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July 16, 2011

The Dirty Dozen - Leading Causes of Truck Breakdowns

Sifting the data from one of the nation’s biggest breakdown services shows where the biggest truck breakdown problems lie.

FleetNet America is one of the largest truck breakdown service agencies in the nation and the company’s customers call by the hundreds of thousands for a tow or a roadside repair. The boss is Oren Summer, an industry leader who has built an organization that utilizes a network of more than 60,000 truck repair vendors to assist in providing vehicle repair and emergency road service throughout the continental United States and Canada. Summer has looked back at the last five years of summary data to identify the Top 12 reasons for roadside callouts. Here are the most likely causes for breakdowns for anyone operating a class 3 through 8 truck.

Tires dominate. And about half as often, roadside assistance is needed for brakes. Given these are the top two reasons for violations and vehicles being put out-of-service, they’re no longer an inconvenience and an unexpected expense. These areas are going to get fleets in trouble under the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s new safety initiative Compliance, Safety and Accountability (CSA).

And if you don’t know about that, go to to learn how this initiative affects you if you’re running commercial vehicles on the highway.

Suppliers of software that track fleet CSA scores say the Vehicle Maintenance category will likely be a problem for as many as one fleet in four.

#1 Tires
As noted, tire problems dominate. This is a condemnation of poor maintenance practices that see underinflated tires all too regularly dispatched under loaded trucks. That, says Al Cohn of Pressure Systems International (PSI), is currently being addressed by the major fleets with automated tire inflation systems (ATIS), such as those from PSI. “Fully 37% of the nation’s Top 100 fleets are using ATIS,” he says. “And 35% of new trailer orders today include ATIS. There’s some increase in the use of tire pressure monitoring, too, so the message has finally got out.”

Peggy Fisher, president of the remote tire diagnostics system supplier TireStamp and a long-term industry tire expert agrees.

“There’s been a big change in the numbers over the last 10 years and that’s good,” she says. “But if it’s still the number one reason, accounting for 25% of road calls, then it’s still a big problem. Tires are the second most common cause for a violation.

But they can cause an out of service violation even if properly inflated. “The criteria are pretty gross,” says Fisher. “Missing tread, low tread depth. Those sorts of problems should be dealt with in the pre-trip or at the safety lane through close inspection. My advice is to look to improved maintenance that will address maintenance cost, violations and breakdowns.”

#2 Towing
While FleetNet’s list is not specific as to cause but two things you know: a tow is expensive and a tow always finishes up at a repair shop. While FleetNet America, in this case, goes to extraordinary lengths to qualify its vendors, this is still a situation that is notoriously more difficult to manage in time and expense than repair in fleet shops.

 #3 BrakesBrakes are the #3 cause for roadside attention. Any brake-related problem is likely to draw an out-of-service citation and that means a call-out before the vehicle can be moved.

ArvinMeritor has a fact sheet called Braking System “Enemies” that lists the issues that cause brake problems. The top seven are:
• Internal water and contamination in air supply and control system
• Oil passing from compressor
• External contamination and corrosion
• Air pressure leakage
• Brake system pressure and timing imbalance
• Reduced foundation brake performance
• Ineffective maintenance practices

In its recommendations the paper cautions maintenance managers, as part of preventive maintenance, to include regular and consistent brake inspections and then service with OEM-level components. The Meritor document has an action list that should be part of any fleet’s preventive maintenance schedule if they are to avoid problems that sideline vehicles and could sideline the fleet.

#4 Electrical
The FleetNet America data breaks out different categories for electrical problems ‒ cranking system, charging system and lighting. Put them together and electrical issues are right behind brakes in frequency. The trend for electrical problems is up, with cranking problems and lighting on the increase while charging problems are falling.

Bruce Purkey, president of Purkey’s Fleet Electric, says part of the problem is the reduction of idle time and the increasing loads from driver comfort requirements.

“The biggest thing a fleet can do in this age of idle policies is manage the electrical loads,” he says. Be aware of loads that are added. You can have a driver put on a 3000-W inverter and fire it up every few minutes drawing nearly 300 amps off the batteries.

“Nobody wants the driver to be sitting in the dark, but you can manage the loads better. For instance, we sell an inverter kit that lets the driver have two hours of operation out of 10. He has his comfort but there’s also enough energy to crank the engine.”

Purkey says of batteries: “It’s not just CCAs (cold cranking amps) today. The batteries have to have enough capacity to supply the loads and be able to cycle. The fleets may be looking at AGM batteries that can better stand the cycling up and down.”

Running the batteries down is also preventable if the truck is spec’ed with a low-voltage disconnect switch. This senses the battery voltage and takes loads offline when cranking voltage approaches a critical level.

Charging issues can be detected in real-time, says Purkey. He has a patented system for fleets that use dispatch communications. It reports back to the maintenance system in the back office. This is very useful intelligence as it allows for decisions to be made that will avoid a breakdown call.

“If the truck only has three hours to run to get back to the terminal, or is stopping near a shop, it can run in on the batteries. Then the maintenance department can call ahead and the shop will have the alternator ready,” he says. “At the same time, the maintenance manager can say not to put on four new batteries as is common in such calls.”

After a repair at an outside shop, Purkey cautions the fleet should flag the truck to check what has been done and also ensure the fault has been corrected properly.

“Fleets need to get the truck in and thoroughly go through the electrical system to make sure the problem has been fixed,” he says, “and thereby avoid another road call when it goes down again. TMC’s RP129 that lays it all out.” (The Technology and Maintenance Council of the American Trucking Associations is the leading authority on truck spec’ing and maintenance. It has a wealth of information, now distributed on CD to help maintenance professionals.

As far as lighting woes go, Truck-Lite’s Chief Technology Officer Brad van Riper says LEDs are the answer. “One of the things that’s interesting to a guy who’s been in lighting the last two decades has been the changeover to LEDs. The first adopters don’t even have lighting failures in their (problem) top 50 any more. But those who go with what they believe is the lower cost – incandescent – still find lighting in the top 10,” says van Riper. “LEDs have been around 20 years, the technology is mature, and there’s a wealth of data to justify the purchase. And there’s no place on the truck where an LED replacement can’t be made.”

He even sees a role for LEDs as retrofits. “In fact, it may even be worthwhile to equip existing equipment with LED lighting with the onset of the CSA initiative.”

As far as wiring harnesses are concerned, van Riper says: “The system is only as good as its weakest link. So if you have poor lighting that requires maintenance and fault finding, there’s a good chance that eventually a tech with an ice-pick diagnostic tool will be in there.”

The result will be corrosion of the copper within the harness and lighting problems. It’s a good idea to keep this in mind during the spec process, he says.

“Another good point is that when doing a pilot review for a large order, make sure the interconnects for the harnesses are away from splash areas. You need to insulate from spray with shields or put the connectors in protected areas. It will pay off in the long run.”

#5 Fuel Systems
In FleetNet’s rankings, fuel system issues come next. A surprisingly large number of these calls are for running out of fuel, something you’d think should never happen if a driver is paying attention. Going forward, as 2011 model trucks hit the streets fuel issues could also include running out of diesel exhaust fluid which, like running out of fuel, is entirely preventable. But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

#6 Cooling System
Cooling systems have long been one of the primary reasons for roadside calls. According to David McKenna, Director of Powertrain systems for Mack, the issue with cooling systems is almost always with connections. The more connections you have, the greater the potential for loss of coolant ‒ the main failure mode for the cooling system. In this, a fleet is as much in the hands of the truck OEM as its own shops, but the specification of long-life coolants, premium hoses and the best clamps money can buy along with technicians trained to look for and deal with cooling system issues early will always help. The Driver Vehicle Inspection Report may help in identifying coolant pump and thermostat issues.

Engines, Exhaust Systems and more
In the main, the FleetNet America rankings are consistent over the last five years with one major exception: exhaust systems are making an appearance in the list. Never a factor before 2009, they now figure on the charts regardless of how the costs are broken out. And one can only assume this is fallout from the adoption of particulate traps in the exhaust post-2007. As more late model trucks get into the vehicle population, more often diesel particulate filters become the cause for additional cost and downtime.

There is no breakout for the exhaust by component issues but DPF active regeneration is a complex system. The increasing incidence of roadside problems may be just a driver training issue where the dashboard lights are confusing to the truck operator, or it may be that the systems are failing altogether.

And something that is on the horizon is the “check engine” light that comes with many post 2010 engines. Bruce Stockton, when he was vice president of maintenance for Con-way Truckload said 2010 engines were throwing a lot of fault codes and while that didn’t necessarily indicate anything more than that the software needed further development, it still meant the trucks either had to make their way to a dealership or back to a terminal to check out the situation. Some trucks quit entirely.

This is a new issue that may show up in next year’s analysis from FleetNet America. For the moment, though, attending to the current top 12 issues so they don’t become roadside failures could address 90% of the problems that result in additional costs for repair, towing, downtime, re-dispatching another truck and the lost opportunity cost for the truck that is down. It doesn’t seem too much of a chore to attend to them.

FleetNet America responds to more than 200,000 calls annually. The company has data that can be mined for information on you operation profile or the particular trucks you’re running. If you want to know the most likely failures on the trucks in your fleet, contact FleetNet America

The Dirty Dozen
1 Tire Failures
2 Towing
3 Brake Problems
4 Electrical Faults
5 Fuel System
6 Cooling System
7 Engine
8 Suspension
9 Exhaust System
10 Cargo Handling
11 Wheels, Rims, Hubs and Bearings
12 HVAC System


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