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The Lowdown On Idling And Fuel Saving Technologies For Trucking Companies

It’s the never-ending debate: How do fleets cut fuel costs even further? As manufacturers, aftermarket suppliers and other industry players look for every possible way to cut costs, save on fuel and pad their bottom line, they’ve got to turn an eye inward.

Emissions and engine technology companies say the clean fuel revolution and subsequent technological shift is just in its infancy. Perhaps there’s more fleets can do to shave a little off of the fuel gauge. One such area where truckers and trucking companies can make a big impact is in idling.

Although there are anti-idling laws and lots of anti-idling technology to go around, if you visit a truck stop just about anywhere and you’ll see more than just a truck or two sitting idle.

Consider that in California – a state with some of the strictest emissions laws – new trucks can still be labeled as having “Clean Idle” systems. So, rather than eliminate the problem, California stamps that it’s clean idle certified and the tractor is good to go.

Factor in diesel prices and the problem becomes even more disconnected. While oil prices remain low, clean technologies are adopted at a slower rate. There’s less incentive to spend the money up-front for expensive new technologies when you can just wait out the price drop.

Beyond Fuel Prices

Even when you factor in lower fuel prices, there is still a huge incentive to ensure you are taking fleet-wide measures to reduce idling. Consider this report, which showed that engaging in idle-reducing measures, a fleet could gain up to $2 per gallon/per vehicle back in efficiency. That’s a huge gain!

And not only does reducing idle time save on gas, it can also help you in reducing long-run engine maintenance costs through simple wear-and-tear reduction. What’s not to like about that?

Auxiliary power units are designed to provide onboard power. These systems are used for both climate control and to power and charge specific electrical devices. While these devices had been primitive in nature, advances in the technology have made way for advanced units powered by battery or natural gas or other alternative fuels.

Truckers enjoy the comfort conveniences provides by the APUs because they can park wherever they please, turn the generator on and have power in your cab, for whatever reason you may need it for.

This doesn’t mean APUs don’t come without drawbacks. There is an additional weight component that must be factored in when you spec the truck. If you are trying to shave weight off, many fleets may look to the APU to take off a few pounds quickly without negatively impacting performance. Indeed, we would argue that removing the APU would impact fuel efficiency performance. There is a case to be made for utilizing APUs and the long-term benefit you gain from their usage.

Types of APUs

That’s why many fleets and truck owners have turned to auxiliary power units (APUs) to keep idle time low while they are sitting and waiting. There are both diesel and battery-powered APUs and when fuel is at its peak price, your fleets could see the devices pay for themselves in under two years.

 

There are either diesel or battery-powered APUs. If you chose to go with a battery-powered APU, you can expect things like heating, cooling and ventilation when the vehicle is parked.

Battery-powered APUs have few moving parts, so they cost less to maintain. One drawback, of course is that the batteries will need to eventually be replaced. Their cost in the long-term, however, doesn’t cancel out your short-term gain.

Beyond the gains you reap from potential fuel and truck driver satisfaction benefits, battery-powered APUs generally operate quietly and produce no emissions. One thing they do not do, however, is offer the cooling capacity required on extremely hot days, like those of a summer haul through Phoenix in July.

One could even go so far as to add an inverter to the HVAC system or build in a fuel operated air heater atop the inversion device, as this option would save the most fuel.

Some APUs also come with their own diesel particulate filter – such as in California. When you add more components, you increase the chance for maintenance requirements down the road. That’s why – if you do invest in an APU – you want to invest in one that will serve you technologically and reliably for years and years to come.

Considering Other Types of Cooling and Heat

Truck drivers aren’t wedded to one type of technology. Diesel-fired heaters offer themselves as an inexpensive alternative to battery-powered variants and have the added benefit of being easier to maintain.

Bunk heaters are cost-effective, but they are a one-note solution. They don’t address the other electrical or cooling requirements that a traditional APU might address.

Thermal storage systems could be an option. These are devices that capture cooling air while the truck is in motion then use that very same air for air conditioning the sleeper later.

Essentially, a core is frozen within the device while the truck is in motion, then cool air is siphoned off of it when the vehicle is at rest and cool air is needed for the cab.

It is important to think beyond fuel prices because at times when fuel prices are low the ROI argument can be harder to justify. Yet using an APU also provides for better trade-in value since the engine hours on the block have a far larger reduction in run-usage than vehicles operated without such units.

When an engine has less hours run on it, the shop can also increase service intervals, which saves the fleet in both time and money. A buyer looking at this truck will know that the engine has less wear-and-tear because of the APU installation

Whether your fleet is operating on a three- or five-year trade cycle, there’s no doubt you’ll see the ROI on your initial purchase and installation once trade-in time arrives. And yet, beyond how much you save when it comes to money, let’s also consider the impact this is having on your truck drivers.

Truck Drivers Keeping Their Cool

Of course, there’s someone we’ve been leaving out of this conversation. They are the ones who are at the front-lines of utilizing these technologies day-in and day-out.

As with so many other new technologies the industry pushes onto truckers to use – whether they like it or not – there are mixed opinions when it comes to the type of APU technology trucking companies employ.

To a truck driver, especially long-haul truckers, the cab needs to basically feel like home. Whether it be microwave ovens, televisions or warmers for those cold winter months, or perhaps a CPAP machine for a trucker diagnosed with sleep apnea – there could be a good number of devices that utilize the APU, let alone using it to reduce idle time.

This is where buying the right equipment and properly educating the truck drivers using your vehicles on how to use this equipment is vital. Take one example, a trucking company that uses fuel bonuses for their truck drivers. When you show a truck driver a graph where idle time could impact their fuel usage – and thus their bonus – often you’ll find (pun intended) the needle will move.

As we’ve mentioned before, this is where truck driver training can come in. Obviously, truckers don’t idle intentionally just to waste gas. Likely, it comes from years of operating vehicles that didn’t have idle-reducing technology.

How a Truck Driver Does It

Let’s say you utilize online truck driver training to help reduce a truck’s idle time, keep in mind you aren’t doing so in a vacuum. Training must be provided in a bigger context. This is where coaching and data analysis come in.

First, many of the new systems available on newer vehicles – and to back office decision makers – record everything happening on the truck, which includes idle time. When a truck driver can see that they aren’t intentionally wasting resources, yet that’s what their idle time does, a change in behavior often follows.

In some cases, manufacturers are even researching hybrid-style systems like those on the Toyota Prius, where the system shuts down the engine when the vehicle comes to a complete stop. Systems like these – which require no input from the truck driver – are the holy grail of trucking technology hybridization.

New Engine Technology

The seeds of this research have already hit the market, in the form of new electronic idle-reducing engine technologies, where parameters are set to limit idle time.

Engine electronics can shut down an engine after a specified temperature is met. Where trucker comfort comes into play is at what temperature the system is set at.

Automatic engine starting and stopping systems turn the engine on and off as needed for cooling or heating purposes. It’s also used for warming and charging the batteries. The act of turning the engine on or off can disrupt a truck driver’s sleep. It’s most important to keep the needs of the truck driver in mind.

In the end, no matter what trucking companies or manufacturers do, the needs of the truckers must always stay at the forefront of the trend. These are the men and women at the forefront of our industry. Whether we’re talking APUs or Hours of Service, we take your side, the people’s side, the trucker’s side in mind!

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