Bottom Line
Expanding your owner-op business and ready for trailer?
Time to do a little homework before you head out to the sales lot.

By Paul Abelson, senior technical editor

Many successful owner-operators eventually want to expand their business and purchase their own trailers as part of that plan. After all, with a trailer, you get a higher rate per mile or share of revenue. Your investment can pay for itself in no time.

Off you go to your local, friendly trailer dealer and say, “I’d like to buy a (choose one) dry van/reefer/flatbed.” Those three choices cover more than 90 percent of operator-owned trailers. If you’re considering trailers like tankers, low boys, dry bulk, double-drop decks or livestock haulers, it’s best to have experience before you purchase.

You’re at your dealer who asks, “new or used?” If you want a used trailer for your first investment – often a wise choice – be prepared to make some tradeoffs. Buying used, treat the first purchase as a learning experience. Save money on the price and learn what components and accessories meet your needs, how things perform, and what you should upgrade or replace.

The sales adviser will try to sell you what’s on the lot. Part of selling is to advise you on how to best fill your needs, but the boss wants to move inventory that’s taking up space and costing finance charges.

With a used trailer, you may be buying someone else’s problems. There may be structural issues if the previous owner overstressed the trailer. There may be weight issues if the trailer was in LTL-type service and you need maximum weight capacity. And there could be maintenance issues.

New equipment costs more, but it hasn’t been abused. Also, you have an opportunity to accessorize and customize, which is included in the financed price.

When dealers bring trailers into stock, they specify them for broad appeal. They’re spec’d for general freight. If that’s what you expect to haul, a stock trailer may be best for you. But the more specialized your niche, the more you’ll need to customize your trailer. The upshot is you’ll be able to command better rates.

For example, those with insulated trailers without refrigeration units won’t be able to carry some food products, but are better equipped to transport chemicals, paints and other products that require temperature stability.

Keep in mind that trailers stay in service a long time, often lasting three times longer than tractors. Not including accounting depreciation, in practical terms you can often amortize your purchase over 15 to 20 years. If you can afford the weight or the extra cost, you can specify components for heavy duty and extra long life. But before you start spec’ing, understand the needs of the niche you plan to fill.

  • Will you be operating in corrosive atmospheres?
  • Will your truck be subject to environmental extremes?
  • What type of access to your cargo will you require or will be most convenient for you?
  • How will you be securing your cargo?
  • What loading or unloading conditions will you encounter?

These are a few of the things you need to consider before spec’ing begins.

The spec’ing process is where sales advisers can be most useful. They have access to product information on components and accessories in the product lines they carry, and they can help with pricing. But they are limited to the lines they carry. So shop at competing dealers to be exposed to new products and ideas.

You’d expect corrosive atmospheres to occur around chemical plants, but consider winter roads in many northern states. Mixed brines and chlorides are far more corrosive than salt, sand and older methods of snow and ice control, especially around electrical connections and where dissimilar metals are in close proximity.

You can specify the use of double-sealed connectors and wiring harnesses sealed from the nose box back. If splices have been made on an existing trailer, or if you want to corrosion-proof discrete wiring (from point to point without a harness), use connectors that incorporate heat-activated sealers and cover the splice with heat-shrink tubing.

Composites and stainless steel resist corrosion, and are very durable in service. With the exception of frame rails, cross members and components, almost all trailer walls, doors and trim are available in stainless from some van builders. Most manufacture with aluminum or fiberglass, with excellent corrosion resistance from both materials.

Weight-saving composite trailer door hardware is corrosion proof. Aluminum corrodes, but the result of its corrosion, aluminum oxide, forms a protective surface coating that limits further degradation.

For most operations, swing-out doors are common. They are lighter than roll-up doors and allow full width and height to access trailer interiors. Overhead roll up doors restrict entry space and cut headroom. Rails restrict width. But if space between trailers or narrow access is a concern, roll-up doors may offer a solution.

When buying a refrigeration unit, most truckers spec for maximum cooling power, but in heating and refrigeration, bigger is not always better. If you’re going to be carrying frozen food, go for the maximum Btu capability. But for fresh produce, pharmaceuticals and other products that should not freeze, you may not want the biggest reefer.

When a reefer has too much capacity for the job, it tends to short-cycle, to turn on and off frequently. Short-cycling increases wear and tear on starter motors and batteries. Running continuously may be better. You’ll need excess capacity for adverse conditions, but try to spec reefers for long runs.

In some operations, heating your trailer is as important as cooling it. Refrigeration units can work as reverse heat pumps. If you reverse your reefer often, consider a fuel-fired heater. Properly sized to avoid short-cycling, it can be thermostatically controlled to maintain temperature within a close range. While they add a small amount of weight, they are far more fuel-efficient and virtually maintenance-free, unlike reefers.

Cargo security is always a consideration. Properly secured to pallets, loads can be held in place by nailing lumber to a wooden floor. There are new composite flooring materials that heal around nail holes.

Other cargo securement devices include load bars, tie-down straps and floor rings and brace bars. For most of these devices, special hardware is required. A comprehensive discussion is found in TMC Recommended Practice RP 743, Cargo Securement Systems for Van-Type Trailers and Truck Bodies.

If you can benefit, consider decking systems. Be sure your trailer can support them structurally.

For platform trailers, securement and weather protection are as important as for vans. Instead of logistics tracks and brace bars, flatbeds use chains, webbing, anchors and winches.

Are you getting on in years so convenience grows in importance? Would powered landing gear and remote controlled sliders be worthwhile additions?

When you have your own trailer, you’ll drop-and-hook far less than when picking up others’ trailers. A lube-free or low-lube fifth wheel or upper coupler plate might offer several benefits. They’re good for the environment, keeping excessive grease off the roads and out of the grass. They also promote smoother fifth wheel operation, reducing binding. TMC discusses them in RP 731A, Lube-Free Coupling Guidelines.

These are a few of the things you can do to help ensure that your new trailer purchase will be both satisfying and profitable. Remember, a few extra hours spent researching will return many thousands of dollars over your trailer’s life. LL