AT A TIME when many trucking companies have outsourced virtually all maintenance activities, Petron Inc is going in the opposite direction. The Alexandria, Louisiana-based petroleum hauler has steadily increased its in-house maintenance capabilities.
Just in the past year, the carrier expanded the maintenance team at the main shop in Alexandria to accommodate more extensive tractor overhaul and rebuild projects. Federally mandated cargo tank tests and inspections are performed at company shops in Alexandria and Eunice, Louisiana. Code tank repairs and modifications are just about the only maintenance activities that are contracted out.
“We bring 90% of our fleet repair work into our own shops,” says Rick Cleveland, Petron vice-president of transportation. “There is more accountability when we do the work ourselves. In-house maintenance also serves as a cost-control factor. We believe we can do the work for less than a commercial shop.
“In addition to our own equipment, we service a majority of the owner-operator tractors that are under contract to Petron. Owner-operators get maintenance service at a discount, and we have a chance to keep an eye on the condition of their equipment. It's good for us, and it helps them do a better job of managing their costs.”
Self-reliance is a hallmark of the Petron operation and has been a contributing factor in the development of a wide range of services for the petroleum retailing industry. Founded in 1934, Petron had its own petroleum marketing operations for many years. Today, the company just serves other marketers with transportation, equipment sales, emergency response, environmental site assessment, underground storage tank installation and removal, and commercial property development.
The transportation program has been a dynamic part of the operation, providing steady revenue growth. Petron's fleet now consists of 167 tractors and 235 tank trailers. Owner-operators provide about 35% of the tractors. Much of the recent fleet growth has come through acquisitions of other petroleum-hauling operations.
Refined petroleum — especially gasoline — accounts for half of the cargo hauled by the fleet. Propane and asphalt make up the other half of the cargo mix. At least 90% of the gasoline goes to jobbers. Propane hauls are plant-to-plant and to distributors.
Customers are spread across an operating area that extends from Alabama to New Mexico, with the largest concentration along the Gulf Coast. While customers are located across a broad area, they have all developed a high expectation for the service provided by the Petron fleet.
To meet customer needs, the carrier has equipment in Alexandria, Arcadia, Baton Rouge, Eunice, and New Orleans, Louisiana; Collins, Greenville, and Vicksburg, Mississippi; Brenham, Corpus Christi, Midland, and Winnie, Texas; and Foster, Oklahoma.
Fleet operations are controlled through central dispatch at the main office in Alexandria. “We shifted to a central dispatch arrangement in January 2002 in an effort to improve fleet efficiency and customer service,” Cleveland says. “Dispatchers communicate more with each other, which means better coordination.”
The geographic area served by Petron is divided into regions, and each dispatcher is responsible for a region or specific type of business. A key objective is to stay in touch with the drivers, who have set call-in times. All of the drivers have pagers. “Generally, we can make contact with a driver in about 30 minutes,” Cleveland says.
When assigning loads, dispatchers verify driver status using Abecus and Rapid Log software. The Abecus software also is used for tracking and scheduling vehicle maintenance, tests, and inspections. Repair order histories and parts inventories are tracked with the Abecus software, and tractor cost analysis is performed. License and permit due dates are monitored by computer.
“We watch vehicle maintenance very closely,” Cleveland says. “We want to make sure that we put the safest, best-maintained tractors and trailers on the road at all times. Tests and inspections are key elements of our preventive maintenance process, and due dates are highlighted 15 days in advance.”
One reason for the aggressive maintenance program is that the Petron fleet consists solely of preowned equipment, and the carrier wants to maximize vehicle life. “We'll run a tractor as long as the operating costs are within reason,” Cleveland says. “A petroleum trailer will last 30 years, and propane tanks just don't wear out.”
Cleveland has a simple explanation for the strategy. “For several years now, we've been able to buy low-mileage tractors for half the cost of new ones. For most of last year, two-year-old daycabs were priced at around $35,000. We started to see some price increases toward the end of 2002. On the trailer side, we've acquired quite a bit of equipment through acquisitions of petroleum marketer fleet operations.”
When selecting tractors, the carrier focuses on those with 430-horsepower Detroit Diesel engines, nine-speed Fuller or Meritor transmissions, and 44,000-lb capacity drive tandems. Both sleeper and daycab tractors are used in the fleet.
“For awhile, we were buying Freightliner FLD-120s, which were plentiful,” Cleveland says. “Some of our most recent purchases were Peterbilt 379 conventionals, and we plan to add more in the future. The drivers love them.
“We're very pleased with the Detroit Diesel engines. They are as close to trouble-free as any engine we've ever seen. We do a lot of preventive maintenance to keep them in top running order, and we have increased our engine overhaul capabilities at the Alexandria shop.”
Newly purchased tractors receive a thorough in-service inspection at the Alexandria shop before being put out on the road. They are painted in Petron's red and white fleet colors and decaled. Product pumps from Ranger or Roper are installed on tractors that will be assigned to petroleum or asphalt duties.
Petroleum trailers predominate and range in capacity from 8,500 to 10,000 gallons. The average is 9,200 gallons. The fleet includes MC306 and DOT406 units in four- and five-compartment configurations. Tank hardware includes EBW and Emco Wheaton bottom-loading adapters, Scully overfill protection, Betts and Emco Wheaton domelids, Emco Wheaton elbows, and Goodyear product hose with PT Coupling fittings.
Part of the in-service process for newly acquired petroleum trailers is strengthening the spring suspension with an air-assist system. “We've been able to cut maintenance costs related to structural damage by two-thirds with this system,” Cleveland says. “The air bags take a lot of stress and strain out of the tank.”
Propane trailers in the Petron fleet range from 10,500 to 11,500 gallons in capacity. Typically, the tanks have Fisher pressure relief vents rated at 250 to 265 psi, Fisher discharge outlets, and Blackmer product pumps. All of the propane trailers are being equipped with the Smart-Hose passive shutdown system.
The in-service inspection for newly purchased equipment is just the beginning of a maintenance program that focuses aggressively on preventive service. It's a program in which mechanics see tractors and trailers at 8,000-mile intervals. This gets trailers into the shop at least every two months.
For tractors, the schedule requires an inspection and chassis lube points to be greased every 8,000 miles. Engine oil and filter are replaced at 16,000 miles. The new CI-4 oils are being used in most of the fleet, but Petron also is testing some synthetics.
“We're getting 30,000 miles between oil changes with the synthetic,” Cleveland says. “We change the filter at 15,000 miles and send an oil sample out for analysis. We could extend the drain interval farther with a bypass filter, but we decided against that approach for the time being.
“While the CI-4 oils were made for post-2002 diesel engines, we're using them in our tractors because they give us good heat and soot control characteristics. In addition, the CI-4 oils cost less than synthetics.”
Brakes are adjusted during every service for both tractors and trailers, and tires get a close look. “We've gotten very aggressive with our tire program,” Cleveland says. “As a result, we've dropped our tire costs to about three cents a mile. Six years ago, it was six cents a mile.”
Since developing a formal tire program, Petron has begun averaging 170,000 miles for tires in the drive positions. Some drive tires are running 200,000 miles. Most tires make it through two retreads, and are used on the trailers. Petron contracts with Goodyear for road service and retreading.
Tests and inspections
Tires and running gear are just a part of the trailer maintenance program. Over the past few years, Petron has significantly upgraded its tank trailer service capabilities. All federally mandated tests and inspections are performed at the Eunice and Alexandria shops.
In addition, non-code trailer repairs are done in-house. “We use a variety of commercial shops for code repairs,” says Jerry Rice, Petron special projects manager. “These include All American Tank Repair in Lafayette and Utility Trailer Equipment Co in Lake Charles (Louisiana), C-Cam in Pasadena (Texas), and Brenner Tank Houston and Polar Service Center in Houston (Texas).”
The Eunice shop handles all of the propane trailer inspections and tests, as well as a significant percentage of those requirements for petroleum trailers. The Alexandria shop takes in the remainder of the petroleum trailer tests and inspections.
“We keep our trailer shops very busy,” says Sean Richardson, Petron maintenance director. “We test as many as five to six propane trailers each month, as well as tests and inspections on roughly the same number of petroleum trailers.”
Mechanics spend at least two days on the five-year test for each propane trailer. They follow procedures that meet Texas Railroad Commission requirements and exceed the standards set by the Department of Transportation's Research and Special Programs Administration.
Propane trailer five-year tests all start the same way. Mechanics must degas each tank, which can contain up to 200 psi of LP gas. The average is 150 psi. Degassing is done at the flare at the backside of the Eunice shop and terminal facility.
At the start of the flaring process, mechanics check the internal and external valves to make sure they are operating properly. Initial flaring takes about an hour and a half, after which the tank is filled with water to push out any remaining propane to the flare. Water will be pumped into the tank until the flare is extinguished. It takes about 2¼ hours to completely fill a propane trailer.
During the next phase, more water will be pumped into the tank until the pressure gauge records 400 psi. At this point, the pump is shut off, and a mechanic activates a chart recorder and begins monitoring a pressure gauge. The tank must be able to hold pressure for half an hour.
“Leaks would be most likely found around the gasket on the manway cover,” Richardson says. “Generally we'll see that around 300 to 350 psi in the form of a trickle of water seeping out of the gasket. Improper gasket installation is the primary reason for leaks. Our policy is to change manhole gaskets during the five-year test regardless of condition.
“We include the trailer-mounted product pumps in the hydrostatic test. We want to make sure pump seals are holding.”
Water is emptied from the MC331 tank at the end of the hydrostatic test, and fresh air is pulled into the vessel through the flare. A blower is connected, and the trailer is left to dry for at least 12 hours.
Next stop for the MC330/331 trailer is the shop, where mechanics remove the flanged manlid. A probe connected to a Bachrach Bodyguard 4 meter is inserted into the tank, and lower explosion level (LEL) and oxygen content are checked for a half hour. LEL is set to trigger a warning for any reading above zero. Oxygen level is set for 19.5 to 21.5.
If the atmospheric tests are acceptable, mechanics begin the next phases. First comes a wet magnetic particle fluorescent test in which an outside contractor checks for stress cracks. Then, all scale is swept out and the interior is cleaned. Welded seams are X-rayed.
Once everything is in order, mechanics install a new gasket and bolt the manway cover back into place. The upper coupler plate is dropped, and mechanics perform an ultrasonic thickness test on the entire pressure vessel.
During the five-year tests, mechanics go over each trailer from one end to the other. Electrical, air, and running gear systems are inspected, and repairs and updates are made as needed. Most propane trailers are repainted in one of the last steps in the process. When they leave the Eunice shop, most of the propane trailers are in like-new condition.
The test and inspection process for MC306 and DOT406 trailers is not quite as time-consuming but is more frequent. Like the propane pressure vessels, petroleum trailers are degassed and then hydrostatically tested.
Special covers with pressure gauges are fitted over manholes for each compartment. Mechanics monitor the gauges for pressure drops, as well as checking valves for leaks during the tests. Manhole covers are checked for leaks. Overfill protection is inspected to ensure that it is fully operational.
Nothing is left to chance during the tests and inspections. Mechanics go through numerous steps to make sure that tank trailers are in the best operating conditions before they are put back out on the road.
The attention to detail shown in the preventive maintenance process is reflected throughout the Petron fleet operation. It is part of an overall strategy that has brought the petroleum hauler and its parent company success for more than 50 years.