The small fleet’s dilemma

by Bill Cameron

As if there were not enough maddening challenges to being a small carrier in recent years, probably the biggest is rearing its ugly head lately. You’ve survived the speed limiter debate. The EOBR debate continues, but I believe we have all conceded defeat on that one, too. The expense of these units will, in time, be foisted on you, whether or not you carefully monitor hours-of-service.

In time, all of the other expenses and distractions may seem quite minor, in comparison. Some of us have already been hit with a new and predictable reality, as we all will in due time.

If you are only a five-truck-or-less operation, and content to stay that size, you are perhaps on a regular cycle of equipment replacement, and this issue won’t affect you.

For the rest of us, we rely on late model used equipment. If you are trying to grow your company as the recession ever-so-slowly eases, or simply replace aging equipment, you are officially in a pickle, because the equipment you require, maybe urgently, doesn’t exist.

Start with tractors. Starting with 2007 units, the severe drop in fuel economy, along with a lot of extra maintenance, chased most of us away from buying new iron.

Moving along a couple years, mileage improved slightly, but the added hassle of particulate filters, additional maintenance, and even, unfortunately, less reliability, still kept us at bay.

For those of you who are willing to gamble, and wish to give a 09 or EPA2010 model a try, good luck. There aren’t many of them to choose from.

With the lack of truck sales after 2008, even companies on regular replacement cycles are hardly flooding the used truck markets, so your choices are very limited. Any that are on the lot most likely came from large fleets. A truck from a large dry van fleet may not suit your needs, especially if you perform heavy-haul.

Any truck newer than 2010 gets you into a pretty small window between new and used, but you are still dealing with plenty of extra sensors, diesel exhaust fluid, and operating pressures and under-hood/under-body temperatures that scare the hell out of guys like me (who learned to drive on a mid-70s R model Mack, a slightly different truck than is built today).

Remember the days when you would be looking for a shoulder to pull over onto when the temperature gauge crept over 200 degrees? Turbo-boost gauges in those days didn’t need to read higher than 50 lbs, a gauge that a lot of new trucks would pin by mid-throttle.  

When the price of a muffler exceeds $1,000 now, because of its role in the emissions system, we old-school types get very skittish.

As a result, many of us are rebuilding pre-04 power units. With complete overhauls, paint, and sometimes a complete frame-up, bumper-to-mud flap restoration, most of us old guys prefer the slightly older equipment.

If you rely on hired drivers, you may be stuck with newer equipment, unless your driver pool’s average age is near or over 50. If your pay scale is where it should be, some of the old-school drivers will actually prefer refurbished, older equipment.

Haven’t a lot of us heard, or made, scathing remarks about the newer iron being the trucks most often seen on the side of the highway with the hood up and flares out? A lot of us don’t want to be the guy driving that truck.

Trailers are a different issue, since engines and emissions are not involved, but the end result is the same. Good, late model used equipment hardly exists. After 2008, as with tractors, new trailer sales plummeted.  

Large fleets kept their trailers for longer duty-cycles, perhaps up to the maximum 10-year age that the automakers and Fortune 500 companies enforce. If you are a dry van outfit, do you really want a 10-year-old trailer that has likely been pulled by several hundred drivers in its lifetime?  

Although flatbeds enjoy a longer life-cycle than vans, a longer usage by a large fleet (likely with reduced maintenance cycles, at least in the past three years) may not be the used trailer that you want either. From my own recent experience, good, late model used trailers are a scarce commodity. Any you may find are quite likely overpriced.  

I recently watched (admittedly immaculate) 2004 flatbeds go through an auction for 45% of the price of new, defeating the financial benefit of searching out used equipment.

If you need to pay that much for a nine-year-old wagon, any good accountant managing your write-offs properly can get you under a new trailer, costing you no extra in the long-term.

If you are a heavy-hauler, your search for used trailers will be even more interesting.

With a booming Western Canada economy, B-trains and tridem flatbeds are scooped up as soon as they hit the lot.

For the Ontario-Michigan haulers, despite the lack of B-trains, straight trailers with four to six axles can be found with relative ease. Unfortunately, we all know of the impending GVW restrictions coming to anything with lift axles (long overdue, if we were being honest).   

Any trailer you find will be mostly obsolete in a couple years.

Usually, at the end of my monthly rants, I offer my pie-in-the-sky solution.

Sorry, but that won’t be happening this month. I can’t create equipment that was never built. This is a problem that I am just reporting; unfortunately one that we are stuck with for at least five more years, until the next cycle comes around.

Unfortunately, a lot of us that previously considered “new” to be a four-letter word, may have to go that route in order to grow.

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