As everyone talks about tires and powertrains, there’s one aspect of a vehicle that often gets overlooked; it languishes as an afterthought, long taken for granted and seldom given attention: the wheel.
And yet without the wheel’s ubiquitous presence not only would the supply chain not exist, but modern transportation itself would never have happened, or it would at least look entirely different. And yet, considering it was invented nearly 6,000 years ago, might it be high time to finally, dare we say, reinvent the wheel?
While many a motor carrier simply slaps the wheel on and forgets about it, smart fleet technicians know that when it comes to your wheels, a little maintenance can go a long way. Indeed, properly maintained wheels have a long life to live. Let’s take a closer look at what you’ve got to work with.
Wheels available on the market today include steel and aluminum varieties. Depending on the application, each variety carries with its own pros and cons.
While steel wheels are generally less expensive than their aluminum counterparts, they are heavier and tend to require a bit more maintenance. When fleets are looking at their sustainability options, adding weight can be a problem.
Consider that aluminum wheels can now come in at around 45 pounds per wheel, and it’s no surprise that when motor carriers go green, they are increasingly ditching steel. When you add up 15 pounds of unit weight across an entire vehicle, then multiply that across the entire fleet, the savings is huge.
Add in the option to forge and heat-treat the wheels, and modern fleets are afforded a significant advantage when it comes to wheel selection, type, variation and application. The payoffs come in the form of lower fuel costs, better control over the maintenance process and a greater polish in the aesthetic.
Weight is important because when wheels weigh less, a truck can haul more for less. This leads to a decrease in overall operating costs through both freight efficiency and better fuel economy.
Steel isn’t All Bad
Still, don’t think of steel as some big bad wheel wolf. Although they do require more maintenance, a good fleet technician will be able to spot problems and keep them maintained with little hassle. When it comes to wheels, a little proactivity can go a long way.
The most important part of running steel wheels is to ensure they are clean, with any excess dirt or road debris removed. Flotsam rattling around a wheel can damage bolted joints. Additionally, if there is any dirt or debris on a mounting surface, the torque wrench may not provide an accurate reading.
Also, pay close attention to the lug nuts after installing new wheels. You’ll want to retorque them somewhere between 10 and 50 miles after initially putting the new wheels on. OF course, ensure you are checking the torque continually at regular intervals.
So, consider keeping these maintenance items in mind, and it isn’t unheard of – indeed is likely – that steel wheels can last anywhere from 15 to 20 years, no problem.
In the end, where aluminum wheels really hold the edge in lower maintenance costs is in their corrosion resistance and easy-to-clean surfaces. Some OEMs even offer proprietary, patented surfaces that are incredibly corrosion-resistant and can be cleaned with nothing more than mild soap and water.
The Future Wheel
Where the wheels of the future will make themselves known is in the sensor arena. Today’s wheels are entering the information age.
Sensor systems will survive within the intense environment that is the wheel cavity and collect vital operating data and information. Everything from static to dynamic load information will be read and transmitted by the wheel.
Ten years from now, futuristic wheels will play a vital safety role. As the future of trucking evolves, expect oft-overlooked truck components like wheels to get looked at with a fresh set of eyes.