Keeping Fleets Afloat

Sticking to a stringent maintenance schedule for vehicles and grounds care equipment minimizes downtime and controls costs

By Renee Gryzkewicz  

Maintenance managers and their staffs depend on vehicles to perform a vast array of daily tasks, from transporting people and materials to work sites to maintaining landscaped areas and removing snow.

Managing these vehicles requires managers to buy equipment, parts, fuel and other supplies; develop department budgets; maintain parts inventories; and maintain a thorough knowledge of and comply with government regulations that affect their fleet operations. Most importantly, though, managers need to ensure the vehicles their department oversees provide safe transportation and stay in good working order.

“Preventive maintenance is really the bedrock of good fleet management,” says Walter J. Burnett, CAFM, building and vehicle maintenance superintendent for the city of Beverly Hills, Calf. A commitment to preventive maintenance (PM) is the best insurance against breakdowns and unexpected downtime.

Software Solutions

To help them efficiently manage their fleets of vehicles, managers can choose from a variety of software packages .

“There are number of good, well-established systems,” Burnett says. Managers need to compare the capabilities of competing packages with organizational needs to determine which software is the best fit.

Because vehicle performance plays a critical role in his department’s operations, Burnett wanted fleet management software that was designed to manage fleets, not buildings. He is responsible for 280 vehicles and about 120 pieces of related equipment, such as trailers and attachments. Before selecting software, his staff compared several packages.

“We wanted to address deficiencies our older system had,” he says, adding that the old system had poor reporting capabilities. While cost was a consideration, it was also important that the software was designed to handle a large fleet.

“We evaluated several packages over a number of years and just kept track of the market,” Burnett says. “The system that we chose was one we kind of homed in on over a period of time.”

Steve DeCarlo, fleet and equipment maintenance supervisor for the township of Lower Merion in Narberth, Penn., says his department uses software designed to manage both vehicles and facilities.

DeCarlo manages 300 vehicles and 100 pieces of ancillary equipment, as well as the organization’s 20,000-square-foot facility that houses its fleet management operations, and he maintains vehicles for other departments. The department’s software calculates maintenance and overhead costs and charges these costs to departments using the vehicles.

“We assign an equipment number to different sections of our fleet facility and assign costs based on those sections,” DeCarlo says. He encourages managers specifying fleet-management software to look for packages that track costs and equipment values.

“Some fleet management software programs don’t have a good financial package,” he says. “They don’t do a good job of tracking depreciation, current value, book value, and replacement values.”

DeCarlo also sought a software program that is easy to learn and required minimal training because before its implementation, the department’s mechanics had not used computers in their daily operations. Since implementing the software, the mechanics have become savvy users of the program.

“Now, they know how to log on and create work orders, look at parts availability, and create snapshots of the equipment,” he says.

Departments can expect some work-flow changes with the implementation of new software, but the transition will be smoother if they can avoid software that drastically alters operations.

“We looked at systems that fit the way we do our work flow and business, so we didn’t have to make major changes,” Burnett says.

Maintenance Issues

Besides keeping track of vehicle specifications and maintenance history, managers need to determine their vehicles’ PM schedule. When creating a schedule, managers must consider manufacturer recommendation and other factors, including the vehicle’s mileage, its age, hours it is in use, and how the department uses the vehicle. Most of the cars and trucks that Burnett is responsible for drive on city streets.

“Since city miles are generally tougher on vehicles than highway miles, we use the manufacturer’s severe service schedule as the basis for our preventive maintenance program,” he says. “We massage those schedules over time, increasing or decreasing the service intervals so that they make the most sense. There is a little bit of art to go along with the science.”

Scheduling PM activities for vehicles used by other departments can be challenging.

The end-users “are out there doing a job, and they don’t want to give up the vehicles,” Burnett says, adding that when possible, the vehicles are serviced during off hours. When that isn’t possible, Burnett’s department notifies the user two weeks before the scheduled service time and follows up a week later.

“We try to give people as much notice as possible, but if you notify them too far in advance they will tend to forget,” he says.

Communicating with end users about vehicle performance also is a critical part of PM, says Joe Jackson, assistant director of facilities management with Duke University. Jackson, who manages 150 vehicles for the university’s grounds care and facility management departments, tries to obtain feedback from the employees who use the equipment to address problems early.

“We want to make sure that when something goes wrong with the vehicle or it doesn’t sound right, we get information on the situation, even though it’s not time for the vehicle to go through its maintenance schedule,” he says. DeCarlo says his department performs predictive maintenance when possible.

“The benefit to predictive maintenance is that we reduce the downtime for that piece of equipment and thereby ensure service delivery to the user department,” he says.

Replacement Strategy

Eventually, all vehicles will need replacing, so having a replacement plan in place is a critical component of fleet management.

“You have got to have a scheduled fleet-replacement program,” Burnett says. “You need to set aside the money to replace your vehicles. Otherwise, you are always playing catchup.”

Burnett’s department uses a replacement fund program. Each department in the organization that uses a vehicle must contribute to a fund that pays for that vehicle’s replacement.

“Every vehicle should have a replacement schedule, and managers should know what its expected life cycle is,” Burnett says, adding that managers don’t want to be forced to buy a new vehicle without the funds to do so.

“Whenever we’re purchasing a new vehicle or a replacement vehicle, we evaluate our needs and try to determine what that vehicle has to do and buy the most appropriate vehicle for that job,” Burnett says, adding that he also tries to stay progressive and productive by updating vehicles with newer technology and listening to user needs.

Departments that oversee municipal fleets have two types of customers, Burnett says. One group of customers consists of people who use the fleet of vehicles, and the other group consists of city administrators, whose goal is to hold down cost and still provide adequate service.

“We try to satisfy the needs of both parties,” Burnett says. “We try to listen to both of them and balance their needs out, even though they don’t always have the same needs.”

“The user may want something that the city administration doesn’t want to spend money on,” he says. “Using our expertise, we try to determine what their needs really are.”

Standards and Laws

Regulatory issues also affect fleet management decisions, especially in California, where many regulations relate to air quality, Burnett says. Failing to comply can have a huge financial impact. Burnett, who is vice president of the National Association of Fleet Administrators (NAFA), encourages managers to become involved in associations such as NAFA, which keeps its members informed of new and emerging regulatory issues.

“The biggest change to our fleet of vehicles in recent years relates to us trying to address concerns with our air quality and getting alternative-fueled vehicles on campus,” Jackson says.

Several pickup trucks and vans in Jackson’s fleet operate using compressed natural gas. The university also uses biodiesel — a clean-burning, alternative fuel produced from domestic, renewable resources — in many of its trucks, Jackson says. Biodiesel contains no petroleum but can be blended at any level with petroleum diesel to create a biodiesel blend.

Electric-powered vehicles also have caught the attention of organization seeking to reduce vehicle emissions.

“In our grounds area, we have several electric-only utility vehicles, and we’re planning to add more,” Jackson says.

Such developments seem likely to define the task of fleet management in the foreseeable as managers seek solutions that keep vehicles operating efficiently and cost-effectively.

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  posted on 10/1/2004   Article Use Policy

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