Manager: Jeff Bryant
Fleet: Celadon Group, Indianapolis, IN
Operation: Truckload carrier operating 2,900 tractors
A love-hate relationship existed between fleets and fuel tank skirts for many years due to a simple yet avoidable issue: repair costs. While putting aerodynamically shaped panels, or “skirts,” around the fuel tanks helped reduce drag and offered fuel-efficiency gains, much of the savings would be lost when the skirts got damaged and had to be replaced.
“We used to run full skirts, right out to the wheels on the first rear axle,” explains Jeff Bryant, vp-maintenance for Celadon Group. “But that meant any blow to that skirt from something kicked up by the wheels, such as a rock, for example, would damage the whole panel and it would have to be replaced.”
Since skirts are made from fiberglass, simply bolting another piece in place wasn't an option for repairing major cracks or chunks missing from the panel, he says. And at about $400 a pop for a new fuel skirt, complete with a $150 paint job and an hour's worth of labor to remove the old unit and install the new one, repair costs added up in a hurry. “That's without factoring in the cost of truck downtime for this repair, either,” notes Bryant.
Yet context proved crucial when looking at those costs, he stresses, especially back when diesel cost $1.75 a gallon. “Today, with diesel at $4 a gallon, stuff like fuel skirts become big. You're talking about getting 1 to 2% fuel economy gains by changing the aerodynamic profile of your trucks, and those kinds of savings add up to real money very quickly now.”
The question fleets faced was, “How can we get fuel skirts back on the truck that give us the aerodynamics we need, yet without steep repair costs if they get damaged?” Fuel skirts today come in three to four sections, says Bryant, costing about $100 per section. If damage occurs, only a small part of the overall panel needs to be replaced — not the entire skirt, as was the case in the past.
Next, fleets have backed off using full fuel tank skirts, electing instead to go with three-quarter-sized skirts, leaving a gap of two feet or so between the end of the skirt and the wheels on the first rear tandem axle. That gap vastly reduces the chance of incidental damage from rocks or other debris kicked up by the wheels from the roadway surface, notes Bryant.
Finally, today's fuel skirts are made from a new modern “aviation plastic” type of fiberglass, allowing for easier repair of cracks with epoxy resins so panels don't have to be replaced if the damage is only minor.
While every tractor in Celadon's fleet isn't equipped with fuel tank skirts yet, the carrier is moving to put them on every power unit, as well as making other changes to help improve the fuel economy footprint of its vehicles. “Globally speaking, fuel costs are driving big changes to equipment specifications today,” notes Paul Will, Celadon's vice chairman and CFO. “While specs improving fuel economy may cost more, that cost is outweighed by long-term fuel savings. That's why we're going with aluminum vs. steel wheels and fuel tank skirts on our trucks. For example, we're adding aerodynamic and weight improvements where we can.”
“These are the kinds of changes — small as they might be — that add up to fuel savings for the fleet yet minimize repair costs at the same time,” Bryant says. “It may be small stuff, but when diesel costs $4 a gallon or more, that small stuff really matters.”
Maintenance Bay presents case studies detailing how fleets resolve maintenance-related issues.