Using a lightweight material, such as a composite, to spec a service truck can help a fleet do more with a smaller, more efficient truck.Photo: BrandFX

Using a lightweight material, such as a composite, to spec a service truck can help a fleet do more with a smaller, more efficient truck.Photo: BrandFX

While there are compelling PR benefits for organizations to “green” their truck and van fleets, many companies hold back.

That’s because conventional wisdom says that what’s good for the environment is often bad for business, due to high costs of implementing new technologies and revamping a fleet’s operations. Senior executives and fleet managers just beginning to evaluate their green fleet options often feel overwhelmed by the process, wrestling with what they perceive as an unpalatable trade-off: Be friendly to the environment at the expense of profits.

But, greening a fleet doesn’t have to be either/or. It can be win-win. Here are six possible strategies to save money while going green:

1 Lightweighting Truck Bodies
One strategy is to strip weight out of the vehicle by selecting truck bodies manufactured with lightweight materials, such as aluminum, fiber composites, and plastic composites. These materials offer a weight savings ranging from 40 percent to 60 percent relative to comparable steel upfits, presenting fleets with these opportunities to reduce fuel consumption and harmful CO2 emissions.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), reducing a vehicle’s weight by 10 percent can improve fuel economy by 6 percent to 8 percent. So, how much of a difference does this make in the real world?

Using a ¾-ton pickup truck chassis (such as a Chevrolet Silverado or a Ford F-250) as an example, assuming a 10-mpg average with the truck fully loaded, 10-percent overall weight savings, and 8-percent fuel economy improvement, the result is a 0.8-mpg increase, from 10 mpg to 10.8.
While on the face of it that’s not much of a difference, depending on the truck’s annual miles, the impact on greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) and fuel costs can be significant.

If the truck travels 30,000 miles annually, that 0.8-mpg improvement translates into an annual savings of 222 gallons. At $3.30 per gallon (the average cost of gasoline in the Southern U.S., as of press time), that’s $733 saved for the year.

Multiply that savings over a six-year truck lifecycle, and a 0.8-mpg improvement at 30,000 miles per year ($733 annual savings) yields 1,332 fewer gallons consumed and $4,398 savings over the life of the truck.

That’s just one vehicle. The impact is multiplied if that 0.8-mpg savings is applied to the entire truck fleet.

Another option when lightweighting the upfit is to boost the legal payload of the vehicle without having to move up to a larger truck.

For example, according to Eric Paul, vice president, sales and marketing at Fort Worth, Texas-based BrandFX Body Company, a standard eight-foot fiber composite BrandFX service body for a single-rear wheel 56-inch cab-to-axle (CA) chassis weighs approximately 590 lbs., compared to 1,250 lbs. with a similarly spec’d steel body. That translates into 660 lbs. of extra payload capacity without having to jump to a bigger, less fuel-efficient, and more expensive truck. 

What could a fleet do with 660 lbs. of increased payload? It could mean fewer trips back to the warehouse because the truck could haul more inventory in one load, resulting in fewer gallons consumed — and fewer harmful GHGs emitted into the atmosphere.

Suppose that extra 660-lb. payload capacity allowed the fleet to cut 15 miles per day out of a truck’s route by carrying 500-lbs. more parts and equipment. If the truck operates five days per week, 50 weeks per year, at an average of 12 mpg, here’s what the potential savings would look like:
● 3,750 fewer miles traveled per year.
● 312.5 fewer gallons of fuel consumed.
● At $3.30 per gallon, an annual fuel
savings of $1,031.25 per vehicle.

Examine how existing trucks are spec’d and being used. If the truck could legally haul a few hundred pounds of extra payload, would that realistically help reduce daily miles? If so, about how many miles? Then run the numbers to determine whether the fleet would benefit.  

Paul with BrandFX pointed to one large telecom customer that was able to move from a Ford F-450 down to a Chevrolet Silverado 3500 because of the weight savings achieved by the lighter-weight body.

“The customer saved more than $4,500 per unit on the chassis, which more than recouped the 15-percent premium of the fiber composite body over steel,” Paul said. 

Rightsizing to a smaller chassis also often means the opportunity to spec smaller, more fuel-efficient engines, which has considerable implications on reducing both GHGs and fuel spend.

Suppose a truck’s payload requirements and weight savings achieved by an aluminum or fiber composite 8-foot service body allows the ability to spec a ½-ton chassis, instead of ¾-ton. This means a $3,500 to $5,000 lower acquisition cost per truck, plus potential fuel savings by as much as 5 mpg (assuming an average 17 mpg for the ½-ton versus 12 mpg for the ¾-ton). If the truck operates 25,000 miles per year, this translates into annual fuel savings of 612.75 gallons, or $2,022 at $3.30 per gallon.

In this case, “going green” pays off  quickly.

2 Blending Lightweight With Conventional Materials
Fleets that prefer steel bodies don’t have to go “all in” with lightweight materials to still take advantage of incremental weight savings. One example is The Reading Group’s composite landscape body, which combines a steel frame (for structural strength and rigidity) with a plastic composite floor, rear doors, and other areas of the body to achieve substantial weight savings.

“Steel is the supporting mechanism and the reason why our product still uses steel as a spine,” said Craig Bonham, director of business development for The Reading Group, a truck body manufacturer based in Reading, Pa., that builds steel, aluminum, and plastic composite truck bodies. “The composite material is the component of our product that can take the abuse, because it can handle a substantially higher amount of stress before it experiences deformation, but it is also up to 68-percent lighter than steel.”

A wide range of upfitters also offer aluminum tool boxes, ladder racks, liftgates, and other lightweight body-mounted equipment to help strip weight out of the completed truck, while retaining the steel construction of the body itself.

“There are a few basic ways to decrease the weight of the current upfit specs to increase fuel efficiency — by either using lighter material or alternate products that still fit the need,” said Corey Stanley, director of fleet operations with the Auto Truck Group, which specializes in the design, manufacture, and installation of truck equipment for a wide range of fleet applications. “In some cases, it may be appropriate to spec fiberglass or aluminum toppers [that enclose the cargo bed of a pickup truck] in lieu of service bodies for some lighter-duty applications where the customer doesn’t necessarily need a full service body, which helps reduce overall weight and upfit cost.”[PAGEBREAK]3 Stripping Weight Out of Van Interiors
Truck bodies and accessories aren’t the only upfits with lightweight material options. Cargo van interiors, comprised of a protective bulkhead (the partition between the cabin and cargo area) and shelving systems, are traditionally built out of metal. However, a growing number of upfitters are also offering lightweight aluminum, plastic composite, and hybrid material interiors to reduce overall vehicle weight, and take advantage of the resulting fuel savings and environmental benefits.

How much weight can be saved? As a frame of reference for potential weight savings that can be achieved, Leggett & Platt’s QuietFlex and CSS product lines (by Masterack) are composite van interior systems that weigh up to 30-percent less than traditional steel systems, said Jenn Voelker, marketing manager at Leggett & Platt Commercial Vehicle Products, a family of companies, including Masterack, which designs, manufactures, and installs vehicle interior shelving and truck accessories.  

4 Eliminating Idling
According to the DOE, allowing a truck to idle consumes up to a half-gallon of fuel per hour, depending on the load requirements on the engine. If the truck idles for a total of two hours per day, that’s one gallon of fuel wasted daily. In other words, if the truck operates 250 days per year,  idling two hours per day, it squanders 250 gallons per year. Spread that over the number of vehicles in a fleet, and the opportunity for cost savings is easy.  

Here are some upfit strategies to eliminate unnecessary idling, which can reduce fuel consumption and harmful emissions:
● Spec an electric hoist for dump bodies instead of a power take-off (PTO) driven hoist (which requires engine power).
● Spec electric stand-by for refrigerated bodies where the refrigeration unit can
be plugged into an electrical power source while loading and unloading at a warehouse or while parked overnight.
● Spec auxiliary power units to run equipment such as LED lights, compressors and heating, and cooling systems for sleeper units.

5 Improving Aerodynamics
Reducing air drag by 20 percent could increase fuel efficiency by up to 15 percent at highway speeds, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  Therefore, the greatest opportunity for aerodynamic improvements is in over-the-road applications where the truck operates primarily at highway speeds because wind drag is not much of a factor at low speeds. Some ideas for enhancing truck aerodynamics include spec’ing wind fairings (or air deflectors) on the front of a dry freight box, for example, or installing a tonneau cover over the pickup truck bed.

6 Converting to Alt-Fuels
A growing number of truck and van upfitters, such as Knapheide Manufacturing Company, are partnering with alternative-fuel system providers and chassis manufacturers to provide customers with engineering, installation, and support services for low-emissions alt-fuel systems. “Right now, it’s primarily propane autogas and compressed natural gas (CNG). Eventually, we’ll probably be converting to hybrid-electric as well,” said Chris Weiss, vice president of engineering, The Knapheide Manufacturing Company, a full-line truck body manufacturer based in Quincy, Ill.

What type of customers are a good fit for propane autogas and CNG systems?

“You see [alt-fuel conversions] in medium and large fleets right now because they can afford to experiment,” Weiss said. “In the next year or so, I’m expecting to see more people converting a larger portion of their fleet to alt fuels as more systems become available.”

According to Weiss, the cost of conversion ranges from $9,000 to $16,000, depending on the number of fuel tanks required for the truck’s application.

It’s a steep investment, but with available federal and state incentives that can help defray a portion of the up-front cost and current price advantages for both CNG and propane autogas relative to conventional gasoline and diesel, some fleets are generating a relatively quick payback.

Another option is to purchase vehicles with diesel engines certified by the manufacturer to operate on biodiesel blends up  to 20 percent (B-20). This is a cost-efficient way to “go green” because there’s no up-front expense to convert the vehicle to run on biodiesel.

As with any alternative fuel, the vehicle’s application and availability of the fuel are two essential points to consider before taking the plunge.

“You have to determine what your access to that fuel is today,” Weiss said. “In some situations, it may make sense to get our [alt fuel] partners involved to see about putting in onsite fuel tanks. Then you need to consider the truck’s application — what range will the vehicle require? And, the most important thing to ask: Is the truck domiciled in the same place every night? If you’re running dedicated CNG, but the truck doesn’t stay in the same place every night, it’s probably not going to work for you. But, if you spec a bi-fuel system, that might work for you.”

When it comes to “greening” a fleet, it’s the little things that can make the biggest difference. Simplify the process by focusing on small, incremental changes in upfit and chassis specs that could pay substantial dividends in terms of reduced GHG emissions and fuel consumption.