The Business of Big Rigs
Staying on the road and on budget
Driver Will Young wipes the grease from his hands after performing maintenance on his rig’s front axles.
In many ways, the Alaska economy runs on the trucking industry’s ability to keep up with supply demands. Whether trucks are hauling lumber and building materials along the Dalton Highway or are traversing the Glenn Highway on a routine grocery delivery, Alaskans depend on the trucking industry to be efficient and reliable. In turn, the transportation companies rely on retailers, repair shops, and truck manufacturers to keep them on the road and on budget.
Since 1969, TrailerCraft has been one of the leading truck parts and sales facilities in Alaska. In 1994, the company became the state’s only full-service Freightliner dealer; it has since continued to supply equipment to entities statewide, including State of Alaska Department of Transportation (DOT) plows and sanding trucks, Blue Bird school and transport buses, and truck flatbeds. In addition to selling Freightliner trucks, TrailerCraft also sells Western Star industrial trucks.
RWC Group is a leading truck supplier with two locations in Alaska in Fairbanks and Anchorage in addition to locations in Arizona (including the company’s headquarters), California, and Washington State. The full-service center stocks a variety of brands such as International, Isuzu, and Hino. Recognizing the financial investment required to purchase a new truck, RWC has a number of used trucks for sale as well as leasing options. It also offers in-house financing options.
But according to RWC Group’s General Manager of Alaska Operations Mike Lash, the company’s group of dedicated full-time mechanics is one of the most vital aspects of the business. “Our parts and service departments are made up of industry professionals who really know their stuff. I think they play a big role in supporting the trucking industry up here,” says Lash.
An Alaska West Express truck drives along the Glenn Highway toward Wasilla.
Unique Trucks and Routes
Buying a new truck is a huge investment, and sole proprietors or companies operating a fleet of vehicles need to be sure they select the right rig for the job and for the road—and of course there are state and federal restrictions that need to be a part of the decision-making process.
Operating under Alaska DOT, the Measurement Standards and Commercial Vehicle Enforcement (MSCVE) is responsible for the annual inspection of weigh stations, commercial motor vehicle safety, size and weight enforcement, and issuing permits. In 2016 MSCVE weighed 59,432 vehicles for compliance at weigh stations throughout Alaska, discovering 937 permit violations. Although the number of weight violations may seem reasonably low, each violation represents additional stress on fragile Alaska roads and bridges. Where this becomes particularly important is in the number of axles on the truck.
The US DOT Federal Highway Administration states that the weight of a single axle commercial vehicle cannot exceed 20,000 pounds while operating on federal highways. That weight includes the vehicle’s freight, equipment, and driver. As additional axles are added, the allowable weight of the rig increases if the weight on a single tire does not exceed 600 pounds per linear inch of tire width based upon the tire manufacturer’s rating of nominal tire width. But, as a truck increases its number of axles, the amount of damage done to a road also increases. To illustrate, adding two additional axles to a rig will increase road damage by roughly sixteen times.
An Alaska Teamster rig parked for the night at the Alaska State Fairgrounds.
And damage goes both ways; Alaska’s weather and some of its roads put industrial trucks at risk of accelerated wear and tear. Alaska’s world-famous Dalton Highway is just such a road.
“In my mind, the Dalton Highway is the only special application road in Alaska… It’s 400 miles of rugged, hilly, desolate Arctic environment. It has some of the steepest grades in the trucking industry, and some of it isn’t even paved. It’s really rough on the trucks and it’s not uncommon for even the best fleets to bring their rigs in for a full inspection after each run on that route,” says Lash.
The harrowed road is particularly harsh on radiators and front-end components. As Lash puts it, the Dalton Highway requires a special kind of truck. Generally, these trucks require a long 300-inch wheelbase as measured from the front axle to the back tandem axle. That is roughly 100 inches longer than most standard rigs. The reason for the elongated wheelbase is that it enables trucks to carry a heavier load by distributing the weight over a larger surface, thereby reducing the number of trucks needed to haul supplies.
Trucks are also restricted by the Federal Bridge Law, which dictates the number of required axles to haul a specific weight load. While Alaska relies on recommended Federal Bridge Law calculations, it does not allow the usage of supplemental axles without a special permit, including additional weight allowances for lift axles.
“If you’re in the Lower 48, you’ll see lift axles quite often. Those are the axles that either can run in front of or behind the rear tandems that can be raised or dropped to provide immediate additional payload. Typically, these axles allow for an additional gross vehicle allowance, but at this point Alaska does not give any additional weight allowances, and I think that anomaly makes us a little different,” explains Lash.
Will Young, a nineteen-year driving veteran, performs maintenance on his Central Environmental Services rig at a gas station in Palmer.
Longevity and Maintenance
Much like non-commercial vehicles, it is hard to put a life expectancy on a new truck. Factors such as weather, routes traveled, and general maintenance frequency all play a role in the life of a truck. Although there is no set standard dictating when a truck should be replaced, typically major fleets replace their rigs every four or five years. But the recession and cutbacks to the number of operating trucks may be shifting that number as fleets are opting to invest more in repairs.
RWC Group reports that while the maintenance and repairs side of their business has remained relatively steady over the past three years, they are noticing that the trucks they service are coming in for more repairs than usual.
“We are still doing a lot of regular preventative maintenance and general repairs, but it seems like we are seeing more electrical issues now. We are also seeing issues with emissions and water treatment systems, but I think that may be due to the climate changes we are seeing,” says Lash, who uses a general formula to determine when a truck needs to be replaced. “Well, it all comes down to cost per mile. Once the cost per mile of a used truck exceeds that of a brand new truck, you replace it—and that includes things like depreciation and fuel consumption. Probably the number one benefit of new trucks is that they’re much more fuel efficient than they were even five years ago.”
Since purchasing a new rig is costly—typically $75,000 or more—there are checks in place to ensure the safety and longevity of a truck. The Alaska Trucking Association says that anyone driving a commercial vehicle must conduct a visual pre-trip inspection and fill out a written post-trip inspection for every day the vehicle is operated. Additionally, drivers are required to have their rigs inspected annually by a certified inspector who maintains a record of the inspection and provides the driver with an annual decal to be displayed on the passenger side window. Drivers must also retain a detailed maintenance record for the previous year. If these regulations are not followed or DOT spots a safety hazard, the truck can be removed from the road. In 2016, DOT reported that a total of 788 unsafe commercial vehicles were removed from the road and a total of 7,761 inspections were conducted by Commercial Vehicle Enforcement officers.
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RWC Alaska’s Anchorage storefront.
Approaching Fuel Efficiency
While there a number of tricks to improving fuel economy—reducing speed, not riding the brakes, and avoiding quick accelerations—the only guaranteed way of making certain a truck is getting the best gas mileage is to drive a fuel-efficient rig. Next to labor costs, fuel is a trucking company’s largest expense, which is why many of the major brands are working to develop new fuel-efficient models. If less fuel is used to transport goods, it’s a better profit margin for drivers and trucking companies.
“We’re seeing 10 percent fuel economy gains in newer truck models. When you think about how many miles are put on an entire fleet—say around 100,000 miles—10 percent becomes a pretty substantial number. If you’re saving $80,000 in fuel costs that can go back into maintaining the fleet,” Lash says.
For example, Peterbilt recently came out with its 579 model that uses aerodynamic innovation to cut down on wind resistance. The same model also has an option to use compressed natural gas as a fuel alternative. International boasts a ProStar model that claims 11 percent greater fuel economy than its competitors. Hino has a new diesel-electric hybrid called the Hino 195h. There are already 10,000 195h diesel-electric hybrids on the road and it is the only commercial hybrid on the market that is both economical and environmentally friendly, according to the company.
But a reduction in operating costs is not the only reason truck manufacturers and trucking companies are working toward fuel economy. Companies like Lynden are turning their attention to environmental conscientiousness. More than 80 percent of Lynden trucks are less than five years old and 100 percent are equipped to meet new emission standards. These newer, more efficient tractors and ultra-efficient diesel engines have dramatically improved fuel economy and reduced air emissions, earning Lynden a spot in the top seventy-five Green Supply Chain Partners.
Lynden Transport took significant action in terms of green initiatives in 2008, when it became the first Alaska-based company to join SmartWay, a collaboration between the EPA and transportation companies to voluntarily increase fuel efficiency and reduce air pollution. In 2009, Lynden earned the Green Star Award for environmental stewardship, another milestone as it was the first trucking company to qualify for the green program as well as the first business in Juneau to do so.