IN PRINT — Rust Never Sleeps: There are ways to combat corrosion

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It’s too bad that corrosion isn’t a line item on a budget. Maybe it’s best that it isn’t. The figure would shock you. It’s one thing to track replacement costs for brake parts and wheels that are prematurely removed from service, but many of your electronics-related problems likely relate to corrosion, too. Emissions systems faults, Antilock Brake System faults, lighting and more probably stem from corrosion. Your budget line item should probably include downtime as well as the cost of the failed part.

Zane McCarthy, a mechanical engineer and corrosion expert who once had a brake business that solved a major corrosion problem for a school bus brake manufacturer — and now the director of business development for FlowBelow — says corrosion is a $2.2-trillion industrial problem.

“Look at it this way. The U.S. government spent $440 billion in Afghanistan over the 10 years it was operating there,” he says, citing figures from 2011. “The approximate cost of corrosion to U.S. society that year was $460 billion.”

McCarthy says researchers estimate the cost of corrosion from all sources such as buildings, roads, and industrial equipment is between 1 and 3% of a nation’s Gross Domestic Product. That’s way more than Canada spends on its military commitment to NATO.

Corrosion has always been a concern, but it has worsened over the past seven or eight years with the introduction of corrosive road de-icing chemicals, namely magnesium chloride brine solutions. These chemicals are often mixed with a binding agent such as corn syrup or beet juice to keep the material from flowing off the road. It also adheres better to vehicles, too.

The corrosion problem is so big that brake service costs prompted Penske Truck Leasing to switch to air disc brakes from wide-block S-cam brakes as a way to control the problem.

“About five years ago we saw brake service costs and repairs spiking, which coincided with the introduction of the harsher de-icing compounds,” says Paul Rosa, senior vice president of procurement and fleet planning at Penske Truck Leasing. “We decided to try air disc brakes on a few trucks operating up in the northeast, where those chemicals are used, and we saw a reduction in downtime and repair costs in the first year. It just got better through the second, third and fourth year of the study. Along the way, we expanded the [air disc brake] test into other regions, like the Vancouver-to-Calgary corridor, and we found continual improvement, and even-better cost reduction on what we’d call severe-service applications.”

When asked about switching from drum to disc brakes, most fleets balk at the increased cost and weight, but Roso says that didn’t even rate consideration when looking at the improvements in uptime and the reductions in brake service cost and inconvenience.

The other problem with magnesium chloride — aside from the fact that it’s a liquid that flows and then sticks to whatever it comes into contact with — is that it’s more conductive than sodium.

“The magnesium is attracted to the electricity and the copper, so it spreads faster,” says Tom Begin, director of innovation, Phillips Industries. “Industry simply has to do a better job of keeping that material out of the -wiring, and that means using better connectors properly, and never puncturing the wiring when doing a circuit test.”

While the cost and frustration associated with corrosion of metal components is significant, it pales in comparison to the grief that accompanies electrical problems.

“OEM’s have created very sophisticated circuits that also happen to be very sensitive to changes in voltage, current, or resistance … aka corrosion,” notes Trent Siemens, director of maintenance, Paul’s Hauling. “We as an industry have not done a good enough job understanding the intricacies of circuit maintenance, diagnosis or repair. Corrosion in wiring can result in some very large diagnostic and repair costs, intermittent and frustrating circuit failures, frequent breakdowns, premature component failures, and everything else.”

Getting to the heart of corrosion issues takes some effort. It’s one thing to keep throwing money at the problem, buying replacement parts, but there may be more cost-effective solutions.

McCarthy suggests fleets would save a lot of money on replacement parts if they studied their own corrosion issues, developed plans to tackle them, or at least tried to understand what parts are failing and why. 

“It’s a tricky argument to make,” he says. “Every fleet will have different issues, depending on their exposure. Hiring an engineer to study a couple of brand new trucks over their service life would give them a good picture of what’s going wrong. For some fleets the cost of corrosion might be just a rounding error and they won’t care. For others, it’s a real issue.”

The problem comes in proving the cost of the fix. He says it is not like buying an aero add-on where you can almost instantly see the difference in fuel cost after installing the device. Corrosion happens over time. It’s really annoying to pull brake linings after just a year in service, but is the fix any more cost-effective?

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Jim Park was a CDL driver and owner-operator from 1978 until 1998, when he began his second career as a trucking journalist. During that career transition, he hosted an overnight radio show on a Hamilton, Ontario radio station and later went on to anchor the trucking news in SiriusXM's Road Dog Trucking channel. Jim is a regular contributor to Today's Trucking and, and produces Focus On and On the Spot test drive videos.

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