How to Prevent User Departments from Mismanaging Heavy Construction Equipment

A good working relationship between fleet and user departments begins with the spec’ing process and extends through the equipment service to its eventual resale or trade-in and can help avoid error.

November 2009, Government Fleet - Feature

by Steve Bennet

User departments can make mistakes with heavy construction equipment. However, there are ways to avoid these common and not-so-common mistakes. In interviews, a number of government fleet managers described frequent missteps, largely concerning spec’ing, accurate forecasting of equipment utilization, and some operational/training issues.

Spec’ing Inaccurately
“One of the problems in municipalities, when they spec and purchase equipment, is that they don’t spec it heavy enough,” said Tom Collins, equipment maintenance supervisor for the town of Natick, Mass. “They just spec to what’s out there.”

Collins explained, “You’ve got to spec for the minimum job you expect the piece of equipment to do, then add to it because you’re never going to get rid of it when it should normally be gone.”

Municipal fleets tend to keep such equipment longer than its typical allotted service life, Collins and others noted.

“If the life expectancy on the street is five years, any city or town is going to have it 10 to 12 years,” Collins said. “So when I spec a piece of equipment, I usually go a little above and beyond because I know it’s got to last.”

Coming to agreement with user departments on what exact equipment is needed is a continual challenge, said Warren Patrick, fleet manager for Harford County in Maryland. “I think oftentimes, the using agencies have a difficult time discerning what it is they need to have their equipment do,” he said. “Some of them come up with the craziest, cockamamie stories about why this one piece of equipment is the only piece that will do this job, and there’s absolutely nothing else that will work.”

If user department staffs include knowledgeable, experienced operators, they should be sought out and consulted, Patrick suggested. These subject matter experts can be valuable contributors to spec development.

“I usually have the division I’m working with for a particular piece of equipment give me their thoughts,” said Steven Hawes, garage and equipment supervisor for the town of Needham, Mass. “We’ll bring a demo machine in, and have the operator get his hands on it.”

The value of operator input “depends on the individual,” Hawes said. Some have a pretty sound grasp of what the specs should be, Hawes explained, and their suggestions are given due consideration.

Researching Utilization Options
“We tend to keep equipment longer than some contractors might,” Hawes said, echoing what his peers in other municipalities said about anticipated heavy equipment service life. “So we have to make sure we’re picking the best for the town’s needs,” he continued.

“There may not be a lot of heavy construction use, but there’s a lot of maintenance work. Usually we’ll pick a different machine than a contractor might look at.” The town typically needs something a bit more versatile than a contractor would require, Hawes said.

“It’s going be used by more than one department, for more than one type of job or project,” Hawes said of any heavy equipment the town acquires. “It might be at the Water Department one day, but the highway crew or park commission the next, so we need flexibility.”

Another consideration: If equipment is not used steadily, why invest in it at all? The economic slump has given added importance to this question.

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