Working to the PM

Refuse truck preventative maintenance (PM) is key to minimizing costs while maximizing uptime. Fleet experts offer their PM tips as trucks become more technologically complex.

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Maintaining a functional fleet of refuse trucks is critical to a waste company’s operations. But between advanced onboard electronics, modern hydraulic systems and increasingly complex engines, the new cohort of refuse truck fleets has maintenance needs that extend far beyond what the previous generation of repair technicians faced.

“The industry has to, and is, adapting to a new generation of vehicles, which means you can’t fix a truck anymore without having a laptop hooked up to it,” says Darry Stuart, president and “limited time executive” of the Wrentham, Massachusetts-based DWS Fleet Management Services. Stuart says his position, which he’s served in for nearly two decades, is similar to a consultant in that he helps fleet personnel identify problems, but he also works with teams to fix those problems and implement effective preventative maintenance (PM) programs to reduce costs.

Stuart says fleet managers should strive to maximize truck uptime and be the low-cost provider without skimping on maintenance. The same basic principle of refuse truck maintenance has remained throughout his 40-year career in fleet management: Prevention checks are key. Just what to prioritize in those checks, though, has shifted from fundamental vehicular components, like grease and oil, to more high-tech components, like computer, electrical and hydraulic systems.

Along with following the basic daily checks recommended by the vehicle manufacturer in the truck’s operation and maintenance manual, Stuart also recommends setting up a PM program for regular deep-dive checks. The frequency of those checks should revolve around maximizing the quality and use of the oil and grease. Calculating the appropriate PM intervals depends on the specific truck’s hours on the road or gallons of fuel burned; however, the exact interval hinges on other factors like oil quality and manufacturer recommendations, Stuart says. Newer trucks, for example, can run a solid 400 hours before needing PM thanks to more efficient engines and oils.

Stuart warns that fleet managers must emphasize quality over timing during checks. Without a quality PM program in place, Stuart says mechanics tend to “touch the truck more than necessary.” That can cut down on vehicle uptime and prevent realization of maximum oil life, which translates into dollars lost.

Additionally, managers should encourage comprehensive inspections rather than expediency, since sloppy or rushed checks may lead to overlooked issues and problems down the road.

“Be careful on how you try to control the productivity of preventative maintenance by forcing the technician to work faster than necessary,” Stuart says.

Conducting preventative maintenance

When it comes time for PM, batteries should be at the top of the list of things to check, Stuart says.

Today’s trucks rely on batteries not just to start, but also to carry out their various specified functions. A couple hundred electronic sensors reside in the truck’s engine alone, while other parts of the truck, like probes and fuel injectors, rely on electronics as well.

“Everything is controlled by electronics, and at the heart of electronics are the batteries,” Stuart says. “That’s why batteries and battery maintenance are critical. It’s probably the most important thing in the truck today. If you don’t have well-maintained batteries, the trucks won’t operate correctly.”

Stuart says that proper testing is key. If battery charge is low, the truck could die at a moment’s notice. In addition, voltage drops can affect efficiency in nearly every part of the truck, from emissions to automatic transmission shifting. Stuart says the battery cables need to be disconnected, cleaned and load-tested during each PM check to be sure a full charge is getting through. Low-voltage batteries present special concern because they can put more pressure on the truck’s alternator and starter and, ultimately, reduce the lifespan of those components.

While monitoring batteries is critical, PM on the truck’s electronic system extends far beyond regular voltage checks, Stuart notes. For newer trucks, Stuart recommends making the proper financial investments to adequately test the equipment. This includes using diagnostic equipment, scanners and laptops to receive necessary feedback on vehicle performance as well as software updates. He also recommends investing in personnel training, too, so mechanics are up to date on the latest technology. Some manufacturers offer training for their specific models of trucks—McNeilus Truck and Manufacturing Inc., a Dodge Center, Minnesota-based Oshkosh Corporation company, for example, recently announced the creation of a new program to train service technicians on how to maintain its vehicles.

Hydraulics also need to be a part of the regular checks, Stuart says, as refuse trucks rely on these systems to power everything from their automated operations to their brake systems. During every PM service, Stuart recommends checking all parts of the hydraulic system to be sure they’re functioning correctly, including the mounting, lines, hoses, fittings, valves and connections. Additionally, he recommends a thorough cleaning of debris from these areas. Hydraulic (and air) brakes also need to be regularly checked for leaks, and pads and rotors need to be measured to determine if they need to be replaced.

Beyond the hydraulics, Stuart emphasizes the need for making sure vehicle systems are adequately lubricated.

“When you put all these service items together, it’s a lot of moving parts, a lot of general wear and tear, even with proper greasing and lubrication,” Stuart says.

In a sample 90-step PM sheet provided by Stuart, he lists more than 20 different areas of the truck to keep lubricated with “the best grease you can buy.” Stuart recommends Petro-Canada Peerless OG2 Red, or a product of a similar quality. Areas of focus include forks, arms, slides, moving parts, U-joints, clutch linkages and more. Paying attention to these little details on the truck will help operators avoid bigger problems in the long run, Stuart says.

Thorough PMs also need to include an oil change and checks on tires, air filtering and cooling systems. Because of increasingly strict federal emission rules and new engine technology, trucks are generating more heat than they used to, so cooling systems must be in good working order for the truck to function properly. Since the excess heat generated during operation can make traces of coolant leaks evaporate, regular pressure testing of the cooling system is essential to a proper check, Stuart says.

Tires are a critical safety component on the vehicle, which is why these service items should be regularly checked for inflation and wear. Tires should be kept properly inflated, and the front axle should be properly aligned to minimize abnormal wear. Worn, underinflated tires can lead to increased braking distances, reduced steering control and expedited replacement intervals.

Haulers should also consider investing in outside help from manufacturers for advanced maintenance issues, says Zach Martin, the vice president of North America sales for Big Truck Rental, a Tampa, Florida-based company that provides refuse truck rentals across the country.

“Newer truck technologies can allow for easier and quicker diagnostics in identifying issues that may be occurring, but [they] additionally may require a certified dealer to provide the service versus your own maintenance department, depending upon the issue,” Martin says. “It is important to work with manufacturers with good dealer and customer support that can help keep your fleet running.”

Martin also suggests taking a comprehensive approach to vehicle service that includes a multifaceted approach to supplement a hauler’s fleet needs.

“It is important to have a strategy that allows for proper replacement of vehicles based on age/usage, in addition to proper maintenance programs, and I would suggest stepping outside of traditional views to identify what is best for the specific operation,” Martin says. “For example, renting a percentage of vehicles along with ownership may allow for the retirement of older vehicles that create stress to reduce fleet age and maintenance challenges while positively impacting the bottom line.”

Fine-tuning a PM program

While all refuse trucks contain the same basic maintenance needs, each truck has specific areas that need a little extra TLC depending on their function and operation. This is why developing a proper PM program for a fleet depends on the specific trucks in service. Front loaders, for example, need more attention on the cab area, which can experience damage through spills and regular use. Side loaders, on the other hand, need special attention on their side arms, which may be used to service anywhere from 500 to 1,000 houses a day.

“Each different truck will have different characteristics, but service is all based on [protecting] moving parts and [reducing] physical wear and tear,” Stuart says.

The environment and geography a truck is used in also plays a substantial role in determining what PM is needed for that particular unit.

“The extreme conditions of hot and cold, as well as geography—such as running trucks harder in more mountainous terrain—can have an impact on the frequency of service or change the pre- and post-inspection [protocols],” Martin says. “We recommend working with the manufacturers to understand what may be unique about the collection environment and the equipment purchased to create the ideal service plan.”

Taking the time to develop and invest in a quality PM program will maximize uptime and save operators money, Stuart says. For example, one refuse fleet he worked with reduced its tire costs by 25 percent in one year just by adjusting its PM and tire program to properly maintain its units. Conversely, vehicle downtime has a rippling effect, leading to higher costs on technicians, botched timelines, more strain on functioning trucks and less satisfied customers.

No matter how good a PM program is, though, issues are inevitable. Stuart recommends having key parts stocked to save costs on rushed orders. While some fleet managers take issue with purchasing inventory that simply sits on a shelf, Stuart says it’s vital to at least invest in critical, hard-to-find parts.

Operators never know when a vehicle might go down. Being ready for unexpected losses can make it easier to overcome maintenance challenges, maximize uptime and allow haulers to continue uninterrupted service to their customers.

The author is the assistant editor for Waste Today and can be contacted at

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