More Bang for Your Trailer Buck

March 1, 2010
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Trailers can be just as important as the equipment they’re hauling; without them, dozers, backhoes, and graders can’t get to the job sites. Balancing the cost of ownership and operation of these heavy haulers must be factored into budgets and profit margins, so it becomes crucial to make the right decisions on what size trailer to buy, to achieve the right trailer-to-hauler ratio, and to select the best trailer to get a good return on investment.

“There’s one thing you have to remember about trailers and floaters,” cautions Doug Innes, trailer sales manager for Antrim Truck Center in Ottawa, ON. “For a contractor, it’s not a money-making piece. With dozers, you can charge an hourly rate. But trailers are a cost, so they get disregarded. They’re just a support piece, a necessary part of doing business.” To illustrate his point, he asked four contractors to provide their cost per mile average to operate a hydraulic gooseneck float. “They never figured it out. They never crunched the numbers.”

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Whether or not they crunch the numbers, there is a cost of ownership attached to every piece of equipment, trailers included. The first cost is initial purchase price. Although no one wants to point it out, there is some truth to the old adage “You get what you pay for.” Innes understands that people don’t like to make the up-front investment in a trailer that doesn’t carry an hourly charge for its services, but says it’s simply something that has to be done. “You’re either in business or you’re not.”

But you’re not in business for long if you don’t spend your money wisely. Innes estimates that with proper care, a good trailer should last 12-15 years. A cheap trailer, however, can “rough out in 5 to 6 years until they’re economically impossible to rebuild and become too expensive to maintain.” If money is tight and you can’t afford a good new trailer, he suggests buying a good used trailer before turning to a cheap trailer. Taking his own advice, he announces that Antrim is buying back a 1988 trailer.

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Ramping Up
Rueben Schwartz, head of Schwartz Construction Ltd. & Excavating in Conneaut, OH, used to think “trailers were trailers.” But after 11 years in the excavating industry and owning three brands of trailers, he began to compare which is the easiest to load and unload. In addition to working on big commercial jobs, Schwartz also hauls to a lot of sites for other people. He wants a trailer that’s safe and easy to load and unload. Tag trailers from Rogers Brothers Corp., based in Albion, PA, have a 5% incline, which is less than the 6% on most other trailers. He likes the 6-foot ramp. “It’s easy to work with, especially in icy conditions. The Rogers trailers are safer because they’re more stable during loading.” He also likes the “extra, extra long version of the tag,” with more deck space.

The angle of the ramp is important, agrees Bob Gwinn, vice president of Joseph McCormick Construction Co. in Erie, PA, another Rogers customer. “Pavers can’t go up a steep ramp because the back will drag.” Explaining that in a short eight-month construction season, downtime is expensive and every minute counts, he adds, “You want to load and unload quickly.”

The flip-down ramps on Load King trailers are at the correct angle for easy loading and unloading, states customer Bill Barrett, president of BCS Alliance Inc. of North Benton, OH. There is no sharp transition from the ramp to deck level. He also likes the way the trailer’s outriggers handle wider equipment. BCS, established in 1989, drills shaft caissons 2-feet to 10-feet in diameter, and 80-feet deep for wind tower and cellular tower foundations. The equipment is big.

It’s all about ease of use, Innes repeats-“especially as employees get older. You don’t want any Workman’s Comp issues.” Ease of use is directly related, in part, to the quality of the ramp. Deck boards are expensive to replace. He estimates it costs $1,000 to redeck. “Cheaper trailers use pressure-treated lumber, which has only a three- to four-year life.” That adds up. He suggests looking for better wood. White oak is standard, he says, but Angelina pedra, a South American wood, is also good.

Illustrating the fact that Innes isn’t exaggerating the importance of good deck wood, Gwinn recalls an episode when “someone bought a three-leg milling machine that went right through the deck of their trailer because they weren’t using the right trailer.”

Comparison Shopping
Ramps are only one feature to consider when shopping for trailers, only one of the deciding factors in the cost of operation analysis. The initial decision is what type of trailer to get.

Experience helps determine what to buy, Gwinn explains. McCormick has been in business more than 105 years, specializing in heavy highway work-asphalt, paving, and manufacturing of asphalt mix-demolition, earthwork, and underground utilities within a 70-mile range of company headquarters. “We do big anchor jobs and fill in our schedule with small jobs around that.” Contracts range from $2,000 patch work up to $10 million highway jobs.

To haul all the equipment needed for that kind of work, the fleet includes 20-ton and 10-ton Rogers trailers as well as a 50-ton trailer with a third drop axle-the biggest they make. The company purchased it in 1997 for moving “heavy stuff.” The big trailer is used for 10 to 12 hours every day, moving equipment and crews around, he says. “It probably does 70% of our moves, carrying two or three smaller pieces. We use smaller trailers to supplement.”

Both Gwinn and Barrett base trailer selection in part on tonnage rating. “You have to choose a trailer based on maximum loads. We do a lot of permit loads and heavy loads-both oversize and overweight.” Because laws vary from state to state, Antrim maintains an adaptable fleet in order to comply with permit loads. “Laws are not universal and DOTs are strict about weight and axle rating, length and tire ratings. Over 70% of our loads are over-dimensional: permitted loads. We want to be legal, so we’re careful about load dimensions, weight, destination and origin, and what the load is.”

Particularly when hauling heavy loads, Innes reminds drivers to include trailer weight in the calculation. “A gooseneck float trailer weighs 8,000 pounds more to start with. What you want is strength without a lot of weight, because it affects fuel mileage and the legal load you can haul.”

Destination sometimes affects trailer size in other ways. “You can’t take a 50-foot gooseneck into tight places,” Schwartz points out. Gwinn concurs: “Length is critical to haul big loads, but you don’t want it too long in the metro area.” He estimates that 90% of McCormick’s jobs are done within the downtown area and suggests a day cab tractor with a set-back front axle for a little extra turning ease.

Trailer by Number
Determining how many trailers are needed-and the ratio of trailer to truck/tractor-can be a complicated computation. “It depends on the amount of equipment you’re moving,” Schwartz summarizes. His company owns five tag-along trailers in the 40,000- to 50,000-pound range, plus four haulers.

Keen Transportation, out of New Kingstown, PA, has a large fleet, including 450 trailers and 225 trucks, in addition to 90 more owned by its subsidy company, Cressler. “Our trailer-to-truck ratio is 1.8:1,” states Paul Ross, vice president of operations.

One reason for the large inventory and close ratio is that Keen is not a contractor, it’s a heavy-haul specialist that transports products (mainly construction equipment and machinery) across the US. “We take new equipment to the end user or dealer. Dealers are a big portion of our business. But we also take equipment to job sites and power plants. Our fleet has to be versatile enough to go to ports, job sites, coal mines or dealerships. XL [Specialized Trailers Inc., in Manchester, IA] loves selling trailers to us for the advertising because we go all over the US, to ports and to manufacturers. We provide a lot of visibility. We also buy trailers in quantity-at least six, 10, 20 at a time. Our last order was 40.”

The 42-year-old Pennsylvania transport company owns 81 XL trailers, including step decks, manual and hydraulically operated goosenecks, and I-beams. Keen keeps such a variety of trailers because they strive to have a versatile fleet to haul equipment on the right/best trailer for the load. For example, Ross says, a dump truck on a standard lowboy sits 14 feet, 6 inches high. “There are more risks and costs associated with that, so we’d put it on an I-beam because it’s designed to get the load lower to the ground. We want to reduce dimension as much as possible so it’s as economical as possible. It also contributes to ease of operation for the customer: There’s no need for a crane to unload. That helps keep costs reasonable and is why we have the biggest I-beam inventory.”

Innes estimates that most of Antrim’s customers have one trailer per machine, but offers a good rule of thumb: Smaller contractors with fewer than 15 machines need one hydraulic gooseneck float. Contractors with more than 15 machines need a second float. “In the overall scheme, it’s advisable to devote one trailer to one to three machines. If you consider that a skid-steer costs $18,000 to $22,000 and a trailer costs $5,000, you can afford to park it. Besides, rental trailers are available to fill in during routine maintenance … although they’re not available as much in Canada and rural areas.”

BCS, a specialty foundation and drilling company and general contractor working a 400-mile radius in seven states, maintains a sizable fleet that includes six trailers, a medium bulldozer, a backhoe, a skid-steer, a mini-excavator, a caisson drill rig, two semis, a dump truck, an International service truck, a crane, and a hydraulic excavator. The company’s trailer-to-truck ratio is 1:1. The range of trailers runs from two 6-ton Top Hat tagalongs and two International 20-ton tagalongs to one 45-ton Freuhauf flatbed and one 50-ton Load King lowboy bought used.

Barrett says the company likes the Load King for its ease of operation, allowing operators to attach and detach and load and unload in the field, as well as for its load-leveling suspension that evenly distributes weight to the axles for better tire wear, for its height adjustment for varying terrain, for a nonground bearing option, and for its secure Budd wheels. BCS likes it so much, in fact, the company ordered a new one to be delivered in December. The new trailer features a 60-inch spread between the tri-axle group (as opposed to the standard 48 inches) so it can accommodate the drill rig. “If we don’t have to assemble and disassemble the drill rig on the job, it saves us about four hours per project.”

Dealer Loyalty
The cost of operation is reduced if a trailer has a long life with few maintenance issues and is versatile enough to use frequently in many situations. Every contractor or company creates its own list of necessary features that drive it to a particular size, type or brand. For Schwartz, the fact that Rogers offered options not available on other brands, such as an open steel grate for better, non-slip traction, made it his default choice.

Gwinn prefers Rogers trailers for their durability and is so happy with his big trailer, he says McCormick will likely buy a new one next year. Barrett, who already ordered his new trailer from Rogers, was pleased that the manufacturer accommodated his custom design and agreed to put a rush on it so he could get it in the 2009 tax year.

For Keen, with its large specialized fleet, quality is an issue. “For us, trailers are every bit as important as the trucks,” Ross emphasizes. “Cheaper is not always the answer. The ultimate measurement is serviceability, lifetime of use, and return on investment.” Acknowledging that pricing is important, he says the projection of lifetime costs is just as important. “Lifetime cost of ownership is the first or second more important thing we look at.”

Although Ross says the company purchases trailers from multiple manufacturers for better, more competitive pricing, he was particularly impressed by the demo trailers from XL and their quick turnaround time on manufacturing custom-spec trailers adapted to their needs. “These are not just box trailers. The step-decks are a basic, universal-type trailer, but our lowboys are built to our specifications.”

Not only were they fast, he adds, but they were also good. “It’s a good product. Their workmanship is good: The welding at the joints is tight; the paint job is good. We take pride in how it looks, but it’s also a safety issue. Besides, the crew takes better care of it if it looks good because they know we’re willing to make the investment. It sends a good message to operators and customers.” Less wear and tear saves money, so it benefits the cost of ownership when a crew takes care of the equipment.

Sending the message that equipment is well made and well taken care of starts at the manufacturer level. Attention to detail is noticed. Word of mouth can make or break a manufacturer’s reputation. Before purchasing, Ross talked to other users who spoke highly of XL. Schwartz learned the hard way when he bought a new trailer from a different dealer. “We put a 38,000-pound track hoe on a 40,000-pound trailer on the interstate. Two sets of duals busted on a less-than year-old trailer. It cost $3,000 to put on a $16,000 trailer. It happened twice, so now I guess it’s a $21,000 trailer.”

Rogers’s reputation first attracted Tim Schaaf, president of Building System Inc. The general contractor typically has 76 employees in the field and 18 to 24 commercial and industrial design/build projects going at once within a 180-mile radius of its Erie, PA, headquarters. His fleet of excavators, dozers, rollers, and rubber-tired backhoes “moves constantly. That’s the key to productivity: constant production. We perform a lot of our own work: site, concrete, dirt-moving done ahead of time…”

When Schaaf needed trailers, he did a lot of looking and admits to being influenced by Rogers’s “excellent reputation,” but it was the high quality of building that really sold him. “The attention to the needs of heavy construction is evident in the placement of axles. They’re easy to load. We like their no-foot concept so we can detach quickly. We move multiple man-lifts with the trailer. With the quick detach, we can drop the boom at 7:00 and the dozer at 8:30.”

He also liked Rogers’s willingness to accommodate his particular needs, such as tie-down location and length of the inner bridge. He purchased three trailers from the local manufacturer, including a 50-ton lowboy and a 20-ton “tag-behind” that can be left behind. Altogether, BSI currently has four tractors and three trailers. “We’ve had one Rogers trailer for 16 to 18 years. We’ll upgrade eventually as industry standards change and better ideas come along, but we’ll probably stick with Rogers because we’ve had no call-backs, failures or complaints. We’re well known for our equipment,” Schaaf says with pride, “and our trailers are more important than our equipment.”

Features That Factor in
While dealer loyalty can lead to benefits like custom design, in order to minimize maintenance-thus reducing the cost of operation-Innes suggests looking for quality even more than for specific features. “In the tagalong business there are regional builders and regional factories producing an inferior product. Guys who have been around know. It made a big difference for us to move up to Towmaster because they have better balance, wiring, and building.” It’s no joke when he says that due to Antrim’s emphasis on quality, their two best customers are previous customers and their competitors’ customers.

Hydraulic goosenecks are the same, Innes speculates. But he considers the smaller float-5-ton and 6-ton floats to haul skid-steers-a hard market to sell. “The customer doesn’t recognize quality. But you have to pay attention. Cheaper springs and suspension systems are very expensive to maintain because they wear out in one-and-a-half to two years. That wears out the tires and adds to downtime.” A Torflex suspension, on the other hand, has a five-year warranty that can save $800-$1,000 while providing a nicer ride with less tire wear.

Lighting and wiring are a big cost, Innes states. “The further north you are, the bigger the problem due to salt, snow, and wet conditions. Sealed wiring is on all good trailers.” Barrett agrees, adding, “Sealed-beam lighting is critical. Wiring is very important. You want weather-tight junction boxes because brine eats wiring here in the Rust Belt.”

The Rust Belt is also hard on paint. “The cost of repainting is astronomical,” Innes indicates. “Sandblasting and repainting cost $7,000 to $10,0000 for a big gooseneck float in Canada. Some companies don’t prime. The trailers rust through in three to four years and develop structural problems. But with premier trailer manufacturers, it’s not just about fit; it’s about preparation. Prep and finish is important. Ask!”

While Barrett agrees that proper preparation and painting are important, he has additional criteria. “We prefer air brakes because they require less maintenance and we prefer Budd wheels because they’re virtually trouble-free. We also like the choice of gas, hydraulic detached, or wet-lined hydraulics.” Another aspect he appreciates is the ability to buy direct. “No middleman; that’s a big plus.”

Maintaining an Investment
Cost of ownership doesn’t end with a good deal on the purchase price or even with special features that enhance efficiency in the field. No matter what kind of trailer is purchased or which dealer made the sale, the only way to accurately calculate the cost of ownership is to monitor productivity over the life of the trailer.

In order to keep any equipment productive, a routine maintenance program is essential. Building Systems Inc. employs a full-time maintenance staff to work on equipment during the “off-shift.” Schaaf happily reports that the only maintenance his Rogers trailers have needed so far is a little greasing. In a similar effort to reduce downtime for these heavily used items, Schwartz’s crews conduct a thorough service in the winter, their off-season.

Dutch Wilson, superintendent at BCS Alliance Inc., says the  company does not really have a slow season, so it has to schedule routine maintenance around work, even doing it in the field when necessary. “We keep thorough logs to keep on top of maintenance.”

With so many trailers to look after, ease of maintenance and efficiency were important considerations for Keen Transport. “We have our own shops and do our own work,” Ross notes. “We implemented a stringent maintenance program.” To date, he reports “no major issues” with the XL trailers purchased in 2006 and 2007.

Gwinn knows that a good maintenance program extends life and helps owners get more money out of their equipment. “We go over the airbrakes, inspect for cracks in the welds or structure-fatigue cracks-for corrosion from salt and chemicals, and check the tires,” he details. “We buy new tires every two years because we scrub them with three axles in metro tight turns.”

While nothing lasts forever, choosing the right trailer for the job and implementing a routine maintenance program that extends its life will reduce the cost of ownership and operation over its lifetime and improve the return on investment of this essential piece of equipment.