Three fleets share their effective maintenance strategies

by Carroll McCormick

It is a cruel world when your rig gets dragged through the mud every day. But sinking in past the wheel hubs is a fact of life for the rigs doing off-road duty for Lloydminsiter, Saskatchewan-based Shadwin Trucking Ltd. and SORE Oilfield Services.

Shadwin moves oil, water and other fluids to and from oil & gas sites. The small land leases become quagmires every spring and bulldozers and tractors (of the farming variety) manhandle the tractor-trailers on and off the leases. “This puts a lot of strain on the suspension systems and axles,” says Harry Martens, owner, Shadwin.

Adding insult to injury, the trucks always turn to the left, causing more repetitive strain injuries. Broken springs and airbags, torn-off bumpers, twisted yokes and U-joints are standard casualties.

About half of the company’s 80 employees are owner-operators. Most are veterans of this game, but, says Marten, “Many come to our office and ask for [our opinions] before they order their tractors. One of our biggest maintenance exercises here is making sure you have the right specs and the right equipment for the job.”

Retrofitting the rigs with super-tough parts has not been part of the company’s maintenance strategy, but “more”, “better” and “smarter” is. For example, Martens says, “If the original equipment has two straps, we have four; for example, four fuel tank straps. We have changed over to clamp-on polyurethane dust covers instead of bolt on dust covers.”

Creig Bell, maintenance consultant to Shadwin, adds, “The cross over lines have extra straps. Air lines are tied up behind axles instead of in front of them.”

Drivers play a big role in keeping the rigs off-road worthy. Damage is seldom subtle, so they notice problems and phone them in immediately. Repair work in the field is best avoided. “We don’t wait to get things fixed. Because of the terrain we are running in, we have to fix it right now,” Bell says.

Drivers are extra-attentive during circle checks. “Part of the daily walk around is to make sure there is nothing broken, such as U-clamps. It is more involved and in depth than a regular walk around,” Bell says.

Spring mud and slush and summer dust can cause major grief. A rig can easily pick up a ton of mud. That weight can tear loose brake and ABS lines, support straps, and saturate and strip away insulation. “We wash trucks and trailers every couple of days,” Martens says.

Grease is the anti-mud and anti-dust. “Grease has become a very cheap commodity,” Martens says. “We grease the units every day or every other day,” Bell adds.

Drivers are zealous about removing mud from the wheels. Clods of mud and ice unbalance them. “The truck literally becomes a vibrating, shaking monster going down the road,” Martens says.

For the past three years or so, Martens has been spec’ing disk brakes, for several reasons. One, dust gets into brake drums and grinds everything up. “Cleanliness is absolutely key to your moving parts,” Martens says.

Two, Marten says, “When you dynamite hot brakes at night in the winter, the shoes freeze to the drums. The next morning the drivers release the brakes but the shoes won’t release from the drums. The wheels slide on the snow. The next thing you know, you have burned off a set of tires.” Disc brakes get around both of these problems, plus have longer life expectancy and better braking.

They are supposed to be maintenance free, but disk brakes don’t get off so easy in this gig. “We do a half-hour servicing on the disc brakes every 90 days. We have only had one trailer’s brake caliper fail in three years,” Martens says.
All new equipment is spec’d with disk brakes. Looking forward, says Martens, “If Meritor comes out with a retrofit, we will be switching everything to disc brakes.”

For the maintenance team at William Day Construction, hauling nickel ore around the clock leaves little room for regular maintenance, let alone unplanned downtime. Part of the Copper Cliff, Ontario-based Day Group of Companies, William Day Construction has developed several strategies to keep its fleet of belt trailers and tri-axle dump trucks rolling for its mining customers in the Sudbury region.

One trick has been to identify repetitive failures and then invest in more robust parts. “Because we go through a lot of king pins, we went to new Kaiser king pin bushings and pins,” says Dave Klus, director of maintenance, William Day Construction.

Stock brake cams take a beating and require replacement every nine months or so. “Because of the roughness of the roads the cams bounce around a lot. We installed new cam systems [from Express Brake International] that have 20 inches of surface contact between the cams and bushings, compared to four inches of contact in the old cams,” Klus says. The greater contact area reduces the tapping of the cams on the bushings and spreads the impact over a greater surface area.

Mechanics began installing the new cam systems a year and a half ago. The result? “They have a lot better life. I haven’t had to change any cams that I’ve upgraded. Cams for us was a big one,” Klus reports.

So was a problem with air-driven systems that malfunctioned when moist air froze. The solution was the Concep condensor/separator by Haldex. “Before I started up here they were having bad freeze up problems. Concep cools the air between the compressor and the air dryers and removes moisture. It made a tremendous difference in freezing,” Klus says. The dryer air means less work for the air dryers and fewer problems in the rigs’ air-assisted systems.

Klus also credits driver training for reducing unplanned downtime. “Drivers can affect maintenance costs very easily if they don’t understand things such as the shock loading due to spinout,” Klus says.

Expending extra effort during maintenance sessions is another good investment. Each unit gets scheduled maintenance roughly every two weeks. Decreasing some of the maintenance intervals is one instance where extra effort up front pays off in the long run. “We are at about half the interval for fluid changes for the automatic transmissions. We think it gives them better life,” Klus says.

Mechanics clean the diesel particulate filters (DPF) twice as often as the manufacturer recommends. “We figure that if we do it at the same time as our safety inspection, we are good again till next year. If DPFs go too far between cleanings, you can’t get then as clean as when you do it more often; for example, only getting them back to the yellow zone on the flow tester, rather than the green zone,” Klus explains.

Klus shares one more strategy: better warrantee capture. William Day Construction bought a fleet maintenance management system by Truck Tracker a year and a half ago. In addition to the usual tasks, like parts inventory and work orders, the maintenance team uses it to flag more warrantees. “We’re getting a lot higher percentage of warranties than we did before,” Klus says. “Before we bought Truck Tracker, we tracked warranties manually, and got perhaps 25% of what we were due. We are probably getting 60% to 75% of our warranties now on parts.”

Salisbury, New Brunswick-based Terra Nova Transport Ltd. cannot lay claim to any outrageous operating conditions, but that does not mean that effective maintenance happens all by itself. For company maintenance manager Brent McMackin, common sense, attention to detail and dedicated staff are the ticket.

“The KISS method [keep it simple, stupid] seems to work well for us. Our dedicated mechanics take a personal interest in their fleet and we are small enough to know each truck,” McMackin says.

Terra Nova’s fleet of 40 tractors and 100 trailers mostly ply the East Coast/Eastern Seaboard/Toronto triangle. “We pull in each truck once a month and the mechanics go over them like it is a safety inspection. This is the key thing. Spraying brackets with rust proofing, grease door hinges, door locks, clevis pins … we unhook major harnesses and apply dielectric grease. It is a corrosion barrier and it really makes a difference. It takes a few minutes to do now, but it can take hours to repair a wiring harness. Electrical is one of the biggest issues with modern trucks. Preventative maintenance is key to keeping the truck on the road longer. Generally, if you wait till issues arise, many things will usually go downhill with them,” McMackin says.

Problems with emissions-related technology have caused Terra Nova to favour Freightliner and Detroit tractors. We are having fewer such issues with them,” McMackin comments.

McMackin also likes the Freightliner and Detroit virtual technician program. “I automatically receive an email when an engine code pops up, that explains what the engine light means. It’s a good guide as to whether the truck can continue. It emails me a list of parts and the local Freightliner dealer. Problems can be diagnosed over the phone. It is a general diagnosis, but it is a guide to where to look. I’ve found that it is a very valuable tool. Is it safe to go on or is it big kaka?”

The company encourages its drivers to immediately message in problems via satellite for analysis and to make a list of issues to hand in when they get home. McMackin also lavishes praise on his mechanics. “Most technicians at garages are not looking for things outside what the truck is there for. Outside shops do what they are hired to do.

“Some people just do the bare minimum. We see a lot of basic maintenance that is not done on other fleets. I’d like to think that our fleet is among the best maintained anywhere. I’ll tell ya. It boils down to the guys in the shop and their pride in their work.”

Have your say

We won't publish or share your data