One of the most interesting things about vehicle telematics systems is that fleets often purchase them for one very specific function without realizing that telematics has the potential to revolutionize their entire fleet operation.

Such is the case with Tri City Glass and Door, an Appleton, WI-based company that has the Networkfleet telematics system installed in 28 of its trucks. The company, which installs auto, residential and commercial glass from three locations, started to use telematics in order to take control of idling time, only to find that the opportunities to make the fleet operate more efficiently were seemingly limitless.

In fact, fleet manager Larry Bender is still in the middle of the learning process: he keeps discovering so many new applications for the vehicle data he receives from Networkfleet that he can't keep up.

We recently spoke with Bender about his experience with telematics, and here's what he had to say:

Fleet Maintenance: How did you get interested in using telematics?

Larry Bender: It started a couple years ago. We have a lot of service and install vehicles on the road, and it was in the winter and we were out doing a service for a rep for a different telematics company, and he called me up and said, 'You know, while you were fixing our door here, your truck ran continuously for an hour and a half.' Granted, it was in the wintertime, and the installers need to stay warm, but we don't see the employees' cars parked in the parking lot running all day long. If it was one isolated vehicle that wouldn't be so bad, but typically that's not the case.

So we tried a test run with one unit, and the results were good. But it was a system that downloaded when the vehicle came into the yard, so it wasn't 'real-time.' We tried it for a while, to test the waters, and after doing a little research we decided to go with Networkfleet because of the options and the real-time capability.

We track our installers, and their times are all separated on the service orders per location, and that's one of the features that helps us justify or explain the time going to and from a particular job. Occasionally we have a person who calls up and says, 'Well, your guy was only here for a half-hour.' But there's driving time involved that's also incorporated into our service orders, so if a question arises we can pull up a report. And our techs are more accountable and more aware of accurately recording their times per job.

So as we've gotten more and more involved, and as we've gotten more familiar-and we're still learning-we've set our maximum speed at 75 miles an hour. That gives us a little leeway over 65 mph, for passing, but Networkfleet will send us an e-mail to let us know as it's actually happening. All the guys have cell phones, so we give them a call immediately and let them know they need to slow down.

FM: How many vehicles have the telematics units installed?

LB: We have 28 vehicles out of 36 currently with the Networkfleet units on them, and they're a mix of the full-size vans we use for auto glass replacement, chassis cab trucks that we use with larger glass racks on, for our commercial install crews, and some pick-up trucks for our salespeople and project managers. And then there are our service vehicles, which are cube vans and Sprinters.

We put a handful on at one location, then we added another location, and we're continually adding them as we see more and more benefits.

FM: Are you planning any new vehicle purchases in the immediate future?

LB: There's more consideration, but we still have a scheduled replacement guideline for the vehicles, and obviously if one goes down we accelerate that schedule. We are trying to keep things current, and we don't want to have them all aging at the same time.

Like everyone, we're watching where all of the dollars are going, but there are good deals out there right now. We had one vehicle that was scheduled for replacement next year, and there's currently a Dodge Sprinter on a lot that we're looking at replacing that with. We can get a considerably better deal than the previous one that we just bought last year. We're always looking for opportunities.

We've been using the Sprinters as our service vehicles because our techs have a lot of parts on each one, so they're a little bit larger so we can incorporate the racks, plus they can actually stand up inside, whereas a regular van was pretty hard to work out of.

FM: Are specific drivers dedicated to specific vehicles?

LB: They are primarily in the same vehicle. Occasionally they switch around, depending on what they're hauling or what they're doing, but they primarily are assigned.

So there's a sense of ownership, and also, if we switched vehicles between drivers, if there's something that happened to one particular vehicle, you would never know who to ask, because there are different drivers. This way it's easier to keep track.

We have one truck that requires a CDL, and we have a few people who have their CDLs, but there is one primary driver.

FM: Do you outsource your maintenance?

LB: Yes, we do. We have three locations, and we deal with a few different vendors, depending on the vehicle type. Some work better with the gas engines, some with diesel, so we coordinate our maintenance through the local providers. They do a good job for us.

FM: Are there some instances where you need to let your trucks idle while on a job?

LB: Mainly with the auto glass replacements. Typically if we're changing a windshield, that job takes about an hour, hour-and-a-half. But the sealants, to work properly, need to be kept above freezing. And the glass, when it's set against the adhesive, needs to be warm to get the proper bond. So with that in mind, we set our normal service and install trucks at a 15-minute idle time; that's the maximum that we allow before we get an alert. But our auto glass vehicles, in the wintertime, we have bumped out to an hour.

We don't like to see any of the vehicles idling any longer than that. It's just not needed.

The unit doesn't shut off the truck; it sends us an alert via e-mail, and then we'll talk to the driver. There's a handful of people who, it's just the way they've always done things to leave the truck running. It's not their gas money, so I guess they're just weren't in tune with what that actually costs.

FM: Have you quantified how much idle time you've eliminated?

LB: We haven't actually done any tests to get the actual results, but I know from when we first installed the units until now, our alert rate has gone down drastically. In the first few days and weeks, it was almost an hourly thing that we were getting alerts for speeding and maximum idle time. That has been drastically reduced, so I do know that our drivers have a better awareness that we're watching.

FM: How do the drivers feel about that?

LB: At first there was a little uneasiness with it. They were thinking it was more of a watchdog-type thing, but as we got more and more involved with it, we've had a number of things come up that have saved us substantial amounts of money. Number one is fuel economy; we can see those fuel rates were bumped up slightly. And we had one unit send a diagnostic alert to us concerning a problem with a turbocharger, and it was right at the vehicle's warranty expiration period. We weren't experiencing any performance problems, but it said there was a potential problem. When we brought it into the dealer, they checked it out and said, 'Boy, it's a good thing you caught this, because if you had run it for another month or so, if the turbocharger had flown apart or broken down, components could have gone into the engine, and it would have cost $4,000 just for a new engine.' But we caught it under warranty.

Those are the kinds of things that, as they come up, we bring up to our installers and techs, and say, 'There are other reasons for this than just watching where you're going.'

FM: How has the telematics system helped you with asset management? Has it made your fleet utilization more efficient?

LB: Most definitely. We had a number of situations where, with our multiple locations, we have our service guys out on jobs, and say one of them is at the mall and he needs a hand setting a big piece of glass or removing a door, he'll call back and ask if we can send someone to give him a hand for an hour or so. Well, we look at the GPS, and our other store has a vehicle and installer on the other end of the mall. We just call him up and send him, and five minutes later he's there to help. It's a huge time-saver.

Sometimes a person will call up, and they have a door that was caught by the wind, and they need service. We look at it, and whoever's the closest service tech, we route him over there. Before, we would never know exactly where everyone was at. So, it works out real well.

FM: Have you had the opportunity to use the data and alerts from Networkfleet to manage your maintenance work with your outside vendors?

LB: We haven't done that yet. We manually record our mileage at the moment. We started out pursuing the Networkfleet system for one reason, basically, and we keep on progressing and adding things as we become more aware of the capabilities and as we see how well it works.

That's something we haven't utilized currently, but we are working on it. Eventually, we can set it with our mileages, so it can alert when the oil changes come up.

One thing we're looking at a little more closely with our auto glass vehicles is, because those need to run a little bit more to keep the sealants and glass warm in the wintertime, if we go primarily off of miles, it's not a true, actual read on the engine run time. So on those vehicles we've reduced the miles between oil changes from 3,000 to 1,500 in the wintertime.

FM: What are your maintenance intervals?

LB: We have been doing that manually. We have different cycles; with our diesels we run synthetic oil at a 5,000 mile interval. Our gas engines in the typical service truck, those are set at 3,000, and again, the auto glass trucks are set at 1,500 for the wintertime.

We haven't utilized Networkfleet as far as our preventive maintenance program, not to its potential. But we'll be inching that way as we go.

FM: Do you personally manage the details of your maintenance program, or leave that to the outside providers?

LB: At each location we have one person in charge of DOT regulations. We need to do inspections, and at that time they record the mileage. We need to fill out a paper form to satisfy the DOT requirements, checking lights and horns and seat belts and all of those things, so when they do that, then we check the mileage.

We have a sheet that our drivers have to fill out daily. It's essentially about a 15 question checklist: check the horn, check the tire wear, that kind of thing, just to make sure everything's working properly. Some of those items aren't things that Networkfleet would pick up, so that's why we're having to do that part of it manually. If we could get away from doing that manually, we most definitely would.

With our manual system of checking the miles, we're more vigilant about getting those oil changes done when they need to be. And that's something that's real important, and it's something that we're setting up to do with Networkfleet, because when we left it up to the driver to let us know when they needed an oil change, they were going well over. That's when we put in the manual system, but we will be doing it with Networkfleet shortly.

FM: Is the telematics system difficult to operate?

LB: We have dealt with Sam Colucci at Baycom in Green Bay, for our system, and as far as the support and their reaction time, it's second to none, really. They've done a really good job any time we have a question that we need an answer to, or we potentially have a diagnostic problem.

Again, we're still learning this, but we can call or e-mail, depending on the urgency, and we get answers right away.

Networkfleet is continually upgrading and improving, so it's not an 'out-of-the-box' deal that you order online and get in the mail and put in yourself and that's it... They recently changed their mapping, and how they set up their geofencing, that sort of thing. It's a very progressive company.

FM: Who installs the units, and where is it done?

LB: We've worked with Baycom on that, coordinating purchase and installation with them. When we were first looking at this, Sam brought in a demo and we were able to log in and check his fleet and see how it worked.

FM: Is there any other new technology that you're using in your fleet?

LB: Currently we're just working on trying to get the full potential out of everything we have. We talk to different contractors, and we're always fishing around for the best way to account for each person's time and vehicle usage and mileage, and all that.

So, we have talked to one contractor in particular that was looking into the paperless time cards and trying to tie that into the GPS. For us, with multiple locations and drive times, it would be real difficult to do something like that, but we're always looking to see where we can improve.