UFP Magazine

Fiona Soltes

Bucket Trucks, Powered Up

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New Jersey-based Public Service Electric and Gas Co. (PSE&G) has a little over 500 bucket trucks in its fleet. Of those, 327 have some degree of electrification. That might mean an original Bohlinger electric drive system from decades back, or perhaps a more current and elaborate work-up that operates the boom and provides climate control of the cab and exportable power for the crew.

“A lot of the technology [crews were] using, years ago, it would have been very hydraulically driven,” said Jay Marchitello, PSE&G transportation supervisor. “For instance, up at the pole top, they would use hydraulic tools to drill holes, screw conductors together and what have you. Now, however, that’s changed to battery-powered tools; they’re lighter, there’s less impact on the people, and less impact on the truck.”

The exportable power of the complete system, then, allows the crews to charge and use these battery-powered tools at the top.

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Fiona Soltes

Technology Tools to Ensure Proper Fuel Use

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Remember the days when fuel consumption was likely to be documented on a clipboard near the pump?

Chris Lindquist does, too. Lindquist, who spent almost 30 years managing fleet and fleet operations for Colorado Springs Utilities before other opportunities, said vehicle numbers and gallons used were marked, “but reconciling those wasn’t very accurate.”

Times have changed.

Fleet professionals now have access to telematics, employee and vehicle tracking technology, fuel card controls and more. Data is there for the taking – but a careful eye is still required to ensure proper fuel use.

“Fuel is the largest-volume operations and maintenance expense a fleet manager has,” Lindquist said. “It represents the most transactions in the month. It takes a tremendous amount of time to reconcile, but when you consider the amount spent on fuel in the overall budget, you have to allocate the associated amount of time to manage it.”

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Fiona Soltes

The Fleet Manager of the Future

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Being a utility fleet manager today can be tough. How much tougher will it be tomorrow?

With the constant advancement of technology, the increasing need for communications savvy and leadership acumen, ever-decreasing budgets, and an aging workforce being replaced by a younger cohort lacking institutional knowledge and experience, it’s a nail-biter of a time.

So, how does a utility fleet manager prepare for the future?

Gary Lentsch, CAFM, fleet manager for the Eugene Water & Electric Board in Eugene, Oregon, said that people skills are huge, especially when it comes to the ability to “hold yourself accountable and focus on the things that matter most to the operation.”

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Fiona Soltes

Making the 5G Connection

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In late 2018, AT&T announced a standards-based, mobile 5G network in parts of 12 U.S. cities, with seven more areas to follow. The company also said it was on the verge of bringing 5G Evolution technologies to 400 markets, enabling faster speeds, wider coverage and lower latency, which improves streaming capabilities. Verizon, meanwhile, has been making strides of its own, announcing Verizon 5G Home – billed as “the world’s first commercial 5G broadband internet service” – last fall.

Some have eagerly awaited these advances and their impact on connectivity, communication and possibility. Others? They may be impressed that what’s long been talked about appears to finally have arrived.

Lou Vella, telematics product development manager for fleet management company ARI (www.arifleet.com), said it’s still difficult to say how 5G will impact operations for utility fleets. But possibilities are beginning to emerge – and not just in terms of autonomous and semiautonomous vehicles.

“As the technology continues to evolve, companies are finding new, innovative ways to leverage increased network speeds,” Vella said. “These higher speeds make it viable and affordable to implement technology, such as in-cab video, as a means to supplement traditional telematics data and provide further insights into driver performance. As 5G networks become more widely available, I believe the immediacy of data, combined with the amount of data available, will fuel further innovations that will be leveraged to improve performance of both the vehicles and their drivers.”

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Fiona Soltes

Hydrogen Fuel Cells Still Packed with Promise

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In the transportation sector, fuel cell technology has long been on the brink of breaking through for a variety of medium- and heavy-duty applications. We’re still not quite there yet, the experts say – but the promise continues.

“Increasingly, the toughest remaining challenges for heavy-duty fuel cell trucks relate to the hydrogen fuel they run on,” said Jon Leonard, senior vice president at Gladstein, Neandross & Associates (www.gladstein.org), a clean transportation and energy consulting company. “Like compressed natural gas vehicles, most fuel cell vehicles run on compressed hydrogen [CH2] that must be carried onboard the vehicle using heavy, expensive, high-pressure tanks. Although this presents tradeoffs on cost, range and other factors, onboard CH2 storage is robust and proven.”

Other challenges include the high cost of the hydrogen fuel and its limited availability due to a paucity of hydrogen fueling stations. “Moreover,” Leonard added, “the limited number of existing hydrogen stations are largely geared for light-duty vehicles like the Toyota Mirai, Honda Clarity, etc. The only hydrogen stations that can accommodate heavy-duty vehicles are mostly found on transit properties.”

All the same, there is forward movement. Light-duty fuel cell vehicles manufactured and sold by the likes of Toyota, Honda, Hyundai and Mercedes-Benz are proving their worth – and inspiring the promise of other, heavier-duty applications in the future.

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Fiona Soltes

The Search is On for Quality Technicians

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Dale Collins, CAFM, fleet services supervisor for Fairfax Water in Virginia, faces an increasingly disturbing and familiar scenario in the next handful of years: Five of the eight people working in his two repair facilities will retire.

The good news is that his organization is “pretty attuned” to the so-called Silver Tsunami of aging baby boomers; a quarter of the organization will retire within the same time frame.

“So, we’ve been challenged to create some kind of succession plan,” Collins said, “to figure out the best way to approach this, so we can capture and transfer our institutional knowledge and technical expertise. Then have a good recruitment plan and hire top-notch technicians.”

Ask anyone in literally any industry today, and the story is the same: There simply aren’t enough willing and able workers to handle the roles currently filled by the older set. It’s particularly tough in skilled labor; there can be misconceptions about salaries, opportunities and advancement possibilities. There also can be lack of awareness about the need to attract and train students long before they graduate high school. Due to the dearth of candidates, companies are having to take on employees at ground level – and bump up salaries and benefits.

“There’s been a complete shift,” said Lucas A. White, interim associate dean at Madison Area Technical College School of Applied Science, Engineering & Technology. “Organizations are desperate and can’t be as selective now. The industry has had to increase wages, knowing that they aren’t going to find somebody for $10 to $12 an hour. The students know they can get that in fast food, without a skill.”

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Fiona Soltes

Collaboration is Key When Rightsizing Your Fleet

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For organizations contemplating a fleet rightsizing effort that won’t anger end users, here’s some advice: use solid data, convey information clearly and seek understanding.

“At the end of the day, it’s ultimately about communication,” said Charlie Guthro, vice president of global strategic services for fleet management company ARI (www.arifleet.com). Prior to a rightsizing initiative, operators won’t necessarily be saying that the fleet has extraneous equipment, while others in the company may be focused on budget. But when fleet professionals get to know their internal customers and their needs, Guthro said, greater collaboration is possible.

“When you rightsize a fleet, it gives organizations more opportunity to hold on to their most critical resource: their people,” he said. “You have to approach it from, ‘We’re not here to do things to you, but for you, and we want you to be involved.’”

That’s easy enough to say, but it can be challenging to deliver, especially with new management – those who want to make a definitive mark through changes without perhaps fully surveying the landscape or considering long-term impact. This can affect productivity and diminish employee buy-in.

Imagine, for example, a utility fleet that cuts back on lesser-used equipment, believing it will be available as needed from external rental providers.

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Fiona Soltes

Flat Fees for Fleet Asset Flexibility?

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As drivers and fleet professionals explore the possibilities and realities of vehicle subscription models, they’re in good company. Fleet management organizations also are kicking the tires of the concept – including how it might eventually apply to utility fleets.

Under the subscription model, subscribers have access to vehicles on demand, often with insurance and maintenance included, and can switch out vehicle models, too.

Eric Schell, product manager for driver tools at Element Fleet Management (www.elementfleet.com), and Jayme Schnedeker, Element’s director of fleet products, said they are in discovery phase with the idea and looking to Element’s experience with car sharing for cues.

“For companies like us, as well as for manufacturers, the question is, where do we fit into all of this?” Schnedeker said. “How can we provide services for our core customers that make financial sense for them?” The subscription model provides flexibility in areas where there hasn’t traditionally been any, he added, and with individual consumers increasingly using services such as Uber and Lyft, those expectations of convenience are being transferred to work life.

Traditional fleet pools and micro car-sharing markets give fleets a taste of multiple drivers using one vehicle fractionally, Schell said. Even so, he believes, adoption of the subscription model in a broader sense would require “a fairly significant cultural change of how our customers are looking to do business today.”

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Fiona Soltes

What Do AI and Machine Learning Mean for Utility Fleets?

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There are some people who still believe artificial intelligence (AI) is no more than sci-fi wizardry. And there are others who tend to view it with blind optimism, as a kind of be-all, end-all for industries of all types. But somewhere in between, AI has taken its true place as just one piece of a much broader technology transformation.

Both AI and machine learning – a field of computer science that enables computers to think intelligently and even “learn” from historical data without specifically being programmed – eventually will make their way to utility fleets, perhaps through relationships with other industries. David Groarke, managing director of Indigo Advisory Group (www.indigoadvisorygroup.com), a new-energy/utilities consulting firm, ticked off some possibilities. These might involve, for example, electric fleet vehicles automatically being charged during off-peak times. Or, they might include the use of telematics to better predict and adjust driver behaviors. Examples abound in other industries, too, such as supply chain and logistics.

As a result, Groarke and others have said, now is the time for utility fleet professionals to take notes, ask questions, be willing to share data for more accurate and strategic insights – and keep pushing the envelope by exploring what-if applications.

“More information is always better,” said Paul Millington, vice president of technology products for Element Fleet Management (www.elementfleet.com). “As experts who are dedicated to fleet, we make it our job to anticipate what insights our customers would be looking for. I’d say keep asking the questions of your fleet management company and others on whether your objectives could be achieved with machine learning.”

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Fiona Soltes

Choosing a Lift with Safety in Mind

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When selecting a new maintenance bay lift that’s safe for your fleet operation, there’s more to consider than the assets that will be lifted on it. It’s also essential to account for what will be under and above the lift – and how the weight will be distributed.

All too often, industry experts say, well-meaning fleet professionals and maintenance technicians choose a lift simply based on the weight of the largest vehicle or piece of equipment it will hold. But there’s more to the equation, and getting it wrong can have disastrous results.

First, noted George Survant, senior director of fleet relations for NTEA – The Association for the Work Truck Industry (www.ntea.com), it’s important to remember that the base weight of an asset is one thing, but the weight of that asset when it’s on the lift, fully loaded, is another.

Here are seven additional considerations from Survant and Steve Perlstein, president of auto lift supplier Mohawk Lifts (www.mohawklifts.com), on choosing a lift with safety in mind.

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Fiona Soltes

Strategies for Hiring and Retaining Skilled Technicians

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It’s no secret that today’s utility fleets have encountered difficulty finding job candidates with the appropriate training, experience and technical skills. And not only that – once qualified candidates are hired, those workers can be wooed by other companies offering greater salary and benefits packages.

So, how can you find and keep the right candidates for your fleet job openings?

Those in the know recommend partnering with area technical schools and colleges to ensure the right skills are being taught – and the right candidates are being snapped up early. On the other end of the spectrum, they recommend providing current employees with training and career development opportunities to keep them engaged.

“There’s a lot of poaching going on, especially on the utility side,” said Jason Ball, who worked as both a heavy-duty mechanic and fleet manager before taking the helm of Utility Training Group (www.utilitytraininggroup.com) less than two years ago. Specialized on-the-job training – delivered by someone like Ball or an OEM representative – sweetens the pot by helping workers learn new skills, gain confidence and stay up to date on the latest technologies.

But it’s important, Ball said, to make sure those conducting the training have the right experience, in addition to good references.

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Fiona Soltes

Strategies to Reduce Fuel Theft and Fuel Card Misuse

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Yes, it could happen: A nefarious individual could approach one of your pieces of equipment parked on the lot and siphon fuel right from the tank.

What is perhaps more likely, though, is loss due to improperly used fuel cards.

“By and large, employees do the right thing,” said Geoff Scalf, director of global energy business development at Telogis (www.telogis.com). “But you will have some employees who will make poor choices.”

Leveraging the proper technology and techniques can help ensure fuel theft is kept to a minimum.

It’s important that employees understand what the proper use of fuel cards means. Aside from using the cards to fill up personal vehicles, Scalf said he often hears of employees who travel in groups and don’t think twice about using one employee’s card to fill up several vehicles at once. There’s nothing fraudulent about that sort of misuse, but it can make for messy paperwork, numbers that don’t add up and misallocation of funds in the future. Another example of misuse: when an employee pulls a trailer with, say, a backhoe loaded onto it, and then uses the card to top off both the truck and backhoe without changing any codes in the system.

Telogis Fleet offers one way to keep closer tabs on misuse, whether or not it was intentional. The Telogis platform includes a module that gives increased visibility into fuel usage.

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Will Solar Drive the Future of Electrified Trucks?

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Several years ago, when gas prices were higher and an industry need arose to reduce costs and seek alternative solutions, conversations about harnessing the sun intensified. Combined with advances in electric vehicle technology, the possibilities of what manufacturers and fleets could do in this realm began to grow.

Solar power began to be used to extend the range of some electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. And a full-size electric pickup truck using solar to extend its range was introduced at the 2014 North American International Auto Show.

Given the evolution of solar power use in vehicles over the years, where are we today?

As it turns out, on a slightly different course than one may have assumed. Rather than focus on the use of solar to add range to electric vehicles, utility fleets are, for example, adding panels as components of larger energy management systems. Solar power may be used to recharge vehicle starting and auxiliary batteries. It also can supplement battery charging while a vehicle is being driven or while it’s stopped – a valuable feature where legislation may prohibit idling. Additionally, solar power paired with an inverter system converts DC battery power to AC household power to charge cordless tools, laptops, test equipment and other work truck loads that require AC power without draining the battery.

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Fiona Soltes

Putting a Lock on Lost Keys

Putting a Lock on Lost Keys

Keeping track of keys in a utility fleet environment – which may have thousands of assets, from pickups to bucket trucks and beyond – can be a costly endeavor. In fact, the price tag associated with maintaining fleet vehicle keys and replacing those that are lost can hit well into five figures each year.

“Keys are pretty much a nightmare for every utility,” said Gary Lentsch, CAFM, fleet manager at Eugene (Ore.) Water & Electric Board. With roughly 350 pieces of equipment, he has a lot to keep up with. Two keyboards – one master with keys that never leave the property and another keyboard for the shop to use – help some. In addition, two more keys for each vehicle go directly to the department receiving the equipment. But problems still arise.

The biggest culprit? When departments make their own additional keys, not realizing that for some vehicles, OEMs will only allow eight keys to be programmed the same.

“And if you’ve got four, and then someone goes back and makes a couple more, you’re at five and six, then we hit seven and eight, and when you go to make the ninth key, the number one key drops off,” Lentsch said. “It’s deactivated. That could be the one on your master keyboard. … It’s actually happened quite a bit.”

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Fiona Soltes

Mistakes to Avoid When Selecting Maintenance Bay Lifts

Mistakes to Avoid When Selecting Maintenance Bay Lifts

As Dale Collins, CAFM, has rightsized his fleet in recent years, the fleet services supervisor for Virginia-based Fairfax Water has discovered the need to rightsize his maintenance bay lifts as well.

When the vehicle maintenance facility was built, the fleet had a higher percentage of heavy-duty dump trucks and crew vans, so the emphasis was on lifts that could handle their 60,000-pound weight. These days, however, Collins can service 80 percent of his fleet with more efficient 12,000-pound-capacity cassette lifts.

“Anybody who is in the market for a lift has to know what it is they’re trying to lift, how much it weighs and what the lift’s wheelbase limits are – not only how small it will get, but how long you will need it to be,” Collins said. “A lot of times you can get into a jam with longer vehicles.”

Collins speaks from experience; one Freightliner in the utility’s fleet has a 328-inch wheelbase. But the fleet department was able to work with the lift manufacturer/distributor to secure lifts that can handle anything from the Freightliner down to the 125-inch wheelbase of a Ford Ranger pickup.

This story highlights a potential error some fleet managers make when choosing lifts: assuming that they are one size – or one style – fits all. Collins now has a diversified set of lifts for his diverse fleet, including a telescoping piston lift for heavy-duty assets as well as an in-ground scissor-type lift that utilizes only 7 gallons of fluid to operate.

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Getting Utility Fleet Drivers to Embrace Idle Reduction

Getting Utility Fleet Drivers to Embrace Idle Reduction

Regardless of how cutting-edge a type of technology may seem, getting buy-in from prospective users often requires a pragmatic approach: They need to be convinced it works.

Such is the case with anti-idling technology. Today’s tools – aimed at reducing emissions and wasted fuel – include automatic shut-off systems, real-time alerts and plug-in hybrid vehicles that allow systems to work when the engine is off. But the only way utility fleet operators will fully embrace such tools, experts say, is when they grasp the difference that can be made, in terms of both the environment and their organization’s financial bottom line.

“It’s very spotty,” said Linda Gaines, transportation system analyst at Argonne National Laboratory (www.anl.gov) and a recognized idling authority. “You’ll go to some meetings and talk to some fleets, and they’re on board. It’s like your job is done, and the information is all out there. A lot of states have regulations, and it seems like we’ve made a lot of headway. And then you go and visit some company and see how far there still is to go.”

Gaines referenced one organization that is interested in idle reduction and went through the process of installing telematics, but, she said, was still “absolutely shocked by how much idling their trucks were actually doing. I think that’s not an unusual occurrence. Just by sharing that information with the drivers, without any kind of threat or any kind of reward, either way, just by being aware, the drivers reduced their idling by some very significant fraction.” That fraction was near 30 percent.

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Fiona Soltes

Utility Fleets and the Sharing Economy

Utility Fleets and the Sharing Economy

In our increasingly shared economy, even some utility fleets are moving from “mine” to “ours.”

This certainly makes sense. In addition to the fact that utility equipment and vehicles often are costly, they’re also unlikely to be in constant use. Pooling and sharing resources, then, can help cut down on surplus, reduce expenses and streamline operations.

The even better news? As the sharing economy has matured – think of Airbnb, Uber and Lyft – so have the technology offerings that help make it possible. There’s online forum MuniRent (www.munirent.co), for example, which allows municipalities to share surplus goods and equipment. AssetWorks (www.assetworks.com) offers fleet management software along with an automated motor pool solution, and allows reservations through smartphones and tablets. And then there’s Agile FleetCommander (www.agilefleet.com), web-based fleet and motor pool software that has been used by fleets in virtually all categories.

Naturally, the argument can be – and often is – made that there’s a segment of a utility fleet that can’t be downsized because it’s used during emergencies and peak demand. It’s also true that some vehicles have specialized tools onboard that are assigned to a particular individual.

The key is in recognizing that “no vehicle sharing initiative should try to apply the same rules for all types of vehicles and equipment,” said Ed Smith, co-founder, president and CEO of Agile Access Control Inc., developer of the Agile FleetCommander software. Fleet managers must acknowledge that real obstacles are present, he said, but also that some constructed barriers to sharing “simply aren’t fact-based.” Technology can help fleet managers know who has custody of a vehicle – and its keys – as well as assist in reporting and chargebacks.

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Fiona Soltes

Is 3-D Printing Shaping Up for Replacement Parts?

Is 3-D Printing Shaping Up for Replacement Parts?

The mere presence of some cars can inspire creative journeys and wishful thinking. But a life-size Shelby Cobra, made with a 3-D printer? That takes even visionaries down a whole different road.

Cincinnati Inc. (www.e-ci.com) – an innovative machine tool manufacturer for more than 100 years – has been behind the printing of two such cars through its Big Area Additive Manufacturing (BAAM) technology; the first was in conjunction with Oak Ridge National Laboratory (www.ornl.gov), the largest U.S. Department of Energy science and energy lab, located in Oak Ridge, Tenn. Over the past couple of years, the cars have been used as marketing tools, a clear demonstration of potential.

Even though the Cobras have been transported to events in enclosed trailers rather than driven, they’re still enough to make many stop and wonder: If a 3-D printer can make a car or other vehicle, wouldn’t it follow that it would soon be in use to supply equipment parts as well? Will we soon see maintenance shops creating their own replacement parts for utility and other vehicles, rather than having to store them, purchase them elsewhere or wait for delivery?

Time to tap the brakes. Three-dimensional printing is indeed showing promise in a variety of industries. But in terms of creating parts that can withstand heat, water, chemicals and other challenges facing current automotive materials, we’re not there yet. First, there’s a fundamental point of physics to be overcome, said Duncan Stewart, director of technology, media and telecommunications research for Deloitte Canada (www.deloitte.com/ca). Even if printers and processes become significantly faster – silencing those who believe no one will want to wait the hours it takes to create parts – there’s still the matter of allowing each printed layer to cool completely before the next one is applied. Eventually, the rate of progress will reach a saturation point.

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