A Fleet Manager’s Guide to Preventative Maintenance for Semi Trucks

April 17, 2020

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Key Takeaways

It’s hard to overstate the importance of a preventative maintenance program. Whether you have one semi truck or thousands, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration requires that you “systematically inspect, repair, and maintain all motor vehicles and intermodal equipment subject to its control.” Learn how to create a checklist to make sure maintenance gets done and is documented correctly.

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It’s hard to overstate the importance of a preventative maintenance program. Whether you have one semi truck or thousands, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) requires that you “systematically inspect, repair, and maintain all motor vehicles and intermodal equipment subject to its control.”

By regularly and proactively servicing your commercial trucks you not only satisfy federal regulations, but you can also extend the lifetime of your vehicles, lower the chance of costly emergency repairs, and increase uptime for your entire fleet. Read on for tips to plan a maintenance schedule, employ relevant maintenance checklists, and document your preventative maintenance program.

Understanding preventative maintenance

Preventative maintenance is not exclusive to the commercial trucking industry. Most machines require some level of regular maintenance to keep operating at peak performance.

Preventative maintenance can include many small tasks such as cleaning, oiling, checking fluid levels, and even doing simple visual inspections. Preventative maintenance, for vehicles in particular, also typically includes regularly replacing parts that are expected to wear down over time such as windshield wipers, brake linings, tires, and air filters.

The purpose of replacing parts and fluids on a regular maintenance schedule is to save costs in the long run by preventing more serious and expensive issues from arising. This also decreases the chance of an issue cropping up unexpectedly, ensuring there's no impact on the truck driver's ability to operate the vehicle.

For example, by regularly monitoring the oil level in your vehicle, you will know when it hits a milestone—such as 25,000 miles driven since its last oil change. When this milestone is reached, you can proactively change the oil while there is still some left. If the oil is not changed until after warning lights come on—signaling that the tank is empty—you run the risk of damaging your vehicle’s engine. This then becomes a larger issue since an engine repair will cost thousands more than a regular oil change. Plus, you also need to factor in the opportunity cost of the downtime your vehicle will need for the engine repair, which will almost certainly be longer than the combined down time of several preventative, pre-scheduled oil changes.

While a preventative maintenance program may seem costly and complex to implement, there are several easy ways to get a program up and running within your own fleet.

4 steps to implementing a preventative maintenance checklist

Even though it is daunting to plan out and execute a preventative maintenance program for a large fleet of trucks that are rarely in the same place at the same time, there are four simple steps you can take to kick off a program that will allow you to stay compliant and reduce costs.

1. Take stock of your fleet

The first step in planning a preventative maintenance program is to take note of each vehicle in your fleet. Because no two vehicles are alike, their maintenance needs may differ greatly. If you have a mixed fleet of vehicles, the complexity is only multiplied. Each truck’s  preventative maintenance plan will be based on factors such as how far they’re driven, what fuel system they use, and what weather conditions they typically operate in. This mix of inputs makes preventative maintenance programs a complex, but important part of fleet management and fleet safety.

To allow for enforcement of their safety regulations, the FMCSA also asks that all owners maintain accurate maintenance records for each vehicle in their fleet. Each record is expected to contain information about the ownership and maintenance such as:

  • Owner name

  • VIN

  • Make, model, and year

  • Tire size

  • Fleet number (if applicable)

  • Current and past maintenance schedules for the vehicle

The FMCSA asks that the documentation around maintenance schedules and repairs is kept for at least one year while the vehicle is being used, and a minimum of six months after it is decommissioned. Due to this requirement, having preventative maintenance plans for each vehicle well documented and planned in advance can actually help you save time and costs by avoiding failed DOT vehicle inspections.

2. Plan a schedule for each vehicle

Now that you have a record of each vehicle in your fleet, you can start to build a unique maintenance schedule for each one. In semi trucks, the preventative maintenance that needs to be done will differ greatly based on how the truck is used. Metrics such as engine hours, fuel levels, and mileage can often be used as benchmarks to help you predict when a truck will need to be serviced next, making it important to closely track these indicators for every vehicle in your fleet. 

Other times, preventative maintenance can be done opportunistically, so it’s also a good idea to closely track the routes of your truck drivers and map when they’ll be closest to a service station. This allows you to take advantage of downtime between trips. Making small repairs during downtime will save you from the unfortunate possibility of a necessary repair cropping up at the same time as an essential job.

3. Train drivers on inspections

Your truck drivers are the eyes and ears of your operation, and will almost always be responsible for conducting the vehicle checks that are necessary to maintain a preventative maintenance program. To equip your drivers with the knowledge to perform a pre-trip inspection that covers all relevant areas, consider creating a maintenance checklist that covers the following categories:

  • Brakes: After your seatbelt, your brakes are one of the most important life-saving systems in any vehicle. However, they also deteriorate rapidly with use, so it’s important for them to undergo a comprehensive inspection before the start of a trip. To help your drivers successfully do this, make sure to have them inspect the lining of the breaks to ensure there are no leaks in the air pressure system.

  • Tires: One of the most frequently used and replaced parts of any vehicle are the tires, making it especially important to check them often. An over worn tire can become a major hazard to a semi truck if it's not properly addressed. Because of this, both air pressure and tread depth should be examined regularly.

  • Fluids: Leaking fluids can be problematic and costly for a semi truck operator. By checking below the undercarriage, a driver can usually determine if leakage has occurred. Drivers should also frequently check the fluid levels for their coolant, antifreeze, fuel, and oil. Finally, checking air pressure, oil pressure, and temperature will ensure all your fluids are functioning correctly.

  • Electrical: The lights on your vehicle keep you safe by helping communicate your presence to other drivers. Before your driver starts operating a vehicle, make sure they check that warning lights, turn signals, brake lights, and flashers are working correctly. Drivers can also double check other components of the electrical system by ensuring all wires are still tightly connected and interior lights are functional.

4. Document your preventative maintenance

A pre-trip checklist is a great start to documenting your preventative maintenance, but the FMCSA requires each vehicle carry, at minimum, one year of documented and planned service in order to be compliant. In the past many fleet managers and truck drivers have relied on paper documentation which ran the risk of getting lost, destroyed, or stolen. 

Instead, consider digitally planning your preventative maintenance schedule. Starting with a digital plan is helpful because the entire process becomes more transparent, secure, easy to update, and improves the efficiency of your back office. With a digital plan, you’ll be able to quickly convert plans into proof of service once the maintenance takes place. Storing your records in a software system will also allow drivers to pull up the latest information directly on their mobile devices during an inspection—eliminating the need to search the entire cab for paperwork.

Semi truck maintenance checklist

A semi truck maintenance checklist will help you make sure nothing gets skipped or forgotten during routine servicing. The checklist for each vehicle will depend on the information you’ve already collected to meet FMCSA requirements. However, your checklist should also include considerations for adverse conditions that will more rapidly decrease vehicle reliability such as extreme weather and heavy mileage.  

Seasonal maintenance

The best way to determine if your trucks will need seasonal maintenance is to keep a log of their routes and anticipated weather conditions. Both extreme heat and extreme cold can cause different components and systems of a semi truck to wear out faster than usual. Read on to learn what areas should be on your checklist during each extreme:

For warmer months and high-temperature locations you should concentrate your added inspections on the cooling system and the electrical system. Areas to focus on include:

  • Air Conditioning: check for leaks and debris build up  

  • Coolant: drain, flush, and pressure test the system at least once a year

  • Electrical system: check the battery for corrosion and ensure that wires are secure

  • Tire pressure: ensure warm air does not raise the air pressure of tires over safe limits

In colder climates, where trucks are more likely to encounter freezing temperatures, snow, and ice, you’ll want to focus extra attention on essential safety parts such as windshield wipers and power steering. You’ll also want to frequently check the fluid levels in your system since many fluids are at risk of freezing overnight when temperature drops significantly. Key areas to monitor during colder conditions include: 

  • Windshield: check for chips and cracking, ensure wiper blades are sharp, and defrosters are working properly

  • Braking system: ensure your ABS is working properly before starting a winter drive

  • Fluids: service the fuel filter and prevent freezing of fluids such as diesel fuel, exhaust fluid, coolant, and engine oil

  • Tire tread: confirm tires have enough tread depth for winter driving and have chains on hand

  • Exterior: clean the cab and undercarriage regularly to avoid salt buildup

Maintenance by mile

Another consideration when planning a preventative maintenance program is the distance your vehicles are traveling. Most vehicles will come with manufacturer guidelines around how far a vehicle can generally travel before a specific part will become too worn to use. Even the most comprehensive plans for a preventative maintenance schedule can be disrupted when a part fails earlier than expected. A good way to remedy the discrepancy between a pre-planned maintenance schedule and a distance-based maintenance schedule is to closely track a vehicle's average mileage and set alerts to schedule additional maintenance when a truck is approaching a mileage milestone.

Tools for preventative maintenance

Ultimately, preventative maintenance is both a science and an art and it does take careful oversight to get it right. However, the return from investing in preventative maintenance early on will be a vehicle that performs well more consistently and for longer periods than if it only receives retroactive repairs.

To plan a complex preventative maintenance program for a large fleet of vehicles, software systems are almost always essential. Though preventative maintenance software comes in many forms, Samsara can help fleet managers schedule preventative maintenance through an all-purpose platform.

A Samsara device plugs directly into your semi truck’s OBD port and pulls engine, vehicle health data, and more, which in-turn provides real-time visibility into a vehicle’s diagnostics.

This allows Samsara to support the ability to create a preventative maintenance schedule for each vehicle in your fleet and set alerts to inform a preventative maintenance schedule. Samsara allows you to schedule a preventative maintenance task for any vehicle based on custom intervals that Samsara tracks automatically such as mileage, days, or engine hours. 

Once you have the task scheduled, Samsara also allows you to choose to be alerted for certain preventative maintenance items, as well as how many days in advance you would like to receive the alert. You can also select other contacts, such as your machine shop manager, to receive the alerts along with a custom description of what needs to be done.

Samsara  also allows fleet managers to create and scale a preventative maintenance checklist for semi trucks that factors in each vehicle’s unique environment and usage. Planning for the preventative maintenance of your fleet with Samsara will allow you to operate an efficient, safe, and  compliant fleet. To learn more, book a demo or request a free trial today.

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