Cover Story: The Tire Guys

Keen Transport, Inc. picks up new construction and mining equipment from factories and ports around the country and delivers it to end users. When a 250,000 pound piece of construction equipment rolls off the assembly line in Peoria, the Keen rig that picks it up for delivery could easily have 13 axles and 52 tires. That’s a lot of rubber hitting the you-know-what.

So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Keen Transport’s maintenance director, Lloyd Hair, pays a lot of attention to his tires. And, even with seven shops around the country, he pays attention to every detail, no matter how small.

“The first thing you’ve got to do for your tires is make sure the air pressure is correct,” he says. “It’s the first step, and it’s a simple thing. Everybody looks for complicated things, but you just need to make sure it’s inflated to the proper pressure.”

LOAD TABLES

But Hair doesn’t let his technicians go just by the numbers on the sides of the tires. He consults with online load tables for each of his three tire vendors—Bridgestone, Continental and Michelin—and calculates the proper pressures for his fleet’s loads, then incorporates those guidelines in his tire PMs.

“Every trailer goes through a Keen yard (for PM) every 90 days,” Hair explains. “Every truck comes through based on mileage or time, but every third PM has to be done at a Keen facility.

“At the PM we gauge every tire,” he says. “Now the industry says gauge every tire every day, every week, but I just don’t think anyone does that—it’s just not going to happen. So, we have the drivers thumping the tires and looking for problems during their pre-check.

“And we do a yard check every day, where the facility maintenance guy will walk around and look for all the problems,” he says. “Whatever the problem is, we try to find it at the facility. So, even though we have the drivers doing their pre-trips, we also need that extra set of eyes looking at it, because if it’s a $30 or $40 repair in your yard, it’s $150 or $200 out on the road.”

There’s another reason to spend two hours and $30 fixing a tire problem on the lot: Keen Transport hauls permit loads, so their trucks can only run during daylight hours. If a truck is sidelined with a flat and the driver can’t get the load delivered by sundown, Hair has got a serious problem.

“You don’t control any costs on your rig. No one does,” he says. “So we try to find anything we can in the yard.”

PRESSURE SENSITIVE

There’s a certain irony in the fact that one of the biggest expenses in any fleet’s maintenance budget is safeguarded by one of the cheapest tools in the garage: the lowly tire gauge.

Hair doesn’t like that one bit, so he insists that his technicians have top-of-the-line gauges that are calibrated on a regular schedule.

“Tires are your second biggest cost, but a lot of fleet guys get cheap,” he says. “I don’t know why, but I see this happen too often: they say, ‘That’s the mechanic’s tool. I’m not buying that. That’s not my expense.’

“So, they make the mechanic buy the gauge,” he goes on. “Now, the mechanic gets on the tool truck an he looks at the tire gauge—that’s not an exciting tool like a socket wrench, and it’s something he’s been told he has to buy. They probably have them from $4 to $20; now which do you think he’s going to buy? Your second highest cost, and you’re going to put it in the hands of a $4 gauge? That’s not a good business decision. In my opinion, gauges are something the company should buy.”

There’s another problem with making technicians buy their own gauges, according to Hair: when the gauge is broken, the technician is slow to shell out money on a replacement. His solution is to buy quality gauges that can be recalibrated from Myers Tire, his favorite vendor, and replace them for his technicians at the first sign of trouble.

“We have a master gauge,” says Hair, “and every 30 to 45 days, Linus (Sweger, tire manager) goes to the technicians and has them check their gauges against the master gauge, and if they’re two pounds or more off, they’re history.”

THE SCRAP PILE

When Hair really wants to know what’s going on with his tires, he spends some time at the scrap tire pile.

“That’s where it all starts,” he says. “If you start seeing you have a lot of impact breaks—and you can get your dealer in to look at them—you’ve got a problem”

Hair recalls that about 10 years ago the fleet was running its tires with a little extra pressure, and was plagued with impact breaks from tires hitting potholes and curbs. “The tire dealer guy asked what pressure we were running and we said 115-110, and he said, ’You really need to come down to 105,’” Hair recalls. “So we had to find a happy medium—now we do heavy haul where you’re loaded on the way out and empty on the way back, you’ve got to have enough air to handle the weight, but you’re looking for the optimum. So, we studied that and tried going down as low as 95, but that didn’t work so now we’re back at 105.”

Drivers can provide almost as much information as the scrap pile, says Hair. “You’ve got to listen to the drivers. If you write them off, you’re going to miss an important piece.

“That’s the first lesson I learned: listen to ride quality complaints,” he says. “It’s a diagnostic tool. If the truck isn’t handling correctly, you’re not getting optimum tire wear. If it’s going left or right it’s an alignment issue, that takes more energy.”

MORE AND MORE TIRE TIPS

Spend a morning talking with Hair, and he’ll rattle off more tire care tips than you can shake a stick at. After all, he’s been the tire guru at Keen Transport ever since he started with the company in 1971 and realized that no one was paying much attention to the rubber. To put it in air pressure terms, Hair saw a vacuum and he filled it.

The result is a lifetime of expertise on just about any tire topic you can think of:

CHEAP TIRES—

“A lot of guys are still buying what I call ‘the deal of the day,’” Hair says. “The dealer’s got 10 tires, and you only need eight, and it’s a name you don’t recognize.

“But those inexpensive tires are never going to give you the lowest running cost,” he goes on. “There’s always something else that equates into that. The drivers aren’t going to be real happy with those tires. They say it costs $8,000 to $10,000 to put a driver in the seat of a truck—you’re going to irritate him over a couple hundred dollars of tires? That’s not a good business decision.”

NITROGEN INFLATION—

”Nitrogen inflation helps us maintain more consistent pressure,” he explains. “Also, we have trailers that might sit in a yard for a week til it’s ready for the next load. That trailer’s sitting and working, sitting and working, and nitrogen helps us keep up the optimum inflation pressure longer.

“I inflated some tires—18/5s—on Thanksgiving, to 110, and I checked them at the end of March, they were 105,” he recalls.

PRESSURE MONITORING SYSTEMS—

“We spec’ PSI new on the trailers,” he says. “The trucks, we’re looking at some technologies, but they’re just not there yet. There’s one that has an LED on the valve stem that flashes when the tire’s low and catches the guy’s eye. I think when that’s priced right we’ll go for that.

“PSI inflates the tires and gives you a warning light. With permit loads you can only run daylight hours and you have to have a police escort. PSI keeps the tire inflated, so you’re not going to irritate that trooper.

“When a tire does blow, and you’ve got a permit, those permits cost money, and you have an optimum time that that permit’s good. You want to be out of that state when you should. So you don’t want to have breakdowns when you’re hauling loads at all. At the end of the day with PSI, the tire is still inflatable.

“It’s not a free system, though,” he says. “You do have to maintain PSI: while it’s in the shop you have to check the hoses, soak them down and check them, make sure there are no leaks.”

HIGH TEMPERATURE VALVE CORES AND CAPS—

”With braking in the hills with the big freight, the valve core itself—the rubber—will actually melt,” he says. “So you’re out in the desert or the mountains using your brakes, building up heat, and now you’ve got a flat tire because your valve core melted out. Plastic valve caps will melt right off as well. So we use the metal high-temperature caps, and we have very few failures. The inflate-through caps are high-temperature and we use those on the trucks on the aluminum wheels where we can’t get at them.”

RECONDITIONED WHEELS—

”If you don’t recondition your wheels, even if the outside looks great, a wheel that’s had two tires run on it is going to have the inside of it rusted, and the beads will be dirty,” he says. “There’s a point at which you need to send your wheels out to get them repainted and cleaned. We do a lot of that—we pay about $18 to $22, depending on the location, to powder coat the wheels.

“The other thing they do is they check for cracks around the holes. When you sandblast you can see the little spiral cracks that can get you in trouble. And they check the taper, they check the face of the wheel. There’s a point at which it’s too rusted, and they’re going to tell you to replace it. And they clean the inside of the wheel out—if you use a good lube and you inflate that tire correctly, you want to get it to come out eccentrically off the wheel, and if the wheel’s dirty, it doesn’t happen. And if there are little pieces of dirt, then you get slow leaks. We don’t have a problem with bead leaks; over the years I’ve seen a lot of fleets that have a lot bead leaks, because they’re using soap and water. They’re not using a good, high-quality lube.”

TIRES TALK

We all have our versions of multi-tasking; for Hair, it involves rubbing whatever tire happens to be within reach as he performs his other tasks.

“It’s so ingrained in me,” he says with a laugh. “That tire’s going to tell you a lot of things: if you feel sharpness, one way or the other, it’s going to be toe. If you feel irregular wear, you’ll have to determine whether it’s balanced.”

When Keen went from a 55 mile an hour speed limit to 65 miles an hour, the tires had a lot to say. “We went back to seeing a lot of erosion wear because of the higher speed,” he says. “The Technology & Maintenance Council (TMC) book on tire wear is a big help with this: If you have five or more trucks and you don’t have that, you should.”

Even a tire guru, it seems, needs outside help now and then. When rubbing the tires doesn’t work, and the TMC guide has no answers, Hair relies on his tire dealers for help. “You’re going to have to challenge them every now and then, but if there’s a problem, they know what’s causing it,” he says.

TOOLS OF THE TRADE

While all of Keen Transport’s maintenance shops do their own tire repairs, the Carlisle, PA shop, with its nitrogen inflation system and tire machine, is unique in the amount of tools and equipment available for tire maintenance.

“Some people say that tire machines cost too much money, but what does one back injury cost you?” Hair asks. “There are people who like to do tire work, but they get into their 30s and 40s and their bodies just can’t take it anymore. You put a tire machine in the shop, and for the first 30 days you’re going to have to encourage everyone to use it. Everyone’s a tough guy... But with the tire machine I can change 40 tires a day, not get dirty, and still be able to function at the end of the day.”

It’s also important to Hair to have the proper tools for torquing lug nuts. He used to rely on 1-inch air guns in all his shops, but a few years ago he had a wheel-off problem that set off warning bells: “We had some wheel failures where wheels were coming off, and I though, ‘Damn, I know those tires are on tight,’” he says. “Our sin was, they were on too tight. We were overtorquing wheels, and the studs were failing.”

So Hair and his technicians performed a little test with their 1-inch air guns. Hair thought he could handle the gun and stop at 550 foot-pounds on the nose, but the test showed that when he thought he was stopping at 550, the guns were actually breaking at 1,300 foot-pounds. There’s an eye-opener for you.

“Anybody who says he can control a 1-inch air gun is kidding himself,” Hair says. “We torque every wheel at every PM. We bought three of the torque guns that we can recalibrate every day. They’re expensive, but it made a two-man job a one-man job.”

MAGIC FORMULA

Does Lloyd Hair have an answer to every tire question? He would probably say no, although his vice president says he beats industry averages for tire costs, and we tend to believe him.

Hair puts it simply: “I don’t get beat up by tire costs too often.” Anybody who can say that has a lot to crow about.

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