To trod the boards

by John Curran

CAP-SAINT-IGNACE, Que. – To spec or not to spec, in the case of trailer flooring, your answer to this question may soon change thanks to Canadian manufacturer Prolam.

According to the latest figures from Statistics Canada, fleets in this country have seen their operating profits hold steady at about five cents on every dollar spent over the last few years. At the same time, however, rates have barely moved while expenses continue to climb.

Since it takes more than wit and good intentions to survive in this cutthroat industry, Canadian carriers and O/Os have been forced to look at new technologies to reduce operating costs in order to preserve what little profit they make.

Because of this, equipment spec’ing experts are paid big bucks to build the right rig for any given job. Thus there are very few components left to chance – Truck News recently heard about a multi-million-dollar trailer deal that’s bogging down due to the rivets arbitrarily used by the manufacturer.

While that certainly isn’t the norm, a shrewd operator wouldn’t ignore anything that has the potential to make them more money.

Getting more from a floor

Until recently all trailer floors were created equal. They all used similar gluing techniques and the joints between the boards were all based on roughly the same single-overlap hook design. That is until Quebec-based Prolam unveiled its new zigzag design, resulting in a spec that’s much more robust than traditional wooden trailer floors.

“Thanks to Prolam, traditional hook joints are now a thing of the past,” says Pierre Thabet, the company’s owner. “For years, trailer floors have weakened under the stress of the weight of cargo and forklifts, and have allowed water to damage valuable cargo.”

The new flooring approach involves precision cutting the floor strip ends in a zigzag pattern (thus the name).

“Anyone can do the joint,” says Prolam’s general manager Ben Risi referring to the special cutting angle. “The other thing is getting it closed.”

To that end, Prolam uses a patent-pending process where the strips are fitted together and glued under 200lb of pressure to form exceptionally strong joints. The flooring industry’s standard test for brute strength is the dry sheer test. Risi explains since going to the new technique, Prolam’s dry sheer results have improved by more than 200 per cent.

See for yourself

If you’re having trouble picturing how Prolam’s design improves on the old technology, don’t worry – you’re not alone.

The best way to illustrate it would be for you to set down your copy of Truck News (just for a minute).

Extend your index fingers and then bend them both at the middle knuckle to 90-degree angles. Now interlock the two with one fingertip pointing straight up and the other pointing straight down. If you try to pull them apart it’s hard to do, but that’s not how trailer floors break – joints separate under the weight of a load. So instead, try to keep your fingers locked as you push your lower hand down while keeping both fingers rigid. (Can’t do it, eh?)

This basically simulates a traditional trailer floor joint.

To picture the new Prolam zigzag design, turn your hands so your palms are facing you. Extend your three longest fingers on each hand. Now interleaf these fingers so they look like they’re stacked one on top of another.

Again push down on the lower hand while keeping all of your fingers rigid. This time the joint is much harder – if not impossible – to pull apart under a downward force, isn’t it? In simple terms, that’s the zigzag advantage.

That sinking feeling

There is however, more to a good trailer floor than simple strength. As Thabet earlier alluded to, water penetration has always been a problem in van trailers. Wooden floors are generally built right on top of the trailer cross members.

So they are directly exposed to the harsh road environment – in Canada salt, slush and other destructive elements are constantly washing over the wood.

“When water soaks the underside of a standard floor, the wood expands and the joints start to come apart, which then allows even more water to get into the van,” says Risi. “The zig-zag eliminates this problem. If water expands the wood, the new joint actually seals itself shut.”

Because there are multiple surfaces in contact with each other the swelling wood crushes together, even tighter than it was before.

Proof of this can be observed in the industry’s other standard benchmark: the wet sheer test.

After a section of floor has been thoroughly soaked and dried over a period of days, the folks in quality control try to break it apart.

Prolam has seen a 300 per cent increase in its wet sheer results.

“The trailer manufacturers require a wet sheer score of 525lb, we typically score above 1,400lb.”

Maybe that’s why the company has enjoyed a warranty claim rate of a microscopic 0.001 per cent for the last 60 months – they’ve only made a single trailer floor that was defective in that time.

Canadian flavor

There is another distinct difference between Prolam’s floors and the other two major U.S.-based producers and geography has a lot to do with it.

“We use about 80 per cent maple, to take advantage of what’s available in our area,” explains Risi. “They use 100 per cent oak.”

As with many products that take more than one launch to get right (anti-lock brakes come to mind), an initial failure by another manufacturer of maple floors spawned a rash of misinformation.

Contrary to popular belief, maple trailer floors do not decay more quickly than those made of oak. In order for any wood to develop decay, it is necessary to have a proliferation of fungi, which is tied entirely to moisture content. Again better bonding and sealing eliminates the pitfalls experienced during earlier attempts.

The company insists a well-tested gluing technique is the true key to superior wood bonding, not the species of wood. As well, for extremely weight conscious haulers, you might also be interested to learn while hard maple performs as well as or better than oak, it also comes with another key characteristic.

Maple is less dense and therefore lighter. A hard maple trailer floor weighs up to 100lb less than an oak floor – in the case of Prolam, it generally estimates 75lb.

Straight to the source

The zigzag floors have been produced for a couple of months now and most trailer builders buy flooring from all three of the top producers, Prolam included. They use what is available at the time and put wood floors in trailers spec’d to have wood floors. So if you’ve recently picked up some new wagons, you’ve got a roughly one-in-three chance the floor has been branded with the Prolam name. While this was fine in the past – everyone’s design used to be the same remember – the company hopes fleets will start asking for its product by name.

Risi concedes, initially smaller fleets may encounter strange looks from sales reps and dealers when they try to specify a certain type of floor. However, he is confident once a few of the big players in North America look at the benefits there will be a procedural shift.

“We decided to call three of the trailer OEM’s (we primarily deal with) to find out for sure,” says Jim Jannell, Prolam’s sales manager. “We spoke to Great Dane Trailers, Utility Trailer and Manac Trailer here in Canada. What all three trailer producers said was, they want to try and provide their standard equipment whether it be tires or a floor, but if a fleet insists on a certain brand like a Bridgestone tire – or a Prolam floor – they will provide it.”

The result: Spec’ing the floor in a trailer will be like picking any other component – buyers will go with the manufacturer able to shave another fraction of a penny off their maintenance costs per mile.

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