Correct vehicle specs critical for reliable oilfield service

Jan. 1, 2012
BE PREPARED! In addition to being the Boy Scout motto, it is also good advice for tank truck fleets launching operations in oil and gas shale regions.


In addition to being the Boy Scout motto, it is also good advice for tank truck fleets launching operations in oil and gas shale regions. Running the right equipment in the oilfield is absolutely critical.

As shale oil and gas drilling activity surged in recent years, many truck operators grabbed whatever equipment they could find. Often the trucks, tractors, and trailers weren't designed for oilfield conditions. Some dry bulkers and tank trailer were decades old and had been parked for years. In many cases, these factors added up to expensive failures for the unprepared operators.

One of the biggest challenges faced today by oilfield service companies is getting equipment. Trucks are still reasonably available, but the lead times for the sort of tank trailers and dry bulkers used in the oilfield are out as far as 14 months. About 30% of tank trailer production reportedly is going to the energy sector right now.

Bulk Transporter spoke equipment manufacturers and experienced oilfield fleets to gather preferences and recommendations for the best oilfield vehicle specifications. Here are their thoughts:

Tough trucks

On the truck and tractor side, oilfield operators want vehicles with good power and a lot of torque. Alan Fennimore, Kenworth vocational marketing manager, says the typical spec for equipment used in oilfield tank truck applications includes a 15-liter engine rated at 475 horsepower and 1,850 torque. “You need the torque to handle the terrain and road conditions,” he says.

Many oilfield trucks are designed for a 90,000-lb gross weight. Most are specified with deeper frame rails (10.75 inches high), and some fleets want double frames for an extra measure of safety. Steer axles have a 14,600-lb capacity, and drive tandems are rated at 46,000 pounds. Air suspensions are standard for most of the oilfield fleet buyers.

Drivers often have to remain at the well sites for extended periods, and fleets try to make the truck cabs as comfortable as possible. Daycabs are most common, but some fleets spec 36- to 50-inch sleepers.

“We spec the top-of-the-line interior in our company trucks,” says Donnie Childers, Kent Services & Trucking general manager. “We put a lot of chrome and lights on the truck, virtually anything we can get. Essentially, we buy an owner-operator type of tractor.”

A majority of the oilfield fleets are equipping their trucks with satellite tracking and communications. “They want to know exactly where their trucks are at all times,” Fennimore says.

Multi-speed radiator fans are preferred due to the dust and dirt of the oilfield operating environment. Fleets also want 15-ich air cleaners and larger compressors and air dryers. Many fleets install aftermarket automatic chassis lube systems.

Most oilfield trucks are spec'd with West Coast mirrors. Sliding fifthwheels are preferred, because oilfield fleets often transport a variety of trailers. Heavy-duty bumpers and center-mounted tow hooks are a must. Headache racks are typical, and some fleets also add bull guards.

Fleets want open-lug drive tires for traction, and most fleets run only new tires. All oilfield trucks carry tire chains, but they aren't usually for snow and ice. Tire chains are a must when wet dirt roads become a quagmire.

Vacuum tanks

On the tank trailer side, vacuum equipment plays a big role for hauling water, drilling mud, and other liquid cargoes. Carbon steel vacuum trailers with a 130-barrel (5,460-gallon) capacity are the industry standard, but oilfield operators also use aluminum vacuum tanks with capacities up to 150 barrels.

Truck-mounted vacuum tanks have capacities in the 110-barrel range. “Many of the vacuum truck buyers came out of dump trucks or similar equipment and feel more comfortable with a straight truck over a tractor-trailer,” says Jim Maiorana, president of MAC LTT, a division of MAC Trailer.

Fleets run both code and non-code vacuum tanks, depending on the product being transported. Most are built with four- to six-inch rear unloading outlets and side-mounted catwalks with fall protection.

Crude oil and condensate liquids are transported from the gathering sites near the wells in aluminum crude oil trailers built to DOT407 code. These trailers range in capacity from 8,400 to 12,000 gallons, according to Ted Fick, Polar Corp chief executive officer.

Designed specifically for the oilfield, most of these trailers have four-inch loading and unloading valves and level gauges. Gear pumps or centrifugal product pumps usually are mounted on the tractors, and some fleets are using PTO-driven hydraulics to power the pumps.

In addition to heavy-duty bumpers, some fleets spec the trailers with rear-mounted tow rings. New crude oil trailers are being specified with Hendrickson Intraax air-suspension systems.

Dry bulkers

On the dry bulk side, the typical unit has a capacity in the 1,000-cu-ft range. These trailers are used to transport frac sand, cement, and the powdered clay used in drilling mud.

“There are bigger dry bulk trailers in the oilfield, but that's usually not necessary,” Fick says. “The 1,000-cu-ft units are more than adequate. Some operators are using bigger trailers, because that is all they can find.”

Maiorana says some customers are asking for heavier trailer frames, which also gives them a higher ground clearance with some of the dry bulker designs. Oilfield bulkers are specified with steel product piping because the fracking materials are abrasive, and many of the hardware suppliers now offer valves and tees that are more abrasion resistant.  ♦

About the Author

Charles Wilson

Charles E. Wilson has spent 20 years covering the tank truck, tank container, and storage terminal industries throughout North, South, and Central America. He has been editor of Bulk Transporter since 1989. Prior to that, Wilson was managing editor of Bulk Transporter and Refrigerated Transporter and associate editor of Trailer/Body Builders. Before joining the three publications in Houston TX, he wrote for various food industry trade publications in other parts of the country. Wilson has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and served three years in the U.S. Army.