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What to Look For When Spec’ing a Bucket Truck

March 2015, Work Truck - WebXclusive

by Kelsey Nolan

<p><em>When procuring more bucket trucks, a good resource can be your linemen. Photo courtesy of Terex&nbsp;Utilities.</em></p>

Purchasing a new bucket truck can be daunting, especially if it’s a first-time purchase. Knowing what specs to consider when purchasing is important in helping you make the right decision. Jim Kraschinsky, the northern regional sales manager for Terex (and formerly for DUECO Inc. that was recently acquired by Terex), explains what you should consider before you buy.

Replacing or Purchasing New

Whether you’re an investor-owned utility, a cooperative electric co-op or a municipality, when it comes to your budget for new bucket trucks, you must first consider whether purchasing a brand new truck size or configuration or replacing previous vehicles is your best option. Knowing how much you’re willing to spend and how many trucks you’re trying to replace or purchase is important. The options are wide-ranging from new or used equipment, transferred or reconditioned equipment, and owned, leased or rented equipment.

Additionally, be aware of your delivery timeframe. The aerial device or the digger, the chassis and the body need to come together at the same time — only then can the truck be built. Getting these three components that are often from three different places can take time. The order process may take up to three months before your decisions are final, and delivery could take up to 10 months. So be conscious of all lead times when you’re getting ready to place your orders.

User Alignment

User alignment is a factor when considering all the above (new, body transfer, etc.). How much input companies factor in from linemen can vary from company to company. According to Kraschinsky, while some fleet managers have specific directions and spec vehicles without much input from linemen and operators, others take stock of what their linemen say they need, especially around safety. Some even have standard committees to discuss these issues.

Click here to view bucket truck spec'ing in photos.

Some of the safety considerations companies take include making sure steps are in equal distance and height, that there are more lights, how simple it is to get in the bucket, and making it difficult to slip and fall. Kraschinsky says that as the workforce in the utility and telecommunications industries age, particularly linemen, there’s more attention paid to the safety aspect of their jobs.

It’s a good idea to hear from your linemen in order to find out what they want more or less of.

Weight Payload

Weight payload is also a significant consideration, especially when it comes to diesel trucks, given today’s emissions equipment and other components being added to vehicles every year. One way to work around a heavier truck is with aluminum or fiberglass bodies. It’s a way to keep the same size truck while staying below the 33,000 lb.-plus Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) to avoid paying a federal excise tax. Plus, the two materials don’t rust and therefore look better longer to customers out on the road.

Kraschinsky says fiberglass or aluminum bodies are more popular at co-ops and municipalities because they are light and they don’t rust, and can last well into the 12-year replacement timeframe. “Users don't want a rusty, old truck sitting there because people might complain about what it looks like. Those people would see how their hard-earned tax money is being used by the local power company,” he explains.

As well, most linemen like to have all tools on hand in case they run into a particular issue. “Just by nature, when you have a body on a truck, users tend to want to fill it up just like your basement or your garage. Every nook and cranny is filled up with something,” Kraschinsky explains. Depending on the type of sector, from private to municipality, payload requirements can range. Knowing your linemen’s behavior and state laws regarding axle weight is important in determining the size of your vehicles.

Trends in transmission tower heights could affect your decision when purchasing a bucket truck. Photo courtesy of Terex Utilities.
Trends in transmission tower heights could affect your decision when purchasing a bucket truck. Photo courtesy of Terex Utilities.

Jib and Platform Height

The jib and platform capacities need attention as well when you’re looking to replace or purchase a new configuration. Kraschinsky says when replacing, you’ll want to make sure you’re staying in the same capacities you have with your existing vehicles. If it’s a new purchase, he says fleets should consider whether they want to move up or down in height if, say, the poles in the service area have gotten taller or another recent trend is needing smaller trucks to convert highway/street lighting to LEDs. He also adds that while transmission towers are getting taller, in general distribution lines aren’t moving up in height as significantly, if at all.  “I think that's a longer term trend where the size of poles are moving up in height,” Kraschinsky says. “The poles might move from 50- to 55-feet over seven or eight years.” And there is certainly a trend to convert to LED lighting.

Lighting Features

Lighting and storage are the first things linemen look at in a demonstration, according to Kraschinsky.

Knowing how much lighting you’ll want on your trucks (whether to add more to your existing vehicle or adding more lighting to a brand new truck), is an important component of your purchase decision. Kraschinsky explains that even midstream, fleet managers sometimes want to add more lights because there was an accident or they didn’t believe their truck was as visible as they thought it could or should be.

Additional Features

There are additional safety features depending on the equipment provider that customers can opt in for such as hydraulic overload protection to prevent the boom from bending, outriggers that have to be in place before operating the equipment, and any other OSHA requirements that need to be followed to ensure safe operation.

Kraschinsky explains that sometimes, fleet managers come to him to request modifications or present ideas about weight savings, camera usage, rust prevention, or have an opinion on other telematics or GPS systems and he takes them into consideration, so it might be smart to have an idea of your requirements and additional features before you start the process.

Chassis and Powertrain Requirements

If you’re replacing one or several existing chassis, you should verify the compatibility with the rest of your equipment. Kraschinsky says you should make sure whatever chassis you purchase works with the line of vehicles you’re working with. It could simply be a matter of opinion — what you’ve experienced and what you like. Your technician in addition to drivers might be able to weigh in on this decision, including any issues with your current products. As lifecycle costs are increasingly important, you will want to consider the value of easy access for maintenance and the overall maintenance support required from one truck and brand to another.

When ordering a chassis, customers need to find the right one to fit the application and make sure they won’t be overloading and going against DOT regulations, but also because it can lead to premature wear of tires, brakes and suspensions.

<p><em>Terex's vehicles primarily have diesel powertrains. Photo courtesy of Terex Utilities.</em></p>

Axle weight can also be a consideration; however, configurations don’t vary much from fleet to fleet. The main variations customers will see are a decrease in the front axle weight capability of a thousand pounds or so, but lightweighting  isn’t as much of a concern. Hydraulic 4x4 front axle applications or factory 4x4s are two options, but both can be more costly in comparison with the standard medium-duty 4x2 trucks.

When it comes to purchasing a powertrain, Kraschinsky says Terex hardly ever sees gas vehicles unless they are hybrid options. And even then, hybrid could still refer to diesel. But for the most part, utility vehicles tend to remain diesel because of the heavy loads and the need for towing. The only time gas powertrains are a good idea is perhaps for a light-duty pickup or other lower-mileage trucks if the cost savings are significant.

Looking Toward Hybrids

According to Kraschinsky, though they have a higher price point, plug-in hybrid options are becoming more prevalent as the chosen power system, especially as the available options improve in quality. In the past, customers believed the hybrid systems didn’t pay for themselves quickly enough to make the investment worthwhile since they are more costly purchases, especially if there isn’t enough realized cost savings. For example, at $4-$5 per-gallon of gasoline, a fleet could see payback in 5 years.

The hybrid option that can power the boom also saves on idling. Plus, many hybrid systems have air conditioning and heating options for the cabs. Beyond fuel savings, Kraschinsky says that he finds that electric companies also gravitate toward hybrids so they can say they’re using electricity to power their trucks and promote the use of EVs and their benefits to consumers. Additionally, it's more environmentally friendly and reduces noise which benefits the neighborhoods these utility companies serve.

Some hybrid users have shared that the biggest benefit is an improved and safer environment for their crews, as they no longer work in an emission filled environment and can communicate more safely with fellow crew members, given the quiet environment. Doing careful research on hybrids is important, as each offering in the market is different.

Finally, being electric helps utility fleets with the initiative from the Edison Electric Institute that encourages them to spend at least 5% of their fleet investments on hybrid options.

What to Do With the Old Unit?

Vehicle lifecycles can vary from fleet to fleet and from truck to truck. Kraschinsky mentions that understanding the true cost of ownership because the products are coming from different equipment suppliers becomes very difficult when talking about utility fleets. Diggers and 55-foot material handlers typically last for 10 years or more for private or investor-owned utilities, and smaller municipalities and co-ops tend to keep them for 12-15 years. Trouble trucks, on the other hand, are good to replace after about 7 or 8 years because they are usually out every day, gaining more miles.

Kraschinsky says he mostly sees larger companies taking their vehicles to auction and smaller ones trading-in.

Your total-cost-of ownership can affect whether you want to replace or buy new. If you know you want to auction your trucks, trade them in, or transfer to a new chassis, be sure to look at each truck’s cost from cradle-to-grave.

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