Tried and True

Gary Wohlfeil has a truck for sale. He's finally getting rid of the oldest truck in his fleet sometime this year, and he's already got a couple of local buyers interested. Wohlfeil, supervisor of public works for the City of Oconomowoc, WI, knows he could probably get a few more years' service out of the truck. After all, it's only a 1972.

You read that right: 1972. The oldest truck in Wohlfeil's fleet is 35 years old, and still in regular service. And people are lining up to buy it. "There are several people already asking me, 'Do you have that cab & chassis ready to sell?'" he says with a smile.

The truck in question, a Ford F750, has got a gasoline engine and a stick shift. It's the city's water wagon, and as such it sees almost daily use every summer. And as far as its age goes, it's not at all atypical for Wohlfeil's fleet. He's also got 1976 and 1979 GMC 3500 utility dump trucks, as well as a 1979 International 2554 dump truck/snow plow/sander.

DOWNTIME

On the day I visit Wohlfeil at the city maintenance shop he has managed for the past two years, he's feeling a bit worn. He has been at work for five out of the last six days, since the area was blanketed with over a foot of snow the previous Friday. Most of the city's snow plows have been out working around the clock for six days, and a couple of the trucks have succumbed to mechanical breakdowns. One newer Sterling needs new rear wheel bearings, and an older Ford has lost its power steering hose. Luckily, Wohlfeil has two spare snow plows, so the work of keeping the City's streets free of snow can continue unabated.

Even with two trucks in for service, the maintenance shop is quiet. That's because Wohlfeil's one technician has had to run out to a local supplier to have a replacement power steering hose fabricated from scratch.

Why go to such lengths for a replacement part? Because they have no choice: the truck in question is a 1990 Ford L8000. "We called up for a power steering hose," Wohlfeil says, "and they called back yesterday and said it's obsolete; they can't get it. So we'll go to a place in the area where we can get a hose made up. In the meantime, that truck is out of service—that's the downside to having older trucks." But even that is not really a hardship, because, as Wohlfeil points out, he can get the new part custom fabricated in the same time it would have taken for his parts supplier to deliver a replacement part.

LONGEVITY

Wohlfeil has worked for the City for 33 years. If you haven't already done the math, that means the water truck he's about to sell has been on the job two years longer than he has. That's what you call longevity.

At the Department of Public Works garage, Wohlfeil and his lone mechanic are responsible for the public works fleet, as well as the parks department fleet and the wastewater treatment plant's fleet. The garage has exactly one bay, one lift, and two hoists: one for the bigger dump trucks and another for the pickups and one-ton dumps. The City's fire and police departments take care of their own vehicle maintenance, as do the electrical and power utilities.

"I've got 10 single-axle seven-yard dump trucks, I've got six one-ton dumps, I've got a tandem, a bucket truck, the vacuum sweeper, a regular mechanical sweeper, and then we take care of the sewer flushing machine, and six or seven pickup trucks," Wohlfeil explains. "There is also a 2007 Sterling LT7501 single-axle dump, that's a 2007 with a 2006 engine."

But that Sterling is the exception. The vast majority of the 27 vehicles in the fleet are from the 1980s and 1990s. Eighteen of the vehicles are at least 10 years old, and 11 have passed the 20 year mark.

THE BIG SECRET

You might think that Wohlfeil has some secret formula for keeping his trucks on the road and hard at work for such a long time, but the big secret is that there's no big secret:

"Just keep up with maintenance, with oil changes and filters and everything," he says. "As soon as there's something wrong with them, I have the driver fill out a slip—I get a copy, the mechanic gets a copy—and sometimes I'll switch around what the mechanic is doing because this is more of a priority. I'll tell him, 'This needs to be done NOW.'

Even the PM program is simple and straightforward, according to Wohlfeil. "The mechanic was keeping track of the hours, and doing PMs every 2,000 hours," he explains. "Now, I think that with the bigger trucks that are plowing, you're not going to get 2,000 hours in a year. So now with the little trucks—the pickups and dumps—we'll do PM every three months, because there's constant idling. The bigger trucks, like the ones we've got out plowing now, we did PMs on those in October, and I'll have them back in again—if they don't get the hours on them—in April.

"We'll try to get them every six months, if they don't have the hours on them," he goes on. "To me, even though the oil hasn't been used that much with the low hours, all that sitting and going from hot to cold, I have a feeling that all that condensation has gotten in there, and that's not good either.

"Now, our seven-yard dumps, they were out all weekend with the snowstorm, and a couple of them are out hauling snow today," he explains. "As soon as they get a break we pressure wash them completely: underneath the frame, everything, to keep them clean and get that salt off of them."

The plow trucks had actually been pressure washed just before the snowstorm hit, but to Wohlfeil it wasn't a wasted effort. "The guys were saying, 'What did we even clean it for?' It's a chance you're taking, but you have to get that salt off, so it's not eating away at the frame."

MIX AND MATCH

It also helps that the fleet is big enough to allow Wohlfeil some flexibility in duty assignments.

"Since we have gotten the one-ton dumps, we don't use the bigger dumps much in the summertime," he says, "so during the summer I had five of the seven-yarders in another building in storage, and I would pull them out as needed."

Another way to be flexible is to repurpose trucks as they age, as Wohlfeil plans to do with the water wagon that will soon be up for sale.

He and his mechanic will take the water tank off the old Ford, sell the cab and chassis to the highest bidder, then install the tank on a 1981 Ford L8000 diesel with an automatic transmission. So, in one swap, two trucks that may otherwise have been at the end of their service lives will be reborn to work again.

That doesn't mean that Wohlfeil won't dispose of a truck when it's outlived its usefulness. "Just this summer we sold a 1978 Ford with a gas engine and stick shift," he says. "We sold it because it was the oldest of the plows, but it only had 40,000 miles on it. So, the mileage is very low on it, and that helps too."

TEN MORE YEARS

The night before this interview, Wohlfeil had just gotten good news from the City Council. They had approved the purchase of a new vehicle, a move that will enable Wohlfeil to retire another old veteran.

"There's a new Elgin street sweeper we're getting, but that's in next year's budget," he explains. "But we have it all okayed so there won't be a 2007 engine in it. It will be the 2007 model with the 2006 engine in it, because they bought a mess of them ahead of time. Even the other companies that we got bids from, they have 2007 Sterling and Freightliner cab and chassis in stock with '06 Mercedes-Benz engines in them. By ordering it now, we're going to save around $8,000, because of the price increase from the engine alone."

What's amazing about this purchase is that it was supposed to have happened ten years ago, in 1996!

The vacuum sweeper that's being replaced was purchased 20 years ago. At that time, Wohlfeil says, the City Council told the Public Works Department to keep the truck for only 10 years, "then get rid of it, because it's going to nickel and dime you to death."

It seems the maintenance department has taken such good care of the truck over the years, however, that the "nickel and dime" fear never materialized. "Well," Wohlfeil continues, "for the last five years that I have known, they've thrown the new sweeper out of the budget. It was in the budget, but then at final approval of the budget they've thrown it out, because it wasn't needed, because (the old one is) still going!"

"So, to save money, they told us, 'Don't get a new one,'" he says. "The old one didn't really cost us all that much over the years, but it's starting to catch up now. For only having a supposed life-expectancy of 10 years, we got 20 years out of it—that's pretty good.

"I wouldn't mind seeing a seven year trade-in cycle, like some municipalities do, but as you can see, it seems we're on a kind of a 20 year cycle," he says with a hearty laugh.

NO 2007 ENGINES

Through sheer luck, Wohlfeil has managed to avoid purchasing any trucks with 2007 diesel engines, and you won't hear him complaining about it...

"The budget was made out before the 2007 ultra-low sulfur fuel mandate, and the only thing that was in the 2007 budget was the sweeper," he explains. "Once I heard about the 2007 engines, and after talking to a lot of salesmen, a lot of them said that if I could get anything okayed and ordered before January 1st, 2007—even if it's in the 2007 budget—I'd get a 2006 engine in it, even though I won't have to pay 'til I take delivery in 2007, and I'll be saving quite a bit of money on the engine alone. So I took that approach, and my director said, 'Let's get it ordered.'"

In the meantime, Wohlfeil and his mechanic attended a presentation on 2007 engines and emissions requirements that was put on by International Truck & Engine, and he came home with new concerns about the size and location of the aftertreatment devices.

"I don't know where these body companies are going to mount their wing plows or anything, because it looks like everything is used up," he says. "It looks awful; it's going to be a mess."

On the positive side, Wohlfeil's expereince with ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel (ULSD) has been trouble-free so far.

"We have our own fuel tanks here, and we have been getting ULSD since October 1st, and so far we've had no troubles with any of the diesels," he says.

"There's some concern that on the older diesels some of the O-rings might be rotting out, and everything I've heard from dealers and seminars is that you're going to be changing fuel filters a lot more because of the new fuel," he continues. "I told my mechanic he'd better have several filters on hand, not just one spare, because we don't know when this might hit. Since October, we've gone through 8,000 gallons of fuel, and we haven't had any problems."

TIME CAPSULE

Of course, time doesn't stand completely still, even in Oconomowoc. Wohlfeil does have to replace trucks sometime, and he is budgeting for two replacements for his one-ton dumps in the 2008 fiscal year.

"We do try to project out into the future," he says. "My little one-ton dump trucks that I've got, they're a '76 and a '79. I have those in the budget for replacement in 2008, finally. They actually get used a lot more than the bigger single-axles. Those are on the road every day, all summer long."

When those new 2008s arrive, who will drive them? Some of the city drivers are anxious to move up to a newer vehicle, but some, it turns out, are perfectly content to drive their 20 year-old trucks for as long as they can.

"The drivers do complain about (driving such old trucks), but they have no choice," Wohlfeil shrugs. "When I do get a newer truck, it will go to the guy who has the oldest truck. I try to rotate it around, to keep everybody happy.

"Sometimes," he says, "we'll get a new truck in and I'll ask a driver if he wants it and he'll say, 'No, I want to keep the old truck.' Then I'll go down the line until I get a taker. Some of them love their old trucks! I asked one of the guys once if he wanted a new truck, and he said, 'I don't know. Are the seats the same?' I said, 'I don't know!' He said, 'Well, I like the way I sit in the old one.' 'Then you can keep the old truck,' I said!"

RUST NEVER SLEEPS

And so it goes. Wohlfeil and his mechanic keep changing the oil, fabricating obsolete parts, watching the rust and soldiering on with their 20 year-old trucks.

All in all, Wohlfeil doesn't seem to have many concerns. The biggest maintenance issues he deals with are the occasional transmission or rear axle rebuild, and the rare snapped axle. He can only recall two instances in his 30-plus years when the fleet has needed an engine rebuilt, and both those times the engines were shipped out to an outside rebuilding service.

If Wohlfeil has one worry, it's the bodies of his trucks. Despite all the washing, you can never keep them clean enough.

"Even though we do keep them clean, they're still going to start rusting out," he says. "I was supposed to replace two of the older ones this year, and put new boxes on them. But with one, everything was good, except that inside the box had holes in it, so I had it relined it for a lot cheaper (than replacing it). The other one is really bad; that's the one I'm going to turn into my water truck, so I can get rid of my '72. And as much as the water wagon is used in the summer, I ought to be able to get 10 more years out of that truck. And we'll do all that work here."

OLD VS. NEW

It probably won't happen, but if the City Council budgeted a million or two for vehicle replacement next year, Wohlfeil would have no problem spending the money.

"I would replace quite a few of the trucks," he says after some thought. "I'd get rid of all my '70s that I've got left. I'd probably upgrade everything up to '95 or '96, because they just don't have many miles or hours on them. Seems like some of the older trucks hold out better than the newer trucks… there are just fewer problems with them.

"I'm kind of leery of the Mercedes engines," he goes on. "Last year's truck was the first with the new Mercedes engine, and we have to see how that's going. We have three of them now: the 2005 Freightliner, and the 2006 & 2007 Sterlings. Until we get some hours on it, we won't really see how it holds up. The warranty time period runs out before the mileage, because we never hit that."

Which brings Wohlfeil full circle, back to the old trucks... Given the choice, he would rather work on an older, simpler vehicle. "For me, I loved it when you could work on an engine by yourself," he says, "without all these electronics, where you have to take it to the dealership."

The shop does have a scan tool for the newer trucks, and Wohlfeil says they will be replacing that with a newer tool this year. Still, he says, "The mechanic, I would guess, would rather work on the old stuff. It's more of a challenge."

Of course, the mechanic can't answer the question himself, because he's on the road fetching that scratch-built power steering hose... That's what you live with when you've got a 20-year trade-in cycle.

But you won't hear Gary Wohlfeil grumbling about it. When the next snowstorm hits, his trucks will be ready to work.

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