Trailers, trailers, trailers! Trailer builds are going up like drive-in movies of the ’50s, and with the world of online buying and overnight deliveries increasing demand for freight and storage, the demands for trailer maintenance, annual inspections and roadside DOT compliance is more important than ever. Most fleets are not investing in brick-and-mortar maintenance facilities, due to the economic disadvantage of moving a trailer to a maintenance facility for irregular carriers and dedicated fleets alike.
Likewise, trailer rental companies have popped up and/or expanded, which has only increased the need for maintenance on rental, leased and fleet-contracted trailers; not to mention that low rental rates are often enabled by older trailers that require trailer-loads of maintenance. Rental and lease customers also don’t want to move trailers to a maintenance facility. Pressure to lower costs is moving many toward outsource trailer maintenance, and mechanics with an entrepreneurial spirit jump on the growing business opportunity. But are they looking before they leap? You definitely should.
Consider this recent real-world scenario in which an onsite, mobile trailer repair company dispatched a mechanic and mobile truck to a service site. It was a small, local company that seemed to have a high level of response and a lower hour rate—at least, at first glance. This repair wasn’t the only one taking place in the yard that day. In fact, there were three trailer vendors performing service on trailers: One was replacing a door hinge, a second was replacing a trailer tracking device and a third was performing annual and PM inspections. Two of the vendors were small, independent mobile-truck trailer maintenance service providers; the third was a large trailer manufacturer local dealer. Now, you might ask, “What’s the difference between the work, and who cares as long as the job gets done?”
Try asking yourself that when you watch one of the mobile-truck mechanics working off a 12-ft. ladder, not secured to the trailer, is trying to replace a swinging door hinge. Of course, no one ever thinks to ask to see a certificate of insurance. Did he have insurance? Who knows? What we do know is that the owner of the property better have deep pockets because my money is on the guy teetering on the ladder does not having insurance.
Let’s cut to the other mobile-truck repair mechanic performing annual and PM inspections. As it happens, after the inspection, the trailer didn’t move for a week, which triggered another PM audit. The trailer had PM and annual stickers of completion, but a second look found that it also had oil hubs that had not been checked for lube. How could you tell? The windows were stained and it was impossible to visually inspect the lube level. Look a little closer and you could tell the slacks and camshafts had not seen grease in a long time. There was also an airbag that needed to be replaced. Although it held air, a roadside or California BIT DOT inspection would deem this trailer out of service.
We talked to the mechanic that performed the work, and guess what? He could hardly speak English and he did not have any paper work available, but hey, he said that he always adjusts the brakes. (Auto slacks, cue forehead slap). He said that he always greases the cams and slacks but must have missed that on that trailer. He said he did not see the rotted air bag, but if even if he did, the customer would not have wanted it replaced. He did not have a replacement bag on the truck, and it would take him two hours in traffic to find one. His cab was unorganized and he couldn’t produce a current RO or PMI paper work. But he did have a copy of the PM paper work from August 2017—nine months old —certainly not on file at the company for retrieval, nor in the trailer registration holder. A real Columbo moment….
So what does this all mean? Simple: Outsourcing trailer PM is an option and, in a lot of cases, the only way to process the PM and federally mandated annual inspection. Normally a cheaper rate does not mean lack of quality work, nor does a larger manufacturer dealership with insurance necessarily mean that quality work is being performed. No sweeping service generalizations can be made, but there are some processes that should be commonplace:
- Someone from your company has to do audits on PMs and inspections to ensure compliance and value of outsourcing.
- Do not assume outsourcing, by itself, leads to quality and compliant repairs.
- Do not assume that large, nicely painted advertised service trucks provide quality work.
Although in many cases, high-quality outward appearance speaks to a much high level of technical ability, better repair ethics with tighter work expectation procedures in place and deep pockets as well. Remember: Liability does not stop at the vendor’s cab door—all have a responsibility called contributory negligence. Simply put, all will pay.
At the end of the day, you need to understand what is really going on with your trailer service. You need to be seeing the equipment, touching the equipment, constantly interviewing onsite mechanics, and expecting that the mechanic’s goal is to race to completed what was agreed to based on the flat rate requirements that came with your decision. You cannot beat a master of the game—you just need to understand the game. Your game has to be more than budget compliance. And, please, do not assume that it gets corrected by an email, text or phone call to your corporate contact. That’s the kiss of death.