You just signed on with a flatbed outfit. You've been pulling reefers for years, but you're sick and tired ofgrocery warehouses and packing sheds. Friends that haul flatbed freight throw around revenue per mile figures that make you green with envy. Yesterday you spent 14 hours waiting on a load of chickens. So here you are, signing a lease to start your flatbed career. There are a few things you should have researched before you signed the lease, but provided everything is in order according to the federal leasing regulations (you did thoroughly read your lease, didn't you?), you can and should correct your oversight before you hit the road. Hang on tight– learning the flatbed side of trucking will be the learning experience of a lifetime. Just getting started can be a little overwhelming, especially from a financial viewpoint.
Chances are you'll be purchasing one (or perhaps more) set of tarps. You'll also need chains, hooks, binders, straps, winches, ratchets, rope, flags, tarp straps and bungee cords sufficient for your operation. But how do you know how many of what to buy?
First familiarize yourself with the cargo securement rules in the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations, Subpart I, Protection Against Shifting or Falling Cargo, §393.100. These regulations are the minimum requirements. The regs include everything from the minimum number of tie-down assemblies required (and the strength of the tie-downs) to special requirements for securing steel coils. Generally speaking, you must have a tie-down assembly (strap or chain) for every 10 feet of cargo on the trailer, though some specific types of freight require more.
Be aware that the Feds are in the process of updating cargo securement requirements. In the meantime, you must have a good working knowledge of current regulations, and until you do, it's a good idea to carry them with you to refer to when necessary.
Next, ask your carrier careful questions about the variety of freight and types of trailers you're likely to haul. In most cases the carrier will have certain requirements about the number and type of tarps, chains, binders, etc. that you must have (these policies may exceed federal requirements). These requirements should have been spelled out in your lease.
Ask drivers who have been with the carrier a while what they would recommend as a good start-up package. Develop a complete list of what you need and contact a supplier. It is important to buy your supplies and equipment from a reputable source. There are any number of good suppliers for these items you require, such as Zamzow in Kansas City and St. Louis, MO. On everyday items like tarp straps and rope, discount stores can be good places to save money. Depending on your operation, you may also need a good hammer, a supply of nails, and some wood blocks for bracing. You can purchase these at a discount building supply store to save money, but be sure of the quality you're getting. Get all of your equipment together before hitting the road. Buying straps or chains in a truckstop because you don't plan ahead can be an expensive lesson.
"While federal regulations are designed to keep your cargo on the trailer where it belongs, and no one ever expects things to
go wrong, stuff happens," says OOIDA director Ray Kasicki, who has been pulling a flatbed for more than 10 years. "If another vehicle strikes your trailer with enough force, chains, straps, etc., may give way. A few extra tie-downs may mean the load stays on the trailer. There is no such thing as a load that is too secure."
OOIDA member Mike Smead offers this advice: "If another vehicle strikes your rig from the front, you'll have enough to deal with without your suddenly stopped load coming through the back of the cab. If your carrier does not have headboards for their trailers, you might want to think about adding a good quality ‘headache rack' to your list of requirements. The Feds do require you to have one or the other. If your carrier does have headboards, a headache rack is still not a bad idea. It's a matter of personal choice, not a requirement, and a lot of drivers choose to do without."
When pricing tarps, ask around. Other drivers may give you leads on saving money on tarps, and sometimes you may be able to pick up used tarps in good condition at a substantial savings. Some carriers may even offer to sell you what tarps you need and deduct the cost from your settlements. Do not agree to this unless you check first and determine it's the best deal. Paying twice what an item is worth is an obscenely high price to pay for convenience. –Land Line staff
Taking care of your investment
Now that you have the equipment you need, are you ready to roll? Not quite. You have to have a secure place to store all of this equipment. Some drivers prefer to add boxes to the rails of their tractors, and others incorporate storage into their headache racks. Your storage choice should ideally offer protection from the elements, keeping your investment clean and dry when not in use. Depending on the amount of equipment you require, you may be able to, at least initially, use your tractor's sideboxes.
Instead of storing their tarps when not in use, some drivers have been known to roll their tarps and secure them to the trailer floor with a strap. This is not a good idea for several reasons. First, the tarp is unnecessarily exposed to the elements, and this can shorten its usable life. In addition, air trapped in the rolled up tarp may escape as you're driving down the road resulting in a loose strap. At the least, you may arrive at your destination minus a very expensive tarp. At the worst, someone could be injured.
This brings up the issue of caring for your equipment. Veteran flatbed driver and OOIDA secretary Bob Esler emphasizes the importance of taking good care of your tarps.
"Roll and store them properly when you're not using them," says Esler. "They'll stay cleaner that way, and you'll stay cleaner when you have to use them. Friction on the dirt on a tarp will wear it out faster. I store mine in compartments in my headache rack. Then, periodically I spread my tarps out in my front yard, and using a little soap, water, and a broom, scrub them down.
"You also have to protect your tarps from the load you're hauling," Esler points out. "If you're hauling greasy machinery, put some inexpensive plastic sheeting between the machinery and the tarp. If something in the load has sharp corners that may tear the tarp, put something between those sharp corners and the tarp."
Care must be taken of the rest of your equipment, too. OOIDA director and flatbedder Woody Chambers says, "Before each use, thoroughly inspect every item that you will use to secure the load. Don't forget hooks, grommets, and rings. Look for any sign of wear, and if you find it, replace the item immediately. It's a good idea to carry a few replacement items with you to avoid overpaying on the road."
Do you need your own trailer?
Chances are the carrier pays more if you own your own trailer, but if you're just getting started in flatbeds, it's a good idea to wait. You'll find that flatbed freight is like any other freight–there are good loads and there are not so good loads. Over time you'll discover what loads you prefer to haul and those that you won't haul, no matter how hard a dispatcher or broker begs. Your carrier may have a variety of trailers that will allow you to "try out" different types of flatbed hauling. You may find that a niche market requiring a special trailer suits you best, or you may opt for a step deck in order to have maximum versatility in the loads you haul. Your experience will also teach you to what type of construction and features that you prefer. Spread axles or sliders? Aluminum or steel? Wood or composite nailing strips? Do your homework. The wrong trailer is a mistake no owner-operator can afford.
In the June/July issue of Land Line Online,
we'll take a look at tarping systems.