For mechanic Kevin Kell, it’s an imperfect fleet maintenance storm — supply chain disruptions, a lack of vehicles, and labor shortages are increasing downtime in ways that he hasn’t seen in his nearly 25 years.
“The biggest struggles right now, it’s really a little bit of everything,” says Kell, owner operator of Fleet Repair Services in Charleston, S.C. Kell worked at Ford dealerships from 1998 to 2019 and is a senior master Ford-certified technician. He primarily services last-mile delivery vans, step vans, and cab chassis trucks with delivery bodies. “You take a lack of parts plus the lack of technicians, and it can be a disaster to get vehicles back on the road in a timely manner.”
With mechanic and parts shops running lean and full bore today, small delays get amplified, like the truck that was grounded for two weeks while waiting for a wheel hub. Or one of his fleet clients who went to three parts stores to find a supply of a common Shell Rotella oil. When he finally found the oil in stock, “He bought everything they had, because they told him they didn't know when they would get any more,” Kell says.
It’s easy to fall back on the “in-my-day” attitude. But Kell’s advice, while not groundbreaking, is born out of experience in the trenches. Plus, he’s actively managing the situation in new ways himself.
Kell has a few words of wisdom for fleet operators on navigating today’s commercial vehicle servicing challenges. He says some of his own clients listen better than others. Guess which clients have fewer maintenance issues?
Stock up on parts — but beware the parts can change by model year.
Kell has his fleet clients stock tires before they need them, keeping 10 to 12 on hand. “It seems simple, but you’d be surprised by the number of idle trucks waiting on tires,” he says.
Brake pads are another easy item to stock. “My clients that are proactive and keep tires and brake pads in stock, they don't have any emergencies,” he says. “And emergencies are expensive.”
But standardized parts can change as designs change, and sometimes they don’t fit the new model. That happened with brake pads on a Ford F-59 chassis when the brake setup changed from the 2019 to 2020 model year. Some of Kell’s clients have stocked too many of one part from the older model year and were left holding the bag.
Watch for mismatched retread tires.
Kell uses retreads for back tires on larger vehicles. But he’s occasionally gotten back retreaded tires that are not the same brand, which are meant for the same truck. That’s not ideal, but in this environment, you take what you can get.
If this matters to you, he recommends talking to the retread company to make sure you get same-branded retreads on your trucks.
It’s still better to avoid aftermarket parts.
We all know that aftermarket parts are cheaper, but in today’s “take what you can get” environment, even aftermarket parts are in short supply.
“They (aftermarket parts) are cheaper for a reason,” Kell says. He recounts the time one of his client’s drivers wore out a set of aftermarket brake pads in a month because the material was subpar. “Then you’re right back in the same problem — needing new pads.”
When it comes to ordering parts from dealers, trust but verify.
“The best parts people I’ve worked with are former mechanics,” says Kell, though that seems less the case today, as parts departments at dealerships are suffering from staff turnover as well. It can cause costly and lengthy parts issues.
Kell recently ordered suspension parts from a dealership for a truck that can be spec’d in three different GVWs, but one dealer’s parts department got the parts for the wrong GVW. Says Kell, “They swore they were the right ones, but they weren't. And they were very expensive.”
As well, it’s happened that updated parts information didn’t make it into the manufacturer’s new catalogue, he says, which has caused further snafus in parts ordering.
Standardization still matters.
With vehicles in such short supply, Kell understands that fleets need to take whatever makes and models are available. But in the easy times when you only had to worry about maintaining vehicles for two OEMS, now you’re worrying about four or five makes and models, and that brings new potential headaches.
Kell has some clients in this scenario. “It's not practical for them to buy and stock 50 different sets of brake pads. If there’s an availability issue and they can’t get their hands on that part, they're suffering.”
Don’t keep relationships for loyalty’s sake.
Relationships with vendors stand the test of time because they work for both parties. But if they stop working because of staff changes or continued incompetence, in this strained environment you can’t let loyalty get in the way.
“At the end of the day, no matter how mad that mechanic gets when you’re giving your business to someone else, if the fleet owner can't get those vehicles back on the road because of his incompetence, that attitude is irrelevant,” Kell says.
This goes for technicians as well as parts suppliers. When Kell realized he wasn’t getting the best service from a local dealership’s parts department, “I went through several dealers and I found another guy locally that really does care,” he says. “He's Johnny on the spot and he knows his stuff. So now he gets all our parts orders.”
When you’re looking for new vendors, particularly mechanics, find them before you need them. That’s another obvious recommendation, “‘But you'd be shocked,” he says. “In an emergency a lot of people don't know where to take their vehicles, and as we know, emergencies are more expensive.”
Learn truck maintenance basics. Your mechanic can help.
Kell is often amazed at the lack of basic knowledge that fleet operators and their drivers have about how trucks operate. That’s okay — this can be rectified. He suggests having a driver’s meeting in which your lead mechanic can show your drivers (and you) the essentials of truck maintenance.
The meeting should cover how to check tire pressure and tread depth, jumpstart the truck, replace a wiper blade, and know where components are located. Don’t be afraid if the information conveyed seems too basic.
“I've done (this meeting) with several of our clients and it prevents a lot of headaches,” Kell says. “Because if one of their drivers breaks down because of a lack of coolant, that could’ve been prevented if the driver just knew where the coolant went.”
Be obsessive-compulsive about preventive maintenance.
While this has been drilled into all seasoned fleet operators, it’s worth reiterating from the trenches. Kell says his main client has had only one truck break down in years, and it was due to faulty parts, not sloppy maintenance.
On the other hand, “Clients that neglect their vehicles are always a crisis,” he says. “They’re the ones who always need a jumpstart or get a coolant leak because they just don't take care of anything else.”
Drivers are your first line of defense against breakdowns.
Preventive maintenance is a no brainer, and it starts with daily vehicle inspections and communications. “I make sure my clients’ drivers are checking the oil, transmission fluid, and tire treads before the trucks leave for the day,” he says. “That sounds obvious, but just doing that one little thing, like topping off the oil or noticing the nail in the tire, will avert a crisis.”
It goes beyond PM to how they drive. Those drivers who push the pedal, brake hard, and corner harshly will greatly affect maintenance. Bad driving manifests in premature tire wear, spark plug failures, damaged suspension components, and bad alignments. And that’s just added expense and downtime.
Work with your mechanic to identify those drivers and then coach them to better driving. “My clients have certain drivers,” Kell says, “that as long they’re driving, I'll never be out of work.”