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Finding reefer service options

Most big fleets take care of their own equipment, almost as though no alternatives are possible. However, some of the most competent maintenance operations make an exception when it comes to maintenance and repair of refrigeration units.

“Everybody knows how to maintain highway tractors and trailers, but the refrigeration part of trucking still makes some managers nervous,” says Greg Jenson, president of Carrier Transicold of Utah in Salt Lake City. “Some fleet managers want help when it comes to refrigeration.”

Fleets actually have more than one option for refrigeration maintenance. Full service leasing certainly qualifies as an option. In addition, fleets that own equipment can purchase maintenance services in a variety of ways. Both major refrigeration equipment manufacturers — Carrier Transicold and Thermo King — offer contract maintenance programs. Carrier calls its program RoadCare; the corresponding Thermo King program is known as Thermo King SVC. Both programs provide centralized billing and nationwide availability of service.

Proprietary maintenance contracts with local service providers offer yet another alternative. Carrier Transicold of Utah is active with both Carrier's national program and with proprietary contracts with a number of local and regional clients. Previously a part of Utility Trailer Sales of Utah, the dealership has operated as an independent entity since October 1997; although, majority ownership remains with Mike Deputy, owner of the Salt Lake City Utility Trailer dealership.

Large dealership location

The company operates from a 15,000-sq-ft building with eight service bays. Its mobile service program has eight fully equipped trucks. Including a mobile service location in St George, Utah, in the southwestern corner of the state, Carrier Transicold of Utah has 22 technicians engaged in work at the dealership and one remote location for a contract client.

“We have about 750 refrigeration units covered by our contracts,” Jenson says. “Those contracts involve eight fleets including one large food distributor with about 300 units and a truckload carrier that runs 280 refrigerated trailers. The remaining clients are all smaller operations with 15 to 75 units under contract. Our contracts are structured in two different ways. We provide complete service with fees based on total unit running hours for the two biggest clients. The smaller clients pay a flat monthly fee for preventive maintenance plus additional charges for parts and labor when repairs are required.

“The two big clients have turned complete responsibility for refrigeration over to us. Although they continue to own the equipment, they are, in effect, renting cold air from us. It is our responsibility to make sure that their refrigeration fleet performs consistently so that they can keep their attention on other aspects of running their businesses.”

On-site technicians

Located outside the Salt Lake metro area, the food distributor serves independent grocers throughout the Intermountain West. Almost 80% of its trailer fleet is equipped for multi-temperature operation. Serving a remote customer requires Carrier Transicold of Utah to place three maintenance technicians on site. Refrigeration parts are stored in a portion of the warehouse, but all work is done on the yard using mobile service trucks.

“Three technicians can handle the basic work load,” Jenson says. “When our client experiences the potential for equipment shortages at certain times of year, we send in additional technicians. We understand their business, because one of our people sits on their efficiency committee. We know when their crunch times will come up and we plan for them.”

The technicians have complete control of refrigeration equipment. That has evolved over the life of the contract, Jenson says. “When we first started, we had to ask for permission to take a trailer out of service for maintenance,” he says. “Now, five years later, our people can make that decision without asking, because the client knows enough equipment will always be available.”

Availability of technicians is another reason for contract maintenance. In some instances, clients have had difficulty finding and retaining qualified reefer techs, Jenson says. “We have been able to work on that problem by hiring their technicians at the start of the contract and making sure that they get properly trained,” he says. “In general, we move new technicians to Salt Lake City and have them work in our shop for four to six months before giving them a remote assignment.”

Avoiding road service

While the goal of all clients is basically the same — keep the fleet rolling and the refrigeration systems performing properly — the truckload client puts a particular emphasis on that goal. “Our truckload client wants to avoid road service entirely if at all possible,” Jenson says.

“Under our contract, we are completely responsible for refrigeration unit performance. If a driver has a problem, the call for help comes to us, not to their maintenance department,” Jenson says. “We pick the service outlet for road repairs, and we pay the invoice. Obviously, paying for outside service gives us a vested interest in doing all the work possible in Salt Lake City with our own personnel. By the way, nearly all work is done on the client's property with mobile service trucks.

“Mobile service is particularly important to our smaller clients, because they don't have to waste driver time bringing equipment to our shop. If we look at the entire list of equipment under maintenance contract, I would be surprised if more than three units show up in our shop a month. The only reason for bringing a unit is for engine or compressor work. I don't want our people trying to lift those heavy components without using the proper equipment.”

The longer a contract runs, the better it seems to function for both the dealership and the client. “Our truckload client is a good example,” Jenson says. “At the start of the program, we guaranteed a monthly inspection for every unit, which is well in excess of factory requirements. As we became more familiar with the equipment, we began to see that constant inspections were unnecessary. Monthly inspections were just overkill. Now we follow the factory recommendations for inspections and oil changes — 3,000-hour intervals. At that interval, units sometimes go a whole year without an oil change, but we have the service records to prove that sticking to the 3,000-hour interval works.”

Some managers believe that maintenance contracts are more expensive than in-house work, Jenson says. However, experience shows that Carrier Transicold of Utah is able to make better use of its technicians' time than an internal fleet shop. “We know what our costs are and we know how to account for labor properly,” he says. “In particular, contract maintenance clients see a big change in costs when they no longer have to pay a fully burdened labor rate for technicians. However, technicians do not lose jobs to our program. We hire them, make sure they are properly trained, and put them right back to work.”

Contracts at Carrier Transicold of Utah are not limited only to Carrier units. “Both big customers have mixed fleets, and we take responsibility for every unit in operation,” Jenson says.

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