Rolling wheels

WHEELS started rolling in January 1986 when Reliable Liquid Transport Inc (RLT) of Santa Rosa, California, began operating as a tank truck carrier. Two decades later, the chemical transporter provides bulk service throughout the West Coast region and into Arizona, bringing $10 million in revenue in 2006.

“We started out with an office in the garage behind my parent's house,” says Cate Summers, company president. “In those days we were renting space in a bus yard to park our equipment.”

Today, things are run a bit differently with a fleet of 72 transports, headquarters in Santa Rosa, and three terminals: one in Martinez, California, another in Los Angeles, and a third in Phoenix, Arizona.

Lynette Munson, Summers' sister, a company owner, and safety director, says of the driver coordination required for the regional operation: “We've used owner-operators for the past five years — almost exclusively,” she says. “The decision suits our operation and we have been pleased with the results.”

Operations director

Directing RLT operations is Calvin Worley, who is involved in marketing and customer service. “About 60% of our business is with four companies,” he says. “The other 40% of the operation includes several other shippers. We operate a just-in-time service — and that means keeping equipment and drivers on the road in a timely manner.”

To coordinate the operation's administration, the managers chose Varipro Systems Inc's Truckpro software for accounting and dispatching. Truckpro modules from the software supplier manage general ledger, accounts receivable and payable, payroll, billing, job costing, independent contractor payable, fixed assets, and inventory. The system also coordinates material costing, shop operations, tire management, trip control, and equipment costing.

“Part of our service includes monitoring some customers' tank levels,” Summers says. “Our dispatchers contact the facilities' operating room at the location to get the information. We have a few locations where we can check the tank levels via the Internet and are expecting that technology to be available even more in the future.”

Company history

All of this began when Wallen Summers, the women's father, and a partner, Richard Fuller, established the company. The senior Summers graduated from West Point and retired from a long career in the US Army. During the time he served in the military, he earned a doctorate in economics from Harvard University.

After retirement from the Army, he became interested in the trucking industry and worked for a carrier until establishing RLT. Today, the Summers family is in the process of acquiring Fuller's share of the company upon his retirement.

“We started out hauling only sulfuric acid,” recalls Summers. “I would meet Richard halfway between Santa Rosa, where we lived, and Martinez, where he lived and where the trucks were, and we would exchange the paperwork. But it wasn't long before we took on caustics and other products as customer demand grew so that we opened the Martinez terminal.”

In 1990, the carrier acquired the assets of a fleet based in Los Angeles and set up a RLT terminal there. “That terminal has grown even faster than the one in Martinez,” Summers says. “We were fortunate when we were approached by the family who owned the business, and we decided to buy it.”

Another unforeseen but fortuitous event for the carrier occurred when the Environmental Protection Agency set up regulations for reducing emissions in truck engines and mandated the use of ultra low sulfur diesel as fuel.

“Since we started the business, the environmental requirements have changed some of the refiners' production processes, which has been a benefit for us,” says Summers. “We are transporting more sulfur from the plants now that ultra low sulfur diesel is required to meet environmental rules.”

Refineries use a catalytic chemical process, hydrodesulfurization, to extract sulfur from petroleum products, such as diesel, which requires a transportation service to haul away the growing amount of captured product. That situation provided aother niche for RLT that had traditionally hauled in-bound feedstock.

Not only does the carrier's operation involve hauling the product that comes as a result of environmental improvement, it also is a member of the Environmental Protection Agency program, SmartWay Transport Partnership. Partners are commercial, industrial, and public sector organizations that commit to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution and to improve fuel efficiency of ground freight transportation. EPA provides partners with benefits and services that include fleet management tools, technical support, information, and public recognition.

Additionally, RLT hauls aluminum sulfate solution in the Los Angeles area to municipal water treatment facilities where it is used as a flocculent. The Los Angeles terminal dispatches trucks to haul molten sulfur to be used as a raw product in the manufacture of phosphate fertilizers. Caustic soda, methanol, and bleach are among the other products transported.

“One great thing about this job is the interesting things I learn about the many products our customers are involved in, and how they are used in the processing,” Cate says.

Owner-operators

Handling those products are 37 owner-operators, all of whom are dispatched from Martinez. Dispatcher Mike Denson manages drivers in northern California hauling caustics and acids, and Clyde Franz coordinates drivers for other products in Los Angeles, as well as those in Phoenix. A backup dispatcher, Tom Sloneker, is part of the dispatch staff in Martinez. Drivers typically receive their schedules the day before they are dispatched, and most are home each night, says Munson.

Munson oversees the driver training program from the terminal in Martinez while Steve Pope, Los Angeles terminal manager, handles training in southern California.

Munson says information from the National Tank Truck Carriers and J J Keller is used in rollover prevention training sessions. She also noted that the newest tank trailers they have acquired are equipped with ArvinMeritor roll stability systems. The decision to specify stability equipment on new tank trailers is just one more step in the safety program, she adds.

Driver training includes company policies, Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations, defensive driving, safe loading and off loading techniques, and hazardous materials handling. Emphasis is placed on personal protective equipment (PPE), brake adjustment, and pre- and post-trip inspections.

Drivers are required to attend monthly safety meetings and are allowed to participate in makeup sessions, if their schedules conflict with the meeting dates. The carrier's insurance provider, XL Insurance, handles driver hazmat recertification. J J Keller Driver Management Online is used to monitor driver records.

Since drivers are in and out of refineries several times per day, they are required to meet many of the facilities' qualifications. Some of the facilities require site-specific training and identification badges. Some also require drug testing in addition to that required by DOT.

RLT participates in Pacific Industrial Contractor Screening programs designed for refiners to assist them with an audit program for companies working at their facilities or job sites.

To expedite drivers entry into ports, RLT is in the process of qualifying drivers for the TWIC (Transportation Workers Identification Card) so that they will be certified when the program goes into effect.

Because drivers handle hazardous chemicals, they are required to wear personal protection equipment (PPE) when working with certain products, such as acids.

“In addition to their chemical-resistant PPE overalls and jackets, they often have to wear a fire retardant suit under their acid suit,” says Munson. “Their outermost clothing must be fire retardant when working in the refineries. We train them in the importance of using the clothing even though it is bulky and inconvenient. The required PPE makes heat illness training very important. We also emphasize fall prevention training since drivers are often on top of the trailers.”

As part of the safety program, drivers qualifying for safety awards are honored annually. To meet the qualifications, they must attend 80% of the safety meetings and maintain a record of no injuries, accidents, and regulation/law violations.

Munson came across a California Chamber of Commerce publication that has proved especially helpful for drivers. It discusses business management and lists California regulations. “Anything we can do to help them be good business managers is a plus for them and us,” she adds. “We assign our new operators to jobs in the spring when our business is better so that they can benefit as soon as they are on the route. Putting them on in the late autumn when our operation is slower could be fatal for a new business.”

Fleet equipment

As for the fleet tank trailers, 25 are based in Martinez, 41 in Los Angeles, and six in Phoenix. RLT operates DOT407s and DOT412s. “With acid weighing 16 pounds per gallon, we decided to use lighter DOT407s for that service,” Cate says. “We also had long wait times on repairs of the DOT 412s because of the shortage of ASME inspectors to conduct the inspections for us.”

The carrier's new DOT407 units are from Brenner Tank Inc and have 5,000-gallon capacity. Components include Betts domelids, Fort Vale internal emergency valves, Bayco Flotech overfill protection, and Girard pressure-relief vents.

Running gear includes Hendrickson Intraax suspensions, MeritorWabco antilock braking systems, Consolidated Metco hubs, Michelin XOne 445/50R22.5 tires, and Austin Westran landing gears. The carrier specifies Hendrickson Tiremax automatic tire inflation system and Michelin wide-based single tires. Truck-Lite supplies light-emitting diode (LED) systems.

Other tank trailers in the fleet were built by Heil Trailer International, Polar Corp, West-Mark, and Beall Corp. Equipment on the tank trailers varies, but includes stainless steel dry disconnect couplings for acid trailers, typically supplied by OPW and Civacon. Honda gasoline engines are mounted on the tankers used for aqua ammonia. Gardner Denver provides air compressors mounted on tractors used in handling products such as sulfuric acid, caustics, and bleach.

“The trailers we use for molten sulfur are typically 3,800- and 3,900-gallon capacity. The 5,000-gallon units are used for acids, and we have a few 7,000-gallon MC307 trailers,” Summers says. “We also have one MC306 trailer that we use occasionally for methanol.

“As for the tractors, we are strict on the tare weight so that we can have a 50,000-pound payload,” Summers says.

Fleet maintenance

The Martinez and Los Angeles terminals have maintenance facilities where all vehicle service and repairs are conducted, with the exception of code tank work. Eric Jones oversees the shop in Martinez, and Jose Garcia is in charge in Los Angeles. The operation in Phoenix does not have a shop, so repairs and preventive maintenance are out-sourced. The carrier operates in that area from yard space provided by Massey's Truck and Tank Repair Inc.

Tractor preventive maintenance on the tank trailers is performed every 60 days along with inspections. Mechanics check for brake and spring wear, tire wear and pressure, frame and axle cracks, and hub oil level. The mechanics perform DOT-required visual external and internal, leakage, pressure, and thickness (unlined tanks) inspections. Lined tanks are sent out for inspections and repairs. The shops also provide PMs and inspections for owner-operator equipment, but don't typically provide repair service.

With equipment in place and the operation receiving more customer requests for service, the carrier is well placed for the future. “At this point, I want to grow,” says Cate. “I think the market for hauling sulfur from refineries will continue. We are in the process of upgrading our fleet management technology, particularly so that our integration between the server in Santa Rosa and the terminals is more efficient. We may want to venture into other areas in the Phoenix area. Any expansion, though, must fit with our core competencies.”

That philosophy sounds like the one for ensuring that wheels continue to roll into the future.

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