Technicians and Their Toys

July 31, 2006
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The interior of a 2005 Chevy Express 3500 series, dual wheel cutaway with a Stahl USV 11-ft. body, owned by K&M Plumbing & Heating, Long Island, N.Y. The truck is outfitted with automatic locking doors and bins with an alarm system. There is lighting in the box and bins through an inverter, which also allows for 120-volt AC outlets in the box and cab.
What is the best truck or van for the job? It all depends on who you talk to and what exactly is the job. Vehicle salespeople will have no problem spouting off on the features of the trucks or vans they sell. They make even the most bare-boned, stripped-down model seem like the best thing on four wheels.

But what about the people who drive them everyday and make a living working out of their vehicles? What about their perspective? The NEWS was curious about what techs and installers think about their vehicles, so we asked a lot of contractors and technicians what they drove and why. With a little help from respondents at "The Wall" (www.heatinghelp.com), Oil Tech Talk (www.oiltechtalk.com), and HVACPROTech (www.hvacprotech.org), we came up with a very diverse list.

One respondent joked, "I've worked out of Toyotas, station wagons, vans, utility trucks, and various size box trucks. My next truck will be a smallish (height and weight) box truck with a lift gate."

Another thanked his Dad, in a humorous way, for picking out his first vehicle. "My first service vehicle was a loaner from my Dad in 1980," he said. "It was a 1964 Caddy Coupe de Ville with a big trunk and a big back seat. It smoked a lot, used a quart of oil every 100 miles. But it got me started!"

SIZE DOESN'T NECESSARILY MATTER

Being able to carry a lot of tools and parts is essential to many techs. One tech said that techs need the right size truck that is suited for their type of work.

"This year I downsized my vehicle," said the tech. "I went from having a ¾-ton Dodge Van to a 2006 GMC Canyon pickup truck. It is a perfect work truck for me and the type of work I get involved with. It came equipped with a utility body with built-on ladder racks. After years of climbing around in the van, it is so nice to just walk up to the truck and reach into the compartments.

"Although it is much smaller, with the organization of the utility body, I still carry the same tools and parts. The bed is big enough to throw in a water heater when I use a conventional type. The only drawback is when I do a boiler change, they won't fit.

"The Canyon has a 5-cylinder engine, something I never heard of. So far, it seems to have enough power for the terrain that I cover.

I get almost double the gas mileage as I did with the van. The new high gas prices were my main motivation for getting rid of the van. So far, the smaller truck is a nice fit for me."

For most techs who responded for this story, reliability and accessibility were two key factors in making their choice of a van or truck.

Steve Ebels of Ebels Heating Inc., Falmouth, Mich., said that the 2004 Sprinter he purchased in February 2005 has a lot of good features, and not only the average of 21-23 miles per gallon.

"The long interval maintenance is also a big plus with 10,000 miles between oil changes," he said. "That saves about 4-5 trips to the shop per year. Total oil consumption per 10K miles, now that it seems to be broken in, is only about 3/4 of a quart."

Ebels is also happy with what fits in the van - a lot of durable shelving. "Any service-type vehicle is only as good as the storage system in it," he said. "I got in touch with the Swedes that import the System Edstrom line of shelves and bins and purchased a set made for the Sprinter. They offer complete packages designed for specific vehicles and also allow you to totally customize your rack configuration.

"They are extremely well-made, nothing chintzy about them anywhere. The drawers are even available with ball bearing slides, which allow you to carry some serious weight in each one if needed."

Dave Stroman of Stroman Plumbing & Heating, Aurora, Colo., drives a 1995 Chevy G30 box van with a 10-foot box. He said the 14-footers are "too long for the city." He special ordered an aluminum box from Intercontinental Truck Body. "This truck is rated for 10,000 pounds (lbs.), but usually weighs about 11,000 lbs. with all the tools and everyday parts inside," he said. "If I load it up with radiators, I have had as much as 15,000 lbs. in it. I know that is too much, but sometimes it just has to be.

"The extra weight is very hard on front ends, brakes, and tires. But at 150,000 miles, the 454 engine is running strong. It gets 7 miles to the gallon, no matter how much weight is in it."

Port Oil of Bedford, (Mass.) uses a 2005 Dodge Sprinter for its field crew.

CREATURE COMFORTS AND ACCESSIBILITY

A lot of techs buy and customize a truck or van just like they would with a car for personal use. The vehicle has to have the basic necessities not only for use as a "traveling workbench" but one that is easy on the body, too (the tech's body).

For Tony Berlin of BMB/One Hour, Bloomington, Ind., it is all about comfort and convenience.

"We use the GMC Savanna 2500," he said. "The width of the cargo area lends itself well to shelving on both sides while leaving room to access the parts and materials on the shelving. Ours were also shipped with ultra thick, smooth, black matting in the cargo area, something that becomes quite evident after a day of crawling through getting parts.

"The panoramic mirrors have also, in most cases, eliminated typical blind spots found in many of the vans I have previously ran service out of."

"The last four vans we bought are the cube vans with the toolbox access on the outside," said Eric Grennell of Lakes Region Heating & Air Conditioning, Northfield, N.H. "This is the only way to go. We have all had a van loaded with stock and needed a tool way up in the front that was buried. We can load these vans to the gills when necessary and still get to our tools and primary stock, if we put it away where it belongs."

Cosmo Valavanis of Dependable Plumbing, Heating & Cooling Inc., Allentown, Pa., has a 1998 E-450 cutaway with Stahl USV 13 foot utility body, which suits him just fine. "I have tried to keep most of the things I need everyday on the outside compartments as much as possible," he said. "I have compartments set up for specific jobs, one that holds all my A/C refrigerant service small tools, testers, instruments; another that hold my oil and gas service tools and instruments, etc.

"One big advantage is with pipe storage. I moved my 6-inch PVC copper carrier to the inside of my truck not only for easier access, but also keeping this in the truck keeps condensation to a minimum, and the copper no longer patinas like it did when I kept it on the ladder racks outside on my old truck.

"I can usually get to anything I need in my truck within seconds, which is a huge improvement over my last truck."

This service van owned by Mike Fisher Plumbing & Heating Inc., Larchmont, N.Y., has a lot of room to compartmentalize and organized parts and tools.
Mike Crompton of Bend Heating, Bend, Ore., hasn't hit on the right combination yet, but he keeps trying. He has a 1990 Ford E250 van. "It has the extended body and higher top (was a shuttle van)," he said. "We have a 20 foot piece of 6 inch PVC running through the roof to fit full lengths of copper/pex. It is awkward as all crap to get in and out of.

"We made a platform inside the passenger side sliding door area to put toolboxes. We have a little more room and I just built some shelves for the side, but it still doesn't have the accessibility of the walk-ins nor the ease of entry of a utility body."

John Ethier of Comfort 101, Middleboro, Mass., likes keeping everything in its place - as long as there is a place for everything. He owns a Ford E-350 diesel long body, which has store bought cabinets everywhere.

"You can never have enough cabinets," he said. "And everything has a place to be. I don't always put things back when real busy running service calls, but sooner or later it gets back where it belongs. The van has power windows and locks, remote start and alarm, which is great, both winter and summer. There is nothing like having the heat running or the a/c cooling coming out from a job.

"The alarm and power locks are a great feature, just hit the remote and it's secure, last have a computer stand and laptop up front with printer and a 1000 watt inverter which runs a computer and power tools in van if needed."

If you just don't like the standard features or options on a van or truck, you can always customize your own. That's what Bob ‘Hot Rod' Rohr of Show Me Radiant Heat, Rogersville, Mo., did.

"I built my own to fit my exact needs," he said. "I started with a Super Duty 1 ton C&C [cab & chassis]. I built my own flat bed with electrohydraulic crane for loading heavy components. The large aluminum boxes allow me to fit all my tools and fittings in a lockable space. I got away from the box trucks for ease of drivability and wanting four-wheel drive.

"Trailering is easier with an open bed truck also. The Power Stroke provides 16 mpg loaded or unloaded uphill or downhill. This truck tips the scale at around 9,800 pounds."

And then there are those techs who want the little perks that go beyond the job at hand.

Ken Resnick of K&M Plumbing & Heating, East Islip, Long Island, N.Y., bought a 2005 Chevy Express with a Stahl 12-foot USV service body.

"It has dual wheels, an inverter for 120V AC outlets, and lighting in bins and box," he said.

"It also has an aluminum diamond plate pipe/conduit holder on top, steps for access, and full automatic locking bins.

"Creature comforts include remote start (on alarm), 12 disk CD changer, hands free cell phone, air horns, and a Garmin Street Pilot satellite navigation system."

BEWARE OF THE WEAR AND TEAR

Gas mileage may not be the greatest in vans and trucks, but that is a given. Chris Aiello of Milne Plumbing & Heating, Manchester, Mass., said that his 10-foot, 2-inch Chevy Supreme box van gets about 13 miles per gallon but he also concedes that Sprinters deliver between 18-21 miles per gallon, a substantial price savings. Still, he likes the room and can stand up in it.

But he said there is one thing that every tech and installer should be aware of: alignment problems.

"I really suggest that the van be outfitted with what the tech will usually carry, and that it be brought in for a front end alignment as soon as it is outfitted," he said.

"I can't stress this enough. The front ends of these things work well as long as they get set up with a normal load. If that doesn't happen, prepare for a set of tires in less than 2 years and steering parts being replaced, infinitely."

What have been your experiences with your trucks and vans? Drop us a line at johnhall@achrnews.com or visit our HVACR Forum at www.achrnews.com and post a note there. We'll share some of your comments in a future issue.

Sidebar: Members Save Money

GRAPEVINE, Texas - General Motors Corp. is providing a $500 private offer for Service Roundtable members on the purchase or lease of most GM vehicles.

"This is a great program," said Service Roundtable CEO, Matt Michel. "Contractors retain their local relationships with GM and GM dealerships, negotiate locally, and then take another $500 directly from GM."

A complete list of qualifying vehicles is available from the GM Exhibit Hall Booth on the Service Roundtable's Website or visit gmfleet.com/srvrnd for more details.

For Service Roundtable members, the addition of the GM rebate continues to enhance the value of membership. The Service Roundtable is the world's largest private contractor group.

For more information on the Service Roundtable, visit www.ServiceRoundtable.com or contact Liz Patrick 877-262-3341 or by e-mail at Liz.Patrick@ServiceRoundtable.com.

Publication date: 07/31/2006

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