By Jeff Barker
Times are tough these days for just about everyone who owns a truck. As operating costs rise, truck owners often give in to temptation to back off on their maintenance programs. What they don’t realize is that the possible consequences of their decisions can be serious and could lead to more problems.
‘A little now, or a lot more later’
Years ago, a well-known filter manufacturer had a slogan in its advertising that had great meaning: “A little now, or a lot more later.”
Many minor items on trucks can become major costly problems if they’re not dealt with soon enough. Good periodic visual inspections of your entire truck can make the difference between catching a problem and repairing it when and where it’s convenient, or being at the mercy of an unfamiliar repair shop or a towing service when you’re thousands of miles away from home.
In other words, trucks need more than just an oil change, grease job and a wash every so often.
Procrastination can be your worst enemy, especially when it results in a huge repair list. It will cost you a lot of money to get everything repaired at once. When something goes wrong, make it a point to get it fixed as soon as possible.
Here’s a prime example of what procrastination did to a customer years ago when I was still working in the shop.
One owner-operator who had us maintain his truck was advised that his clutch was about to bite the dust. At that time, he didn’t want to do anything about it and instead wanted to head to the West Coast right away. He left at 6 p.m. on a Friday and about two hours later I got a call from him.
He had made it to about 100 miles west of San Antonio, but his truck would hardly move because the clutch was toast. Not only did he have to fork out mucho dinero on a clutch job; he also had to eat a tow bill. He also had to rent a truck to keep his delivery commitment.
Worse yet, he had to deal with his highly ticked-off wife when he and his broken-down truck arrived behind the tow truck at the shop at around 2:30 a.m. Saturday. Her wrath grew worse when she heard how much they had to fork over for the tow bill.
New does not mean immune
If you’re driving a new truck, don’t let the idea of its low mileage lure you into a false sense of security. Check it over often. I saw a lot of problems with brand-new trucks over the years while the shop I worked at was doing in-service inspections on them.
A lot of people are running older equipment that you almost never see on the side of the road or behind the DOT scale house with a bright orange “out of service” sticker plastered across the windshield. How do they do it? They get to know their trucks well and are meticulous with their upkeep.
In fact, a good friend of mine who lives in San Antonio owns a 1989 Freightliner with close to 3 million miles on it. He runs a 550-mile (round trip) air freight run to the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport and back five nights a week and has an excellent reliability record with his customers because he works hard to keep his truck in top shape.
As many of you know, I’m out there on the highways, too. I stop and check on quite a few drivers when I see they’re having mechanical trouble, and it’s shocking how many of those breakdowns obviously could have been avoided had the trucks been given a bit of attention more often.
Of course, some things that can’t be detected ahead of time can sideline even the best-maintained equipment.
Let’s face it, having a truck out there on the busy highways means a huge exposure to liability. Although being a safe, observant driver is important, a number of items on trucks and trailers can fail to work properly, which can result in potentially disastrous consequences.
It’s expensive to maintain and repair those items, but taking care of them is much less expensive than the possible legal consequences. Just imagine what would happen to your business after a fatal wreck if an inspection showed a part had failed because of neglect.
Things could get real ugly
Following is a rundown of what are commonly viewed as the most critical safety items that need frequent and regular attention. If you don’t put forth the effort to find and correct the problems, you could be shut down by the DOT at an inspection site or, worse, be involved in an accident that could endanger your life and possibly the lives of others around you.
Here, in no particular order, are the “unlucky 13.”
Most Class 8 trucks on the road these days have automatic slack adjusters on their air brake systems. If they’re not greased regularly and checked for proper adjustment, they can decrease the ability of your truck to stop. They’re one of the first items inspected on a truck if it’s involved in a wreck.
If even one slack adjuster is found out of adjustment, that could be enough for a jury to be convinced that the truck owner was at fault. A costly judgment could be more than what liability insurance will cover.
The same goes for any component in the braking system. Make sure your brakes are working correctly, or stay off the road until they are fixed.
If you look at your brake shoes and see a dark, shiny layer of oil on them, you have a leaking wheel seal. If the oil gets on the brake shoe lining, it will reduce braking power to that wheel and could catch fire if the brake lining gets hot. This is especially true in local stop-and-go traffic and when braking on long downhill grades.
If the wheel bearings on any axles are out of adjustment or run dry (without oil), they can catch fire and cause serious axle spindle damage. Worse yet, a wheel can come off and fly into traffic. Think about it: A dual wheel assembly with a hub and brake drum weighs close to 200 pounds. If it’s rolling at highway speeds, it can cause a lot of harm to anything or anyone in its path.
To check for wheel bearing play, jack up the axles and release the brakes. You can check the wheel bearings by taking a heel bar and placing it under the outside of a tire and lifting up. If there’s any play, get it corrected before that truck goes anywhere.
If you have hub oilers, check the oil level daily and note any metal shavings or other debris that could indicate a possible problem. If you have hub oilers with plastic windows and they appear to be bulging outward, that’s a sign that the wheel bearings behind it are getting excessively hot and need attention now.
Whether it’s U-bolts that hold axle assemblies in place, leaf springs, torque arms, stabilizer bars, or trailing arms, your life and your cargo are riding on them. Checking these items on every pre-trip inspection is a definite must. Failure of these components can cause serious and possibly fatal consequences.
This is pretty much a no-brainer, folks.
If you feel excess play in your steering wheel, you need to check it out. More than just a few inches, measured at the outer rim while the engine is not running, means you likely have worn U-joints in the steering shaft between the steering wheel and gearbox.
With the hood up and the engine running, twist that steering shaft slightly in both directions and watch the pitman arm and tie rod ends in the steering linkage. Any play there indicates worn parts that can fail at any time.
This item is all too often overlooked until it’s too late. The thought of a trailer disconnecting is not a pleasant one. You will know you have problems if you tug on your trailer after hooking up and it has free play in it or if it takes several attempts to get the fifth wheel to latch onto the kingpin.
If that’s the case, you need to leave that trailer where it is and get to a shop immediately to get your fifth wheel looked at by a competent mechanic. Don’t cut corners to save a few bucks on these kinds of repairs.
Although I support the idea of mechanically inclined owner-operators doing as many of their own repairs as practically possible, I do not recommend that drivers attempt to adjust or repair a fifth wheel assembly themselves. Take it to a good shop and rid yourself of the possible liability if something pertaining to those repairs doesn’t go right.
These need to be checked by hand for looseness during every pre-trip inspection. If you see rust streaks going outward, that’s another indicator that those lug nuts are loose and need to be retightened properly. Any time a wheel is removed and reinstalled for any reason, the lug nuts need to be retightened within the first 50 to 100 miles of travel.
The blowout of a steer tire can cause you to lose control of your truck. Maintain proper air pressure and keep them balanced to avoid premature and abnormal wear.
Also, be advised that it’s against the law in some states to have a steer tire repaired for a leak and reinstalled on the steer axle. The tire can be used in a different position, such as a trailer axle, after it’s repaired if it is still in good shape otherwise.
If a trailer’s air lines hang down too low because of broken hanger springs and/or ice accumulation in the winter, they can come in contact with the rough asphalt and be worn through until they rupture.
You also need to keep a close eye on those brake lines and hoses.
If a hose on the emergency side ruptures and air pressure to the brake chambers is lost, it will cause the brakes to set themselves unexpectedly. That can and will create serious consequences, especially if the road is slippery.
If a hose on the service side is rubbed through and has a hole in it, it can greatly reduce braking power and keep you from stopping if a situation arises suddenly.
And what about the ICC bumper on your trailer? Be sure to inspect it regularly for cracks and damage. Although most rear-end collisions are not considered the fault of those who were hit from behind, the legal outcome could be different if the ICC bumper on your trailer was found to be defective when another vehicle goes under your trailer. I don’t even want to mention what is likely to happen if that does take place.
Lights and reflectors
It’s a known fact that trucks need to be visible to the drivers of other vehicles on the road. When Mother Nature is having a bad day and creates weather conditions that result in poor visibility, it’s crucial that you do your part to make yourself visible – even though we obviously can’t do anything about the multitasking of some oblivious drivers. It’s important from both a safety and legal standpoint that truckers do their part to make sure that every DOT-required light on their truck is working properly.
Anyone who has ever sat behind the wheel of a truck knows how important mirrors are when it comes to seeing what’s around us. Cleaning them at the beginning of every workday and making sure they’re not cracked or distorted can often make the difference between having a serious lane-change collision and avoiding it.
Make sure those mirror heater elements are doing their job, too.
Some drivers like having fender-mounted spot mirrors for better visibility. Other drivers don’t like them for cosmetic reasons. If you think spot mirrors look tacky, just consider how much better your truck will look when you use the mirrors to avoid a lane-change collision.
These are required by law. If defective – because of torn webbing and/or defective mounting or buckles that don’t latch properly – they are just as ineffective as seat belts that are not used at all if you’re involved in an accident.
If you think wearing a seat belt is uncomfortable, just go to a hospital and ask someone in a body cast who thought the same way how they feel now.
The same goes for bunk restraints if you are a team driver. I came quite close to learning about that the hard way many years ago when my co-driver had to hit the brakes hard to avoid being involved in a wreck.
Can you afford it?
In all reality, if you are barely scraping by financially and your truck is falling apart, you really can’t afford to stay in business. A mechanical failure could cost you everything you own and years of regret.
If you’re one of those who has succeeded in keeping your truck running strong and you are truly confident that you can go through a rigorous DOT inspection and come out with no defects found, then I encourage you to keep up the good work. LL
Editor’s note: This article is for information purposes only. If you’re not sure about performing the work yourself, it’s advisable to seek the help of a competent professional.
Jeff Barker is an OOIDA member and a former certified diesel mechanic. He can be reached at email@example.com.