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Paint finishes offer fleets more than just a ‘pretty face’

Faced with an aggressive environment, degrading road conditions and trucks that last in excess of a million miles, fleet managers need to pay attention to their vehicles’ paint condition.

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Doug Kaufman has been with Babcox Media since 1987 serving in a variety of editorial and publishing roles and titles. He is currently publisher of Engine Builder. He also has been editorial liaison between Babcox and the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) for the past 12 years. Doug has a Bachelor of Science in Journalism from Bowling Green State University and remains a committed MAC enthusiast.

“Beauty is only skin deep,” they say, and if that’s to be believed, then today’s fleet vehicles have extremely tough skin. Faced with an ever-more aggressive environment, continually degrading road conditions and trucks that last in excess of a million miles, fleet managers need to pay attention to their vehicles’ paint condition. According to three leading paint experts, paying attention to your fleet’s finish can actually pay you back in several different ways.

Joseph Krebs, Sherwin-Williams Automotive Finishes product manager, says, “Usually, the finish on a given fleet vehicle or piece of equipment is addressed on an as-needed basis. However, because the finish plays an integral part of protecting the different vehicle substrates, it would be prudent for fleet managers to inspect the finish as part of their regular maintenance routine.”

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J.J. Wirth, brand manager for fleet segments in the commercial refinish segment at PPG Industries, agrees that attention to the finish SHOULD be part of the regular maintenance of a vehicle. However, “I can’t say it always is. Sometimes people don’t notice something until it becomes a much bigger, more apparent problem. If you are looking over the electronic components and the engine components as part of your maintenance, you can do a quick check of your finish as well to be sure you’re not seeing any early signs of corrosion or chips or anything that needs to be addressed.”

Fran Cassidy, commercial fleet segment manager for DuPont performance coatings, says prolonging the life is as easy as using soap and water. “Washing and inspecting the fleet’s finish as part of a proactive maintenance program is essential to protecting the integrity of the coating,” he says. “Repairing scratches and other surface damage as they occur will prevent corrosion of the substrate and potentially delamination of the coating.”

Simply put, says our experts, a well-maintained coating will provide optimum performance and protection against environmental elements and retain its appearance and gloss longer. But should fleet refinishing be addressed from a maintenance or a marketing perspective?

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Krebs from Sherwin-Williams says, “Ideally, it’s both. Protecting company assets is paramount, but representing their “brand” or company in a positive manner should be just as important for a fleet manager. Many companies have brands or a company image that is immediately recognizable. And the best companies will execute that branding in every aspect of their business, including their fleet of vehicles. Consistent branding goes a long way in driving consumer awareness, preference and ultimately buying decisions. That’s why it’s so important to have a quality finish that can deliver durability and excellent appearance on a fleet truck or vehicle.”

“I don’t hear a lot about ‘my vehicle is rusting out and I need to repaint it,’” says Wirth. “More often, a fleet vehicle is refinished to maintain aesthetics or to refresh the appearance over the life of the vehicle or rebranding, or to change a corporate image — or after purchasing trucks from someone else and rebranding them. Of course if you have a collision or need a repair, that’s a different story. Or you may just want to refresh your units to maintain the appearance.”

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Keeping a finish in top shape, says Wirth, is getting more challenging, however. “Calcium magnesium chloride solutions are much more aggressive than traditional road salts. We’re seeing more frequent use of alternative deicing materials today and because of that, vehicles are more exposed to it.”

Durability concerns aren’t just limited to winter weather conditions, explains Krebs. “The number one concern has always been durability of the finish. Part of the job of a fleet manager is to protect the company asset; in this case, the fleet of vehicles. But durability can mean different things to different managers, too. Someone in the South worries about UV resistance while a fleet manager in the Northeast is more concerned with corrosion due to road salt or magnesium chloride. A close second to durability is final finish of the paint system. Managers want excellent appearance, gloss and consistent colors.”

Wirth agrees that appearance is an important feature, and isn’t just vanity. “Clearly finish and appearance are very important. If you have a certain brand image for your fleet, certainly having the vehicles match and look good is very important to a lot of owner operators. You want to have a smooth finish that is there for the life of the truck — you don’t want to see fading or dulling.”

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So what are the biggest concerns among fleet managers regarding the protection level available from their fleet finish?

“Their primary concern is selecting a coating that delivers the right balance between performance and value, especially in today’s tough economic conditions when every expenditure is scrutinized,” explains DuPont’s Cassidy. “Fleet managers want assurance that the coating selected will withstand the environmental elements the assets are exposed to each day. In addition, a consistent color match from unit-to-unit and long-term color and gloss retention are very important to a fleet that views its assets as a way to increase brand awareness.”

Krebs from Sherwin-Williams says, “From a color perspective, there has definitely been an increase in color styling. We have seen an increase in colors using effects like pearls, micas and metallics. This has been prevalent in the automotive world for some time, but we are seeing this trend in the fleet market as well.”
The biggest initiative in recent years has been a push for lower VOC coatings, Krebs says. “Also, customers are demanding products with faster process times and better coverage. In the coming years, we see coatings continuing to move toward lower VOC, waterborne technology and products that offer faster process times.”

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PPG’s Wirth agrees. “We have seen the effects of the color styling that goes on in the automotive industry, where new colors and pigmentation are introduced in automotive and then make their way to commercial after a few years lag time. And regarding the resin chemistry and how the product performs, the reduction of VOCs has been a major step. The product isn’t new, but the areas where it’s being regulated are spreading. Canada and California right now have the most rigorous VOC requirements and now we’re seeing some of the Ozone Transport Commission OTC area in New England and beyond moving that way as well.”

Fleet identity
Like all our experts, Krebs from Sherwin-Williams understands the importance of fleet identity. “Companies like Coke and UPS work very hard to ensure that their fleet of vehicles represent their company and their brand identity. Everything from logos to imagery to color are controlled very closely and with good reason. It goes back to brand recognition, familiarity and ultimately can help drive preference. There is no doubt that larger, “well-heeled” companies spend more time and resources on branding, but it is important for every company. Furthermore, a well-maintained and good looking truck reflects how that business is run. You know that a company that gives attention to these details does so in its business practices, too. In many ways, a fleet truck is a moving advertisement for the company.”

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Wirth says meeting fleet identity needs can be challenging, but to a paint company it’s critical. “We operate on the model that if someone wants a particular color, we’ll match it. We’ve had people submit fabric or a brick and ask us to match it — whatever it is, it’s their corporate color. And it’s not just large national brands; companies of any size have a strong brand identity. Color match is very important to brand identity”

What you need to know
Coating technologies have changed so much in the past decade, say our experts, that selecting the right coating can be difficult — and it’s not a decision that should be taken lightly.

Cassidy says be careful not to make decisions based solely on the “sticker price” of a can of paint because it’s not a true reflection of the value in the can. “Applied cost is the best way gauge price,” he says. “Applied cost factors include: 1) the number of coats required to achieve hiding (consumption); 2) the square foot coverage (consumption); and 3) productivity (eliminating asset downtime). Speak to a manufacturer’s sales representative who can help you design a coating system that delivers the best combination of protection and value based on where the fleet’s assets are in their lifecycle.”

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Always work with certified professionals. If your fleet facility doesn’t have the proper equipment, align with a commercial refinisher who has the right equipment and painters who are certified by the manufacturer to properly apply the commercial coatings.

Another thing to remember, say our experts, is to use the coatings as they are designed. Don’t make modifications from what the technical data sheet recommends. Even though the catalyst may be expensive and the desire to save a little money might be strong, diverging from the technical recommendations can have quite negative effects.

In the end, says Sherwin-Williams’ Krebs, it comes down to a simple fact. “The only thing that I would tell fleet managers is to remember you get what you pay for. In a time where everyone is focused on cost savings, it’s easy to make a decision based purely on price. This can lead to sacrificing quality. Ultimately, in the long term, a company may not realize the cost savings they thought they were getting because refinish work and maintenance will have to be done on a shorter time schedule. I would just advise fleet managers to balance cost and quality when choosing paint finishing and refinishing systems.”

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