Bucket Truck Blues

You can avoid fifty percent of your maintenance headaches by spec'ing properly and then following the manufacturers recommended maintenance practices," says Mike Grace, director, fleet management with South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) in West Palm Beach, Florida. SFWMD is a regional agency of the state of Florida whose responsibilities include managing and protecting water resources of the region, which covers 16 counties with five water management districts.

THE 3 T's

The 3 T's—Technicians, Tools, and Training—are all necessary components to a successful shop. So, how do utility fleet managers acquire the 3 T's to best serve their operations?

Grace offers that training is the wildcard. His 32 technicians are ASE certified and take advantage of training from companies such as DELCO for electrical systems. "Unless you have some huge budget for training," he says, "you have to seek what's available and be resourceful."

He is secretary of FLAGFA (Florida Association of Governmental Fleet Administrators), an organization that has as its mission to help both large and small fleets strive for excellence in fleet management.

"We meet twice a year in Daytona Beach," says Grace. "We seek out training with hydraulic, electric, and other instructors and we pay about 75 percent of the training. The technician's employer pays the remaining 25 percent. A small city or small counties often cannot afford the cost to send technicians to training, but if we sponsor a guy, we can bring the prices down for that employer."

He adds, "We'll purchase tools that we do a lot of repairs with. For example, in Palm Beach, we bought an on-the-vehicle brake lathe because almost everything we have is 4WD. We took a five-hour job down to less than two hours."

SRP depends on part suppliers, dealerships and manufacturers to provide training on vehicles purchased from an OEM, but they also use independent training associations.

"We have an established, state-approved four-year apprenticeship program and we add apprentices to the program when we forecast a technician to retire," says Ybarra. "We also hire technicians from outside the company. We look for technicians with aerial and construction equipment experience and train them in areas they lack experience in.


Grace oversees a mixed fleet of 1,000 units including sedans, SUVs, bulldozers, bucket trucks, derricks—as well as 44 airboats—that bring up some interesting maintenance issues. He says 13 of the airboats have aircraft engines and 31 have Chevrolet 350 engines. These craft see constant engine loading and vibration from the propeller, and therefore receive short oil changes and thorough inspections for fatigue cracks in the hull and rigging loose fittings and bolts.

The more common vehicles in his fleet are the 225 pickups and 145 SUVs that are mostly GMC K2500's and GM Blazer/Jimmy SUV's. All are 4X4 and most have winches.

"Public works personnel use our pickups," Grace says, "and the scientists and construction workers who are revitalizing the Florida Everglades, use SUVs."

He explains that with eight facilities, they get very little in the day-to-day maintenance. "Most shops' bread and butter is changing oil," says Grace. "Our day runs from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and half of our vehicles are not domiciled where the shop is. We have vendors come on site and change oil after hours rather than take the time of one of our people to bring vehicles in to have the oil changed or for some other easy service item."

Grace adds, "We're about 50 percent outsource. We don't do paint and body, transmissions, glass, or upholstery."

He is optimistic about new technology. "We've ordered some Ford Escape hybrids and they're under warranty. We have three Toyota Prius vehicles on the property and six more ordered. It's the right thing to do. We've got a long warranty with these units and we haven't bought many of the extended warranties. I have confidence in Detroit and Japan and I know they're going to make it work. It's only going to get better."


In the southwest, the Salt River Project Agricultural Improvement and Power District (SRP) is a water and power municipality in Phoenix, AZ. SRP is the nation's third-largest public power utility and one of Arizona's largest water suppliers, providing power to customers throughout a 2,900-square-mile service territory in central Arizona. The District provides electricity to nearly 860,000 retail customers in the Phoenix area.

SRP's Ray Ybarra, fleet maintenance supervisor, and transportation manager Jim Wood say that the SRP fleet has approximately 2,200 pieces of rolling stock that includes light, medium, heavy duty and construction equipment. But, it's the 190 medium-duty bucket and derrick trucks that support the power grid system have the highest priority.

"We have several hybrids in the fleet," says Ybarra. "We currently have six 2005 Ford Escape hybrids and one 2005 Chevrolet Silverado hybrid. We purchased them to evaluate hybrid technology for future fleet opportunities."

Ybarra and Wood explain that while their technicians are trained on these hybrids, they do not maintain the vehicles. Rather, they use the dealership for maintenance support under warranty.


Kyle Rees is fleet manager with Toronto Hydro-Electric in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Toronto Hydro-Electric System Limited is the largest municipal electric distribution utility in Canada. The utility distributes approximately 18 percent of Ontario's electricity and serves approximately 673,000 customers.

Rees' fleet of 700 vehicles is a mix of cars, vans, pickups, and minivans. Small and light duty vehicles are from GM, Ford, Chrysler, Honda, Toyota, Infinity, Acura, Volvo, and Audi. Medium and heavy-duty trucks are Freightliner, Sterling, Ford, International, and Western Star. Rees offers that many of his vehicles run on bio-diesel and that Toronto Hydro was the first to bring the bio-diesel vehicles to Toronto.

Renzo Cacciotti, P. Eng., supervisor —Fleet Assets and Maintenance with Toronto Hydro Electric explains that there is an environmental initiative in Toronto and specifically within Toronto Hydro. "Anything that can be done to reduce emissions is positive in the eyes of our company," he says.

Toronto Hydro's bread and butter vehicles are their 103 single bucket trucks.

"The challenge in maintaining these vehicles is two-fold," says Cacciotti. "First, the vehicle is actually three components - a chassis, an aerial device, and a body. The chassis and aerial have specific maintenance requirements that we try to keep lined up so that when a complete unit comes in for its PM, it does not need to come back for four months, 300 PTO hours, 300 engine hours or 5,000 km, which are our maintenance parameters. We do little or no maintenance to the body other than greasing hinges."

He continues, "The second challenge is getting the vehicle off the road to complete the maintenance, specifically the aerial device. As they carry a lineperson 40 to 65 feet in the air, they must be inspected for due diligence. Aerial devices are insulated from high voltages and must be properly maintained to keep the unit in proper working order and keep the operator safe. Also, approximately 20 of these are emergency vehicles that run 24/7."

Toronto Hydro is currently completing the second year of a three-year General Motors pilot program for hybrids. Three Chevrolet Silverado 1500's went into service in June of 2004 and are used by supervisory staff in the field. Cacciotti offers that the pilot program vehicles will be returned to GM after the term and feedback will most likely include maintenance records.

Toronto Hydro has three more of these trucks as well as five, 2003 Honda Civic hybrids and one, 2001 Toyota Prius hybrid that are not part of the pilot program.


Aside from the obvious challenges of maintaining a large fleet of vehicles, these managers point to other factors that test them in the day-to-day.

"We have other corporate initiatives such as safety, training and budgets," says Cacciotti.

"We have an eclectic fleet spread over 16 counties and eight maintenance shops," says Grace. "One shop only has one guy and sometimes, he's out helping the operations side."

He adds, "If it's a piece of equipment, you have some showstoppers such as a Gradall, a bulldozer, etc. When it goes down, you've got four people out of work. Anything that is the primary piece of equipment such as an excavator or a crane gets top priority."

SRP's Ybarra and Wood offer this list, "Our aging workforce, technical training, price of fuel, and now, cost of tires for our fleet are our major challenges."


Control over expenses and maintenance items keep these managers and their operations thinking outside the toolbox to improve ROI. SFWMD's biggest expense is brakes and then tires, but fuel is the single largest expense for both Toronto Hydro and SRP.

SRP's principal engineer finance person Bob Fedock explains that SRP currently "hedges" its vehicle fuel needs for an entire budget year.

"The year's fuel budget is established using projected monthly quantities of fuel needed and applying the unit costs for that fuel based on the prices in the commodities market," says Fedock. "Once the budget is approved, SRP places orders in the commodities market for delivery of the estimated fuel needs for each month at the market price. Prior to the first of the month, SRP sells the fuel contract for that month in the commodities market. If the price at the time of the sale has gone up since the contract was purchased, SRP will make money on the hedge, but will also be paying higher costs for fuel. If the price has gone down, SRP will lose money on the hedge but will be paying lower costs for fuel. Hedging reduces the risk of large swings in the fuel budget."

How do you best achieve the return on investment for your fleet?

"It comes down to how good your specifications are," says Grace. "We discuss the options as far as repair vs. replace. The property management group that disposes of our used equipment now uses eBay with great success."

Ybarra and Wood explain that they involve the users in the acquisition process to ensure the right equipment/vehicles are purchased for the work applications. Also, they ensure resources are available to maintain an effective preventative maintenance program. "Due to our PM program, we get a good price at auction when we retire our equipment," says Ybarra.

Ybarra adds, "It took approximately one year to develop a written PM standard for our technicians to use and follow. There were several issues we had to deal with such as PM intervals needed to be correct and adjusted based on oil samples, to train our technicians on proper PM inspections, and to continue to review and update the PM program as engines, transmission and hydraulic oils changed. By performing and following this process, our equipment breakdowns are minimal and equipment availability is almost 100 percent for our internal customers at the start of the work day."