The art of upfitting vocational trucks

Vocational trucks cover a very wide spectrum of uses. They are all designed to perform very specific tasks, and the combination of equipment is virtually endless.

Many parties are involved in the process of upfitting a vocational truck, usually including the dealer. He can do the work himself or entrust the chassis to a subcontractor, then one or more upfitters will be added depending on the type of truck.

Upfitters are those who make the changes that allow the truck to actually do a job, turning it into a utility vehicle. Small- and medium-sized companies occupy this niche and ensure that vocational trucks can do the job their owners bought them for.

“It’s a big and complex world in which a number of smaller players operate,” said Don Moore, director of government and industry relations for the Canadian Transportation Equipment Association (CTEA). “Many people don’t realize that these upfitters are considered manufacturers. There are a number of things they need to know about federal regulations to do their job.”

These companies perform the intermediate and final upfitting work and their operations are heavily regulated under the Motor Vehicle Safety Act.

“There are a lot of details that they have to pay attention to when setting up the truck to make sure they do their jobs well and safely,” says Moore.

Starting on the right foot

Upfitting a vocational truck requires engineering work, especially with highly specialized trucks, for example in the waste collection and construction segments.

The first step is to choose the right chassis for the job. And you have to plan the right mix of equipment for the whole to take shape.

“Many owners know well enough what they need to build their vocational trucks, but talking to the upfitter is important because you have to start with the right chassis. There are many things you can do with a chassis – shorten it, lengthen it, change the wheelbase – but everyone in the industry will tell you, you have to get the right chassis first,” says Moore.

“Make sure the frame is tough enough to do the job, that the powertrain spec’s are right. There are so many variables. Do not hesitate to speak with the upfitter, but also with the dealer to make sure that the order contains the correct information for the manufacturer of the truck, and so that their engineers can provide the customer with what he needs,” Moore adds.

“Engineers also need to make sure that the vehicle being ordered is the right one for the job, that it has the right components and that modifications are possible. It is undoubtedly a joint and coordinated process. You have to establish communication from the start.”

(Photo: Steve Bouchard)

The brand that stands for everything

The upfitter must also have its National Safety Mark from Transport Canada.

“The National Safety Mark shows that the upfitter understands what they’re doing and know the regulatory requirements,” says Moore.

Beware of unqualified companies and individuals looking for the work.

“Like any other industry, there are companies that can make you great offers, but they don’t have their National Safety Mark. They can bypass some things, and that’s certainly not good. “

Companies qualified to use the National Safety Mark are listed online.

Upfitters must ensure they meet load and dimension standards, and these are the responsibility of the provinces. The upfitters you are dealing with will therefore need to know the standards of the province where the vehicle will be used. This is another reason why communication between the different stakeholders in the vehicle development project is very important.

The dealer’s contribution

In some cases, the dealer may also be an upfitter and have its National Safety Mark. This is the case with Camions Excellence Peterbilt in Quebec.

Cathy Lussier, sales, leasing and finance manager at Excellence Peterbilt, points out that ideally, the truck should be ordered with components that will meet the demands of the installer of the additional equipment. In OEM terminology, the truck will be delivered as “incomplete.”

“Usually, the truck is delivered to the dealership where a visual and mechanical inspection is done. The truck is then delivered to the first upfitter who will modify the truck. It is not impossible for the truck to be delivered directly to the upfitter in certain situations,” explains Lussier.

“If, for example, we make a modification of CA (cab to axle length) that requires relocating an axle, we make an intermediate National Safety Mark. We’re going to do some air testing for the brakes. If we lengthen it, we may have to add a third air tank to have sufficient volume,” says Francois Corriveau, preparation supervisor at Camions Excellence Peterbilt.

The National Safety Mark decal. (Photo: Steve Bouchard)

“It’s pretty rare that we’re going to lengthen a truck or back up an axle because, again, we try to order the truck with all the right components, the right wheelbase, the right CA, etc., so that the upfitter doesn’t have any modifications to do, so that he only has to install his equipment and make his National Safety Mark,” adds Lussier.

The upfitter will install the equipment (box, dump, etc.) and affix a National Safety Mark sticker to the door to indicate that the vehicle has become complete.

“If we have touched the truck, we will affix a national intermediate mark and the equipment manufacturer will affix the final mark,” explains Corriveau.

In the case of a 12-wheel dump truck, for example, the installer of the additional axle will also act as an intermediary and affix the National Safety Mark accordingly. The person who will install the dump body will be the final installer.

“It’s the upfitter who makes the last modification on the truck who is responsible for making sure the others before him have done what they needed to do, and then he will affix the final modification sticker. The documentation will have to be kept, because there may be subsequent verifications,” says Lussier.

As if to add a bit of complexity to all of this, there are different levels of certification for the National Safety Mark. For example, some upfitters have the right to add equipment, but not to make changes related to the air system.

Changes that may seem simple on the surface are sometimes much more complex than you might think. “There are things that can interfere. An air tank can block the passage, so it needs to be relocated. We can’t always do as we want. If you need to relocate batteries, you may have to rewire. Modifying one component can have a domino effect, forcing you to relocate other components,” says Lussier.

Phase 2 of U.S. regulations on GHG emissions and energy efficiency standards will make life harder for upfitters starting next summer. For the 2021 engines, which will start to be built next July, it will no longer be possible to modify certain things that could have an impact on the fuel efficiency of the truck.

“Within the framework of these regulations, each truck gets a score according to the way it is built and, if we want to change something, we will have to ask the manufacturer for authorization, who will then tell us if we can make the change or not, because that can change its score,” notes Lussier.

The process is different with a used truck. It must be certified by an external engineering firm which approves that the modifications that have been made are in compliance.

“Not everyone knows that. There are people who buy used trucks that have been modified by people who may not have had the skill and authority to do it. The buyer ignores it, but then he possibly buys a non-compliant truck,” warns Lussier.

The best, and the only way to confirm that a truck that has undergone modifications that are compliant, is to make sure it has its National Safety Mark.

Plan for delays

Obviously, you have to plan when you buy a vocational truck. When it comes to manufacturing times at the OEM manufacturer, you must build in modification times. And that’s particularly problematic these days, says Lussier.

“In the case of a 12-wheel dump truck, for example, from the time we receive the truck and the axle and body are installed, it can easily be five months. Manufacturing times are currently around eight months. So, if you order the truck today, you will receive it with its equipment in more or less a year,” she says.

Unless the dealer has it in stock.

“Customers who land a contract don’t have time to wait a year. We have no choice but to anticipate market needs and reserve slots with OEMs so that we can fit out trucks faster.”

Steve Bouchard started writing about trucks over 20 years ago, making him by far the most experienced trucking journalist in Quebec. Steve is the editor of Quebec’s leading French-language trucking magazine, Transport Routier, published by Newcom Média Québec since its creation in 2000. He is also editor of the associated website transportroutier.ca, and a contributor to Today’s Trucking and Trucknews.com.

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