Size Matters

Originally published
Originally published: 11/1/2007

Larger air conditioning units have contractors scrambling to purchase vehicles big enough to haul them. What are the benefits of adding these vehicles to your fleet?

Indeed, since the Department of Energy started enforcing 13 SEER legislation in January 2006, central air conditioners and central heat pumps have increased in size because the condensers must be larger, meaning that many contractors need to supplement their current fleet with vehicles that can accommodate larger units.

For Theo Etzel, president of Conditioned Air, Naples, Fla., larger units meant that he had to purchase several sprinter vans and a lift-gate truck.

“When the physical size of the units got bigger it precipitated the need for larger vans,” explains Etzel.

“We couldn’t fit the condenser unit and the air handler in the same van so we would send two vehicles to the same job.”

Conditioned Air’s fleet is 85 strong and includes five sprinter trucks and one box truck with a lift gate on the back.

In some cases contractors can get the manufacturer or distributor to drop-ship the unit to the site, but for maximum efficiency it’s best to be able to transport the unit and all of the supplies to the job site on your own schedule and terms.

According to Etzel, having sprinter vans with more room for equipment has an added bonus in the retail market.

“People want to see the unit come out of the box. It makes them feel better to see what they have contracted for hasn’t been banged around in the truck — it’s psychologically better.”

Echoing Etzel’s enthusiasm for spacious sprinter vans, Steve Saunders, CEO of Irving, Texas-based Tempo Mechanical Services, notes that his company’s extended-cab sprinter vans accommodate everything needed for a job.

“For our replacement crews, the sprinter cabs work well. They can load everything they need for a job into their vehicle and be on their way,” says Saunders.

However, the reason Tempo Mechanical purchased larger vehicles for its fleet wasn’t based solely on size.

“We went to larger vans for a variety of reasons,” explains Saunders. “We believe that diesel vans will have higher reliability and offer better gas mileage. Also, sprinter vans are safer than the trailers that we were using.” Indeed, Saunders notes that his service area experiences two or three ice storms a year. “On an icy day you can’t carry a trailer, it’s too risky. One accident can destroy the value of a month’s worth of work.”

In terms of fuel, for its 25-vehicle fleet, Tempo spends about $500,000 per year on gas. By converting its entire fleet to diesel vehicles not only has the company noticed smaller fuel bills, it also benefits from lower maintenance costs and is more environmentally sound. “Diesel vans have a lower carbon footprint than regular vans. We are constantly encouraging our customers to be concerned about the environment, so it is nice to be able to lead by example.”

With larger vans come higher upfront costs. According to Etzel, sprinter vans are about $10,000 more than regular vans but the long-term benefits offset that investment.

“The life expectancy is fairly long with diesels and they are low maintenance compared with the rest of our fleet,” says Etzel. “We don’t calculate the return on investment other than I can tell you the logic behind our purchase was to eliminate the need for using two vehicles to deliver a piece of equipment.”

Tempo Mechanical’s Saunders notes that his company did a cost analysis before purchasing sprinter vans. What they found out was that the cost savings from fuel consumption balanced out the higher monthly payment for the vehicle.

“We feel we are on the cusp of a trend. We couldn’t get past 60,000 miles without having to do some sort of maintenance on the old vehicles, so we felt that the investment was well worth it.”

To best determine what vehicle is right for your business, Brad Pugh, product planning manager, Ram Chassis Cabs, Dodge, says there are three critical variables to consider: Gross Vehicle Weight Rating(GVWR), cab-to-axle dimension, and powertrain.

The first question that needs to be addressed, What you will be carrying?

“It sounds simple, but based on the payload, you can work backward to determine the right class vehicle.”

Class 3 vehicles carry a GVWR of 10,000 pounds to 14,000 pounds. The GVWR is the maximum allowable total weight of the vehicle, including the weight of the vehicle itself plus fuel, passengers, cargo, and the upfit body.

Class 4 vehicles have GVWR of 14,001 pounds to 16,000 pounds and Class 5 vehicles have a GVWR of 16,001 pounds to 19,500 pounds.

According to Pugh, companies that carry heavy loads (Class 4 or 5) will benefit from a diesel engine, which will get better fuel economy and offer higher reliability.

Another thing to consider: cab-to-axel dimen-sions.

The cab-to-axle (C/A) dimensions are industry standards that are used by body manufacturers to size their upfit bodies to fit onto the chassis cabs. For example, if you need a 10- to 12-foot enclosed box, you’ll want to mount that to an 84 inch C/A chassis cab. Class 3 trucks come in 60-inch and 84-inch C/As while Class 4 and 5 trucks typically offer 60-inch, 84-inch, 108-inch, or 120-inch C/As.

“If you standardize your fleet to meet your needs and spec out the proper size now you can move that body from truck to truck in future years,” explains Pugh.

If you’re interested in improved fuel economy, Pugh suggests considering the lowest numeric axle ratio available.

“If your choices are a 4.10 and 4.44 ratio, the 4.10 will keep your engine RPMs lower while driving around town and ease the pain at the pump. However, the trade-off is that lower numeric ratios will not be as responsive when pulling away from a stop. You’ll have to decide which is more important. If you intend to pull trailers with your new rig, I suggest the higher ratio to improve your truck’s acceleration and ability to merge into traffic.”

Pugh also suggests that companies consider automatic transmission in their vehicles.

“There will be less wear and tear and you won’t have to worry about replacing burnt-out clutches,” says Pugh. “These commercial-grade automatic transmissions also offer power-take-off capability, which can be used to drive air compressors, pumps, and even cranes.”

Once you’ve done the math you can determine what size vehicle makes sense for you. Just make sure you don’t over spec.

“Experienced fleet buyers will pick the right size truck for their needs and could save thousands of dollars on each vehicle if they can justify a Class 4 instead of a Class 5,” says Pugh.

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