In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, some utility fleets have discovered that their idling has increased. So – perhaps now more than ever – it’s imperative for fleets to identify instances where idling can be controlled and act on them. UFP recently spoke with three fleet industry professionals who shared tips on how to do just that.
Get Staff on the Same Page
According to Dale Collins, fleet services supervisor for Virginia-based Fairfax Water, the greatest idle mitigation is achieved through operators intentionally turning off their engines when possible.
“The best practice is to have a well-trained workforce that understands state and local statutes regarding idling, company expectations, and the difference between necessary and unnecessary idling,” he explained.
That may require some coaching. Several years ago, Collins asked the local Clean Cities coalition to provide idle reduction training for all his field staff. As a result, the fleet experienced almost 10% less fuel consumption the following quarter.
Now, with COVID-19 in play, Fairfax Water has had to pivot to maintain social distancing safety for workers. Each field staff member has been provided a dedicated vehicle for daily use, making it more critical for them to understand what qualifies as necessary idling.
Of course, Fairfax Water is not the only utility whose fleet has had to make some adjustments during this time.
According to Chris Foster, manager of truck and equipment maintenance for fleet management company ARI (www.arifleet.com), there are now a number of scenarios in which vehicle capacity may be limited to one or two employees, resulting in crew members arriving separately at job sites – and potentially sitting in their running vehicles while waiting for their colleagues to arrive.
Collins provided examples of situations in which vehicle engines can be safely turned off while working, such as when responding to a residential customer call. Idling while at a facility, in a queue for loading or unloading materials, or while waiting for riders is unnecessary, unless there are extreme temperatures in play.
Develop a Comprehensive Driver Policy
Fleets should develop a comprehensive driver policy that clearly defines idling parameters as well as the consequences for violations, advised Lou Vella, manager of CIS-telematics for ARI.
According to ARI’s Foster, “For the most part, fleet operators will need to examine how their business has adapted and evolved during the last several months and determine how those changes influence their approach to idling as well as their overall driver policy.”
Vella said that by establishing a baseline and setting realistic goals to reduce idling, fleets can start to make tangible improvements.
“These benchmarks and goals should be included in your driver policy to ensure your employees are aware of the performance expectations,” he added.
Collins said he and his field supervisors stay active with messaging about smart idling and coach the staff every chance they get. “We ask our folks to follow the state and local statutes. In Virginia and in our county, any mobile power source shall not idle for longer than three minutes after it has completed its duties, with the exception of diesel-powered equipment to minimize restart problems.”
Monitor Areas for Improvement
Effectively monitoring idle times is another key to idle reduction, Vella said.
He recommended measuring and monitoring driver performance for instances of excessive idling, using key performance indicators and telematics.
Fairfax Water team leaders on each job site are tasked with monitoring and maintaining compliance. In weather extremes, employees are asked to use good judgment for the well-being of the crew or an individual employee.
“Winters can be very cold, and the summers can be very hot and humid. Employee safety is our paramount focus in any circumstance,” Collins said.
For fleets that really want to crack down on excessive idling, telematics may be an option to consider.
“With some telematics solutions, you can even get as granular as identifying productive idling (idling while performing a necessary job function such as powering a PTO) and unproductive idling (idling for driver convenience),” Vella said.
Using telematics also can help enforce desired behavior and provide automatic violation notifications to drivers, he said.
Leverage Fuel-Efficient Technologies
Collins suggested incorporating fuel-efficient models into your fleet when possible, noting the overall increase in fuel efficiency in almost every class of vehicle over the past decade.
“Just as little as 10 years ago, we would spec a 6-liter engine in most of our field service trucks, and now many are 3.5 liters or less, depending on application,” he said. “Idling a 6-liter engine requires much more fuel than a 3.5-liter engine every day.”
For Fairfax Water, the automatic stop and restart function on many of today’s vehicles also is beneficial.
“Our service area is very traffic congested, and sitting at traffic signals and in stop-and-go traffic, the fuel savings can add up over time,” Collins said.
ARI’s Foster mentioned that a growing number of popular fleet models are now available with idle shutdown timers that can help to curb excessive idling.
Other solutions to help with smart idling include embracing vehicle electrification as well as vehicle subsystems, such as climate control, auxiliary equipment operation, and scene and traffic warning lighting, Collins noted.
Rightsize Your Fleet
While some recent innovations certainly help to reduce idling, the fundamental strategies largely remain the same, Foster said. “First and foremost, you need to develop the ideal vehicle specifications and upfit solution for each unit’s intended function.”
He recommended that fleets carefully examine their vehicle specification and upfit strategy to look for opportunities to further control excessive idling.
“For example, depending on the vehicle’s intended role within your business, you may be able to use a standalone generator to power certain tools and equipment rather than depending on a traditional PTO solution,” Foster said.
Collaborating closely with your fleet management provider to discuss the goals of your organization and the role your fleet vehicles play in supporting those objectives also can prove helpful.
“Together, you can customize your vehicles to maximize the fleet’s revenue-generating potential at the lowest total cost of ownership,” Foster said.