Having a greener fleet may be more common sense than color sense.
By Paul Hull
In parts of the country people get excited about the arrival of springtime-the bursting out of leaves and then blossoms, the time when many of us start the year's outside work, exercise in the fresh air and make plans for the summer. This happens every year as nature reminds us that winter has gone and we should prepare for the rest of the year. It's as if life begins again. The most obvious aspect of springtime is probably the green mantle deciduous trees wear and the annual recoloring of the grass. Of all the words that have been overused in recent years, green may be at the top of the list. When someone talks about greening your utility fleet, forget the color and tell yourself the simple truth-that it means making your fleet more efficient and environmentally sensible. You already try to do that every day day, don't you? There are still avenues of progress for you to search and follow.
Over the years I have met and conversed with many fleet managers, and I have always found them to be some of the wisest managers in any industry. It must be annoying to have people with less knowledge telling them what would be best for their fleets. Like many campaigns, money seems to rule the thinking in this area of fleet optimization. The salesperson whose commission and livelihood are based on the sales of certain automotive parts will assure you that those parts are the key to your future success. Managers higher up the utility ladder-sometimes with no practical experience-can become infatuated with certain ideas and techniques, and insist the company's vehicles should be a certain brand, type or color. The decisions about the quality of your fleets must be made by people who know the advantages and potential disadvantages of the product.
I am not mentioning specific company names in this article because there are so many good ones. I would encourage readers to read articles and advertisements in Utility Products and other relevant PennWell magazines.
Ideas That Have Spread
There have been hundreds of suggestions for fleet managers-or anyone responsible for vehicles-about the greening or efficiency-making of everything that travels or transports. Every company with a new product or method knows you should have it, but basic common sense of a fleet manager is the most powerful and responsible tool for moving forward. In one article I read about greening fleets, it was said that it would be helpful to fuel vehicles at the right time of day, making sure refueling is done early or late when the temperature is cooler. The reason given was that it would reduce emissions pushed into the air during warmer times. That is a good idea, but how important is it in the whole picture of running an efficient fleet? I could be wrong, but I don't see such advice as important as encouraging users to keep their vehicles properly maintained. A poorly tuned vehicle could cause far worse emissions than a well-maintained one-even if it refueled mid-morning.
Some responsibility for fleet quality must be with those who drive the vehicles-whether they are aerial lift trucks, pickups or passenger cars. Does the employee who seldom has a passenger in his vehicle really need a large pickup to show his status in the company? The longevity of a utility vehicle mostly depends on the operator, just as the condition of your personal vehicle depends on you and how you drive and maintain it. It is wise to encourage sensible driving and discourage idling vehicles too long. Think how often most of us ignore official manuals-because we imagine we already know it. Preparing a company guide for drivers and operators, and enforcing it every day, can achieve more than changing to different components under the hood or chassis. Don't be afraid to demand good driving habits from everyone. Vehicles are tools. If an employee is not using a tool correctly, should he or she be an employee?
Improvements are unlikely to happen all at once. Because of money, there are few utilities that will change all their vehicles at one time. This is where the wisdom and experience of the fleet manager plays a role. If we change this component, how will it affect other, existing components? Will we have to change them, too? Will this superior package actually fit in the vehicles we have? How would this change affect the drivers? Would it help, would it slow performance? If we opt to use this fuel, how will it affect performance? Does it help reduce noxious emissions? Is this fuel readily available to all our drivers? There is much homework to be done before making decisions, and you might need to find experts outside the company. Advice I have heard from experienced managers and worth repeating is: "If you get outside, expert help, make sure the expert is an expert."
Some advice given to those who want to make their driving operations more efficient might seem childish at first. "Don't drive so many miles" was advice that received loud laughter-at first. Then one experienced fleet manager pointed out there had been driver and operator carelessness in routes to jobs. It was not unknown for someone to stop at home on the way-but it wasn't really on the way. Making unnecessary trips is similar to letting the vehicle idle; it wastes fuel and money. It also hurls more emissions into the community's air. Some drivers resent someone checking their mileage and journeys, but you may find it's not the reliable drivers who mind.
One of the most obvious changes to make vehicles use less fuel is to make them lighter. There have been component improvements in most utility vehicles, with lighter frames, lighter engines and lighter attachments. Safety is always the top priority, and there are parts that, it seems, must remain the same weight. But, it is always worth considering new designs that, for example, use aluminum instead of steel. Any weight change should never reduce the performance or safety of the equipment. Items such as ladders, however, have proven safe when built in a lighter weight than 20 years ago. The weight of a vehicle and the weight on a vehicle can make a significant difference in fuel consumption and emissions.
Regardless of how much vehicles will contribute to a greening of our fleets, the drivers, operators and crews will always have the opportunity to improve or worsen performance by their daily behavior or work ethic. And don't forget the technicians who maintain the vehicles. Make sure they know the benefits of on-board diagnostics (OBD) and how to take advantage of them. OBD can detect small problems for the technician long before they become major problems. Manufacturers have cooperated with their customers about available information for engine problems, but it is up to the technicians to know where to find that information and how to interpret it for their utility.
This greening that people discuss is not something that suddenly happens. It's not anything magical or mysterious. It is what many fleet managers have been doing for years-making the vehicles in their care the best performing and kindest to the environment possible. My only comment: Keep up the good work!