Green Fleet of the Month- Nov. 2009

Running a truckload refrigerated fleet is not the easiest way to be green, but John Christner Trucking (JCT) is trying to do just that

Running a truckload refrigerated fleet is not the easiest way to be green, but John Christner Trucking (JCT) is trying to do just that. A 2007 winner of the SmartWay Transport Partnership Excellence award, JCT is making every effort possible to reduce fuel consumption and be greener in the process.

“We do have a strong belief — I do, [founder and president] John Christner does — that we need to offer our operators the best opportunity to succeed,” says Steve Dickson, vp-maintenance. “Obviously, fuel economy and being green offers the best opportunity, and we're doing everything we can for [drivers] to succeed.”

JCT runs 761 tractors across three brands (the fleet is approximately 30% Freightliner, 30% Paccar and 40% International), and 953 trailers serving a national customer base. With about 50 company drivers, JCT instead opts to offer a lease-to-own program for contractors, some of whom eventually become owner-operators. Because of that, controlling fuel costs remains a moving target. Still, there are plenty of options available for John Christner.

“The single biggest change we've made since winning the award is to move away from conventional, non-aerodynamic trucks, and we're more aggressive in equipping our trailers with tire inflation systems,” Dickson says. “We also do some tire monitoring on the tractors.”

JCT switched to the Meritor Tire Inflation System by PSI. The company has reported better fuel economy since the system was added. “We've actually seen a 22% reduction in trailer tire costs,” Dickson says.

The company only buys SmartWay-certified tires and has tested wide-base tires, but has not switched the fleet over yet because of infrastructure concerns, Dickson says. “We're convinced the wide-base tire is the future, but we've got to get more people out there running it,” he says.

John Christner is also testing side fairings for its trailers and has installed auxiliary power units (APUs) into 60% of its fleet. “We've seen our fleet go from over 50% idle time to 15%; it's huge,” Dickson says of the APU installations.

Although JCT is running Thermo King diesel-fired APUs, Dickson adds that battery power will be the way to go in the future. “We have tested battery-powered systems, but once we got into testing we found the longevity wasn't the same,” he says. “We believe battery power is the future. There are some products right now that are pretty good, but we're just waiting for the technology to improve.

“We hope to see more progress in that area, and I think the OEMs are doing that,” Dickson adds.

Because JCT is hauling temperature-controlled goods, its refrigeration units are a constant source of fuel drain. “We have adjusted the settings on our reefer units to get the best possible fuel economy, but there is only so much you can do,” Dickson says.

Dickson estimates the fleet's fuel economy at about 6.2 mpg today, up from 5.3 just a year and a half ago. Part of that is due to a decision made in 2007 to phase out the classic-style tractors in favor of more aerodynamic models.

“We like to say a hood is like pushing a brick down the road … it just doesn't get the fuel economy,” he says. The traditional tractors achieve almost 1 mpg less than the aerodynamic ones, Dickson adds.

Dickson is convinced that going forward, trailers will deliver the next big fuel-saving opportunity for the company. The side fairing testing JCT is conducting will eventually become a reality on at least part of the fleet, allowing the company to meet upcoming California Air Resources Board requirements.

In addition, advances in refrigeration unit technology have also piqued Dickson's curiosity. “We are very interested in reefer technology, particularly the hybrid units,” he says.

While the fleet runs mostly manual transmissions now, Dickson says it will start looking into automatics in the next year or so. At the same time, the company will continue to look for ways to lighten the tractors and trailers to save fuel.

In the end, JCT is simply trying to set up its drivers for success. “As the old saying goes, ‘Our success is defined by your success,’” Dickson says. “If they're not successful, how can we be successful?”

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