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Managing dirt and dust

Dust can grind fleets’ equipment to a halt. Follow these tips to keep your trucks in top working order.

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Cleanliness is next to impossible for truck operators in the Bakken shale area of northwestern North Dakota, where it seems every piece of equipment wears a coat of brick-brown dust.

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The operating environment in the oilpatch is as harsh as you’ll find in terms of dirt, moisture and vibration, says Ron Lindia, shop manager at Wylie Bice Trucking. Based in Killdeer, N.D., the fleet is one of the region’s largest trucking companies, with 500 drivers and owner-operators primarily hauling oil and fresh, flowback and production water for numerous energy customers.

“I’ve never seen anyplace like this,” says Lindia, a Bronx, N.Y., native who has repaired trucks and trailers from nearly every corner of the country over the past 30 years. “It’s like fine powder. The dust literally can grind your equipment to a halt.” There’s more of it hanging in the air every day.

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Roughly 10,000 trucks associated with the oil and gas industry in North Dakota use state and county roads daily. They service more than 6,000 active oil wells in the Bakken region, most of them accessible only by gravel road.

Dirt—and, for that matter, mud and grime—can obscure mechanical troubles that lead to infractions, premature failures, and poor performance of truck and trailer components.

“I don’t know any company that keeps its equipment really clean all the time. If it’s not dusty, it’s muddy,” says Tanner Becken, manager of the Polar Service Center in Killdeer, N.D, which provides parts and service to dry and liquid bulk tank fleets. “At the same time, a dirty truck doesn’t mean it’s badly maintained. You just can’t let a layer of dust create or mask problems.”
Check fenders and flaps during walkarounds and PM inspections. A loose fender or missing mud flap creates hazard for other motorists and will attract inspectors to your tires and wheels.
Whether you maintain trucks in the oilpatch or some other demanding environment, Lindia and Becken offer six simple PM ideas you can use to manage dirt and other contamination:

1. Commit to a rinse schedule: It sounds simplistic to just wash the equipment more, Becken says. But in dusty conditions, the best thing you can do is a simple power rinse once a week. Straight water will do; you don’t need chemicals or detergents. Make sure lighting and other conspicuity systems stay clean, and go easy when you spray frame attachment points, welds, wheel ends, electrical connections, grease points, gladhands, air lines and piping.

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“A wash is a chance to visually inspect the truck and trailer,” Becken says. “You’re going to point your eyes wherever you aim the spray nozzle. Note problems on the body or frame so you can deal with those issues when the vehicle is scheduled for service.”

While you’re at it, give the trailer’s inspection decal a wipe. “A lot of guys forget when their tank-trailer’s annual inspection is due because the inspection decal is covered in dirt,” Becken says. “Clear it off and check the date.”

2. Expand your greasing regimen:
You may know the lube points on the vehicle, but do your drivers? Wylie Bice Trucking outfits drivers with grease guns. “Not everyone uses it, but we want drivers to know where the fittings are and how to apply grease properly,” Lindia explains. “We can eliminate a large percentage of our repairs by making sure components are getting the lubrication they need. I remind the guys, don’t be cheap with the grease.”

Lindia stresses the importance of having an extra set of eyes checking the fittings. “A worn fitting will shoot the grease back and the joint or component won’t get lubricated,” he says. “If the driver notices that, he can inform the shop and we can deal with it before the component fails.”

3. Inspect fenders and mud flaps: County roads and access routes in western North Dakota are littered with gravel, scoria and other stones. They hammer away at fenders and mud flaps, causing impact damage and holes. A loose fender or missing mud flap is a hazard to other motorists. It’s also going to draw the attention of inspectors to your tires and wheels, Becken says.

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“Fenders, mud flaps and mounting hardware are often overlooked during walkaround inspections,” he explains. If something feels loose, find out why. If you need a replacement, choose a quality component with proper hardware.

4. Check air system filters: Water in the air system is bad news, especially when it’s cold enough outside for moisture in the air lines or valves to freeze. Desiccant in the truck’s air dryer will absorb water, oil and other contaminants, but over time it will become saturated to the point where it should be replaced.The simplest way to know if moisture is getting past the air dryer is for the driver to drain the tanks on the truck every day. “Set a schedule that’s realistic and makes sense, and show the driver how to do it,” Lindia says.

“If there’s water on the ground beneath the drain valve, it’s a sign that moisture is getting through to the air tanks,” Becken adds. When you buy a replacement air dryer cartridge, match it to the original spec. Off-brand products may not have as much desiccant material inside or use a less effective desiccant.

Lindia also says to show drivers how to properly store gladhands on the tractor. “We don’t separate our tractors and trailers often, but when we do, we don’t want that gladhand laying out open,” he says. Dirt that enters an open gladhand can ultimately settle at the end of the line—inside the brake valves.

If the gladhand has an inline filter, talk to the supplier about how and when to inspect it. A plugged filter can restrict air to your brakes and disrupt brake timing. If the restriction is bad enough to trip a bypass feature, you’re still passing dirty air through the system. And if you’re going to use an inline filter on multiple-trailer trains, you may also need to spec a booster valve to maintain that air flow.

5. Leave the bailing wire alone:
“We see some very creative field repairs,” Becken says. It’s one thing to jury-rig parts to make them function well enough to get you to a shop; it’s another to leave them on there. A part that’s obsolete or just doesn’t fit right is far less likely to stand up to dirt, moisture, vibration and a more severe duty cycle. It’s better to remove that component and install a new, modern replacement.

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“Whether we’re talking about an internal valve on a tank trailer or a leaf spring, you want parts for which replacements are available so you do not have to fabricate something every time you fix the trailer,” Becken says. “Quality all-makes or genuine parts are designed to give you the fit and performance you expect from the original, they come with a warranty to back them up, and the mechanic can do the installation efficiently.”

6. Make time for inspections: In a highly competitive trucking environment, it’s tempting to forego preventive maintenance for a paying load. Lindia says it’s not worth it. “Every 90 days, we do a thorough inspection, in the shop, mandatory, whether it’s an owner-operator or a company truck,” he explains.

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“This does two things for us. First, we catch the little things before they become big problems. Second, it shows everyone—owner-operators, drivers and mechanics—that preventive maintenance is a priority. There’s management support for taking a truck out of service for a regular inspection.”

Lindia also encourages drivers to use time while loading or fueling to conduct a walkaround inspection. “The pre-trip shouldn’t be the driver’s only inspection of the day,” he says. “Drivers are constantly monitoring gauges and mirrors, listening for unusual noises, and feeling the way the unit is handling on the road. Each exit from the cab should prompt another walkaround. By checking their rig throughout the day, the post-trip will be more straightforward. With a systematic approach to inspections you reduce the risk of roadside breakdowns, unscheduled maintenance, and possibly accidents and injuries.” 

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