Utility Trucks: Spec'ing for success

Spec'ing utility trucks takes a talented team of professionals.There are very few people on the planet who can spec a utility vehicle and get it right. Think about it. Not only do you have to know truck chassis, you also have to be an expert on various kinds of power equipment - diggers, cranes, hoists, winches, and loaders, for instance - and have a thorough understanding of their application in

Spec'ing utility trucks takes a talented team of professionals.

There are very few people on the planet who can spec a utility vehicle and get it right. Think about it. Not only do you have to know truck chassis, you also have to be an expert on various kinds of power equipment - diggers, cranes, hoists, winches, and loaders, for instance - and have a thorough understanding of their application in a particular industry. To make it tougher still, you have to be a good communicator because building a utility vehicle is truly a team endeavor.

No wonder it's not a job for everybody. "Utility vehicles are much tougher to spec than other trucks," observes Dave Sinclair, medium-duty sales manager for Atlanta Freightliner. "The sales person who handles vocational customers has to know their businesses as well as the customers themselves do, and there are lots of businesses to know.

"Not just public power and light suppliers, but also water and sewer services, cable and telephone companies, police departments, plumbers, construction companies, electrical contractors, grounds maintenance services, park districts, and many others use some type of utility or service vehicle. It takes time, study, and dedication to become an expert, so there are only a handful of dealerships that have someone on staff who really understands the utility business," he adds.

Atlanta Freightliner is one of those dealerships. The company-owned branch counts Altec Industries and Georgia Power Co. among its customers. "Most major utility companies have several engineering people," Sinclair offers. "We all learn from them about what works and what doesn't for their particular application."

Details, details With utility vehicles, getting it right is all about details. Ray Davis is the fleet services, engineering, and maintenance manager for Georgia Power Co. and a 32-year veteran of the utility business. It would be tough to find a better tutor. "You really need to pay attention to the details; you need good specs and you have to review them constantly," he says.

Georgia Power Co., which is a part of the Southern Co., orders more than 100 utility trucks a year, mostly equipped with 35- to 77-ft. aerial devices, plus some digger derricks, says Davis. "We have an interesting turnkey system with Altec for spec'ing and ordering chassis and equipment," he explains. "They buy the chassis for us, but we develop all the specs by sitting down together with Altec and our truck dealer.

"The process grew out of our mutual efforts to improve delivery," Davis notes. "We think the new system works to everyone's advantage. Altec and the dealer can plan ahead better, and we can count on having trucks ready to go to work when we need them. Plus, we just write one check. We're already working on vehicles for the year 2000," he adds.

Pooling expertise "Utility trucks are complex and take more time to spec and build," agrees Tom Merritt, fleet sales manager for Kenworth Northwest in Seattle. "The nice thing about working directly with the end user from the beginning is that it gives the customer the opportunity to get exactly what they want.

"When the customer, the body builder, and the dealer can all pool their expertise," he adds, "the result is the best equipment for the application.

"Once we know if a vehicle will be a tractor or straight truck, we begin spec'ing the chassis with the overall length and GVWR requirements," explains Merritt. "That tells us whether the application will require a single or tandem rear axle, plus maybe a tag or pusher axle. Then we spec the front axle. That basic information puts us into the right truck model.

"The next step is to determine other critical dimensions, including things like wheelbase, back-of-cab to rear axle length, cab to trunnion length, and end of frame cutoff or extended frame length. Frame strength, measured as resistance to bending moment, is also important when you're mounting power equipment on the chassis," he continues. "After that, we can spec the engine and other powertrain components.

"How the truck chassis manufacturer mounts things like fuel tanks, exhaust systems, battery boxes, and air cleaners is particularly critical for vocational trucks," Merritt adds. "We need to know from the body builder just how much clear frame space they need for their equipment, whether or not it's all mounted above the frame, what fuel capacity is required and where the tanks should be placed, whether air lines should come out under the chassis or at the back, and so on.

"Then it's the body builder's turn," he continues. "Weight distribution is particularly critical with utility trucks, so in addition to their own equipment-related spec'ing process, they also have to look at our chassis with their equipment mounted on it and ask questions like, 'Where's the center of gravity?' 'How is the equipment weight distributed over the axles?' 'Are there any access or clearance problems?' Prospector, our computerized configurator, is a big help at this stage because we can give the body builder drawings and schematics to work with showing all the specs and dimensions.

"Finally, we can make any necessary adjustments and spec the suspensions, tires, and wheels appropriate to the load, along with cab and trim items," says Merritt. "Typically, the chassis goes to the body once it's manufactured, and the body builder or one of its authorized dealers handles the actual equipment mounting.

"The truck chassis manufacturer is considered by the Dept. of Transportation to be the first-stage manufacturer, and the body builder is considered the final-stage manufacturer," he adds. "We each have to certify that the vehicle is in compliance with applicable Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards."

As challenging as chassis spec'ing can be, dealing with the utility body and auxiliary equipment can take the spec'ing process to a whole new level of detail. "We write the chassis and body specs right down to the frame," notes John Talbot, senior transportation engineer for New England Power Service Co., a division of New England Electric System.

"New England Power Service runs about 2,000 pieces of equipment," he adds. "Right now, the fleet includes 326 aerial devices or 'bucket trucks,' about 77 corner-mounted digger derricks, and seven dedicated underground pulling trucks. There are six different types of aerial devices. We are standard with the International 4900 Series chassis with DT466 engines and Allison automatic transmissions.

"Typically, we have 30 pages for body specs alone plus any addenda, and another six to eight pages of chassis specs for a standard material-handling bucket truck." Talbot offers. "That includes a lot of very specific details."

Within those 30 pages, for example, New England Power Service provides the dimensions and details for all the storage compartments, including their door handles and hinges, according to Talbot, beginning on the right side and working around the truck. "Starting at the cab on the right, there might be 'outriggers,' or hydraulic stabilizers," he explains. "Then there are usually one or two cabinet doors and a walkway to get to the aerial device. Next, there's a horizontal compartment over the wheel itself with a 24- to 26-in.-wide vertical compartment behind that. A long box goes over the top for rubber goods or what we call 'hot sticks' - the insulated sticks with special ends we use for jobs like throwing switches or inserting fuses. After that, there's a 16- to 24-in. tail shelf.

"On the driver's side, there are three vertical compartments in the area between the cab and the rear wheels," Talbot continues. "Then there's a panel with cutouts for the rear wheels. Wheel chalk holders are mounted right in over the rear wheels. We've gone to cast aluminum chalk holders, which are a new item, because they resist rust and are not damaged by the chalks.

Above that, there's a horizontal compartment, then a vertical compartment, then the tail shelf. We put another box on top of the tail shelf which runs the whole length of the body to store rubber hosing," he adds. "There are also 'through compartments' to store things like shovels and rakes."

Every single one of these cabinets and compartments has a particular use and a corresponding set of specifications. Suddenly, 30 pages for body specs starts to look just about right. "Lights are installed in virtually all the boxes for night work," Talbot explains. "We also call for spring-loaded door holders to keep large cabinet doors from blowing shut and catching a worker's hand. Cabinet door latches are the durable, spring-loaded, bolt-type latches called 'slam paddle latches' because you can slam them shut.

"We use stainless latches, predrilled and installed with pop rivets so that they are easy to replace," he continues. "Those latches get a lot of use. We also have the door panels painted before the latches are installed to prevent rust, which is a big issue in New England. Hinges are solid brass or stainless for the same reason, and we specify the long rod-type hinges with a cap at either end instead of piano hinges."

Shelves are reinforced with a 'top-hat' section to add strength and rigidity. Every other component, from decking to reflective tape, is specified with the same attention to detail, so it comes as no surprise that pilot model inspections are standard procedure for New England Power Service. "We request a pilot model, and we go over the specs line by line," notes Talbot. "You can usually complete the inspection in five or six hours if you push it. We also get photos of the vehicles after they're built so that we can refer to them next time we order vehicles. Trucks usually stay in the fleet for ten years, so you want to spec them right.

"Mid-State International in Worster, Mass., is our truck dealer," Talbot adds, "and almost all our bodies now come from Reading Body Co. out of Reading, Pa. We work very closely with both suppliers, and we've had virtually no problems."

In fact, good teamwork may be the most critical factor for utility fleets that want to optimize equipment specs, control costs, and assure on-time delivery. "Good communication between the dealer, the truck manufacturer, the body builder, and the customer is essential," observes Joe Heller, vocational sales manager for Atlanta Freightliner. "If the chassis isn't right the first time, or if it isn't ready when the body builder needs it, it can mean rework, additional cost, and delivery delays."

"Communication is absolutely critical to a process like this," agrees Georgia Power's Davis. "We have to communicate the fleet's needs to the suppliers and they have to communicate with each other. "It's also important to talk to the end users, the people who will actually be working with the trucks day-to-day in the field. The users, along with the technicians who will be servicing the vehicles, are the people who can really help you get the specs right," Davis notes.

"Getting the specs right doesn't always mean the lowest purchase price either," he adds. "Life-cycle costs and productivity are what really count in this business. After all, if the truck isn't working because it's in the shop, then the company is losing money. The fleet is a very important part of the utility business," Davis reflects. "We used to have a saying, 'If the wheels aren't turning, the lights aren't burning,' and it's true."

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