Responsible Use

March 1, 2000

From numerous telephone conversations with rental companies across the country, it is clear that individuals rather than contracting companies cause the greatest concern to rental companies, and that it is a basic failure to understand the nature of a well-run business that seems to foster poor maintenance habits.

“We have individual renters, like people who rent a skid-steer once every 10 years, who expect us to deliver equipment to their site free of charge, sometimes as far away as 30 miles,” says Dennis Lorenz of Sidney Rental in Sidney, MT, serving general contractors, utility companies, oilfield outfits, and the general public in North Dakota and Montana. Distances between source and site tend to be greater there than in, say, New Jersey, Ohio, Louisiana, or Maryland, but customers whose needs are infrequent seem to be less understanding of the cost of delivery and importance of routine maintenance and more demanding of their suppliers. “Contractor customers usually understand the cost of doing business because they know similar costs exist in their own line of work. They appreciate that time is money to all of us.” His sentiments were echoed in the Midwest, on the East and West Coasts, and in the South. Everybody in the construction industry seems to know which contractors look after their machines and which ones are careless in the management of their repair and maintenance programs. “Everybody slips up now and then,” adds one of Lorenz’s colleagues, “but we all know that efficient equipment makes the job go more smoothly and profitably. Poorly maintained machines must be one of the most common causes of downtime.”

As renting construction equipment grows more popular and the cost of buying machines increases, contractors appreciate the need to maintain them to keep up good performance. Today’s excavators, dozers, and loaders are manufactured to run better and last longer than their predecessors, but it is assumed that their users will care for them. The earthmoving segment of the construction industry sees some of the hardest wear and tear on machinery. Whether the machine is rented or owned, the responsibility for ensuring its good condition belongs to the user. Manufacturers provide practical plans for the repair and maintenance of their products, with pages of useful information about such important components as filters, engines, and hoses. They recommend oils and fuels, but it’s making sure that maintenance is carried out properly that is the greatest challenge. Rental companies we consulted across the country all mentioned one rule of thumb they had observed: If the renter is a company with a reputation for high quality, it will probably look after the rented equipment. “People in business know their responsibilities,” asserts one rental manager whose feelings were echoed by many of his counterparts. “Most of our customers are careful with our equipment, but there will always be the ones who try to cheat the system. That’s probably the same in any industry, and it would be grossly unfair to imply that contractors in general are negligent.”

Compact machines achieve big results if kept in good condition.

“The most diligent of our customers are contractors,” observes Michael Wirtz, owner of Wirtz Rental, which serves the busy Chicago area. “You can see them at six in the morning with technicians checking their equipment before the operators arrive to run it. We consider them to be partners with us in the same industry, with the same goals for successful projects and profitability.” If a machine has been out for more than a month, Wirtz will contact the renter to check the hours used. Sometimes he will offer to service the machine or exchange it for another from the yard. Frequently, for longer leases, the rental company will offer to supply the oil and filters if the renter has qualified personnel to perform the maintenance operations. If there is a concern expressed by contractors used to working with local, smaller rental companies, it is that recent consolidations in the industry might lower the standards of personal service to which they are accustomed: that very concept of partnership that has helped keep contractors working and machines in good shape.

We found no evidence of any dilution of service from national rental chains. In a conversation with Deborah Frederick, who works in the national accounts division of NationsRent, it was clear that good service to customers of all sizes is an important goal for their outlets. At the corporate level, NationsRent is constantly trying to find new ways to help their customers, partnering with them, as Michael Wirtz mentions. One of the advantages of working with a chain of rental stores is that you can benefit in Indiana from good ideas initiated in New Mexico, that successful services offered in Pennsylvania are likely to be included in the business plan of rental yards in Michigan. Right at the top of the list of those services are ways to ensure that the equipment (which always leaves the rental yard in peak condition) continues to function perfectly throughout the term of the lease.

The range of earthmoving equipment available for rent is growing, but so is the need to have professional maintenance for those machines.

United Rentals is North America’s largest equipment rental company, with over 600 locations in 43 states, Canada, and Mexico. The company offers 49 categories of equipment for rent, including “tractors,” under which you would find excavators, dozers, and other grading and excavation equipment. Jim Mullins heads one division for the Northeast, covering New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Maine. Far from becoming simply a cold source of equipment, this large company is going out to customers and potential customers to explain the advantages of having a service contract with United Rentals to cover maintenance during the rental period.

“More and more contractors want to do this,” notes Mullins. “There will always be a minority that don’t really care about the easy maintenance required for equipment, but most of our customers understand that 300 or 400 dollars spent every three months can prevent repairs costing 10 times as much. Good contractors know their business and appreciate that four hours spent on maintenance is better than 40 hours of downtime for repairs. Usually there are several workers idle when repairs are necessary, not just the operator. Also, the job stalls, which is probably the worst thing in contracting.” There is also the advantage for contractors that maintenance may be performed by rental company personnel at times when the equipment would be idle anyway. “Our biggest concern with all maintenance is that the people doing it be qualified,” states Mullins. Occupational Safety & Health Administration regulations may apply in many instances.

At Burch-Lowe-a company recently purchased by United Rentals-in Atlanta, GA, manager Mike Gross explains that the company’s practice is to call those companies that have rented equipment for more than a month to check on the readings from meters. The company sends a service team to the site to do the appropriate maintenance or to exchange the contractor’s present machine for another from the rental yard. Machines ready for rent are always kept in peak condition. Burch-Lowe offers a 24-hour emergency-service program for its customers and prides itself on the fact that this service includes much more than a switchboard operator or truck driver. They provide factory-trained mechanics because they are also dealers for much of the equipment they rent. If your own mechanics are not experts in the maintenance of the equipment you rent, you should probably consider using a maintenance service from the rental company.

Cat Rental Stores (which also handle equipment and products not manufactured by Caterpillar) are good evidence of the growing interest of contractors in renting equipment, especially for projects of a nature they might not usually handle. Contractors are finding that they can rent a large earthmoving machine for, say, a month, to use in a project that might previously have been too expensive for them to bid because of the purchase cost of the equipment required. Cat Rental Stores are locally owned, and most of them offer that same dealer knowledge of their equipment. The stores offer daily, weekly, and monthly rentals, with earthmoving equipment among the favorite items. They emphasize that the machines they rent have been well maintained by expert technicians.

Kathy Gallardo at Cook Rental Company (CRC) in Cerritos, CA, echoes the positive comments of Chicago rental companies about contractors. “The operators are very good at greasing and all those other daily maintenance jobs. We have found contractors to be responsible renters. They care for the equipment they rent from us.” Much of the equipment available at CRC would be considered compact (e.g., mini excavators, skid-steer loaders, and backhoes), and most of the periods of leasing are less than a month, but the company does not think it is necessary to check on its customers at their job sites because of its belief in the aforementioned concept of partnership.

To ensure good maintenance for their rented equipment, some rental companies have interesting approaches. “We place what we call ‘bubbles’ on the equipment, usually near the cab,” describes Randy Rieke, rental manager for Altorfer CAT in Springfield, IL, which rents construction equipment to contractors in Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri. “The bubbles tell the user when service is required, and we insist that it be done in a timely fashion. We will go to the site and perform the necessary service with our own people, but not everybody likes that. For cost reasons, some contractors want to do their own servicing, and we agree to that as long as we can ascertain that it is correctly done.” There are Altorfer customers with their own lube trucks and facilities to take and evaluate oil samples, but the rental company is completely justified in requesting the results of oil testing on its machines and vehicles. From the user’s point of view, a well-maintained machine will be less likely to cause downtime, while machines whose oil, tires, and tracks are neglected can suffer major damage unnecessarily.

Contractors understand the teamwork involved in all earthmoving jobs and the need to keep every machine up and working.

Some contractors have maintenance technicians on-site, constantly inspecting and maintaining the equipment. When the job site for excavation or grading is hundreds of miles from the home base-a circumstance that is becoming more common in this competitive segment of our industry-it can save costly downtime to have your own maintenance staff there. There are local companies that specialize in machine maintenance, and most rental companies have repair and maintenance facilities, but contractors (especially those with projects whose profitability depends on nonstop, efficient work for several weeks or even months) might prefer to control this aspect of their daily business themselves. Whoever is responsible, it must be done at the right time, with the right products, and by workers who have been adequately trained. Maintenance is definitely not a task you give to the closest person or the one who happens to be available when you think of it. A frequent comment made is that the owners of rental equipment always worry when maintenance is the responsibility of a “hired hand” or temporary worker rather than somebody they perceive as a “regular” with the user’s outfit.

All earthmoving jobs are hostile to the equipment.

AirMaster Equipment has four locations in Texas, including one in Abilene, where Robert Casper is the expert on this subject. “Some of our customers in western Texas are 300 miles from us,” he notes. “We cannot expect a salesman to drive that far just to see if the filter has been changed or the lubrication done. We allow those customers, especially the ones we know well and trust, to perform the maintenance themselves, and we will even provide the filters for them.” For closer customers, the sales representatives will visit sites to make sure that the correct maintenance is performed in a timely manner. AirMaster is one of those companies commenting that contractors who rent for extended contracts have their own best interests in mind when they tend to their rented equipment carefully. “Some of those who rent for a year or so will purchase the equipment at that stage,” says Rieke of Altorfer. “Obviously they want the equipment they purchase to be in the best possible condition, and they will have maintained it for the period of the lease.”

“If anything, those who rent long-term-for several weeks or months-have more reason to care for the equipment correctly,” remarks Gary Manley of American Equipment in Greenville, SC. “Some of them hire a professional maintenance company, and others consider the projects important enough to have their own technicians on-site.” It seems to be a growing tendency for companies that rent equipment to offer services for maintenance or to recommend appropriate professionals available locally. In this respect, rental companies resemble equipment distributors: They maintain a satisfied customer base by providing more than just the sale or lease.

Consistent performance in abrasive conditions is possible with well-maintained machines.

The time that a machine is away from the rental yard can play an important part in policies and practices. Downs Equipment Rental in Bakersfield, CA, offers some large equipment from its yard: excavators, dozers, and loaders. That machinery may be rented for periods longer than a month. “We always put a note on the monthly bill concerning service and maintenance,” says Downs’ Kayla Duran. “It’s a good way of reminding a contractor who has had a piece of machinery out for more than a month. We also have stickers in the cabs to remind operators and users to perform timely maintenance.” It seems to be a nationally accepted policy that, for machines that are rented for only hours or a day or two, rental companies do not stress the importance of daily maintenance. You can be sure, however, that all machines are inspected when they are returned. “Whatever condition the equipment is in when they return it to us, our customers expect it to be in perfect condition when we hand it over to them” is another nationwide comment and a good reason why renting is becoming so popular.

Western Power & Equipment serves Oregon, Washington, California, Nevada, and Alaska and offers a broad range of construction equipment, including some of the biggest machines for earthmoving. “We offer a program we call Power Plus Maintenance,” explains Gary Frank from the company’s Vancouver, WA, office. “After about 250 hours of the machine’s site work, we will perform all of the factory-recommended maintenance for the equipment. We have a 101-point checklist that covers just about everything you can imagine. It has worked well, and we think our customers appreciate this high level of service.” Most equipment from Western is out for 90 days or less, but there is a trend for contractors to enter into lease-purchase agreements, which start with extended leases. “Those customers may be the most reliable for carrying out maintenance because the machines will be their property at the end of the lease,” Frank notes. Like a growing number of companies that rent equipment, Western Power & Equipment has people on call for parts and service 24 hours a day. With such service offered, it seems that maintenance of rented equipment should be a straightforward task.

Maintenance is straightforward; it is usually simple for qualified personnel. The biggest challenge is making sure it’s done. While it is clear from conversations with rental companies that contractors are not generally considered risky customers, it is also clear that it might be worthwhile to guarantee that maintenance will be done in a timely and correct way if that responsibility is turned over to the rental company through a maintenance contract. Many people are wary of service contracts for televisions, stoves, and refrigerators because of the reliability established for those products, but they basically just sit inside the house and don’t usually receive any abuse. But grading and excavating equipment works in hostile environments. The blades are worn down, the engines are overworked, and the joints get stiff. The list goes on and on.

If there is a trend we observed from our discussions with rental companies and contractors, it may be one in which the rental company always assumes responsibility for maintenance, with its cost becoming an integral part of the contract. The arrangement could benefit and protect both parties. Costs will vary from state to state, but one example is a maintenance agreement for a three-month lease that might cost $300-$400 for a compact machine. On the other hand, if there is a failure in the boom (quite possible with lack of proper maintenance), parts and labor to dismantle and rebuild could be as much as $4,000, not including the cost of the downtime. Those contractors who have skilled maintenance technicians and readily available equipment will still want to do their own maintenance, even for rented equipment, and there is absolutely no problem with that system. Those contractors, especially the thousands with their own small companies, who have skilled operators to run machines might want to investigate the benefits of paying skilled maintenance people to keep them running. Mathematically speaking, if grading and excavation are advanced geometry, decisions about maintenance are basic arithmetic.