The Quest for Uptime: It begins with Preventive Maintenance checks

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The quest for uptime.We’re learning. We are doing a better job at keeping trucks out of the shop and out on the road earning money, but it’s been a steep learning curve. Ever since the first Diesel Particulate Filters appeared in 2007, fleets have been struggling to diagnose problems and make the necessary repairs. One of the greatest hurdles has been confusing messages and sometimes misleading information. Various sensors are often the culprit, but for the technicians working through the problem the troubleshooting exercise was at first new and unfamiliar.

Each new generation of engine, and indeed mid-generation updates, brought new fault codes, new troubleshooting trees, and more diagnostic complexity. How much more complex? About tenfold.

“If you go back to pre-EPA-07, you’d get about 200-300 codes out of the ECM (Electronic Control Module),” says Gregg Mangione, senior vice president – maintenance, Penske Truck Leasing. Compare that to a GHG-14-generation engine, with over a dozen different controllers. Some trucks are throwing between 2,000 and 3,000 different fault codes.”

A lot of those codes are just noise, Mangione says, and Original Equipment Manufacturers have learned to scale back on what they present and how they present it.

“Every time they turned on the dashboard light it created a problem for the driver,” he says. “And that in turn created a problem for the shop. They had to decide whether the problem was serious enough to force the driver to stop. Now, with very inexpensive telematics and truck-to-terminal communications becoming commonplace, we can more easily sort through the codes and message the driver accordingly. While the trucks are throwing off more data than ever before, fleets are getting wiser about how they use that information.”

One can imagine the scope of the problem at a company such as Penske Leasing with 246,000 trucks and 70 service locations. Mangione says every truck is going to have its share of problems, which means every technician will have a first encounter with a particular problem. However, many of those problems will be repeats, and the same faults will arise. The challenge then is to make it easier for the technicians to access an internal database of solutions.

“Everybody watches how-to videos on YouTube, so we decided to create our own library of diagnostic and repair videos for our technicians,” Mangione says. “We call them How-2 videos and we create them in a studio at the Penske Technology Education Center. They are available across our network on each technician’s tablet. When confronted with a problem, they can watch the video and hopefully that helps them work through the problem.”

The idea of equipping the technicians with tablets arose from an in-house study that Penske did several years ago, mapping the technicians’ time and travel through the shop just to access the information they need to tackle a problem. Mangione says they were walking back and forth to a computer that was plugged into the wall to get information and diagnostic data, and then walking to the printer to get something like wiring diagrams and wasting tons of time.

“Our intention now is to give them everything they need on the tablet,” he says. “We give them the troubleshooting trees for each code, wiring diagrams, diagnostic software and an internally developed knowledge base based on fault code data we have collected.”

And, of course, they have access to the How-2 videos as well. If that’s not enough, there’s an in-house help desk staffed by senior technicians who talk the shop-floor tech through the problem.


Preventive Maintenance

Fleets are beginning to understand that, to prevent an emissions system-related problem, they have to stay ahead of it and fix it before there’s a problem at roadside. That thinking is not even limited to Diesel Particulate Filters.

Fleets are starting to do pre-emptive regens in the shop during the routine Preventive Maintenance (PM) service. To begin with, it’s a scheduled procedure so it won’t leave a driver high and dry on the road, possibly forced to decide whether to stop and do a parked regen and risk missing the delivery appointment or push the truck a little further. Timothy Dzojko, fleet engineering specialist at Air Products and Chemicals, says he was reluctant at first to do regens during a PM.

“A manual regen takes between 20 and 40 minutes,” he points out. “I certainly don’t want that happening on the road, but neither did I want to see a mechanic babysitting the truck for that length of time, and then there’s all the fuel we waste doing it. But we’d have to burn that fuel, and probably more if the truck was in a position where it required a regen. So now we park the truck outside and let the procedure run its course. We are better off in the long run.”

Dzojko says the Diesel Particulate Filter cleaning intervals are much better with current model trucks than with previous models, so that helps, and he believes the Preventive Mainentance regen procedure is helping reduce the frequency of roadside parked regens.

Manual regens are a universal problem, but according to Montreal-based fleet maintenance consultant, Stephane Godbout, president of Service Conseil SG, Canadian fleets have the additional challenge of winter weather and the toll that takes on electrical systems and electronics.

“Corroded wiring causes drops in voltage that the sensors often read as a fault with the system,” he says. “It’s not easy to tell where the problem is, and that makes it much harder to repair.”

Godbout says that while little can be done about corrosion, fleets should do a better job at documenting problems and building database of failures and causes.

“A lot of fleets still do not use the standardized Vehicle Maintenance Reporting Standards (VMRS) to record maintenance and repair activities,” he says. “It’s a complex system and it takes time to learn how to use it properly. I think some fleet maintenance managers are just behind the curve on the electronic tolls we have now because they have difficulty keeping up with technology. That’s not to say these guys are bad maintenance managers, but they are just not keeping up with the changes in the industry.”

Trucks spew out a ton of data these days, and there are clues in there as to what’s going wrong. It’s good that the truck can notify the maintenance staff of a problem, but the message is not always obvious.

“The one big thing we lack in Canada, and in the U.S. too, is a good fleet maintenance manager training program that’s up to date with all the latest -technology,” Godbout says. “The other problem, of course, is finding the time to sit down and learn.”

Randy McGregor, fleet manager at Holland, Michigan-based Transway is on top of the game and he’s now able to stay ahead of his problems. Almost.

When Selective Catalytic Reduction first appeared in 2010, McGregor noticed problems arising, mostly fault codes and warnings. He started matching the fault codes to the operating conditions, looking for patterns he could track. He watched percentage of engine load, elevation, fuel consumed and more. Sure enough, patterns began to emerge.

“It would be almost impossible to do that without vehicle analytics,” he says. “We can see the codes as well as the operating parameters and from there the software does the analysis. All we have to do is pay attention to the message and take the appropriate action ahead of time.”

McGregor says that approach works in a predictive fashion, too. He groups his fleets into bunches of trucks that do similar work and have similar duty cycles.

“When one truck in the group develops a problem, I can be pretty sure the others will follow,” he says. So rather than wait and possibly get caught with a road call, I schedule the repair for the next PM.”

Condition analysis

Fleet maintenance consultant Darry Stuart says that many problems with emissions systems and engines in general are the result of some other failure, such as a coolant leak that contaminates the Diesel Particulate Filter (DPF). Coolant will foul the filter and create hot spots that could cause the substrate to crack.

“You won’t notice the white smoke anymore, and your drivers might not report the make-up coolant they are adding,” he says. “How will you know if you have coolant flowing into the filter? Short of taking the DPF apart, which you’ll have to do anyway if there’s a leak, is to pressure test the cooling system.”

It’s the same with oil. That can wreck a DPF too, and you won’t see the blue smoke. A sure way to tell if you have an oil problem is to track make-up oil.

“PM remains a good time to do all the electronic checks as well as the quaint old checks we have always done … haven’t we?” asks Stuart.

The current generation of trucks, GHG17-compliant, seem to be performing well. There will be problems in the future, but today’s advanced diagnostics – coupled with telematics and the analytics capabilities on most trucks today – makes predicting the next problem a little more reliable. Nobody wants to pull a part prematurely, but if several trucks in the fleet are having a problem, there’s a good chance others will, too.

If the fleet lacks a sophisticated maintenance tracking program, help could come from a non-traditional ally — the accounting department.

“The accountants are quick to point out when maintenance costs are going up, but they could also help track where the money is going by providing weekly reports on maintenance spending,” says Godbout. “Those reports could serve as trend indicators to show what is being repaired. From there the manager can implement a tracking system to note when and under what circumstances the failures are occurring.”

Chances are, the failures will occur across a group of trucks. Once they’re identified, the repairs can be undertaken before the problem puts the truck out of service. OK, you may have an battle on your hands, explaining why you are replacing a part that still works, but all you have to -convince accounting is that it costs less to fix the issue in the shop than on the road.

The price of cleaner air

Back in 1998, following allegations that North American truck and engine manufacturers used engine control software to defeat certain emissions test cycles, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Department of Justice and the California Air Resources Board imposed penalties on truck and engine makers. Those penalties included advancing the implementation dates, which compressed product development and testing schedules. That decision came at enormous cost and nobody escaped unscathed.

The truck and engine manufacturers have paid millions of dollars in warranty claims on failed components, while the cost to fleets in repairs, excess fuel consumption and aggravation is incalculable. Some estimates place just the hard maintenance costs related to emission systems for fleets at roughly the same cost as tires.

“It depends on the miles traveled, applications, duty cycles and a bunch of other factors, but going back to 2002, I peg the fleet cost of emissions systems failures and the associated repairs at somewhere between 2-1/2 and six cents a mile,” says Darry Stuart, a fleet maintenance consultant. “That’s just hard costs – repairs, troubleshooting, labor, parts, etc. – and including the cost of extended warranty that fleets had to buy. Emissions systems are now the highest maintenance expense many fleets have.”

As shocking as those numbers might be they don’t include the less-tangible cost of downtime, which include driver and customer dissatisfaction, lost productivity and resources diverted from other tasks.

“I don’t think there are a lot of fleets that have an exact tally of just what the first two rounds of EPA emissions [2007 and 2010] actually cost them,” says Gregg Mangione, senior vice president – maintenance, Penske Logistics. “But most will tell you that it’s a lot more than the EPA led us to believe it would be.”


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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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