Working For A Living

Putting a light-duty consumer market vehicle to work as a commercial vehicle can lead to some tricky maintenance challenges, especially when that vehicle has been modified by an upfitter before entering the working world.

"Usually it's the upfitting" that causes service problems, says Wayne Seale, maintenance manager for San Gabriel Transit, El Monte, CA. Seale ought to know: his transit agency maintains its own fleet of buses and vans, and provides contract maintenance for other Southern California transit and paratransit fleets.

According to Seale, the upfitter will install components from a number of suppliers onto the OE cab-chassis, so when a finished shuttle is delivered to the customer (often months after it has left the OE assembly line), there can be a lot of gray area in the warranty coverage.

"You take it to the dealer, and a lot of the time the dealers have to be educated on what is actually covered," he says. "Even though most of the components are stock—like, the rear air suspension is GM built—once the configuration changes a bit, the floor is dropped or whatever, the first thing the dealer tells you is, ‘Oh, no, it's not covered because somebody modified this.' Then you have to go back and a lot of the time get the dealer rep involved, and explain to the dealer that this is still covered."

"Or, say, the upfitter redoes the fuel tank," Seale continues. "It's a completely different tank built by a different company, and they take the stock GM fuel pump module and put it right back in this custom-built tank. Well, the dealer gets under there and sees that the tank is in a different position now, and if there's a fuel pump issue, the first thing he says is, ‘No, it's not covered,' because he sees this different tank, even though there's a GM pump in it which is actually covered."

GETTING TRICKY

"It's tricky, and it's hard for us to get final feedback on warranty issues, because some of the fleets have warranty capabilities on their own, some service facilities have warranty capabilities on their own, let alone what they're willing to bring back to a Ford dealership," says Jerry Renauer, account specialist for ambulance, bus and parcel delivery, Ford Motor Company. "So we don't always see some of the things that are going on until it's way downstream.

"Unlike automobiles and SUVs, a shuttle bus is not sold by a Ford dealership," he explains. "They are sold by the distributor network of the upfitter."

Nonetheless, Renauer says that Ford wants shuttle fleets to bring the vans directly back to a Ford dealer for service. It's up to the Ford dealer, he says, to determine whether the modification was the cause of the problem, in which case the fleet will have to take the van back to the upfitter's distributor for service.

"We issue guidelines (to upfitters) that say ‘This is how we would like you to go about attaching to our systems,'" he says, but the upfitters are not obligated to follow Ford's guidelines, or to ask for Ford's advice.

"For instance, we put a stator, or shroud, around the fan that funnels the outside air to the right points of the engine," Renauer says. "We've seen where they cut the shroud away so that it's just the outer rim, but the fins that were guiding the air have been totally removed, so that they could put another compressor or another alternator through. But it changed the airflow to the extent that you're getting overheating."

As Renauer says, "It's tricky."

"That's one of the biggest issues, is convincing the dealer, or getting the dealer educated that these are (OEM) components and (the OEM) approves the modification," says Seale. "During the warranty period you try to get it handled at the dealer as often as possible. That's 36,000 miles, which peels away pretty quickly, probably in the first year."

MISMATCHED

That 36,000 mile mark means a lot to Felix Montenez, assistant maintenance manager for Salt Lake City-based Utah Transit Authority (UTA). Warranties on about one third of UTA's shuttle bus fleet—30 to 35 vehicles—will end this year, and Montenez has found that careful spec'ing doesn't always prevent OEM/upfitter mismatches. A case in point is UTA's first batch of Glavelle paratransit vans, which started to experience electrical failures soon after they were placed in service.

"We had a single alternator system that wasn't big enough to handle our Ricon lift, so they would cycle the lift X amount of times and kill the batteries," he says. "We got with our engineering department and put in a dual alternator system to handle the load."

In this case, the fault didn't lie with either the OE or the upfitter.

Turns out, the manufacturer offered the vehicle with one or two alternators, and UTA learned its lesson through trial and error. According to Montenez, the manufacturer split the cost of installing a second alternator in the first batch of buses, and now UTA spec's two alternators in all its new shuttle buses.

It seems a little ingenuity and flexibility on the fleet's part can remedy a lot of these mismatches. In another instance, weak drivers' running boards on UTA's shuttle buses were breaking off. To solve the problem, the agency's engineering department designed a sturdier running board, retrofitted the existing shuttles and included the sturdy new design in the next bid for new vehicles.

HARD CHOICES

Not all of UTA's warranty stories have happy endings, however. A recent misadventure with an upfitter-installed rear suspension fitted to Ford shuttle buses defied both the agency's maintenance department and Ford.

"We had issues with our shackle bushings wearing out, and we took them to the Ford dealer and they wouldn't even touch them, because we had an aftermarket rear suspension on it," Montenez recalls. "So we had to follow up through MoreRide to get them to honor it. They came in and did their fix on it, but we still had numerous challenges with that MoreRide system. That was another issue that forced (us) not to put those on our new vehicles, just because of the problems we had with the shackle bushings tearing out—they were just not a very effective system."

Some battles, alas, never seem to end. UTA has had a hard time getting coverage from Ford on the second A/C compressor, a Carrier unit, installed by the upfitters on some shuttles. "A lot of times they will not want to honor the workmanship on that, because it's not their system," Montenez says.

MODEL CHANGE

Training shuttle bus technicians is difficult, says Wayne Seale, because upfitters change models and components so quickly.

"If they start getting a better price, or the guy that makes their door motors or their interlock systems goes out of business, or they change and go to a totally new setup, a lot of times you don't realize it until you get your first couple vehicles," Seale says. "Then you have to educate yourself as to what's going on. Your service manager—or whoever you have on point—it's up to him to stay on top of any changes that come out."

Then there's the fact that full-sized vans and minivans from Ford, GM and DaimlerChrysler can change with every model year. According to Seale, every time the OEMs improve a model, "we end up doing the R&D."

Wheelchair lifts on paratransit vans were designed to meet the standards of the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), but Seale bemoans the fact that those standards haven't changed in years. Wheelchairs, meanwhile, get bigger, heavier and more sophisticated every year.

"Now you've got people in electric chairs where it's up to 200-250 pounds, then you put the person in it," he says. "So the standard minimum width of the lift, the inclination of it, and how many pounds it should support, I haven't seen any substantial changes to those standards in 12 years. The chairs are getting bigger and bigger and bigger, and I see damage to wheelchair lifts and vehicle interiors."

It's a hard working life for a shuttle bus, made even harder by confusing warranty coverage and overweight wheelchairs. But, with diligence, it is possible to add years and miles to the lives of your buses.

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