Photo courtesy of Donaldson Company
Buckingham Companies realizes the value of preventive maintenance and, like most fleet operations, prepares preventive maintenance work plans at least a month ahead of time.

The ripple effect of unplanned downtime

March 10, 2020
One fleet shares its challenges and unexpected costs when it comes to downed vehicles.

One issue that keeps fleet managers up at night, whether managing a school bus garage or an over-the-road freight business: unplanned downtime.

In the filtration business, with the microscopic tolerances in today’s high-pressure common rail engines, dust and debris not visible to the naked eye can make fuel, oil, and hydraulic fluid unworthy to put into a vehicle without the risk of downtime-inducing damage. Filtration companies like Donaldson are constantly evolving technology to keep fluids clean and vehicles moving. Unplanned downtime is the rock that causes the ripple effect throughout the fleet operation in unforeseen ways.

Michael Buckingham-Hayes, vice president at Buckingham Companies, a refuse and recycling company operating in the Upper Midwest, recently shared the impact of vehicle downtime on his fleet and what fleet managers face on a day-to-day basis. Buckingham operates 20 trucks daily and maintains a single spare disposal truck and one additional all-purpose vehicle. There’s not a lot of margin for error in an operation that tight, which means that keeping each vehicle well-maintained is vital. The alternative is hard costs and longer-term difficulty.

“If one of our trucks goes down, the cost of a tow can be as much as $450,” Buckingham-Hayes says. “That starts adding up when you have a string of bad luck. At one point, we’ve had truck breakdowns averaging once per week.”

Hard costs, hidden headaches

These are specific hard costs. Taking a deeper look, there are a lot more costs when it comes to Buckingham Companies trucks being out of service.

“We can’t let our customers down,” Buckingham-Hayes says. “So when all else fails [and multiple vehicles are out of service], we rent a refuse truck. That can cost $10,000 to $12,000 per month. Three months of those types of costs and we’re looking at a down payment on a new refuse truck.”

But costs go beyond the immediate and obvious. Buckingham maintains their own service garage, so if there’s an excessive number of repairs, there’s overtime for technicians to consider. Drivers may have to work longer days to cover gaps in coverage when a vehicle is down. If fluids are spilled – a broken hydraulic line or radiator hose, for example – there may be an environmental cleanup fee. In some cases, parts may need to be expedited. It can end up costing a fleet more money to get what they need, which is to stop spending on downtime.

Soft costs, hard problems

Buckingham-Hayes says that the “softer” costs of unexpected downtime are in some ways more damaging than the actual dollars spent.

“Morale has maybe the biggest impact across our organization,” he says. “Our backup trucks are older and less comfortable than the regular ones, and drivers don’t want to use them. For the mechanics, one unexpected repair can throw a wrench into everything else. It’s a ripple effect.”

That ripple effect stretches from mental wear and tear on employees to physical wear and tear on equipment.

“When the mechanics are firefighting down equipment, scheduled preventive maintenance takes a hit,” Buckingham-Hayes says. “And if our preventive maintenance gets neglected, the window for more unplanned downtime opens, and the cycle starts all over again.”

Prevention is the key

Buckingham Companies realizes the value of preventive maintenance and, like most fleet operations, prepares preventive maintenance work plans at least a month ahead of time. The only thing hindering that plan is the unexpected, but the plan itself is built to minimize just that.

“Our most common issues that create downtime are hydraulics, transmission, front and rear differentials, and coolant line issues,” Buckingham-Hayes says. “The plan focuses on hoses and connections, keeping fluids clean, et cetera.”

Beyond the physical maintenance checks, he also plans for “bigger picture” prevention.

“We’ve found that more trucks running shorter routes is easier on the equipment, and it creates more flexibility when problems do arise,” he says. “A lighter workload works to keep people fresh; the same can be said for equipment.”

One part of a comprehensive plan

Buckingham Companies is just one fleet that Donaldson works with regularly, but the truths they’ve learned are universal. Scheduled, preventive maintenance is a good thing; it can be controlled and efficient, and it is the most important factor in avoiding that dreaded unplanned downtime. Protecting equipment is one of every fleet manager’s top priorities.

Accelerated component wear from contaminated lube, fuel, or hydraulic fluid is a prime cause of unplanned downtime and the corresponding operational costs.  For instance, expensive high-pressure common rail fuel system component failures can be minimized with improved filtration on fleet vehicles and in bulk storage tanks.

With long-life, high-capacity filtration products, fleets can even extend service intervals and minimize planned downtime frequency, let alone unplanned downtime. The right filtration efficiency can provide protection and minimize the ripple effect.

John Woolever is the global product manager for Donaldson’s engine aftermarket business unit. He has been with the company for 17 years in a variety of technology and innovation roles in the quality, business systems, and product management fields. Woolever has a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from Iowa State University.

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