Cover Story: Another Day in Paradise

Severe weather fleet: surviving 125 degree temperatures.

“It’s not uncommon for us to jump in, take two vehicles—we have a chase vehicle—350 miles to LA, drop the vehicle off for PM, drive back, then go back to LA to pick the vehicle up after two or three days, a week, a month, however long it takes to get the repair work done,” he explains. “We do a lot of service in Las Vegas: the International dealer has done work for us for years, we use Freightliner, I’ve got a frame-straightening shop right down the street from Freightliner.

“It’s very hard to find competent technicians out there when you go outside, and when you lose the advantage of in-house then you’ve got all those transportation costs and you’ve got a logistics issue.”

An ASE and EVT Master Technician himself, O’Brien knows that not just anyone can repair a fire truck or an ambulance, and he has passed over a lot of shops that have wanted his business.

“When you utilize outside sources, you have to look at their competency,” he says. “Not everybody can work on a fire truck. Not everybody can work on an ambulance. A lot of technicians don’t want to, because they can’t make the same money on it; it’s a different system. The trucks aren’t put together the same way; they have a lot more peripherals, hoses and other things that are in the way. It’s a serious issue.

“I have gone to places for a brake job and asked how they bleed the brakes. ‘Well, we just gravity bleed them.’ Well, that’s not acceptable,” O’Brien insists. “ABS systems need to be vacuum bled, or pressure bled on certain systems. And you have to be careful, because some systems say ‘apply no pressure to the master cylinder.’ Some systems say ‘do not flow any fluid from that wheel back through the ABS controller back up to the master; you will damage the system.’ They mean it: that could be a $2,000 ABS controller with an accumulator on it!”

In other words, not something you want to leave to an unproven shop...


O’Brien amuses himself by watching the OEMs bring test trucks right past his front door for testing in Death Valley, and then haul their dead carcasses back out when they succumb to the heat.

But it is a reminder that not all trucks survive, not all heat-related problems can be solved, and in fact there is one heat-related maintenance issue that has stumped O’Brien: the turbos and coolers on EGR-equipped engines.

“We’re seeing EGR and EGR cooler failures because of the high temperatures,” he says. “We’re seeing turbo failures because of the high temperatures. Charge air coolers are very important; vehicles not equipped with charge air coolers just can’t survive in this climate. So, we’re seeing rapid turbo failures, oil leaks, we’re even seeing charge air coolers completely full of crap.”

But O’Brien has a way of making today’s problem turn into tomorrow’s ingenious adaptation, so those EGR problems may not always be an issue. For all the heat in Pahrump Valley, O’Brien is remarkably cool about his situation.

“I’m an old fart, but I have to keep up with the changes in the industry,” he says. “If I don’t, I’m not going to be any good.”

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