Today’s shunt trucks ‘better than ever’

by James Menzies

TORONTO, Ont. – Talk to anyone in the terminal tractor business and they’re likely to tell you that business is booming. Shunt truck operators sat on their wallets through the recession and are now looking to replace older units. What many of them are finding is that the manufacturers took advantage of the downtime to build better products.

“In 2009 when orders dropped across the board, all the manufacturers started taking a harder look at how they build their equipment,” said George Cobham Jr. of Capacity dealer Glasvan Great Dane. “They started putting more pressure on the labour they retained to build things that are perfect and what we’ve seen across the board from all the manufacturers is higher quality, more attention to the spec’ and more attention to detail. We’re seeing higher quality equipment coming out.”

That’s good news for customers, but if they haven’t been paying attention to the terminal tractor market over the past couple years, they may be surprised to find out just how much has changed.

On-road vs off-road
One of the biggest decisions a customer must make when choosing a shunt truck is whether to spend the extra money to spec’ a truck that’s DoT-compliant. It’s a considerable upcharge today, since on-road terminal tractors must meet the same strict emissions standards as Class 8 highway trucks.

“In the past, a DoT shunt tractor was a speedometer, sun visor, licence plate bracket, fire extinguisher and a few items like that to the tune of maybe $1,500,” said Glasvan’s Cobham. “Today, a DoT shunt truck can be a $15,000 premium over off-road.”

On-road terminal tractors must meet stringent NOx and particulate matter emissions limits, while off-road vehicles will have less aggressive emissions requirements phased in beginning this year. That’s causing many customers to consider whether it’s really necessary to take their terminal tractors off their premises while others are willing to pay the premium, not only for the convenience of off-site fueling and the ability to shuttle trailers between different yards, but for the simple benefit of being greener.

“We have a number of accounts where they could use off-road engines but they’re buying on-road because they’re cleaner,” said John Uppington, manager of Woodbine Truck Centre’s Ottawa Truck Division. “On the other hand, we have other accounts where the price of the on-road product is going up and so the off-road product is becoming more attractive.”

With the EPA requiring off-road engines to employ some of the same emissions-reducing technologies as their on-road counterparts as early as this year, that price gap is about to narrow significantly, meaning off-road customers may want to act quickly.

“The EPA starts restricting off-road engines this year,” Cobham said. “They’re not as tight as they are for on-road trucks, but in 2012 we’ll start to see diesel particulate filters (DPFs) on the off-roads and the price gap between the DoT and off-road trucks is going to tighten up closer to $7,500-$10,000.”

That means buying an off-road truck before the impending emissions restrictions take effect could save a customer as much as $7,500. If a fleet or distributor can avoid taking their terminal tractors on the road, there are some compelling reasons to spec’ an off-road vehicle, price aside. Most are powered by the reliable and simplistic Cummins QSB engine, which isn’t saddled with all the extraneous emissions-busting technologies found on its on-road cousin, the ISB. Also, most EPA2010-compliant terminal tractors are now using selective catalytic reduction (SCR) aftertreatment, which occupies a lot of real estate on a frame rail that had little space to spare in the first place. Choosing an off-road vehicle provides greater flexibility when mounting equipment such as hydraulic tanks and automatic greasing systems.

On-road engine choices
If you have decided on an on-road shunt truck, you may or may not have the option of choosing between different engine makes.

With the recent departure of Caterpillar from the North American on-highway engine market, Cummins has happily claimed the vast majority of the terminal tractor engine business. That means most EPA2010-compliant yard tractors will feature SCR, which treats NOx emissions in a catalyst, converting the pollutant to harmless water and nitrogen before it’s released out the stack.

The key ingredient for an SCR system is urea-based diesel exhaust fluid (DEF), which must be added regularly for the SCR system to properly function. Packaging the bulky SCR system on a Class 8 highway tractor has proved challenging. Doing so on a shunt truck with a 116-inch wheelbase even more so.

“This was quite the wrestling match,” Cobham admitted. An SCR system consists of a DEF tank, a bulky SCR catalyst and all the related plumbing and must also be paired with a DPF, itself a sizeable component. In Capacity’s case, the system is mounted on the frame rail along what would be the passenger side.

“Normally, this is where our hydraulic tank goes and our greaser,” Cobham explained. “Capacity had to find a way to integrate the hydraulic tank, DEF tank, the whole SCR system…and then you have dealers like me saying ‘Hey, I still want curbside steps’.”

Capacity managed to accomplish that with a vertically mounted DPF and by replacing staggered steps with a ladder-style step. Its SCR system includes a 10-gallon DEF tank that can generally run anywhere from 50-100 hours between refills. DEF consumption rates have so far exceeded expectations, Cobham admitted. Ottawa, for its part, chose to forgo the curbside steps in favour of a one-box emissions system that includes the DPF.

“We’ve lost curbside access,” Uppington said. “Our system is a single box that has all three components in it.” The hope is that by packaging all emissions-related systems together, reliability and serviceability will be improved.

“With a one-box SCR system, you’re assured over the long run, tighter joints, less likelihood of failure and greater system integrity,” Uppington said. “Once you start getting leaks in your exhaust system, nothing works properly.”

While Capacity, Ottawa and the latest market player Tico all offer Cummins power, Capacity has an exclusive deal with Navistar to offer its MaxxForce engine. Navistar chose a different EPA2010 emissions strategy, which reduces NOx in-cylinder, eliminating the need for the bulky SCR system and DEF, which costs about $1.25-$1.50 per litre. Cobham said about half of Glasvan’s customers are choosing the MaxxForce engine.

“Cummins has a pretty loyal following but the MaxxForce has been a slightly less expensive option, so that’s attractive to people as there’s that cost savings on the outright purchase,” Cobham said. “And the SCR tube – while it’s protected from the elements – that’s an expensive component. Some people have concerns over how that’s going to hold up in salty conditions. We don’t have any reason to believe it’s not protected from the elements, but it’s still an issue.”

Customers who choose Capacity shunt trucks with the MaxxForce engine may still have to deal with frequent DPF regenerations – a nuisance customers have had to contend with since DPFs were made mandatory on on-road tractors in 2007. All shunt truck dealers Truck News spoke to admitted DPF regenerations have been an issue since the component was mandated in 2007.

“You still have to park it and hit the re-gen switch,” Cobham admitted. SCR, on the other hand, allows the engine to operate more efficiently since pollutants are being eliminated downstream in the exhaust aftertreatment system, which substantially reduces the frequency of DPF regenerations.

Full-maintenance leasing
As customers come to terms with the increased purchase price of the latest generation terminal tractors, many are favouring full-service leasing options from dealers such as Glasvan and Woodbine.

“We’ve learned that s
hunt trucks are high-maintenance equipment, they’re not a simple day cab tractor,” said Cobham. “They have hydraulics, they have PTOs; they’re fairly complex equipment and over time, they require a fair bit of work to keep them reliable and up and running. Customers are now saying ‘I don’t want to be involved in keeping this truck going.’ So, we offer a program where we charge a fixed rate per engine run hour on the truck for two to five years and other than damage-related items, we take care of everything.”

Most of the routine maintenance – such as oil changes – is done at the customer’s facility and occasionally the truck is returned to the dealer for a more comprehensive inspection and servicing.

“The costs are more predictable,” added Uppington. “And if you have substitute vehicles included, you get around the issue of what happens when a unit is out of service? Almost everything is done on-site.”

Tico doesn’t offer full-service leasing at this time and it’s not something Tico of Canada president Aidan Bolger is looking to offer.

What about the extras?
There is a major disparity in how shunt trucks are perceived in Canada compared to in the US. South of the border, they’re often seen as a necessity – a burden, even – and purchasing decisions generally boil down to price. Here in Canada, where the trucks must work in a much harsher operating environment, spec’ing yard tractors has become a science. And the options are practically limitless.

“We’re much more value-oriented, it’s not just strictly about price and that’s very different from the way they do business in the US,” Tico’s Bolger said. “Typically with customers in the States, it’s the absolute bottom line rock bottom price, end of conversation.”

It’s not just that Canadian customers have an appreciation for nicer things; a shunt truck right off the assembly line simply wouldn’t stand up to rigorous Canadian conditions without a few customizations.

“We came out with an Arctic winter package, which is quite extensive,” Bolger said. “It has heated spinner valves, alcohol injectors, heated fuel/water separators, heavy-duty insulation and heated mirrors.”

“We would never consider bringing a truck into Canada that didn’t have heated mirrors,” Uppington added. “That’s just a standard item. Fan clutches, intake manifold pre-heaters, fuel/water separators, traction tread tires; they’re just no-brainers, really.”

Here are a few other options that customers may want to consider:

Auto-greasers: “We’re of the opinion that you can’t give a shunt truck enough grease when greasing it by hand,” said Cobham. He noted there are 35-42 grease points on a shunt truck that require frequent lubrication.
“In a busy operation, you’re going to need to hit those with grease every second day, so we’re talking about putting a truck out of service for an hour every second day to grease those points. You can’t afford to do that.”
Likewise, Ottawa’s Uppington said about 95% of the trucks Woodbine delivers are equipped with auto-greasers, as are 100% of its own units. There are several suppliers and the option typically runs about $2,500-$3,500, “and it will pay for itself over time,” Cobham added.

Dual fuel tanks: One of the limitations of the SCR emissions package is that it occupies frame rail space that traditionally was used to house a second fuel tank. It’s another consideration that will impact the on-road vs off-road debate.
There are advantages to having dual tanks, particularly when an operator is using a delivery service to fuel the shunt trucks on-site.

“If you’re going to have an off-road vehicle, you need to have fuel on-site or have fuel delivered,” Uppington explained. “If you have only one vehicle and you’re going to have fuel delivered, you won’t meet the minimum (order volume) if you have one tank, so you end up paying a premium. If you have a vehicle that has dual tanks, you meet the minimum fuel delivery, so by putting the extra fuel tank on the vehicle there’s some savings.”

That same reasoning has motivated Tico to offer larger tanks; while the industry standard is 50-58 gallons, Bolger said Tico is coming out with an 80-gallon fuel tank. He said the larger tanks on off-road shunt trucks can eliminate the need for one fuel delivery per week.

Anti-idling systems: “Winter is cold in Canada,” Cobham understated. “Try telling a shut man to turn off his truck.”
With the high price of fuel, many customers are opting for auto-shutdown options that will prevent a driver from leaving a yard truck running while taking a prolonged break.

“Things like automatic shutdowns are now very popular,” Cobham said. “Five or six years ago, no one asked for that.”
It’s a fine line though, Uppington admitted, since much of a shunter’s work (connecting air and electrical lines and working the landing gear) occur while the truck is at idle.

Glasvan’s Cobham has even noticed an increased interest in cab heaters.

“More people are looking at options like Espar and Webasto heaters because excessive idling forces a truck into (DPF) re-gen more often, which burns more fuel,” he said.

Fuel savings: Shunt truck operators are also looking ways to reduce the fuel consumption of their yard trucks when they’re in use. Fuel economy, traditionally, was an afterthought when it came to shunt trucks. In fact, it’s almost difficult to believe that the traditional way of speed-limiting yard tractors was to simply block out the upper gears.

“In the past, you just blocked gears,” Cobham admitted. “You’d block out fourth, fifth and sixth gear and the trucks would operate at very high RPMs. Trucks doing the maximum speed in the yard would be driving around in third gear, foot to the floor, RPM maxed out, the truck’s screaming and that’s not an efficient RPM range.”

Only recently did Capacity introduce Fuel-Saver programming, which uses engine electronics to more intelligently limit truck speed.

“It enables all the gears in the transmission and allows the truck to shift into higher gears and operate in lower RPMs,” Cobham explained, adding the new feature has improved fuel consumption on speed-limited yard tractors by 8-15%.
“It’s strictly programming and it has made a big difference.”

For its part, Tico is the only shunt truck manufacturer to offer the FMZ Green Power Management System. The device is mounted on the vehicle and can determine the net horsepower required based on the weight of the load the vehicle is pulling. It then provides only the horsepower the driver actually needs to move the load; so a 175-hp engine, for instance, may only provide 120-hp when under a light load, improving fuel mileage by 5.5-11%. The fuel savings have been validated by FPInnovation’s EnergoTest in Class 8 highway applications and Tico’s Bolger said those savings translate to shunt truck applications. The upgrade costs about $1,600 and the system is exclusive to Tico. In Quebec, a provincial grant will cover 30% of the cost of the FMZ system.

Other add-ons: Once a luxury item in shunt trucks, air conditioning is now all but standard in Canada. Shunt truck operators face many of the same driver retention issues as their long-haul counterparts, so driver-friendly amenities are commonly being spec’d.

Tico offers a second seat, which is useful for driver training purposes.

“Any of the large fleets we do business with have opted for it immediately for the safety perspective,” said Bolger.
And for particularly tough jobs, a 4×4 option is available. Capacity has three in service in Canada, but they add $25,000-$30,000 to the cost. Still, Cobham said they have their place.

“I don’t know if somebody who runs five to 10 shunt trucks needs to have all 4x4s, but for those days in the winter where you get massive snowdrifts underneath the trailers, the 4×4 has the chops to pick up any trailer,” Cobham insisted. Ottawa has a 4×4 offering as well, imported
from Finland.

The options mentioned here barely scratch the surface of what’s available from today’s shunt trucks. Tell a dealer what you want in a shunt truck, and they’ll gladly build it for you.

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