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Keeping Spare Rigs Operational

By Christian P. Koop

Spare emergency response vehicles (ERVs), aka reserve rigs—it seems that many don’t think about these important rigs until they are needed. Many times, they either won’t start or, if they do, they break down shortly after being placed into service. If they do perform as needed, they can be life savers—but if not, they can turn into nightmares. This is something no organization needs to have happen, particularly in these highly litigious times we live in. In reality, these vehicles are just as important as front-line units—if not more so. They need to be regularly maintained, driven, and exercised on a scheduled basis. Unfortunately, this is not always the case, and the possibility of a breakdown when the units are needed the most greatly increases if these units are not being diligently inspected and exercised. Think of the old saying regarding the human body, “if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.” The same holds true for vehicles in general, but it particularly rings true for spare rigs. Ideally the best way to keep them in shape is to establish a schedule wherein they are regularly rotated into service for several days either weekly or monthly depending on the mileage and hours they accrue. Because this is not case for many spare rigs let’s address some tips to keep spare rigs in tip-top shape.

Batteries are consistently the top maintenance item for a fleet, which carries forward to spare rigs as well. There is nothing worse than getting into a vehicle, turning the batteries on, hitting the start button or turning the ignition/start switch, expecting it to turn over and fire off, and all you hear is that tell-tale click-click-click of the starter solenoid, basically announcing that the batteries are not up to the job. I am sure most reading this will agree.

Most ERV batteries have multiple parasitic drains such as computer keep-alive circuits. Some of these keep-alive circuits are part of the original equipment manufacturer’s electronic control unit (ECU) circuitry for the engine and transmission and a host of others because of the many electronic accessories used in the modern ERV. Radios, laptops, and flashlight chargers come to mind, but there are many others. These units require an onboard automatic battery charger that is preset to charge and maintain the type of batteries used on the rig. Even with the batteries switched off, if these units are not kept plugged in they can bring a healthy battery pack to its knees in as little as a week. If for some reason shore power is not accessible where the rig is kept, solar panel battery chargers can be the way to go. Technological improvements in this area have not only improved the charging capabilities of solar panels, but they have also brought the prices down. Keep in mind that you can only charge dead batteries X amount of times. Automotive type batteries are not designed to deep cycle and will sulfate over time, which shortens their expected life. This can get very expensive over time, and keeping them properly charged will not only save unnecessary downtime but will also save the organization thousands of dollars over the years in battery replacement and labor costs.

Fuel Degradation
The number two item that can affect rigs that sit without use is fuel degradation. Fuel degradation has historically been a problem for diesels. However, with gasoline now being blended with ethanol, it is a problem for all vehicles. There are three basic areas that lead to major problems in diesel fuel that can plague your rigs.

The first is water, and it can come from condensation, an external leak, or even from where the rig is fueled up. Condensation can be kept to a minimum by just topping off the rig’s tank. Leaving a low level of fuel in the tank for prolonged periods will allow considerable water to build up inside the tank, particularly in very humid areas. If the rig’s fuel filtration system gets overwhelmed with too much water, and the water is allowed to get to the injection pump and fuel injectors, serious damage can result and can cost thousands of dollars in damage. To give an idea of how expensive this can get, a friend of mine, a service manager at a local heavy truck dealership, explained how a local driver accidently poured diesel emission fluid (DEF) into the fuel tank, resulting in having to replace the entire fuel system at a cost of $15,000. Keep this in mind, because water alone can also cause serious costly damage. If your rig has a water-in-fuel (WIF) warning system and it comes on, heed the warning and check for water in the filters and tank immediately. If not equipped with this warning system, someone needs to be trained to drain a small amount of fuel from the primary fuel filters to check for water on a scheduled basis. It is a good idea to use the same person for this for the sake of consistency. It is also good to have someone follow up from time to time to ensure it is getting done properly and that it is not being pencil whipped. Remember the old saying, “People do what you inspect, not what you expect.”

The second is inorganic debris, which includes dirt, sand, and rust (rust can be caused inside steel tanks by water) as examples, but there are more. This is why it is best to specify alloy tanks over steel when purchasing new trucks. They may cost a little more up front but can save on downtime and serious dollars in repairs and aggravation in the long run.

The third is organic debris, which some folks broadly refer to as algae. It is, in fact, the products of fuel breakdown and fuel deterioration waste products. This area represents the largest source of fuel contamination of all three by far. It can look like sludge or even mud. In most cases, it can be very acidic and is the main component found inside fuel filters if you cut them open. This organic debris can cause corrosion inside fuel tanks, injection pumps, and inside fuel injectors. Micro-organisms (bugs) such as bacteria, yeast, and mold can cause fuel breakdown, and the resultant waste products will easily plug fuel filters and shut an engine down in a hurry. The best way to avoid this costly mess is to make sure the rig does not sit and gets used on a regular basis, thus keeping the fuel fresh. There are additives that are available to help with this phenomenon, however make sure you do your research because some biocides, as they are known, can actually aggravate the problem by turning the bugs into solids that can quickly cog fuel filters.

Keep Them Moving
Far and wide, the best way to keep the spare rigs in tip top shop is to make sure they don’t sit for long periods of time by rotating them into service on a regular schedule. If this system is not incorporated, most issues and vehicle breakdowns related to battery and fuel issues can be avoided with an inspection schedule. This schedule needs to include a drive cycle and operation that uses sufficient fuel from the tank requiring replenishment to keep it fresh and avoid fuel degradation. At the same time, this keeps the batteries charged and ready for the next time your spare rigs are needed. Remember, lives can depend on it.

CHRISTIAN P. KOOP retired as the fleet manager for the Miami-Dade (FL) Fire Department after 35 years with Miami-Dade County and four years in the military. He has been involved in the repair and maintenance of autos, military track and wheeled vehicles, heavy equipment, and emergency response vehicles for the past 40 years. He is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment Editorial Advisory Board. He has an associate degree from Central Texas College and a bachelor’s degree in public administration from Barry University and has taken course work in basic and digital electronics. He is an ASE-certified master auto/medium/heavy truck technician and master EVT apparatus and ambulance technician. He is a member of the board of directors of EVTCC and FAEVT and a technical committee member for NFPA 1071, Standard for the Emergency Vehicle Technician Professional Qualifications.

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