Gordon Trucking Inc. (GTI) is not unlike thousands of carriers in the U.S. The company needed to be greener because its customers were demanding it. Shippers wanted to partner with a company that was doing all it could to be environmentally responsible. So GTI did what it had to do and started adopting technologies that either reduced fuel consumption directly or as an ancillary benefit, thereby improving its overall carbon footprint.
“The customers we do business with have pushed us on some fronts,” says Steve Gordon, chief operating officer. “They're looking to partner with good carriers” focused on sustainability.
Today, Pacific, WA-based Gordon Trucking is a U.S. EPA SmartWay Transport Partnership member with a top score of 1.25, which is given to a carrier that is utilizing available fuel-saving strategies. The carrier has won two SmartWay Environmental Excellence Awards (2008, 2009) from EPA. In winning the 2009 award, EPA recognized the carrier's use of auxiliary power units (APUs), bunk heaters, and management of truck idling.
“GTI is extremely proud of our partnership with SmartWay Transport,” said Gordon at the time. “They've helped inform and assist the industry on how to improve efficiency and the environment and provide great recognition for those companies that are truly committed to sustainable transportation practices.”
Gordon, which operates in the Lower 48 states as well as Canada, has about 1,700 trucks — 1,500 company-owned and another 200 leased to owner-operators. It provides local, regional and transcontinental truckload services, including temperature control and regional heavy-haul service.
For Gordon, going green has been a long process filled with plenty of due diligence along the way. “It's got to have some payback,” Gordon says. “We can't afford, in our business with our margins, to invest in something without a payback.”
That is why the installation of side skirts on the company's nearly 5,000 trailers took almost seven years to finally be green-lighted. To date, Gordon has installed the skirts — Freight Wing AeroFlex models — on about half of its trailers. According to Kirk Altrichter, vice president of maintenance, the company began testing side skirts in 2003. Those early models, though, did not provide the necessary return on investment, due in part to materials that could not withstand the pounding the skirts took.
But as fuel prices began to rise, materials improved, and California started taking a hard look at truck aerodynamics, the idea of adding skirts gained steam. “As fuel prices rise, the payback is much quicker,” Altrichter says.
“We'll have a larger advantage with the technology as fuel prices rise,” Gordon adds. Altrichter says the skirts are producing about a 3-3.5% fuel savings.
The AeroFlex skirts, made from HDPE plastic sheets, have another benefit as well, the company has learned. Drivers have indicated handling characteristics of the tractor-trailer units with the skirts is improved over those units without the skirts.
AeroFlex fairings “divert more airflow along the side of the trailer, away from drag-inducing rear wheels, axle components and crossmembers,” according to a description of the product on Freight Wing's website. Altrichter hopes the devices last the life of the trailers, about 10 years in GTI's case.
MAKING THE RIGHT CHOICE
One of the problems with fleets embracing green technologies, Gordon says, is history. “The industry in general doesn't have a history of being aggressive, but that's because you're making a 5- to 10-year bet [on equipment],” he says. “Nobody can afford to make an investment and just flush it down the drain.”
At the same time, “fleets that aren't aggressive installing devices can sometimes be behind the curve,” he adds. “We pretty much have to meet the most aggressive state standards.”
And that means California, which seems to be in a never-ending state of regulatory change. “It's that continual tweaking of the regulatory environment that makes it hard to see in our crystal ball,” Altrichter says. “If you're trying to meet the regulatory requirements, you don't try to do it all at one time.”
The installation of side skirts is one bet that is paying off in a big way for Gordon. But there are other areas where Gordon appears to have chosen the right path. Like many fleets, GTI chose to extend its oil drains and has seen a big savings as a result. Generally, the company is running its trucks about 72,000 mi. between changes now as opposed to 36,000 mi. in the past. Chevron's Delo 400 15W-40 premium conventional oil has worked well, Altrichter says, even with the longer drain intervals. As a result, the company is saving between 26,000 and 30,000 gals. of oil per year.
Gordon is also performing more oil analysis on its trucks as it pays closer attention to vehicles with 2007 and 2010 EPA-compliant engines. Right now, the company is running approximately 150 tractors with 2010 engines, all Detroit Diesel DD13s.
Another change the company made was the spec'ing of its tractors. Gordon runs a mix of 13L day cabs with Detroit Diesel engines and 15L sleepers with a combination of Detroit Diesel and Cummins engines. But GTI is now buying Freightliner Cascadias instead of the less-efficient Columbia models.
“The Cascadia is much more aerodynamic than its predecessors,” Altrichter says. The vehicle's performance and comfort are part of what makes a safer and more environmentally friendly truck, Altrichter adds.
“I think if you provide an environment where people want to come to work, you [retain] the type of driver you want,” he says, pointing out that better drivers are more apt to drive the truck in the most efficient way possible. According to Altrichter, 35% of fuel efficiency is directly related to the driver.
LIFE ON THE ROAD
To improve the cab environment, Gordon equips its sleepers with the Thermo King TriPac APU. “We've had very good luck with the Thermo King TriPac,” Altrichter says, adding that all the vehicles include an idle shutdown with manual override switch. The APU burns 0.2 gals. of fuel per hour versus 1.2 gals. of an idling truck.
The installation of the APUs, which are not installed on the company's day cabs, have cut the overall fleet idling average to 10%. The sleepers alone, though, have dropped from 20 to 3%. The goal, Altrichter says, is an overall fleet average of about 6-7%.
To further enforce fuel-efficient driver behaviors, Gordon runs what Altrichter calls “fuel school.” Using a Qualcomm onboard system, GTI downloads vehicle data at the conclusion of every load.
“Because we're downloading fuel data from every trip, we've got some pretty robust data,” Steve Gordon says, pointing out that the fleet hires both experienced and new drivers. “They need to be convinced that the newer equipment runs better at a lower rpm.”
As part of fuel school, which is held quarterly, drivers are given pointers on how to improve driving habits, and if needed, paired with trainers for on-road lessons on proper technique. Drivers ranked in the bottom 5-10% of performers are the focus of the training.
“Part of what we want to do is make them understand that we know what's going on in that truck,” Gordon says. Managers receive weekly reports and coach the drivers who need help. When it reaches the point that coaching is not working, says Altrichter, it's off to fuel school for more in-depth training.
While Gordon does not provide monetary incentive for its top performers, fuel performance does play a role in the decision-making process for who gets dedicated routes, more home time, and, ultimately, who gets the fleet's newest equipment.
Even with all the driver training to improve fuel efficiency, there are still plenty of options the fleet employs to meet its goals.
Back in 2008, GTI reduced the speed on all its vehicles, earning it Seattle Business Magazine's 2009 Washington Green Award for its commitment to improving the environment. The magazine said all of Gordon's environmental efforts, which included a reduction from 65 to 60 mph, resulted in the elimination of 150,000 tons of carbon dioxide, 1,500 tons of particulate matter, and 560 tons of nitrous oxides.
To help maximize fuel efficiency, Gordon uses the Meritor PSI automatic tire inflation system on its trailers, a combination of Wabash DuraPlate dry vans and Utility Trailer refrigerated models. “We've seen tire life improve,” Altrichter says, as well as a 1% improvement in fuel economy due to maintaining consistent tire pressure.
Using a mixture of Michelin and Bridgestone (primarily in the steer position) tires, Gordon has been able to drive down its tire-related costs. Wide-base tires, though, are not in the cards right now. “We've evaluated wide-base tires, but have not seen where that benefits our fleet,” Altrichter says.
Recycling efforts also play a large role in both cost savings and environmental initiatives for the fleet. “We recycle all fluids, including taking fuel out of our fuel filters and putting it back into the truck,” Altrichter says. “There really isn't anything we don't recycle.”
And that includes antifreeze. GTI found that not only could it reuse antifreeze by draining it from the radiator whenever service was needed, but that doing so also offered another benefit. “We used to haul antifreeze away and that's quite expensive,” Altrichter says. “Now, as long as the fluid is clean, it can go right back into the truck.”
While Gordon has focused much of its attention on improving its carbon footprint through devices and technologies on its trucks, it hasn't let other opportunities slip by. The company has installed infrared heat in its 10 shops, located in seven different states. According to the website HowStuffWorks.com, “infrared light isn't visible because it's beyond the spectrum we can see. That's the gist of an infrared heater: The heat is a product of light that is invisible to our eyes. The reason we get warm from an infrared heater is because our skin and clothes absorb the light.” The use of this technology, Altrichter says, has reduced the company's propane and natural gas consumption by 35-45%.
More energy-efficient lighting has been installed throughout the company. GTI now uses smaller bulbs that produce more light using less power.
When it comes to evaluating new technologies, Steve Gordon says the company follows one simple practice. “We start with the assumption that the product's [not worth it],” he says. “You're making a set of assumptions that may or may not pay off.”
For Gordon Trucking, those assumptions have delivered on their promises.