IN THE midst of one of the coldest winters in recent years, V&M Transport Inc has been running flat out to keep up with customer demand for propane. Vehicle uptime has been absolutely critical.
The process of keeping the fleet on the road starts with an in-house maintenance effort that includes a thorough pre-trip inspection. Tractors and trailers also get plenty of attention at the fleet maintenance shop in Hutchinson, Kansas.
“Our fleet has been running especially hard this winter to serve the propane market,” says Mark Munds, V&M Transport president. “We even had 18 trucks on the road on Christmas Day. We do everything we can to haul the loads, and we know our tractors and trailers must be in top shape.
“In-house maintenance was an important part of the V&M Transport operation from the start. The company started with a two-bay shop, and we currently handle fleet maintenance out of a 10-bay shop that includes two covered fueling bays. We have expanded our shop and maintenance staff steadily over the years because it gives us the ability to prioritize vehicle repairs to best accommodate customer needs.”
V&M Transport mechanics watch over a fleet that includes 74 tractors and 165 trailers. Operations are conducted throughout the Midwest and as far south as Texas. The average haul during the winter is 500 miles. In addition to propane, cargoes include butane, gasoline, ethanol, natural gas liquids, and asphalt.
Partnered with Groendyke Transport Inc, the company that became V&M Transport got its start under Gene Vannaman as an oil jobber that expanded into trucking. V&M Transport has been a Groendyke affiliated fleet operator since 1952.
The V&M Transport name came about in 1973 when John Munds, Mark’s father, bought into the Hutchinson terminal operation with Vannaman, who was his father-in-law. Mark joined the company in 1987, and his brother Greg came on board in 1995. Mark and Greg now own the company.
“This has been a great relationship,” Mark Munds says. “We can purchase equipment through Groendyke or make deals on our own if that makes more sense. We benefit from the Groendyke system and reputation.”
It is indeed a close relationship. All of the V&M Transport vehicles carry the Groendyke signage, and tractors are painted Groendyke red.
For tractors, V&M Transport runs 54 Internationals and 20 Kenworths, and the fleet includes sleeper and daycab units. Most of the newer tractors in the fleet are International ProStar conventionals with the pre-selective catalytic reduction (SCR) 13-liter MaxxForce engines rated at 450 horsepower.
“We got the last big order of pre-SCR ProStars,” Mark Munds says. “Lower tractor weight was an attraction, as was the reliability if the MaxxForce technology. We’re also getting 12% to 13% better fuel economy with the tractors that have the MaxxForce engine. The ProStar tractors have very aerodynamic styling and were offered at a very attractive price.”
Most of the Kenworths are T800s, but the fleet is testing a T880 daycab. The Kenworths are spec’d with Cummins ISX15 engines rated at 450 horsepower.
For transmissions, the fleet has gone with automated and has been specing Eaton AutoShift and UltraShift Plus transmissions. “We believe automated transmissions offer two big benefits,” Mark Munds says. “They level out fuel economy, and they help ensure that drivers can keep both hands on the steering wheel at all times.”
The fleet uses PeopleNet on-board communication units with electronic driver logging for hours of service. Tractors also are specified with the full Bendix Wingman package that includes anti-lock braking, roll stability, active cruise with braking, side and front collision avoidance, and lane departure warning.
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“We’re putting more than $10,000 worth of safety equipment on each tractor,” Munds says. “The reason is two-fold. We do everything we can to protect the driver and to protect the motoring public. The investment is paying off.
Bendix air disc brakes in all positions are helping to ensure shorter stopping distances. Tractors also have Fontaine fifthweels, Alcoa aluminum disc wheels, and Michelin X One widebase single tires.
Equipment includes deer/cattle guards from Pro Guard Marketing. “A single deer strike to a tractor without Pro Guard took out the front of the tractor and cost us $17,000,” Munds says. “The tubular stainless steel guard pays real dividends, because we have 16 to 18 deer hits a year.”
Tractor-mounted hydraulic power systems—in-house built units or Drum Hydrapaks from Gardner Denver—run trailer mounted product pumps. “We’ve been building our own pump system hydraulics for about 20 years,” Munds says. “Initially, we did it because it was cheaper to build our own system. We used off-the-shelf components that we bought at auto parts stores. There is less of a price differential today.”
Propane trailers (MC331s) dominate the carrier’s trailer fleet, and the most recent purchases came from Mississippi Tank Co and have a 10,500-gallon capacity. Most of the DOT406 gasoline trailers are from Heil Trailer International, and the typical unit holds 9,200 gallons. Aluminum DOT407 trailers from Heil and Polar Tank Trailer are used to haul natural gas liquids and ethanol. Finally, the fleet runs 50 or so asphalt trailers.
Blackmer product pumps predominate on the trailer fleet, but Roper pumps are used on the asphalt trailers. On the propane trailers, V&M Transport specifies passive shutdown systems from Base Engineering Inc, as well as Fisher valves.
As the V&M Transport operation grew, so did the maintenance program that keeps the fleet in top running order. The fleet outgrew the two-bay shop decades ago, and the first building was demolished and replaced with a much larger facility.
Today, the company operates a 20,000-sq-ft maintenance facility with eight drive-through bays. When opened in 1977, the current shop building boasted two maintenance bays, a bay for exterior vehicle washes, offices, and a driver room. Two more maintenance bays were added in 1998. The latest expansion came in 2012, when the fleet added three more maintenance bays, a tire shop, a parts room, and a two-bay covered fueling station.
Mechanics focus on routine service and preventive maintenance. “Our mechanics primarily handle oil changes and change and replace components as needed,” Munds says. “We follow a five-year trade cycle for our tractors, and most of the vehicles stay under warranty throughout the time we operate them. We do our own tank inspections in-house, but pressure tests are sent out as are any vessel repairs.”
The in-house maintenance program is built around catching and addressing potential maintenance problems before a breakdown can occur or the vehicle is placed out of service during a roadside inspection.
It all starts with the pre-trip inspections performed by drivers. Early last year, V&M Transport took the pre-trip process to a higher level by installing the Zonar electronic vehicle inspection report system.
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Munds says the system was relatively inexpensive, costing about $500 per tractor and trailer. Implementation took about a month. Another two months of training were needed before the fleet was completely off paper inspection reports.
The benefits definitely outweigh the costs. Munds says the system has brought greater precision to the inspection process, while making its much easier to analyze the inspection reports.
“We’re so pleased with the results of the Zonar EVIR,” he says. “We didn’t have a real maintenance problem before. We just wanted to be better, and this system helped us do just that.”
Drivers can do a thorough pre-trip inspection in eight to 15 minutes without missing anything. Managers and mechanics can quickly review the inspection reports and highlight any needed repairs.
Before V&M Transport began using the Zonar system, the carrier’s fleet managers were buried in paperwork. At the beginning of each week, up to 200 handwritten vehicle inspection reports from drivers had to be reviewed. Fleet managers had to comb through each report to determine if and when trucks and trailers required maintenance or repair service based on driver feedback.
“It was an all-day job made even more difficult by drivers who turned in incomplete reports or bad handwriting that made the reports difficult to read,” Munds says.
He adds that the system fits well into the company’s culture of safety. “The great thing about the Zonar EVIR system is that if drivers find something wrong, say the rear left drive wheel is defective, EVIR will prompt the driver to also check several other nearby components after entering information about that defective wheel,” he says.
Munds says the paper inspection report used previously was a non-descript form with only 40 boxes. “With the Zonar EVIR and its 11-zone system that details nearly 1,000 conditions, the driver inspection reports are much more complete and provide our mechanics much needed details to keep our fleet of trucks and trailers in tip-top shape,” he says.
In the Zonar system, 11 radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags are placed on V&M Transport’s tractors and trailers in critical inspection zones. There are seven zones on each tractor (including two under the hood and three inside the cab) and four on the trailers.
The yellow weather-tough plastic tags contain information about their location on the vehicle, the components to be inspected, and the identity of the tractor or trailer. During a pre-trip inspection, the driver places the handheld Zonar reader next to the tag.
“With Zonar’s assistance, we programmed the EVIR to group related components together so if the driver finds nothing wrong, the EVIR automatically checks off the components making the inspection process more efficient,” Munds says.
Drivers don’t have to conduct inspections in any set order, according to Munds. In addition, they don’t have to tick off each and every component unless they find a problem. The EVIR system then helps drivers narrow down the list of possible components involved by prompting them to choose options that best describe the conditions of those components within the zone with push-button responses. When a defect or problem is discovered, the driver selects a description from a pre-defined list and indicates whether the tractor or trailer are safe to operate.
When the inspection is complete, the driver places the handheld unit back into the vehicle mount in the tractor cab. The report is downloaded to the PeopleNet system and is available online in real time.
In addition to mechanics, dispatchers can immediately see the pre-trip reports. “Our dispatchers like the Zonar system because they can view the condition of the equipment and see if and when it will be available to pick up a load,” Munds says. “They are also sent an email noting vehicles put out of service due to critical defects.” ♦