BY DAVID HARTSON
No matter how big or small your fleet size, keeping track of vehicle maintenance can be a challenge as your vehicles rack up miles each month. There comes a point when a window sticker from the oil change joint just doesn’t cut it anymore and, as your business grows and your fleet increases proportionately, it will become even more difficult to strictly adhere to a maintenance program. Larger operators likely have a mechanic or two on-site to handle routine maintenance, but the majority of the industry—small and midsize operators—usually have to depend upon a trusted local shop.
For a chauffeured ground transportation company, the easiest and most reliable option for tracking your vehicles’ upkeep is purchasing fleet maintenance software. These database programs will not only record maintenance history, fuel usage, and total operating costs, but also can store valuable data needed for federal, state, and local regulatory commissions.
Purchasing business-related software, particularly if you’re not a “techie,” can be a bit overwhelming; fortunately many of the applications available are user-friendly and easy to set up. A simple internet search will provide a number of options. The key is finding a program that will complement your fleet size with room for expansion if you are looking to grow your company. The worst thing you can do is throw away your money by purchasing a program that is limited by vehicle capacity.
Ultimately, making a maintenance program work for you relies on consistently adding data on a daily basis so it’s always as accurate as possible. Once you purchase the program, then it is all about setting up the database. Here are some fields to consider starting with.
Inputting oil change data is one of the first things you’ll want to do. Using your maintenance program to track the frequency of changes can be extra valuable when it comes to saving money. While your owner’s manual may recommend a change every 3,000 miles, this is likely unnecessary and a waste of money. By analyzing your daily mileage and the type of driving (highway or city), you can determine how often your vehicles will require an oil change. Cars that are used frequently generally don’t need to adhere to the 3,000 mile rule, as engines today employ fuel injection systems that burn fuel efficiently enough to keep it from mixing with the car’s oil.
If your vehicle uses 100 percent synthetic oil, you will not be required to change oil as frequently; however, you might want to consider replacing the oil filter after 3,000 miles and adding a quart of oil. Oil filters can load up with dirt absorbed through the engine ports.
These database programs will not only help you track maintenance history, fuel usage, and total operating costs, but also can store valuable data needed for federal, state, and local regulatory commissions."
Owner’s manuals often assert that transmission service should be done every 40,000 miles or so. This should be OK for the person who primarily relies on their car for work commutes or to run weekly errands, but your fleet is on the road every day. I run my fleet in the desert, and since heat is the number-one transmission killer, frequent fluid changes are crucial.
The transmission is little more than a closed-system hydraulic pump, and it must have clean fluid for best performance. The clutch plates can wear and contaminate the fluid with clutch plate material and internal metal, which creates wear and tear as the fluid flows through the transmission. And, as the fluid burns from heat and loses its lubrication value, the contaminated fluid can damage critical internal seals and inflict wear on the valve body.
When you service the transmission, you must first replace the filter, which traps contamination and drains the fluid. Keep in mind that you can’t drain all the fluid from today’s transmissions: In most cases, you can only drain 4 or 5 quarts (most transmissions hold between 9 and 14 quarts of fluid). Also, on some vehicles, the torque converter can be drained—but you’ll want to consult your owner’s manual first.
With frequently used vehicles, it is important to service their transmissions often and regularly—every 20,000 miles or so—to keep the fluid fresh and clean. Overall, it is about keeping the vehicle on the road for as long and cost-effectively as possible: The price for a service station to do routine maintenance runs about $200 but replacing a broken transmission can cost up to $4,000—plus, you might lose the use of the vehicle for up to a week. You know that time is money in this industry. If you don’t yet have a preferred repair shop that you trust with your maintenance, make sure that whoever you’re using knows to remove the transmission oil pan and replaces the filter. Some shops—usually the quick-and-dirty oil change places—stick a hose down the dipstick tube, suck out the fluid, and replace it. This is a waste of money, as the oil pan needs to be opened and cleaned, and the filter absolutely must be replaced.
Because of extensive vehicle use, the front brakes will need to be replaced twice for every one time you change your rear brakes, as the front brakes are the stopping power of the vehicle and incur significantly more wear on their pads and rotors. The rear brakes apply stopping power but mainly prevent the vehicle from fishtailing.
While determining when to replace brakes, you’ll need to consider that every vehicle is used differently. Does your vehicle see more use on the freeway or in the city? This will help determine your front brake mileage. In my fleet, because of excessive city driving, we set the benchmark at 26,000 miles for front brake replacement. Over the years, we have seen that figure is right on the money. Keep an eye what happens in your fleet, and set parameters accordingly. This helps ensure that the vehicle will be in the shop once, not repeatedly. You never want to get to a point where your pads are dangerously thin or squealing; replace them well in advance.
The word “coolant” is misleading, since it really doesn’t do what the name describes. Basically, the chemicals in this fluid are what they use to hose down airplanes in the snow. This product creates heat; it doesn’t cool down a thing.
Still, there are a number of reasons why you need coolant in your car’s cooling system. For one, it reduces rust inside the engine block, and also has a lubrication element to prevent the water pump seals from drying out and leaking. Coolant can be purchased in either a 100 percent or 50-50 water mix—it all depends on your location. For example, if you are in the desert, it makes more sense to use 25 percent coolant to 75 percent water since coolant creates heat. If you operate in a colder, snowier climate, then you would want to run a 50 percent coolant to 50 percent water ratio. Just never use undiluted coolant in any of your vehicles, as this would make the engine overheat immediately!
While coolant does need to be replaced, it can be done every 30,000 miles or so. I recommend avoiding a quick-lube repair shop with this maintenance task, as they often use a machine that sucks the coolant from the engine block and then replaces it. If you have any weak points, like a partially rotted freeze plug, a worn hose, or a loose clamp, the suction will only exacerbate the problem, and you won’t find the leak until the vehicle’s on the road. I’ve had this happen twice; use a reputable garage if you don’t do it yourself.
General Maintenance & Tracking Repairs
Your maintenance program can assist in reminding you to take care of a number of basic tasks. Enter the following into the database to make sure they’re checked regularly: air filters, tire rotation and pressure, windshield wipers, battery terminal cleaning and/or replacement, fuel filter replacement, serpentine belt inspection, overhead cam belt replacement, and heater and radiator hose inspection. Again, keeping your fleet road-ready is among the necessities to making money in this business.
Also, if your state requires vehicle smog testing, it can be added into most programs as a reminder when it needs to be done. With this in the system, you can plan to get these things done in advance and not be forced to wait for a DMV document to arrive in the mail.
While vehicle inspection reports are required in most states, keeping records of repairs is also a good idea. If there is a mechanical failure that caused an accident or safety issue, having good and clear records could pass any liability issues onto a parts manufacturer instead of you. Many parts are warrantied and offer guarantees for a new or rebuilt part; without keeping good records and receipts, this could put the responsibility on you—so document everything!
It does take some time to set up your maintenance program and database, but it’s more than worth the effort. Once you’ve gotten everything in order, keeping things running in an orderly fashion should be a tremendously simplified task. [CD0716]
David Hartson is a longtime industry consultant, partner at non-emergency medical transportation company Procare Solutions, and the West Coast editor for Chauffeur Driven. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.