work harder and use more fuel to maintain the temperature.”

Hignett points out special linings are also available to prevent this “outgassing” and extend the life of reefers.

Unfortunately, diligent maintenance and spec’ing just aren’t good enough to meet the requirements of some shippers, never mind governments targeting everything from emissions to road wear.

“GM has a 120-month rule on trailers,” points out Weyers. Hignett points to Californian regulations requiring add-ons to control reefer emissions. “It’s just too expensive to put on all the aftermarket equipment required.”

And last but not least, local regulations, such as Ontario’s SPIF (Safe, Productive, Infrastructure Friendly) trailer initiative may put otherwise functional older trailers out to pasture.

“As of 2015, lift axles on five-axle trailers are going to be obsolete because they’re putting too much stress on the roads,” says Lambevski. “So we’re getting a lot of five-axle trade-ins now.”

So what do you do with a trailer that isn’t quite scrap but isn’t qualified, for one reason or another, to do what it was originally spec’d to do?

Second life or sale?
Selling or trading in your old trailer can all depend on whether it can be put to further use. Some fleets find ways to repurpose them.

“I’ve seen dry vans and flatbeds repurposed for shorter hauls,” says Trailers Canada’s Weyers. Even reefers that used to do long-haul can get a second life running locally or regionally. Still, carriers whose businesses aren’t diverse enough to repurpose are going to have to look at other options. Trailer manufacturers have mixed opinions on whether it’s worth your while to act as your own vendor or to trade in.

For larger carriers with regular equipment renewal programs (once every seven years or so, on average) the value of trade-ins is without question. But used trailers that are still in good condition may fetch an even better price through private sale, if you have the space to accommodate a parked trailer and time for tire kickers.

“Some carriers have their own divisions to get rid of used equipment and they’re sure to get the best dollar they can that way. Obviously you make more if you cut out the middle man,” says Manac’s Ramsden. Some dealers may even offer to sell used trailers on consignment. Auctions, although there’s no price guarantee, are also an option. Even so, most buyers would prefer to buy used equipment from a dealer who can guarantee it’s been certified for the road.

Of course, there are many used trailer owners who, due to the economic downturn, have opted to continue to run their trailers or even park them rather than try to trade them in and buy new. Trailers that have been parked for a couple of years are probably only fit for scrap, say dealers.

“About the worst thing you can do to a trailer is keep it parked in the yard,” says Ramsden. “It may sound contradictory but if it’s running down the road at least you know it’s in working condition.”

Owners of trailers no longer fit for the road have three options: repair them prior to trading them in, sell them or trade them in as-is, or sell them for storage.

Chances are repairing a trailer that’s unsound will cost more than it’s worth. Trading such a trailer in will get you the going price for scrap metal. As for storage: “Fifteen years ago there was a market for storage – you could sell your trailers off for $1,000 or $2,000 and they’d get parked in a field or on a building lot. But now that market has dried up quite a bit,” says Hignett. “Insurance companies may not cover injuries caused by climbing up into trailers, so people prefer to use old shipping containers that sit right down on the ground. Now those trailers that would have been used for warehousing are mostly being scrapped.”

Factor in the cost when it comes to deciding whether to maintain or sell a trailer. Are you getting a good ROI or is it time to cut your losses?

If it is time to sell or trade in, keep in mind the price you get will depend on your trailer’s roadworthiness.  Last but not least, keep in mind that market fluctuations, dependant on seasonal and economic factors, will also have an impact on whether you get the price you hope for. Dealers say they generally see more demand for reefers and flatbeds in the spring. But increased demand may be impacted by a recent glut of trailers in the market, says Hignett.

“I believe we’re going to be seeing an upswing in trade-ins in 2012, because the economy is starting to improve and people who’ve been hanging on to their trailers will start trying to trade them in. Unfortunately they may be in for a surprise when they discover their value isn’t what they think they should be,” he warns.

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