Crucial component

Feb. 1, 2006
WITH operations spread across a large part of the state nicknamed The Last Frontier, it's not surprising that vehicle maintenance holds a special significance

WITH operations spread across a large part of the state nicknamed “The Last Frontier,” it's not surprising that vehicle maintenance holds a special significance for Weaver Brothers Inc. Many of the company's drivers even start out in the shop when first hired.

Good maintenance keeps the fleet running reliably no matter how low the temperature drops or how rough the operating conditions become. In the process, the maintenance program has helped the Anchorage, Alaska-based company grow into one of the largest tank truck carriers in the state.

“Our objective is to ensure that our fleet is in the best possible condition at all times, and that the vehicles run as efficiently as possible,” says Jimmy Doyle, Weaver Brothers vice-president. “To that end, we have built a comprehensive maintenance program that includes an “R” stamp for code tank trailer repairs. Engine overhauls are about the only major repairs that we contract out.

“Mechanics keep a close eye on the tractors and trailers, and rigs that run the longer routes are inspected after every trip. We have units running to Prudhoe Bay and back, and we provide service to customers as far away as Edmonton (Alberta), Canada.”

Steady growth

A willingness to haul loads wherever the customers need them brought Weaver Brothers steady growth for nearly 60 years. The company was started in Portland, Oregon, in 1946 by Ken and Russ Weaver. By 1953, they had moved the company to Alaska and were hauling asphalt.

The trucking company changed hands twice in the 1970s. The second time was in 1978, and the buyer was James H Doyle, Jimmy Doyle's father. James Doyle already had tank trucks, having started Doyle's Fuel Service Inc, a petroleum marketer, in 1962. The Weaver Brothers acquisition gave him the opportunity for a major expansion into the trucking business.

Today, the tank truck carrier runs a fleet that includes 100 tractors and about 350 trailers. The fleet operates out of three terminals in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Kenai, and each location has its own repair shop.

Activity is concentrated in the section of Alaska that extends from Valdez in the south to Prudhoe Bay in the north and in the Kenai Peninsula. The carrier also operates over the Alaska Highway to serve customers in Canada. Roundtrips within Alaska of 800 miles or more are not uncommon, and over-the-road trips average 225 miles one way.

Cargo diversity

The carrier provides a diverse range of services and transports a wide variety of cargoes. Liquid and dry bulk hauling predominates, but the company also provides container drayage, handles refrigerated shipments, and serves heavy-haul customers with lowboys and flatbeds.

“We serve a variety of niches,” Jimmy Doyle says. “The state is growing, and we're growing. New opportunities come with growth, and we're ready for that. Higher oil prices have given a boost to the state economy, and we've seen an increase in construction projects. We believe there is more of that to come.

“We have the largest petroleum and asphalt fleets in Alaska, and we haul 100 million gallons of petroleum a year. We handle a full range of refined fuels, and that will include ultra-low-sulfur diesel (ULSD) beginning in the second half of this year. The ULSD may come from refineries in Canada, or it may be shipped by tanker. Either way, we'll have a role in moving it within the state. We also move a lot of heating oil because natural gas still isn't available in many parts of the state.

“On the dry bulk side, we transport cement, fly ash, and drilling mud. We've seen growth in chemical hauling, and loads include sulfuric acid, caustic, hydrochloric acid, nitrogen, hydrogen, and oxygen.”

Dedicated drivers

Responsibility for moving the varied cargoes safely and efficiently rests in the hands of Weaver Brothers' 110 drivers. “Most of our drivers like the variety,” says A B Brown, Weaver Brothers Anchorage terminal manager. “They like the idea of being able to work with different cargoes. That's one of the factors that helps us retain good drivers.”

Retention is crucial today, because the top-quality drivers who Weaver Brothers wants increasingly are in short supply. Hazardous materials endorsement and background-check requirements complicate the process of attracting good drivers.

“We require hazmat and doubles endorsements for all of our drivers,” Brown says. “Newly hired drivers have to obtain a hazmat endorsement within 90 days of signing on with us. One problem is that the hazmat endorsements issued in the lower 48 states don't transfer to Alaska. They can only be used for 30 days after a truck driver moves to the state.

“So far, we're having good success with the hazmat background checks. Most of our drivers are getting them within two to three weeks. We encourage our drivers to renew their CDLs (commercial driver licenses) three months ahead of expiration just to avoid any background-check-related delays.

“The hazmat background checks haven't been an issue for our drivers because many of our government contracts already required security clearances. The biggest difficulty we face is that every government agency seems to have its own background check requirements, and the agencies don't recognize each other's clearances. It creates a lot of extra paperwork for us.”

Minimum requirements

In addition to a commercial driver license with hazmat and doubles endorsements, an applicant must be at least 21 years old and have a minimum of two years over-the-road truck driving experience. “This is just the minimum,” says Dave Johnson, Weaver Brothers safety director.

He adds that the tank truck carrier looks at a wide range of hiring factors that go beyond basic driving skills. “Our drivers need to be articulate and customer-focused,” Johnson says. “They need to be dependable and able to get along with other people. They represent this company, and they are part of our sales effort.”

All drivers are now going through a new comprehensive training program covering many subjects including safety, customer service and equipment operation.

“Teaching our company culture is a key component of the program,” Johnson says. “We're putting a lot more time and resources into training. We've had to, as part of an overall campaign to offset the limited driving experience we see with many applicants.”

The focus on company culture is strengthened during safety meetings held regularly — weekly for some groups. “These are almost like business meetings,” Johnson says. “They cover safety as well as a wide range of company issues. Key points from each meeting are posted on the bulletin board in the driver waiting room.”

Mentoring program

Weaver Brothers has started a driver-mentoring program to better communicate the corporate culture to new hires. The effort includes bringing in retired drivers to ride with some of the younger drivers. The veterans are able to pass along some of their experience and insight.

Training goes well beyond the basics contained in federal requirements. For instance, drivers hired to work in gas station hauling must complete at least 80 hours of training in those operations. This includes 40 hours of riding with an experienced Weaver Brothers driver and 40 hours of driving. The training is mandatory no matter how much experience a driver may already have when hired.

Specific training

Job-specific training also is required anytime a driver moves to a different cargo or transport activity. “We require at least three training trips for each new cargo category or fleet function,” Johnson says. “However, we do want drivers to stay with a type of haul for at least a couple of years. Our linehaul drivers probably handle the widest range of cargoes.”

For some of the newly hired drivers, training often includes a stint in one of the three Weaver Brothers maintenance shops. They learn how to do basic repairs, and they perform vehicle inspections.

“Our drivers may be hundreds of miles from help when their tractor-trailer rig breaks down,” says Mark Luiten, Weaver Brothers maintenance manager. “They need to be able to handle some of the easier repairs on their own. In addition, the maintenance orientation makes them better able to help us find and diagnose vehicle problems.”

Preventive care is the focus of the maintenance program at Weaver Brothers. “We keep a close watch on every vehicle in the fleet,” Luiten says. “Our goal is to make sure that vehicles don't break down out on the road. In Alaska, it can take a day or longer to reach a vehicle that is down due to a component failure.”

Tractors used on the longer runs are checked after every trip. In addition, most of the fleet is on a service schedule that calls for an inspection and chassis lube at 5,000-mile intervals and an engine oil change every 10,000 miles. Local trucks are lubed at 250-hour intervals and are scheduled for oil changes at 500 hours.

Trailers are on a 5,000-mile service schedule. “We need the frequent PM checks, because we can't afford downtime,” Luiten says. “In addition, our seasonal equipment is very busy during the months when it is running. We're also seeing quite a few DOT roadside inspections.”

Shop mechanics handle virtually all tractor repair work in-house with the exception of engine overhauls. The carrier has an “R” stamp, enabling company mechanics to do all cargo tank tests, inspections, and repairs.

A single-bay wash rack is used primarily to clean trailers prior to tank repair. “Most of our chemical trailers are in dedicated service, so we don't do a lot of cleaning to switch products,” Luiten says.

On the tractor side, the mechanics oversee a fleet that has standardized with Kenworth conventionals. Sleepers and daycabs are used by Weaver Brothers. Tractors are specified with Caterpillar and Cummins engines (horsepower ratings of 475 and 500), Fuller 18-speed transmissions, and Eaton 46,000-lb-capacity drive tandems.

“Our specs give us maximum versatility for tractors,” Luiten says. “We need plenty of horsepower because we run a lot of doubles trains. In Alaska, we can run rigs with a gross combination weight as high as 140,000 pounds. Trains can have an overall length of 95 feet, not including the tractor.”

Tractor cabs are outfitted for severe service, comfort, and low noise. To counter extreme cold during the winter, tractors are fitted with fuel tank heaters, block heaters, oil pan heaters, silicon hoses, and air dryers with alcohol injection.

Satellite tracking and communication hardware was installed in 25 tractors in 2005 as part of a Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration test. Satellite coverage was only recently expanded to Alaska to meet federal security requirements for Department of Defense and other high-risk shipments.

Other tractor components include Spinner II engine oil filtration, ProTech aluminum headache racks with Grote lighting, Holland fifthwheels, steel disk wheels, and Michelin and Bridgestone tires.

Tank trailers

Petroleum transports account for a sizable percentage of the trailer fleet. Heil tankers are standard for the fleet and are specified with a 10,500-gallon capacity. The four-axle tankers include a Watson-Chalin lift axle near the midpoint. Trailers also have LED lighting, fiberglass fenders, LiteFlex fiberglass-reinforced plastic springs, and ArvinMeritor axles.

Various builders, including Heil, supply the 8,000-gallon asphalt trailers and dry bulkers (550 to 1,300 cubic feet) used for cement, fly ash, and drilling mud. The newest stainless steel chemical trailers have an 8,500-gallon capacity and were built by Brenner Tank LLC.

“With our diverse fleet, our dedicated drivers and other employees, and the maintenance support, we believe we are well-positioned to grow with Alaska and the business niches we have chosen to serve,” Jimmy Doyle says. “We are very optimistic about the future.”