Lube Truck Basics: Buy What You Need

Sept. 28, 2010

If you're in the market for a lube truck, perhaps we should pass along the advice that was at the top of the list for every lube-truck manufacturer Construction Equipment contacted: Size the vehicle to your operation. Sounds elementary, but apparently this basic principle is violated more often than you'd think among lube-truck buyers.

"I've seen it happen," says Tim Worman, product manager, commercial vehicles, for Iowa Mold Tooling (IMT). "A contractor notices a new $200,000 lube truck that's just been delivered to his competitor, and not to be outdone, immediately orders one exactly like it —only to have it sit idle much of the time. Having a truck that's too large is a detriment, because utilization costs shoot up. But just as detrimental is a truck that's too small, because you won't be able to adequately service the fleet. You have to strike an intelligent balance."

Striking that balance, says Worman and others in the lube-truck business, begins with a "needs analysis" — that careful first step of asking basic questions:

What type of equipment will be serviced? How many units will be serviced? What types of services will be performed? How many of these services will be performed in a typical day? How long will the truck be out before refilling its tanks? In what type of terrain will the truck operate? In what type of climate? Will the truck carry fuel? Is a grease system required? Are used-fluid tanks needed? What are your state's policies on hauling salvage oil?

"Buyers sometimes have preconceived ideas about what they need in a lube truck," says Worman. "Some initially insist that they need, say, a 24-foot-long truck with 2,000 gallons of product. But as we work through their actual requirements, we might find that the truck can be half that size — at half the cost —if it simply returns to the shop once during the week to top off its tanks."

Unless you're an experienced lube-truck buyer, you're probably best advised to seek the assistance of reputable manufacturers and dealers when thinking through the needs of your operation. These people have the experience to help you develop a lube-truck that fits your business, and some employ proprietary software to assist in the process.

But, that said, having a fundamental knowledge of lube-truck design — and being aware of choices you might have when buying such a vehicle — might serve you well in the buying process.

Keep in mind, too, that lube-truck manufacturers might approach the design of their products in different ways. For some, every vehicle is basically a "one off," a completely custom truck. Others take the approach that a degree of standardization reduces manufacturing costs, and to that end, they might limit choices, but still allow some latitude in customizing the vehicle to a particular operation.

Body type? Fuel?

Among the most basic considerations when thinking about a lube truck is how much of the vehicle is to be enclosed by protective structures. Typically, you have three choices: completely open; completely enclosed; or open with an enclosed hose-reel compartment. The choice of body style, says Walt Van Laren, sales manager for Service Trucks International (STI), usually is dictated by environment, that is, climate and jobsite conditions.

"Buyers in colder climates may favor an enclosed unit," says Van Laren, "as might those who plan to use the vehicle in extremely dusty conditions."

The enclosed lube truck has the appearance of a cargo van, and some of these units can be quite large. The enclosed design not only keeps the product tanks (except fuel) and all other components completely out of the weather and dust, but also provides the technician a relatively clean, dry, protected and sometimes heated area in which to work. Typically, the enclosed design uses a roll-up door at the rear for access to the reel compartment and a side door (or a door within the reel compartment) to give access to the interior.

But variations on this basic theme are certainly possible. For example, Machinery Lubrication magazine recently published an article about an enclosed lube truck designed by employees at Rio Tinto Energy America's Antelope Mine in Wyoming. Among the vehicle's innovations is a reel compartment placed on the left side (just forward of the tandem axle) to avoid the dust that boils up at the rear. The reel compartment also is pressurized to further discourage dust intrusion.

At the other extreme of the design spectrum is the completely open lube truck, which, basically, has all of its various components bolted to a flatbed. This design, while saving on the vehicle's initial cost, is not widely used, primarily because the reels and dispensing nozzles are continually exposed to all manner of contamination.

Most popular of lube-truck designs, perhaps, is the open truck with an enclosed reel compartment at the rear. Some of these vehicles, in fact, might appear at first glance to be enclosed units, especially if side storage compartments extend forward from the reel compartment. Access to the interior of the lube body typically is from a set of steps built into the right side of the body just forward of the reel compartment.

Another fundamental consideration when thinking about a lube truck is whether the vehicle needs to carry fuel. This decision, say the experts, must again be based on the specifics of your operation. All three basic body types can accommodate a fuel tank, but according to Jeff Taylor, Jr. of Taylor Pump & Lift, a custom-lube-truck manufacturer, enclosed bodies are the least likely to be so fitted. The tank simply takes up considerable room, he says, and can reduce the amount of space and capacity to accommodate other products.

But even vehicles with non-enclosed body styles, says STI's Van Laren, seldom are equipped with a fuel tank in excess of 2,500 gallons — and most are more in the range of 1,000 to 1,500 gallons. But, says IMT's Worman, these 1,000- to 1,500-gallon tanks seem to be gaining popularity, based on the number of buyers who specify them on new vehicles.

Products? Chassis?

At the heart of designing a lube truck, of course, is deciding what type of products it will carry (other than possibly fuel) and in what quantities. The products the vehicle carries, of course, will be dictated by the types of services it will be performing, but a "full-service" unit might have on board engine oil (perhaps in more than one grade), hydraulic fluid, final-drive oil, gear lubricant, grease, antifreeze and water (for pressure washing).

The specific petroleum-based products carried, of course, probably will reflect recommendations from the various equipment manufacturers. The same is true for diesel-compatible antifreeze — whether fully formulated conventional or an organic-acid type — or both. And if you plan to premix antifreeze with distilled or deionized water, then larger tanks might be required.

In addition, appropriately sized salvage tanks for both used oil and used coolant might be needed. Remember, however, that regulations in some states may classify salvage oil and coolant as hazardous materials and may limit the amount that can be transported or may require a special license to do so.

The specific volume of each product that the lube truck carries is, again, part and parcel of the needs analysis. But on the practical side, Worman suggests that the analysis should consider the implications of catastrophic failure in a machine system.

"Plan for the worst case," he says. "If there's a major problem, you want enough product to handle the situation."

Once the quantity of required products has been determined and the resulting weight calculated, only then can the lube truck's chassis be considered. In some instances, such as in mines, the lube truck might never be used on-highway, and if so, the legalities of weight distribution might be avoided — even though the principles of good design should still be observed. In most lube-truck designs, however, keeping the truck within legal weight limits is paramount. Having a truck that needs a permit to move is adding a cost burden that no one wants to pay.

For an on-road lube truck, then, the aggregate weight of the products carried — and perhaps the size and weight of individual tanks — will influence the wheelbase and the size (and number) of axles used for the chassis. At this point, some buyers might legitimately review and perhaps modify their perceived needs to avoid using a tandem-axle chassis, which may be subject to federal excise tax and which may require operators with a commercial driver's license.

Specifying the chassis, however, also involves other considerations.

"Some lube-truck users may plan to park the vehicle on a flat, accessible spot at the jobsite, then bring the machines to it," says Van Laren. "But the point of a lube truck is to gain the capacity to take the service to the machine. So, depending on the terrain at jobsites typically encountered, the buyer may want to consider such items as heavier suspension and larger tires."

Pumps, heaters & accessories

The lube truck uses pumps to move products from the tanks to the hose reels, and these pumps can be powered either hydraulically or pneumatically. Pneumatically powered pumps, says Van Laren, generally can move fluids at the rate of up to five or six gallons per minute, while hydraulic pumps can deliver up to 10 gallons or more per minute.

Although generalizing can be risky, it's probably safe to say that fuel on a lube truck is almost always moved with a hydraulically powered pump, because it can deliver large volumes rapidly. Probably safe to say, also, is that air-diaphragm pumps normally are used to move antifreeze, water, used coolant and used oil. Grease typically is moved with an air-piston pump.

For moving petroleum-based fluids, either type of pump can be used, and in some instances, you may have a choice. If so, says Van Laren, considerations should include rate of delivery, temperatures at which the pumps will work (moisture in cold weather could affect air-pump performance) and duty-cycle (how often will the pump be used).

Some manufacturers make the case that using air-powered pumps in the petroleum-product circuits reduces cost, because these systems are simpler than hydraulic-drive systems. Those who favor hydraulically powered pumps, however, make the point that hydraulic pumps not only are faster and quieter, but also are more robust in construction and better suited to continuous operation. Plus, they say, an air compressor large enough to power all of a lube truck's pumps will be expensive, and the perceived savings of an all-pneumatic system may not always materialize. But, again, both types of pumps are competent, and the selection of one type or the other should be guided by those basic considerations suggested by Van Laren.

To make pumping petroleum products easier in cold weather, enclosed lube trucks are sometimes heated to keep the tanks warm. But, exposed product tanks on non-enclosed vehicles also can be heated. Heating methods include circulating engine coolant around the tanks and using 110-volt immersion heaters powered via a truck-mounted generator, an inverter or an external-current source.

"Tank heaters are always popular in the snow belt," says Worman, "but users in warmer climates also are showing interest. Heating the oil lowers the viscosity enough to allow faster pumping, and you can gain considerable time on each service."

You also may have a choice of filling methods for petroleum-product tanks. Top-fill ports are usually standard, but a bottom-fill system might be available. The latter system uses quick-couplers in the hose reel compartment to fill tanks from the bottom. Since each product's coupler is of a specific size, the risk of cross contaminating products is reduced (compared to top filling), and the risk of dirt entering the system also is reduced.

Another consideration when designing the lube truck is the size of product-delivery hoses, both length and diameter. Hoses 50 feet long are usually standard, but your situation may require them to be longer. And, since hose length and diameter affect flow rates, says Van Laren, some applications may require upgrading from standard-diameter hoses to those with larger diameters. He reminds users, too, that required flow rates in some situations might preclude the use of an air-powered pump.

A couple of final considerations are those of metering and filtration. If it's important that you record the quantities of products dispensed into particular machines, ask the dealer or manufacturer about metering systems that might have integral software to assist with this record keeping. Regarding filtration, the placement of high-efficiency filters between petroleum-product tanks and hose reels can assist in assuring that clean oil is delivered to machines. But, says Worman, these filters aren't going to make up for dirty oil loaded into the tanks.

So, maybe before you take delivery of your new lube truck, you should investigate the cleanliness of your bulk-oil supplies.

Oshkosh lube truck
This 8×8 Oshkosh lube truck, built by Australia-based Maintcorp, carries nearly 2,700 gallons of fuel and five grades of oil that total nearly 700 gallons. The used-oil tank holds 525 gallons, and the truck also carries 135 gallons each of antifreeze and wash water. The diesel-powered compressor produces an airflow of 125 cubic feet per minute.
Side storage compartments give this new Iowa Mold Tooling (IMT) SiteStar an enclosed look, but the interior of the body is open. For delivering oil-based products, the SiteStar uses hydraulic-motor-and-pump combinations mounted on a central manifold in the enclosed reel compartment. The SiteStar can accommodate either rectangular or oval fuel tanks.
This Eagle Pro Lube model built by Service Trucks International (STI) features an enclosed design with curb-side entry into the interior, side-mounted storage compartments, and a large roll-up door at the reel compartment.
This tandem-axle model built by Maintainer reflects what might be the most widely specified type of lube truck — an open designwith an enclosed reel compartment. The unit features a large, oval fuel tank (Maintainer offers fuel tanks from 500 to 5,000 gallons), under-deck storage cabinets, and a choice of an aluminum roll-up door or steel swing-out doors for the reel compartment.
Among the patent-pending features of IMT's SiteStar is the use of polyethylene tanks for petroleum-based fluids, antifreeze, water and salvage. According to IMT, the "poly" tanks weigh about 80 percent less than comparably sized steel tanks, remain cleanerthan steel tanks, and are less susceptible to collecting condensation. The poly tanks are available in five capacities, ranging from 75 to 350 gallons.
The interior of the STI Eagle Pro Lube enclosed model is bright and well lighted, has tanks and sub-frame that are mounted via a spring-loaded system to resist twisting and offers a choice of air or hydraulic power for the product pumps.
Lube-Truck Alternatives

For some equipment-using operations, the use of a lube skid in the back of a service truck (or pickup) may be a more practical approach to field service than a lube truck. Likewise, a lube trailer might be a more effective way to service a small fleet than the conventional lube truck, allowing field service without impinging on the truck's cargo-carrying capacity.

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