Trucks: the modern contractor’s beast of burden

May 4, 2011
At the turn of the 20th century, when the automobile was new, most heavy lifting and hauling was done by horse, mule or oxen. The term “horsepower” is not a quaint colloquialism, it had real relevance when the internal combustion engine was new.

At the turn of the 20th century, when the automobile was new, most heavy lifting and hauling was done by horse, mule or oxen. The term “horsepower” is not a quaint colloquialism, it had real relevance when the internal combustion engine was new. What horses did then, trucks do in today’s economy. Contracting businesses of all types rely heavily on their work trucks.

A new toy… er, truck
In better times, regularly trading in work trucks was almost a rite of passage. What owner, foreman or journeyman didn’t salivate over getting a new truck every couple of years? It was almost like a hidden, or not so hidden, incentive. In fact, it was a great tax incentive because you could depreciate the vehicle over a short term. If you were moderately successful in business, it was easy to justify the expense of trading in your older trucks for newer ones regularly and the new factor just added a bit of “successful bling” to you and your business.

The argument could be made that newer trucks had less service problems than older ones, and that would be true to a point. It could also be said that improvements in technology made newer vehicles more cost efficient, and that would be true as well. The dark side of the equation was that in most, but certainly not all, cases employees rarely treated the new trucks with anything remotely resembling good care after the newness wore off. Dents, dings and scrapes, etc. on the exterior; coffee, soda, chewing tobacco, etc. on the interior rendered a vehicle worn beyond its years in a very short time. This diluted the trade-in value and lowered the overall value for resale privately.

Today, trading up for new trucks is much less likely if you are a small to medium sized shop. The cost of fuel alone (especially diesel fuel, but that’s another column) is climbing faster than most owners’ blood pressure with no end in sight. If you’ve always taken exemplary care of your vehicles, what I am suggesting is not news, but if you are not in the habit of worrying too much about your trucks, you might find this at least interesting, and at best a way to profit.

Keep on truckin’
How do you treat your trucks? Do you look at them as merely necessary tools that help you do your job? Or do you think of them as an extension of you and your company? This is a legitimate barometer of how long you can expect your expensive, depreciating asset to live.

In times past, there were those who took good care of their beasts of burden. They fed, doctored and husbanded their animals with care, thus extending the useful working life of the creatures and realizing more profit in the bargain. Then there were those who took a different view. They, quite simply, worked the animals to death. When a horse or other working critter took ill or came up lame, they destroyed it and replaced it with another one.

The problem with the latter point of view was that, relatively speaking, livestock was expensive to replace. Unless a person was doing well in business, it was likely that replacing a horse, mule or other working animal was cost prohibitive.

Relating that scenario to our present economic situation, one can understand that taking good care of one’s vehicles will save money in the long term and ease cash flow in the near term.

Maintaining your trucks
If you are not used to thinking in terms of truck longevity, it might be a good idea to start. It is much easier to repair a vehicle that you own than to finance a new one. The repair that costs $600 or $700 for a “paid for” three-year-old truck is only one month’s payment on a new truck.

Keeping up service and maintenance on your trucks is the best way to keep them running and working (read earning). If you don’t have a regular maintenance schedule for your trucks, you are really missing the big picture. With quick change oil/lube franchises almost as ubiquitous as gas stations, there is no reason not to have your trucks on a regular schedule for this most basic, but very necessary, maintenance. Regular oil changes alone can extend the life of your trucks by years.

Tires and brakes wear out. Replace and repair them regularly. Waiting until you hear the wear sensor screeching at you to take a look at your brakes is foolish and a waste of money. Riding on bald tires is, likewise, a false economy. As we mentioned earlier in this article, the cost of a new set of tires is about equal to one, or at most two payments on a new truck. Heck, your insurance premiums will be less for an older truck too!

Try thinking about how long you can make a truck last as a goal to be achieved. Regular washing and cleaning can also make your employees appreciate their company vehicle just a bit more too. Make vehicle maintenance and care a priority and you won’t be sorry. You’ll keep more of your hard earned profits, and that’s what it’s all about.

The Brooklyn, N.Y.-born author is a retired third generation master plumber. He founded Sunflower Plumbing & Heating in Shirley, N.Y., in 1975 and A Professional Commercial Plumbing Inc. in Phoenix in 1980. He holds residential, commercial, industrial and solar plumbing licenses and is certified in welding, clean rooms, polypropylene gas fusion and medical gas piping. He can be reached at [email protected].

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Contractor, create an account today!