I’m setting here in my lawn chair taking a break from repairs. It’s a job that never seems to be done. You know what they say, “own to operate, so you can operate to own.” It doesn’t matter what kind of equipment you have, they all wear out and need attention from time to time. Not everyone has the luxury of taking their stuff to the shop in town. In case you haven’t guessed, I’m one of the drivers who has had to learn repairs by the numbers. But what doesn’t appear to be an emergency right now doesn’t mean it can’t or won’t progress into one.
I have a lot of friends who stop by to ask how to fix something or where to find the right tool for their need. Most of the time the tool they need isn’t in my toolbox – it’s much simpler than that. I have written many times that knowledge is the most important tool you can own. When I get the chance, I tell most new operators, “If you want to up your game and increase your profits, learn to use hand tools, and you will never be out of work.” Working on trucks isn’t rocket science, but when you’re in a fix, the most basic repair can stop you dead in your tracks. So, there is no time like the present to start learning.
I hear young drivers throw around phrases like “truckin’ old school” and such, but I’m not sure they understand just how difficult that was 40 years ago. Having grown up on the farm, I learned the value of hard work, and I decided early in my life that manual labor didn’t fit my hands. When I got off that farm and out into the world, I found my drill Sargent reinforcing a motto of what it means to be a U.S. Marine – failure is not an option. I also learned there’s only two ways to travel in the corps: you march by foot or, if you were smart, you found a way to ride. I learned early if it had a motor and steering wheel, I could figure out how to move it. But, I did break my share of equipment along the way.
Today, some of the large fleets get a black eye whenever one of their drivers screws up or makes a simple mistake. Sometimes it’s just beginner’s luck they even survive, but that’s another story for a different time. Sure, we all laugh and comment about how we would never do anything like that, but most of us already have – the only difference is we didn’t get caught and put on social media. And if we did get caught, the boss made us own up to it and then fix the damages, even if that meant him standing over us and giving play by play instructions as we went. If you are in doubt as to where my knowledge of roadside repairs came from, now you know.
I’m amazed at drivers who can’t or won’t fix even a burned-out headlight. “Not my job. I’m a driver, not the fixer.” Really? Who do you think is going to be held responsible if an accident happens? You honestly know better than that, and it doesn’t matter what the recruiter told you – it’s the driver’s responsibility to ensure that his/her equipment is in good working order. No one wants to cause damage to other vehicles on the road.
I think we have all run over a mud flap or two before and pulled it from the hanger. Any old school driver would have gotten out his trusty tool kit and bolted it back on as best he could before continuing on with his trip. Even if that meant using a coat hanger and duct tape, then replacing it when it was convenient. I know the rules must have changed, since I see loose flaps in almost every driveway I go into (it’s either that or they are using them to hide the potholes)!
Learning how to fix a taillight can save you a ticket at the next scale house or maybe even stop the potential for an accident. The steering wheel holder says, “It’s only one light, what can happen?” Well, that depends on what the trouble is. If it’s just unplugged, probably not much, unless it shorts out against the frame and takes out the entire system by shorting the breaker or blowing the fuse and leaving you with no lights at all.
It stands to reason you should search out a SAFE place to investigate your troubles. Guys and gals, this means some place off the roadway and not in the travel lanes. I make mention of this because all too often I see people stopped in the right lane, outside their trucks, walking around “looking” at something. I always want to stop and write one word on their forehead… STUPID. Someone once said “God looks out for the small animals, drunks, and children” so I guess the rest of you are on your own. Only the strong will survive!
I mentioned earlier I was resting from a project I’m working on. It’s a repair and refurbish project for a local company. So, you may ask, why am I working on it and why didn’t they take it to a regular shop? Well, for the same reason many of you are waiting for weeks to get simple fix-it jobs done. The local shops are filled up right now and they don’t want to tackle something like this. Besides, I don’t want to buy $5.00 fuel either, so here I am. Most of the work is cosmetic in nature and can be done in the driveway using hand tools and an electric sander. Fixing lights and troubleshooting the electrical system is something all drivers should be able to do, especially if you ever want to run one of those large rides that roll into the night looking like a small city on the move.
The owner of the trailer I am now working on wanted to acquire a couple newer trailers for a drop-and-hook deal he is setting up. The problem is new trailers are few and far between, not to mention the cost of one today – if you can even find one. This brings us back to fixing older trailers that may be used but not totally used up. Just because it’s rusted doesn’t mean it’s busted. These refurbished trailers are a good fit for a drop-and-hook operation because they are subject to considerable damage (dents an dings) that no one ever seems to know how it happened. But these trailers still need to be roadworthy and have a desirable appearance on the street.
None of us want to attract attention from the DOT, and nothing screams lack of maintenance like mismatched lights and holes in the sheet metal big enough to look through. Back in the day, I kept a can of black paint in my side box for spot repairs and touch ups when I had the time. Many of you new drivers will find it hard to believe, but I drove for years before I ever had wheels made out of aluminum, and even longer before they were shiny. Those old International trucks had Dayton wheels with spokes and a spacer ring between the duals. If you didn’t keep them painted, the rust would build up, and when you had tire troubles, the spacer ring would not slide off. If you didn’t remove it, the inside dual could not slip off the hub. As you can guess, I spent many days sitting with my paint brush in hand.
Did I mention most drivers did their own tire repairs on the side of the road, too? Back in the day, there was no roadside service, so we all carried a jack and a wheel wrench big enough to do the job. No, it was not battery operated, and for a driver my size, I carried a long pipe as the extension for leverage. Necessity is the mother of invention, and that real life experience is what legends are made of. So, fast forward 40 years, and you find people searching out the “can-do” get it done guys like me.
So, what has changed? Mostly, the older trucks and trailers were made a lot better and stronger than their newer counterparts. Besides, most of us have a few spare trailers setting around that never got sold due to a soft market. Sure, they have some battle scars from years of service, but so do most of us older drivers. I like to consider them character traits. If drivers can get new dental implants and dye their hair, who says we can’t change the running gear, add shiny wheels, and dabble some new paint on to an older trailer to give it the appearance of its former self. Grab some hand tools, drivers, and let’s go to work.
The trailer I am working on now is the perfect example of trouble from the get-go. First off, the brakes were froze (still are), so moving it was a problem. Back to the shop to get my Thor hammer, then we – the trailer and I – had a short conversation about who was in charge. I won the argument, but only after a few busted knuckles and two pinched fingers. Since the brakes don’t work, I just needed to free up the shoes from the drums to let it roll. This is an all too often problem drivers neglect to address when picking up a trailer that has been parked long enough for the drums to freeze to the shoes. This can happen overnight in winter months with moisture, but it can also happen when dirt and rust mix with a little condensation.
Sliding tires on the driveway won’t fix the problem, but a couple of good hits on the brake drum with your hammer will. Yea, I know, this will require someone to get down and climb under the trailer. So, you get the knees of your trousers dirty in the process, no big deal, that’s what you get paid for. That is a driver’s responsibility, and it can save the company a ton of money if they don’t have to replace the tires. I caged the brakes and freed the shoes from the drums then towed it three miles to my shop. Note: trailer was unladen and we used a safety car following behind. You may ask why all the precautions if you’re only going three miles? It’s simple – we don’t want to cause any unnecessary damage to components we can’t see.
Eventually, I intend to remove the original slider chassis from this trailer and replace it with one we have already refurbished from a different trailer, along with adding air ride, which will improve the ride and add value to this piece of equipment (plus it is a requirement for the shipper). Down the road, we will fix the worn-out chassis to be used under a different trailer, when the time comes. All things old can become new again. On this job, the owner said, “Just paint over the rust and don’t worry about the lights, they all seem to be working.” Ahhh, no! If you want me to do this, then we do it right or not at all. “I do things Kick Azz not Half Azz!” He told me to do what I could but don’t get carried away, they aren’t show trailers. That sounds more like a request I can live up to, so let the transformation begin.
I opened the back doors to use the floor for my work bench and I could hear baby birds chirping. Not sure where they were coming from, so I started looking around, and just like that, out flies a robin from under the light panel. I bet they are still sore about me moving them out of their old house in the taillight bucket. Had I left the nest in there, it could have started a fire from the dried grass, and next thing you know we will be reading about another warehouse burned to the ground under mysterious circumstances. Hey, I’m just doing my part to keep the economy moving.
It’s hard to believe sometimes the amount of damage caused by lack of maintenance. I classify washing all my equipment regularly as maintenance. I know the old hands used to say “clean will make you lean” (wasted money) and “chrome won’t take you home” but it will make your parts last longer when they are serviced on a regular basis. I had to put in a couple extra hours to clean out the built-up dirt and rust, then I made new covers from some square tubing I had laying around to hold the lights, due to the rust damage. But hey, it’s all good now. I’m only three days into this project and it’s already looking more like road ready and less like yard art.
Drivers, don’t be afraid to step out of you comfort zone. Nothing I’ve done in refurbishing this trailer is out of your ability. As a finished project, it looks complicated, but don’t be confused, I only strung together a series of fixes, most of which you should be able to do in the performance of your job.
When you are getting a road repair done by a technician, don’t be bashful, ask questions about how things work. Most of them will walk you through the information if you have a genuine interest. Take the time to work on the problem yourself. If you can’t find or fix the trouble, then call in reinforcements. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. The only thing you have lost is your time.
Maybe 40 years from now you will look back and smile because that was the day everything made sense. I’ve been telling myself for years the tools in my toolbox aren’t an expense, they are an investment in my future. And every time I use them, I get more return on my money. Use a little restraint and don’t get carried away with fancy boxes or ultra-expensive tools until you know which ones work best. Someone once said, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. I’m not too sure about birds, but I do know having the right tool at the right time is priceless and doing things yourself will always be cheaper and more educating, 10-4!