Al Levi
Editor's note:Consultant Al Levi helps HVAC and plumbing contractors run their businesses with "less stress and more success." He has agreed to let us share with readers ofThe NEWSsome of the questions he gets and the answers he provides. The focus is strictly on problem solving and handling the day-to-day operations of a successful contracting business.

To send Levi your own questions, which if selected will run anonymously, send him an e-mail at or fax him at 212-202-6275.

This column is meant to be a resource only. Please check with your own trusted business advisers, including your own attorney, to make certain that the advice here complies with all relevant laws, customs, and regulations in your area.


Dear Al,

Throughout the years we've bought many different types of trucks. Mostly they've been vans. But the guys seem to never have exactly what they need on the truck. When I send an apprentice on the job, the techs complain the apprentices are no use because they don't know where the material is kept on the truck.

Got any recommendations?

Truckin' Blues

Dear Truckin' Blues,

Unfortunately, every day your multiple types of trucks roll, especially if they're vans, the guys in the field will be less effective than they need to be. It's hard to store all the materials and tools we need to be effective on the jobsite inside a van. It's just too small, and crawling on your hands and knees as you work out of a van only makes getting at the inventory tougher.

The types of trucks that allow a tech to stand up are Sprinter, Mini-Box, or Hackney type big box trucks. They give you sufficient room to take with you what you need to be efficient on the jobsite. Standardizing your fleet around these types of trucks will pay for itself with efficiency.

The key is to stock them all pretty much the same. This will permit you to train the apprentices on what's kept where in the truck, so when they get out on the job they can quickly access the right materials and be an asset to the field personnel.

A good idea is to letter the columns of shelving around the truck A, B, C, etc. Then, number the rows of shelving from floor to ceiling 1, 2, 3, etc. That way you can say in writing that all the brass fittings are kept in A4. Anyone can jump in the truck then and find the material fast.

Any tech or installer should be able to jump into any other truck and be effective.

You should also be able to jump into any truck and see if the tech is keeping it up to your standards. Taking digital photos of what is in the bins allows you to speed up the process of assembling new bins in the future as you buy new trucks. An apprentice can follow the photos and make quick work of getting a new truck ready for the road. Digital photos are also a great way to hold a tech accountable for keeping their truck neat and well-stocked.

Standardize your truck, what inventory you carry, what quantities of each item, and where you store it all, and you'll leave the truckin' blues behind.

Al Levi


Dear Al,

I have a problem with my techs and installers being out in the field and needing someone to run out a part to them that I know they should have restocked. It's frustrating because it wastes everyone's time including the customer.

They scribble on all different types of paper including napkins with illegible handwriting and only include half of what they really used on jobs during the day. We scramble around in the warehouse to get their replenishment ready but the whole system breaks down too often.

Is there a better way to get the techs and installers to restock their trucks?

Supplies Please

Dear Supplies Please,

First of all, you should put a clipboard at the back of each truck and instruct them to write down on a standardized form you create what they took and what quantity every time they jump in and out of the truck. Let them know you won't restock anything if it's not on this list. Also insist they get in the good habit of not waiting till the end of the day to try and recall all the materials they used off the truck. It's just too hard. I know because I used to do it when I was a tech and it just doesn't work.

What you should do next is create a bin program. That means there is a bin for each truck. We put the restocked bin in their locker that was filled based on the truck restocking form they bring in from their clipboard.

When they come into the shop the next day, they take their bin out to the truck and replenish their inventory and store it in the correct locations. They bring the bin back to the locker for us to restock at the end of the day.

If you work with a key supplier, you can fax the truck replenishment sheets to them and they'll fill the individual truck bins and drop them off before the next day and pick up your empty bins.

Either way you do it, your employees won't be saying "supplies please" anymore.

Al Levi

Publication date: 08/07/2006