A little over three years ago, the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Illinois, opened a brand-new $9 million, 29,000 square-foot fleet maintenance facility, equipped with 19 bays and all-new vehicle equipment and furniture. The facility not only combined maintenance operations from two separate older facilities into one, but it also provided the space (and incentive) for the district to bring most, if not all of its key maintenance operations in house — from alternative-fuel conversions and repairs to police upfits and safety lane inspections.
With adequate space and the right resources, the district’s fleet manager, Michael Webster, CAFM, encourages other fleets to look at the long-term benefits of bringing more services in house, especially as the industry pivots to more eco-friendly vehicle options.
Ensuring Quality Control
Currently, about 92% of the Forest Preserve District’s fleet runs on alternative fuels such as propane autogas and compressed natural gas, including its police vehicles. After moving into a new maintenance facility in 2018, Webster said the district gradually brought its alt-fuel repairs and conversions in house to ensure the fleet’s mechanics “knew our fleet inside and out.”
“When they aren’t the ones who install these conversion kits, even though we get wiring diagrams and those kinds of things from our vendor that did the installation, it’s never as good as doing it yourself,” he said. “By bringing this in house, we can install these systems, know where everything is, and know how to fix them because we were the one to install them in the first place.”
Webster added that this is worth it in the long run — not just for the diagnostic side of things — but for quality control and the time and money savings a fleet operation can experience.
For example, since becoming an authorized Ford warranty repair shop last year, the Forest Preserve District has been able to complete all its Ford recall and warranty repairs in house.
“We’ve been able to save time by taking less trips to local dealerships,” Webster said. “Plus, we get reimbursed by Ford for our labor and for our parts. With a 20% markup on the parts, they’re actually paying us beyond what our parts typically cost, allowing us to do the warranty work ourselves.”
He also said the district’s in-house safety lane inspections, which are required every six months by the Illinois Department of Transportation, have helped his team stay on track with its preventive maintenance schedule.
“We try to line up our preventive maintenance around the six-month mark when the safety lane inspections are due,” Webster explained. “By having them both in house, we can do it all at the same time, eliminating the need for vehicles to come in twice for service.”
It’s Proven: Time is Money
This year, the Forest Preserve District was able to see a cost savings of about $110,000 with its in-house operations — although Webster said that total doesn’t include intangible costs.
“It’s hard to calculate what that cost is just in our savings from what our bid price was for our alt-fuel kits, police upfitting, and repairs,” he explained. “When you bid these things out, the vendors are usually going to take a markup on the parts as well as for their labor. So, we decided to take that markup out of the equation, and now we buy directly from the manufacturers — particularly for the alt-fuel conversion kits — to be able to get a wholesale cost on them.”
As for labor costs, Webster said in-house work is much cheaper than the private market.
The Forest Preserve District currently employs a total of 14 fleet personnel, including 11 mechanics and parts staff, two of which are off site managing the county’s three golf courses.
He said the in-house staff can make daily/normal repairs much faster compared to the time it would take for a subcontractor to do the same work. This gives them more time savings, and more opportunity to complete work in house.
“We kind of bite off a little at a time just so we know our staff doesn’t get overwhelmed and I don’t have to go out and start hiring,” Webster explained. “If I hire more people to do things, the in-house cost savings might not be as worthwhile.”
Being a Community Resource
The next step for Webster and his team, he said, is using the new facility and in-house services to be a resource for other agencies. The Forest Preserve District currently has several intergovernmental agreements with local municipalities to use its alternative-fuel site.
“Now, we’re trying to get local organizations that are in close proximity to us to be able to do their body work and their fabrication,” he said. “We have a really nice fabrication shop and we’ve got a very large paint booth that meets all the current Environmental Protection Agency standards. I think this is the next step for us going forward — being a resource to insource.”
It’s not only a cost and quality advantage for the other local agencies — as the district’s in-house service costs will be cheaper than the private industry — but also a benefit for the district itself, using its facility and services at full capacity.
Tackling Supply Chain Challenges
Despite the many upsides of various bringing maintenance ops in house, Webster said fleets should still be cautious of upcoming supply chain issues, especially as the industry recovers from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“The pandemic definitely slowed us down and may even cause a bit of a hiccup moving forward into next year just because all of the vehicles and equipment that we’ve ordered have been delayed,” he said.
For example, the district recently received a delayed order for 11 of 13 pickup trucks that it plans to convert to liquefied petroleum gas (propane autogas). But because the order was delayed, that has put a dent in how quickly Webster’s team will be able to do those in-house conversions.
“We’re going to have to spread those out, put some of those trucks on the road at a time,” he said.
The good news, though, is that since the district’s maintenance is done by staff members, once the trucks come in for their first preventive maintenance appointment within 4,000 miles or so, Webster said they’ll be able to convert them.
“It’ll give us some time to do the conversion and then be ready to put them on the road,” he said. “We’ll be able to stagger that out just through our natural maintenance program — something we wouldn’t have been able to do if we were still subcontracting out.”