Medium Duty: Weighing Life-Cycle Replacement Costs

How do you know the best time to replace your vehicles?

“So you need to look at the relative cost of the vehicle versus any outfitting that’s done to it when you make a decision.”


Not surprisingly, sometimes the biggest obstacle in getting needed replacement vehicles in government fleets is—the government. One fleet manager for a large county with 17 years on the job (who asked not to be identified) says many fleet officials who work for municipalities are at a disadvantage because the ones holding the purse strings have little or no understanding of the most cost-effective way to buy and replace vehicles.

To make matters worse, sometimes real-life maintenance and cost concerns take a back seat to political considerations.

“Before we can ask for something to be replaced, it has to reach a target age and target mileage,” he says. “Then to make it extremely complex, you can’t replace it until you spent as much money on it repairing it as you paid for it, which totally puts the operating budgets out of our control, because we can’t move equipment in and out of the fleet in a timely manner at an optimum time.

“The end result gets lost because it’s downstream, and the money they think they’re saving, to them looks like money in the hand. It’s hard to tell a guy he didn’t save any money when he didn’t buy a $14,000 vehicle, (but) they don’t know that I’m going to save them $10,000 by convincing him to spend $14,000 today, and then let me keep that to its optimum point and trade out another one. I tell them if you do that enough times, they can save $21,000 instead of $14,000, and they just glaze over.”


Of course, when times get tight—like these days—he says he can count on local politicians to meddle and make things worse.

“We’ll work diligently for months, putting together a budget that met the requirements they had but had some equipment replacement in it, but they get lost because of issues that have no relationship to the vehicle or the total impact on the fleet,” he says. “If our cash reserves are running short during budget times, it is so easy for someone to reach out and (remove) a $300,000 line item, because they think they’re doing it for the greater good. If I work up a little spreadsheet and show some history and historical reference, they think, ‘This is really nice, but he’s just trying to prove his point; how do we know this is good?’ What gets lost is we have to deliver services to the taxpayers.”


Gale Fry, vehicle maintenance supervisor with the City of Muscatine, IA, is all-too familiar with the many challenges of figuring the best time to replace municipal vehicles.

She has 36 medium duty vehicles among the dozens in her care, and thanks to years of practice, has become quite efficient at squeezing out every possible mile from them. The city has a standard formula for determining the optimum time to replace a vehicle, she says, but when budgets are slim, that all goes out the window.

“We just adapt,” Fry says. “We don’t have a choice in what we’re paying.”

For Fry, adapting means maintaining the heck out of her vehicles to make sure they can run as long as possible until replacement funds are available. Sometimes that can be a long time coming, so she has had to stay ahead of the maintenance curve.

“Most of the time when we buy a vehicle, we buy it new and we have it for the life of the vehicle or longer—a pick-up truck might be five or 10 years (but) we might have it for 15-20 years before we get rid of it,” Fry says. “If you don’t have money to buy new, you just get by until you can.”

The oldest vehicle in the fleet is 27 years old and still going strong, thanks to years of careful maintenance. Fry says investing in the replacement of large parts, like dump truck boxes, is a good way to use limited funds to extend the life of a decently working vehicle without spending too much. She says the key is to maintain them as long as possible without compromising safety.

“We try,” Fry says. “They use ‘em, so we have to keep them running and keep them safe.”


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