Multiple angles of a white Silverado HD vehicle on a blue graphic.

Essential Utilities’ Aqua division uses this Silverado HD diesel for its four-person water crews. The truck also serves as the foreman's mobile office.

Photo: Essential Utilities/AF

Essential Utilities is one of the largest publicly traded water, wastewater, and natural gas providers in the U.S., serving approximately 5 million people across nine states under the Aqua and Peoples brands. The de-centralized fleet consists of 2,300 units, from Chevrolet Bolt EVs to half-, three-quarter, and 1-ton pickups, vans, and medium-duty trucks with vocational bodies and upfits. 

With such a wide service area and varied duty cycles, locking down on maintenance is traditionally an elaborate task. 

Luckily, "Maintaining the vehicles has gotten so much better," said Charlie Stevenson, vice president of fleet. "The vehicles are built better. We don't see the same number of engine and transmission replacements we did ten years ago (and) we don't see the rust issues in the northeastern states anymore." 

With the post-pandemic lack of vehicle supply, Stevenson was forced into longer replacement cycles, but the practice is sticking. "We used to run the trucks to 125,000 miles, but now we're comfortable with six or seven years and 150,000 miles," he said. 

Stevenson shared three initiatives that have resulted in lowering maintenance and operational costs: 

Right-Spec Trucks 

One of the biggest cost-saving wins — for maintenance and operating costs in general — has been to right-size the trucks. Stevenson was able to move from eight-cylinder, ¾-ton pickups to four-cylinder half tons and still fit the trucks' applications. 

Like Gothic Landscape, Essential is also moving away from diesel. With higher pump costs, diesel's superior fuel economy and longer-lasting engines are no longer worth the premium over gas-powered trucks, which are now better engineered. 

Diesel mechanics are harder to find, though scarcity varies by region. "There aren't as many in northeast Pennsylvania," Stevenson said, "but in Texas, you're fine." 

Stevenson will still spec diesels for light-duty applications when low-end torque to haul heavy loads is required. 

Analyze Oil Samples 

Stevenson has been taking a more scientific approach to preventive maintenance by sending oil samples to a lab and adjusting PM schedules based on the results. 

Compared to manufacturers' recommended intervals, sampling allows for more precise timing on when to change the oil. "We have increased intervals from 4,000 to 6,000 miles, but it can go as high as 7,500 miles depending on condition and class," he said. 

However, adjusting oil change schedules doesn't mean the truck gets passed over for other PM items, such as tire rotations, brake checks, and fluid top-offs. "We call it a mini-PM," he said. 

Avoid Quick Lubes 

Essential runs five maintenance shops, which handle PMs, brakes, tires, and suspensions. The shops perform engine and electrical work but don't do transmissions, bodies, paint, or glass. Mobile maintenance is available in some areas. 

The data from those shops is inputted into the company's Dossier fleet management information system (FMIS) and then analyzed to inform replacement cycles. 

Essential also relies on Holman, its fleet management company, to define parameters for when to replace parts. Drivers can call a hotline to understand price restrictions and recommended intervals. 

For areas without shops, Essential outsources PMs, which raises another cost management technique regarding the type of shop performing preventive maintenance. "Quick lube" establishments run on a more retail business model that does not always meet fleets' needs. 

Some refer to it as "the sins of the quick lube," where the shop will try to sell easily replaceable wear items like cabin and air filters and wiper blades — yet avoid flagging other issues like a broken door handle. 

Use Franchised Dealers 

Stevenson has cultivated relationships with franchised dealers for PMs, which don't oversell on parts and have technicians trained to catch issues before they lead to failures. 

He makes sure the local fleet managers treat those relationships with care to foster communication on issues with the trucks. "It's more expensive on paper but less expensive in the long run," he said. 

About the author
Chris Brown

Chris Brown

Associate Publisher

As associate publisher of Automotive Fleet, Auto Rental News, and Fleet Forward, Chris Brown covers all aspects of fleets, transportation, and mobility.

View Bio