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Refurbishing Works for This Fleet

By Tom Berg, Senior Editor

A few years ago, Steph Sabo looked at the latest truck diesels and didn’t like what he saw. The maintenance manager at Norrenberns Truck Service in southern Illinois thought prices were way high, especially considering the lack of reliability he’d experienced and heard about with late-model equipment. Besides, the economy was down and money was tight.

NOTS, as it’s known, has 140 tractors, 270 trailers and a bunch of other vehicles and equipment. The fleet has run 2002-, 2004- and 2007-model tractors, most with exhaust-gas recirculation and some with diesel particulate filters, which were expensive to repair and operate. He knew he wasn’t alone in these experiences. He’s a longtime member and former general chairman of the American Trucking Associations’ Technology Maintenance Council, and he’d heard a lot of dire reports from colleagues.

Rather than buying new, he decided to spend some money on the tractors he had. He also would buy and recondition some older tractors, models the company had made money with in the past.

He searched for used daycabs, some with tandem rear axles and some with singles. He found them in the Midwest and as far away as California. They were popular International models: 8100s, 9100i’s and 9200i’s, plus a 9400. Five to 10 years old, most were in good shape with moderate miles, usually 300,000 to 400,000, though one had fewer than 200,000 and another over half a million. Many of the engines were Cummins ISX and M11 models with no EGR and no particulate filters, engines Sabo knew were economical and reliable.

One “was an old Air Gas truck and is like brand new, 194,000 original miles – a sweet truck. Some of the trucks were not so great, but that happens.”

Norrenberns’ shop people put about two weeks’ work into each tractor, including mechanical repairs on engines, axles and other components, as well as interior freshening. Paint striping was done by a guy nearby, and complete white-and-blue paint jobs were done at a body shop in St. Louis.

Sabo has a spreadsheet showing origins, costs and other details for the 29 used tractors. Prices ranged from $11,000 for a 1999 single-axle to $29,000 for a 2005 tandem. The average refurbishing cost was $6,402, from a low of zero for a 2001 that cost only $11,300 to begin with (one of the “sweet trucks”) to $9,727 for a 2003, for which he paid $21,000 (one of those not-so-great ones). The average cost of buying, shipping and refurbishing was $23,161.

He figures he’ll get about seven years of service out of most of the tractors, after which some will be close to 20 years old and worth little more than junk.

Fuel economy with some of the tractors is very good. “Remember, these single axles are pre-EGR trucks, so the mpg is awesome and maintenance costs cheap – no EGR valves, no EGR coolers,” he adds. However, he doesn’t rule out buying new tractors again. There aren’t many good used trucks out there anymore, and manufacturers are getting the bugs out of the new exotic anti-pollution equipment.

“But this whole deal was a lot of fun,” Sabo concludes. “We built a lot of real nice trucks for the fleet.”

From the March 2012 issue of HDT

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