For those just getting started in the tree services industry, the biggest challenge might be purchasing a single truck. However, as companies grow, the challenge can shift from simply purchasing vehicles to managing an ever-changing fleet. There are plenty of logistics to contend with and details to track in order to keep a fleet on the road … and keep the company making money.

“Every morning, every operator of every piece of equipment we own has a checklist to do a daily inspection,” says Jim Russo, fleet manager for West Coast Arborists. That’s no small undertaking, since the company operates of a fleet of more than 700 vehicles, chippers and grinders that get put to work in California, Nevada and Arizona. Russo says that operators don’t need to be expert mechanics to complete these daily checks; they’re looking for basic but critical factors such as oil and coolant levels, as well as tires. “Boom operators have a few more things to check for. They’re not mechanics, but they’re taught what to look for, such as wear,” he explains.

Any deficiencies are noted, and all crews travel with tablet computers so they’re able to create a service request in the field. If something needs to be taken care of, it can be scheduled as soon as the problem is noted. “Or, if something needs immediate assistance, they can call in and we have a team of road mechanics who will be sent out to take care of the problem,” adds Russo.

ACRT, Inc. has more than 400 vehicles on the road across the country, meaning there is no single garage to bring them to for service. Employees are asked to complete a daily checklist  and perform a visual inspection prior to driving off in a vehicle. Photo: ACRT, Inc.

ACRT, Inc. has more than 400 vehicles on the road across the country, meaning there is no single garage to bring them to for service. Employees are asked to complete a daily checklist and perform a visual inspection prior to driving off in a vehicle. Photo: ACRT, Inc.

During orientation, new employees watch videos and operate equipment under the supervision of a safety coordinator. Once they go out in the field, they are paired up with an experienced employee in a buddy system. Russo says this gives them a chance to learn how to operate vehicles and equipment safely, and the importance of following maintenance protocols.

Beyond the daily checks, he says that every piece of equipment in the West Coast Arborists fleet is on a 90-day preventive maintenance cycle. “By law, only three-axle vehicles are required to be on a 90-day cycle, but it’s a good program so we extended it to everything, including our chippers and grinders,” Russo states. “So everything comes through our shop every 90 days and gets a bumper-to-bumper check. It’s serviced and greased and anything that needs to be changed is changed.”

West Coast Arborists developed its own internal software to manage vehicle maintenance cycles and repairs. “We also have a tracking device in all of our drivable assets that’s tied into the computer system,” Russo adds. “So if the vehicle is giving out an engine code, we can check [remotely] on our PC to see what it is.”

This tracking system system (from Fleet Solutions) allows the main garage to determine where a vehicle is at any given time, but the system also provides more detailed information. “You can click on a piece of equipment on our digital scheduling board and it shows a picture of it, the last five services [and] the operator. And it’s all real-time information. Any time a service is completed on a piece of equipment it’s updated on everyone’s computer immediately,” says Russo. “There’s a lot involved with the tracking and maintenance of all our equipment.”

A close-up view of the safety magnet that is kept on the driver's door of the vehicle. Operators must finish the 360-degree before they can drive off.  Photo: ACRT, Inc.

A close-up view of the safety magnet that is kept on the driver’s door of the vehicle. Operators must finish the 360-degree before they can drive off. Photo: ACRT, Inc.

The company maintains a fleet of exchange equipment to swap out whenever equipment needs to be taken off the road for service. That’s critical to keeping crews running. Russo says, “It allows us to maintain our production without slowing anyone down.”

Another step to ensuring vehicles don’t have to be taken off the road is the use of a commercial DMV center to handle registration renewals. Because of the size of its fleet, West Coast Arborists found that handling vehicle registrations through the mail became too cumbersome, and sometimes the renewals would be received late. “So we got set up with a commercial DMV center that typically works with automobile dealerships. That’s made it a lot easier because you can go in and sit down with an agent and process everything,” says Russo.

Daily checks, 90-day maintenance cycles, computerized tracking, replacement units and teams of road mechanics may seem excessive, acknowledges Russo. Certainly there are real costs associated with all of these. “But when you look at the overall big picture and the production it allows, it’s a huge thing for us,” he states. “Our equipment is our backbone, so we need to have control of it.”

He also makes the point that properly managing fleets can actually result in cost savings. “For something that’s caught early, it pays off in the long run to repair it when you see it,” says Russo. For example, it’s cheaper to send a mobile repair unit to fix a leaking radiator hose than to have an engine overheat and become damaged.

In managing a fleet, it’s easier and more cost-effective when there’s consistency in the brands and models being used, says Russo. For example, West Coast Arborists uses primarily Vermeer chippers, Hi-Ranger booms and Dodge trucks. “We do stay as standard as possible. It’s good for parts; we can stock one oil filter that will fit 80 percent of our chippers. And it’s good for the mechanics, because they become really familiar with the lines, so the diagnostics become easier,” he notes.

West Coast Arborists has 13 mobile mechanics and about 25 mechanics and support staff working in the main shop. “It seems like a lot, but when you look at how much it would cost to use outside services to do all of this, it’s more expensive and hard to gauge when you’ll get your equipment back,” states Russo. “When your equipment is making you money, it’s nice to have the control over when it’s ready and what takes priority.”

Regular maintenance is critical to ensure all of your company vehicles are ready to hit the road, especially vehicles equipped with specialized equipment, like this Altec aerial lift, required for specific jobs. Photo: Altec

Regular maintenance is critical to ensure all of your company vehicles are ready to hit the road, especially vehicles equipped with specialized equipment, like this Altec aerial lift, required for specific jobs. Photo: Altec

At ACRT, Inc., Fleet Manager Jeffrey Scott faces a slightly different challenge. The independent utility vegetation management consulting company has 400-plus vehicles spread out at locations across the country, so there’s no single garage to bring the vehicles to where Scott can personally look them over. “I am relying on employees to give me good information. Employees often utilize technology like their smartphones to send in pictures to me, but it’s still a challenge,” he notes.

For example, if vehicles do need repair, he’s relying on independent repair facilities to provide honest and accurate service. “We have really tried to put a lot of policies in place including do’s and don’ts and tips for the drivers as a resource when considering service,” notes Scott.

To help keep vehicles from needing serious repairs, ACRT, Inc., uses an in-house form that vehicle operators use to evaluate vehicle condition. “It breaks things down to actually look at the safety of the vehicle: Are your lights working? Do your tires have good tread? Are the vehicle fluid levels OK?” explains Scott. “We ask that drivers sign off and check these things every day before they drive off, because they are out in remote areas and unfamiliar territory.”

On a monthly basis, drivers also answer questions such as: Do you have a fire extinguisher? Do you have your safety kit? Is your registration valid? Do you have a good insurance card? At the end of each month, drivers submit these forms to their managers. “That actually stays on file for safety audit purposes from our safety management team,” Scott adds.

In addition to this in-house system, ACRT, Inc. leases all of its vehicles and uses the leasing company’s maintenance programs. “So when it is time for any kind of service, they can go into any shop from Bob’s Garage to Goodyear and get whatever service they need,” explains Scott.

Leasing also allows the company greater control over the age and mileage of vehicles in its fleet. Even so, it’s a daily dilemma to determine when specific vehicles should be replaced, and which is the most cost-effective vehicle (for example, a smaller truck versus full-size or 2WD versus 4WD) for a given application/terrain. “We really start pinning down all maintenance once a vehicle hits 100,000 miles, because then it’s out of powertrain warranty,” he explains. “About five years and 120,000 miles is when we start thinking about recycling a vehicle.”

Trying to keep up with manufacturer changes can also be a challenge for fleet managers. Scott says, “One year you can get a certain truck with a manual transmission, and then the next year you can’t. One year you can get a truck with bucket seats, and the next year you can’t.”

ACRT’s leasing company and insurance company help to make sure registration and insurance documents are up to date on the hundreds of vehicles. Ultimately, however, it’s up to the company’s own fleet department to stay on top of these details. Scott says, “Each month we run reports to see what vehicles are coming up due. And every state is different, so there could be different county or smog requirements, and those requirements change.”

Technology is used to provide at least some long-distance control over the company’s fleet. “We have GPS in all of our trucks. It is there first and foremost for safety reasons,” says Scott. “If we can slow down one driver, then it’s worth it.” He notes that the technology also helps to ensure customer satisfaction: “If we say one of our employees was on a work site at 8 a.m. and someone questions that, we can go on and prove that he/she was.” It also boosts productivity by encouraging employees to be alert to their activities given the autonomy they have working many miles from the office.

“Finally, there’s a cost savings,” he states. “If the drivers are going a little slower; if they’re not idling as long; if they’re not being hard on their trucks, then we’ll see some savings in maintenance and fuel costs.” Scott tries to give drivers some friendly “coaching” by reminding them that what they’re doing might be costing the company a few dollars, but with hundreds of trucks over the course of a year doing the same thing, the financial impact can be huge.

Drivers hear audible warning beeps in the case of excessive speed or idling time, and if the action isn’t corrected an automated email is sent to the manager and/or the fleet department. Because the driver is the first to hear that warning, very few email alerts ever need to be sent, says Scott.

“Number one is always safety,” he adds. The company’s safety committee is constantly trying to give drivers incentives and entice them to always be safety minded, he says. “I tell the drivers, ‘I can always replace a truck, but I can’t replace you.’ We want everyone to be safe out there.”